Obituary: Lilo Milchsack

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The Independent Online
Lisalotte Duden, conference founder, born Frankfurt 1905, Hon CBE 1958, Hon CMG 1968, Hon DCMG 1972, Hon Secretary Deutsch-Englische Gesselschaft 1949-77, Chairman 1977-82, Honorary Chairman 1982-92, married Hans Milchsack (died 1984), died Dusseldorf 7 August 1992.

LILO MILCHSACK was the founder of the Anglo-German Konigswinter Conferences and for 40 years their guiding spirit.

She was born Lisalotte Duden, in 1905 in Frankfurt, a professor's daughter (and a relative of the Duden of Duden's dictionary). She was educated at Frankfurt, Geneva and Amsterdam universities, giving her an early taste for the internationalism and feeling for Europe for which she was to become so celebrated.

During her long career she was awarded five major honours - three of them by The Queen - for her part in building up Anglo-German relations after the Second World War (she was an Honorary DCMG, a CMG and a CBE; in 1959 she was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit and in 1979 the Theodor Heuss prize).

These distinctions, extraordinary both because of their number and the fact that most of them came from Britain, were nevertheless not the thing she cared most about. She genuinely took most pride in the fact that she had got British and West German opinion-formers to speak to each other.

Her chief invention was the annual Konigswinter Conference - a unique gathering of British and West German members of the establishment held on the banks of the Rhine, and in later years in Cambridge as well - but the organisation she founded, the Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft, also invited British speakers to tour West Germany.

Lilo Milchsack first became interested in Anglo-German relations during the 1930s. Her husband, Hans Milchsack, a shipowner, had friends and contacts in London, and Lilo, a blunt and confident woman, soon found herself trying to convince English friends that their government ought to say no to Hitler. She never forgot that the response of some of them was to brand her a traitor to Germany. In London she also came into conflict with the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship whose virulent influence had had a far greater effect on British politics than was publicly realised (curiously enough the Soviet spy Kim Philby was for a time a leading member of this body, used by him subsequently to prove he was no longer a Communist).

When war broke out the Milchsacks - like others - went into 'internal exile', that is to say they kept their heads down, their minds free and their mouths shut. But in 1945 they were to discover that their anti-Nazism had not been forgotten; indeed both the US and British occupying forces decided to make use of the two of them. Hans Milchsack was appointed mayor of Dusseldorf and their house became the local seat of government. A little while later Sir Robert Birley, later headmaster of Eton, then educational adviser to the British Military Government of Germany, made contact. Birley's subsequent support for Lilo Milchsack's proposed Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft was to prove decisive.

In 1948 she was asked to join a 'group of German women' on a visit to Norwich and Cambridge sponsored by the Foreign Office. This, together with the Berlin crisis of that year, convinced her that the time had come to do something concrete to create a real partnership betwen Britain and West Germany based on the setting up of personal contacts between British and German opinion-formers (both on an individual basis as well as meeting as a group). There were those who believed that international relations depended on the great forces of history and economic self-interest. For Milchsack what was important was that people should get to know each other. On 18 March 1948 the Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft was duly formed in Dusseldorf, with Lilo as first founding member. The idea quickly took root and branches sprang up throughout West Germany and the first Konigswinter conference (the site was chosen for its proximity to Bonn) was held in 1950.

Although few people realised it, these conferences actually became the corner-stone of Anglo-German relations, helping to turn enemies into allies. Cabinet ministers, politicians, academics and journalists all came together on the banks of the Rhine to grapple, very occasionally with brilliance but always with controversy, with the great questions of the day.

Later, chancellors and prime ministers vied with each other in sending fulsome messages of support but what was truly remarkable was that Milchsack - with charm and imagination but no power - could bring together people who a few years before had been trying to kill each other. She was always the first to say that she could not have done this without the support of an inner group which included Johnny von Herwarth, Dick Crossman, Peter Corterier, Peter Jenkins, Denis Healey, Robin Day, Sir Frank Roberts, Kai-Uwe von Hassell, Sir Bernard Braine, Shirley Williams and Lynda Chalker.

In later years, Lilo Milchsack would often express her concern that what she had constructed should not die with her and her generation who had had such a special interest in good Anglo-German relations.

She was publicly gracious, always superbly clad, but in private she was hard-working, with a keen sense of humour. In old age she continued to enjoy taking her English guests out for stiff drinks and exquisite dinners. Most of all, however, she enjoyed a cracking good Konigswinter conference and over them she presided like the Queen of Anglo-German relations that in truth she was.