OBITUARY:Michael Thomas

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It always amused Michael Thomas that the British in 1940 classified him as "a friendly enemy alien". The cheerful shambles of logic in the phrase appealed to his sense of fun and irony.

It also seemed to embody a certain Englishness, the antithesis to the intellectual standards of his native Berlin, with which he fell in love. But the words were not a bad description of him, for much of his life. He was never an exclusive native of any country, or any organisation, but always had the alluring, sometimes perturbing air of a stranger from some wider continent of experience. He was never a foot-slogger, but always a contact man, interpreting the orders and standards of one world to another.

His greatest achievement was in exactly that role, during the earliest years of the British occupation of their zone of Germany. Thomas, by then an officer in the British forces, became the eyes and ears of General Templer; a very special and privileged young man who made contact with emergent politicians and journalists in the zone and assessed them for his master. This did not make him popular with some senior Control Commission figures. But it made him one of the people whose judgement and choices defined West Germany's political society as it rose nervously from the ruins. The Federal Republic itself is, in some of its better aspects, his memorial.

He was born into the Hollaender family in Berlin, a constellation of assimilated Jewish talent and intellectual attainment; his father was a writer, a critic and a director of Max Reinhardt's theatre. Ulrich Hollaender, as Michael was first named, reached Britain only weeks before the outbreak of war. He changed his name in order to protect his family in Germany but always refused to describe himself as a refugee or emigre. With charming arrogance, he recalled: "I did not care to stand aside when Britain was about to be invaded, so I volunteered for the Army - not as an Englishman, but as a 'private ally' in the struggle against the Nazis."

This was the beginning of his many careers as a contact man between cultures. Later in the war, he became liaison officer in Normandy to the legendary General Maczek, commander of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, and he stayed with the Poles until the war ended (Maczek died last year at the age of 102, and Thomas wrote an affectionate, penetrating obituary for the Independent). There followed his period with General Templer, and his part in the re-invention of German democracy.

Personally a conservative in politics, Michael Thomas did not immediately warm to the narrow personality of Konrad Adenauer, but in his book Deutschland, England uber alles (1987) there is a wonderfully funny memoir of how he and the then Lieutenant-Colonel Noel Annan tried to limit the damage caused when a British brigadier sacked Adenauer as mayor of Cologne for "playing politics" instead of clearing ruins.

In the same way, he did not often agree with the liberal views of Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, seedlings of a free press in the British Zone, but his personal respect for Countess Marion Donhoff and Rudolf Augstein helped both publications to survive dangerous years.

Later, in the 1950s, Michael Thomas took the decision to stay in Germany. His British "dimension" continued to flourish: his wife Elizabeth, who survives him, is English, while his sons and his daughter Gina (a London-based writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine) were sent to English public schools. But he settled in Hamburg and, declining invitations from Adenauer's circle to become a politician, joined the steel exporting firm of Coutinho Caro to build up its trade and contacts in what was not yet known as the "developing world".

Neal Ascherson

Ulrich Hollaender (Michael Thomas), businessman: born Berlin 7 November 1915; married Elizabeth Dring (two sons, one daughter); died Hamburg 25 September 1995.