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Out with the count

I was sorry to read this morning of the death of Otto, Count Lambsdorff, the former German economics minister. I met him briefly last summer at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, where he turned out, in visible discomfort, to share memories of his heady days in office.

He had been summoned into government in the summer of 1977 after one of the executives at the bank he directed was kidnapped and murdered by the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist gang. He recounted the events of that summer dispassionately – the late-night phone calls from Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the handshake at a funeral, the urgent measures to curb radical violence and restore economic stability.

Lambsdorff was forced to resign in 1984 after his Free Democrats party was found to have taken undeclared donations from the Flick industries, but he remained a central figure in German life, negotiating the final phase of compensation to victims of the Nazi era.

What struck me about the man, apart from his beautiful suit and silver-topped cane, was the simplicity of his story, which he told as if it could have happened to anyone. There was nothing imposing or arrogant about him, though he was plainly not a shy man nor one to be trifled with. He seemed to regard his role in German history as incidental, something that just happened to him and left him feeling smaller in the scale of events rather than larger.

I didn’t get the impression that he was a humble man, but his acceptance of human limitations was distinctive and dignified in present times, when politicians presume and pretend to control everything. He understood music. Perhaps that helped him realise that all we can hope for in life is small islands of order in an ocean of chaos. 

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