Reinhard Hesse - you were our wild side

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 October 2004

Reinhard Hesse, who was born in 1956, died in Berlin on 11 October 2004 of a brain tumour. A speechwriter for the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, he was an important contributor and advisor to openDemocracy. This appreciation is followed by the speech Anthony Barnett later gave at Reinhard's memorial; with the Chancellor and Foreign Minister Joskar Fischer in the audience.

In the slowly moving solar system of the German Federal Republic, Reinhard Hesse was a comet. Not for him the easily predictable movements of regular planets or the obscure wanderings of anonymous meteors.

Many, perhaps most people (Germans are no exception) keep their heads down. Whether out of fear or lack of hope they do not look at larger horizons and especially not the night skies. Reinhard wasn’t famous even in his own country. But such was his brilliance that many of us from other, more remote, parts of the global galaxy – the Lebanon, France, even England, and certainly openDemocracy, where we try to look out for such things – witnessed and took inspiration from the trail Reinhard blazed.

I first met him in 1998. He was already working full–time for the German Chancellor, then based in Bonn. Sent by Johannes Willms of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for whom I then wrote on occasions, I went to see him one evening in his Munich flat. We talked and drank, went out and ate and drank some more, then went back and talked and seven hours later, I had a friend whom I felt I had known all my life.

Big–eyed but not “wide–eyed”, hard thinking and tremendously dynamic, Reinhard could switch effortlessly from his native German to wonderful idiomatic English, fluent French and, when Marie–Claude, his beloved wife–to–be phoned, intimate Arabic. His passions ranged from soccer to cinema, from opera to rock ‘n’ roll, from Egyptology to European literature. As I was to learn, over the all too brief time that followed, nothing was foreign to Reinhard except the second–rate.

My attachment to him and the fascination that he exercised on many of us wasn’t simply due to the vigour of his conversation and his company. There are other intellectuals who could match this. Such cleverness is usually deployed, however, to patronise the present and diminish the rest of us. Reinhard was intensely impatient with such attitudes. He was a fighter for the public good. He had the patience to know that this would take time accompanied by a driving, angry impatience and scorn for backwardness and time–wasters. A wonderful talker, he despised mere talk.

Reinhard had style. He was tidy and focused. Deeply radical by temperament yet concerned above all with the outcome (not the theatre of the struggle or the spin of the headlines) Reinhard was a stylist for substance. This put him into energetic combat with the two great tendencies of our time: first, with the ever more detailed, market–driven realism that embraces compromise with “the way it goes” (for its representatives – and I’m sure he came across them in the Chancellery – he was uncompromising and difficult); and second, with the wasteful artifice and passions of those who see no possible hope in office or existing authority, and whose easy condemnations and slack attention to detail he scorned.

All this made him a moderniser, in the best sense. He was more than Chancellor Schröder’s speechwriter. In 1993 he had written a book for him, Reifeprüfung: Reformpolitik am Ende des Jahrhunderts (“Graduating: the politics of reform at the end of the century”) and in 1998 they published Und weil wir unser Land verbessern: 26 Briefe für ein modernes Deutschland (“And because we improve our country: 26 letters for a modern Germany”). Both were sweeping attempts to articulate an accessible, contemporary progressive politics in Germany, linked to the wider world of Europe and globalisation.

Which brings me back to that first conversation. Reinhard argued, probed and listened. I discovered that we shared a passion for the big picture and telling detail: late into the Munich night we argued over the fate of Wales. A country many in Europe have not heard of, and which most English are pathologically incapable of taking any interest in, mattered to us both. I reported that the motive behind Blair’s use of modernisation (“me modern therefore do what I say”) had broken through the surface of glamour and world fame that then hugely attracted the German government.

Reinhard grasped that decentralisation is an essential part of democratic globalisation. He knew this to mean that when a people are given power, they should exercise it. I explained how Blair had decided to impose his own lacklustre crony Alan Michael upon the newly–devolving Welsh using every technique of traditional fixing by the centre. It was bound to fail, I predicted. More important, it meant that Blair did not understand “the project” he claimed to lead. I was glad to learn that Reinhard took back to Bonn the first health warning on a British prime minister – who at the time seemed able to do no wrong.

