Eulogy for Rudolf Augstein
Getting old, I read somewhere, is a process of becoming a stranger in your own world. Gradually, the people who provided emotional support and intellectual sustenance are stripped away. Even as the perspective deepens, it traverses an increasing void.
In a way, it is strange that Rudolf Augstein’s death should inspire such reflections. He was associated with points of view on day-to-day politics I did not always share. And he believed in a style of intellectual combat that seemed to me, on occasion, too confrontational and unforgiving.
Still, Rudolf was my valued friend for many decades. I appreciated his intellectual nimbleness, admired his extraordinary historical knowledge and respected his moral commitment. In his relationship with me, Rudolf never displayed the dramatic qualities of his public persona. The targets of his many crusades may find it hard to believe that, to his friends, Rudolf was gentle, not sardonic; thoughtful, not insistent; generous, reflective and warm-hearted.
Rudolf and I met in 1957, nearly half a century ago. Together with Konrad Ahlers, he interviewed me about the Berlin crisis of that period – an interview that he published under the title, “Mit Panzern nach Berlin”. The interview evoked much controversy, but I had no excuse to complain. Rudolf had published my own words, without editing.
As the decades rolled by, our dialogue concerned day-to-day problems less and less. What really interested Rudolf – at least in his conversations with me – were history and the political and moral rebuilding of his country.
Ultimately, Rudolf was a moralist and a devout patriot. But having matured during a period of German history that embarrassed him, and amidst the dislocations and chaos of the postwar period, abstract statements of moral certitude seemed inappropriate, especially for someone so young. This is why Rudolf strove to realize his belief in democracy and the regeneration of society by exposing its shortcomings. And precisely because his goals were so high, his critique could be relentless. He took seriously his self-proclaimed goal as one of the guardians of German democracy.
Through all these battles, Rudolf managed to make distinctions between his causes and the qualities of his adversaries. He greatly admired Konrad Adenauer’s contributions to Germany’s moral and political restoration and was very moved by the reconciliation achieved after Adenauer’s retirement. And he had great respect for the intellectual and physical vitality of his old nemesis, Franz Josef Strauss. In private, he was chivalrous to his adversaries.
I will miss Rudolf greatly. He visited me several times for weekends at my country home, and he usually found a way to meet on my visits to Europe. In recent years, Rudolf’s disability limited the possibility of personal encounters. It did not alter the friendship and affection I felt for him. Rudolf continued our dialogue by periodically sending me books and articles and thoughtful notes.
Rudolf passionately wanted to make a difference to a country he loved, even when castigating it. He achieved that goal. And he leaves a profound void amongst his friends, the rest of whose lives will be buttressed by the memory of what he has meant to them.