The former vice president of the Bundestag has died at the age of 89. His fight for civil liberties was a lesson learned from the Nazi era.
Upright civil rights activist: Burkhard Hirsch has died at the age of 89 Photo: Franz-Peter Tschauner/dpa
The last time they met was some time ago. It was a brief conversation on the sidelines of the Federal Assembly in early 2017 in Berlin. Frank-Walter Steinmeier had just been elected as the new Federal President. Which met with Burkhard Hirsch’s approval. Especially now, a "voice of reason" is important, the former liberal told the taz. For there have been "spirits rising lately that I thought I would never have to deal with again."
These ghosts have been on Hirsch’s mind all his life. For the time of National Socialism had deeply shaped the man born in Magdeburg three years before the handover of power to the NSDAP. Growing up in Halle an der Saale, Hirsch had joined the "Jungvolk" of the Hitler Youth as a young boy, as he put it.
"There was no talk of politics at home, not even when, as a ‘Pimpf’ in that strange uniform, I almost bumped into an old woman on the street who was squeezing to one side in fear of me child and had a big yellow star on her coat," he recalled, still ashamed decades later. "I would still recognize her today."
Never again! – That was an immutable lesson for Hirsch, one that made him extremely sensitive to any attempt to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms.
FDP member since 1949
In July 1948, at the age of 18, Hirsch joined the Liberal Democratic Party, the new liberal party founded in the Soviet occupation zone after the end of the war. Less than a year later, he moved to West Germany. In May 1949, Hirsch joined the FDP in Marburg.
"I found myself in a world that was completely alien to me," he stated in a book article published last year. For society had been united across all social boundaries in its rejection of any reckoning with the past – "it would have led to unpleasant insights, after all." Instead, he said, "Persilscheine" were produced, "the largest collection of lies in German history."
Hirsch’s political career began when he moved to Dusseldorf in the mid-1950s. The law student became involved in the Young Democrats, the youth organization of the FDP at the time, where he also met Gerhart Baum from Cologne, who was two years younger. "The common goals for which we fought with many detours, including internal differences, were the same and moved me for decades," Hirsch said. Their civil rights liberalism always included the fight "against old-Nazis, reactionaries and arch-conservatives among us and in the ‘bourgeois’ parties."
In 1964, Hirsch became a member of the Dusseldorf City Council for the FDP. In 1972, he became a member of the Bundestag for the first time. In 1975, the Social Democratic Minister President Heinz Kuhn appointed him Minister of the Interior in North Rhine-Westphalia.
After the FDP missed re-entry into the state parliament in 1980, Hirsch returned to the Bundestag. In the FDP parliamentary group, together with Baum, Hildegard Hamm-Brucher, Ingrid Matthaus-Maier and Helga Schuchardt, he was one of the leading representatives of the social-liberal wing, which fought vehemently, but in vain, against the change of coalition in 1982 from the SPD to the CDU.
While Matthaus-Maier and Schuchardt, along with many other left-wing liberals, left the party afterwards, Hirsch stayed. Despite all this and with his fist in his pocket.
Successful constitutional complaints
Hirsch was a member of the Bundestag until 1998, most recently as vice president. One of his last parliamentary activities: On October 16, 1998, he was the only FDP member to vote against the participation of the German armed forces in the war in Yugoslavia, which violated international law.
Hirsch celebrated his greatest political successes after leaving parliament. For example, he was involved in the successful constitutional complaint against the Red-Green "Air Security Act," which would have permitted military shoot-downs in the event of an airplane hijacking by terrorists, thereby accepting the killing of innocent people.
Together with Baum and Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, he was equally successful in taking legal action before the Federal Constitutional Court against parts of the so-called "Great Eavesdropping Attack" by black and red governments. Hirsch was also involved in bringing down the state Trojan in the North Rhine-Westphalia Police Act, as well as unrestricted data retention.
Burkhard Hirsch was an individualist, sometimes gnarly and not always easy. Above all, however, he was an upright, unbending liberal. He died in Dusseldorf on Wednesday at the age of 89.