From the beginning Reinhard advised openDemocracy, pressed us to raise our game, supported us generously with articles and even euro, whose launch he celebrated for us at the start of 2002. This support included writing that spanned the current history of the site: from “A letter for Europe” (17 May 2001) – one of the first articles we published – to “Crossroads or roundabouts: where now for Europe?” (23 June 2004), just before his fatal cancer was diagnosed.

In an obituary notice Tilman Spengler writes about Reinhard’s close yet unsentimental friendship. That is right. They say that the head of a comet is icy. Reinhard’s warmth was tempered by lucidity. In argument he took no prisoners. To be with him and Marie–Claude as they debated headscarves was a fabulous privilege in which one barely dared to take part and was to witness both blazing passion and an utter refusal of sentimental pieties. Reinhard burnt himself up too fast, a tragedy for all who knew and loved him. He will remain an inspiration.

Reinhard Hesse – what we have lost, a memorial eulogy
Berlin, 23 October 2004

Since I sat with Reinhard as he was dying I have thought a lot about what we have all lost.

I have lost the opportunity to have a conversation that I wanted to have with him since we met. I was too shy, or perhaps embarrassed. Now, Reinhard, wherever you are, I will tell you a little of what I wanted to say.

I, with a Jewish background, feel that today it is you, the Germans, who are the new English. I mean this as a compliment.

At their best the English once used to enjoy a proper sense of self-belief, accompanied by measured restraint – the famous the stiff upper lip - but also wit and irony. Classical learning was considerable, but was carried modestly. The fashion sense was high-quality but discreet.

Alas, today amongst the political class in my homeland, few of these virtues have survived. They have been replaced by a cult of "leadership" and worship of conviction for its own sake. Boasting rules the day in Britain.

Here, in Germany, I see a modern remaking of traditional virtues of moral seriousness. Reinhard, you worked for these virtues, you wanted Germany to grow up and believe in itself, to become a judicious, fair-minded citizen of the world.

However, this is not why I loved your company, Reinhard. Traditional virtues have a downside, such as caution, timidity, clubbish exclusivity, male chauvinism and worse.

You weren’t timid. You certainly didn’t have a stiff upper lip! Perhaps you were once a chauvinist - but not after you lived with Marie-Claude!

In the brief memoir I wrote about you in openDemocracy I said you were a comet blazing through the slowly moving solar system of the German Federal Republic. Here I want to add that you were very much a progressive comet in a Social Democratic solar system with its bureaucratic lethargy and resistance.

Now the political right today - this is part of the same conversation with you about modern life and behaviour that has been lost – the right have a great advantage over us. They thrive on violence and greed, on shock and fear. I needn’t mention which government most fits this bill.

By contrast we progressives seek fairness, planned growth and consensus. This is our strength but in current battles also a weakness. For progress has to have a wild side: it also needs energy, iconoclasm and a fierce concentration on essentials.

Reinhard, you were our wild side.

I was especially attached to you because of this - as you sought to discipline the energy and to put it into words.

I will miss, so much, our conversations, and we will all miss the book you had started with great Jorge Semprun, two generations – one Spanish-French, the other German-Arab – it was something special to look forward to.

And there is another book that you promised. Your novel. You told us that after eight years with the government, whatever happened at the next election, you were going to write a novel about how those who exercise power at the highest level are… “just like us”. Those were your words. Some of us, perhaps, were looking forward to it more than others!

I was wondering if there was a phrase that might communicate what we have lost. I was briefly with Marie-Claude just after you died. With typical energy she was already planning this commemoration and what to drink afterwards. She said - in English - “Reinhard hated mineral water”.

Not for you the artificial gas and feeble content. I will raise a glass to you Reinhard – I promise it will be a vintage you would be proud of.

Reinhard Hesse’s five articles in openDemocracy are:

  • “Crossroads or roundabouts: where now for Europe?” (23 June 2004)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData