A nobility of the spirit – Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, German CG to Hong Kong

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Aristocracy can be borne in many ways, the most noble of which is in the spirit. Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff continues and expands a family tradition of service and duty through politics and diplomacy. From the grittiest battle zones of war-torn ex-Yugoslavia to ‘the capital of the world’, this Consul General has walked the streets of war and the halls of power. In the first of this three part series, we look at the history of German Consul General Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, his bonds with America and his 16 years in the hot seat of the Balkans.

Mr Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Hong Kong Interview.


For some men, their history is a mystery, a goad to glory, or a burden. Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff has a past. An aristocrat in name, without land or serfs, the German Consul General for Hong Kong and Macao wears the mantle of history lightly, though it infuses his being. He knows his history, has made his present, and has a clear view of the future.

In the beginning …

Nikolaus von der Wenge Graf Lambsdorff (in English: Graf = Count) has a history that doesn’t start quite at the Garden of Eden, but can be traced to the 1200’s when his family first decamped to Courland, in modern day Latvia, from Central Germany. Mostly farmers, some showed a flair for politics and diplomacy that seems to be in the Lambsdorff DNA. Ethnically German in the then-Russian Empire, a great-great uncle, Graf (Count) Vladimir Nikolayevich Lambsdorff, rose to become the Foreign Minister of Russia under Tsar Nicholas the II. One of his main preoccupations included the Balkans. A century later, that preoccupation would be that of his great-great-nephew.

The title Graf (Count, in English) is required by German law (since 1926) to stay with the men of the family and be passed from generation to generation – in direct contrast to their cousins in Austria who abolished such titles in 1919. “We always hesitate to translate it because it is part of the name, and you don’t translate your name, do you?” Members of the Consular Spouses Corps: Mrs. Lambsdorff is Gräfin – just so you know.

This was not a nobility of castles and lands however. It was a nobility of the spirit. Ethnic Germans were forced out of Russia as part of the 1939 agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union. Graf Lambsdorff senior, Nikolaus’s father Otto, signed up for the German army underage – 17 years old – as a regular grunt on the losing side in the war in 1944. His military career was short lived – he lost a leg to an attack from an American fighter plane attack on his barracks.

The doctor who sawed off his leg in the POW camp was American. The same man taught the young Graf Lambsdorff English, and convinced him, against his initial impulses, to come with Allied forces into West Germany rather than stay in East Germany to the tender care of the advancing Soviets.

It’s in the blood

So began a love affair with America that would be passed on to the son. When Otto Lambsdorff would travel to the US as a banker and, later, politician, the Americans would announce, “The Count is coming!”, poking gentle fun at his title. He developed many strong relationships that stayed with him for life. Some transferred to his son who would accompany him on trips in America.

Politics was where he made his name as the fiercely free market contemporary of Margaret Thatcher. In 1979, she said “Apart from me,” she said, “the strongest advocates of free market economics were Helmut Schmidt and, to an even greater extent, Count Otto von Lambsdorff.” He was responsible for the fall of Helmut Schmidt’s government, leaving a coalition and became the Federal Minister of Economics again under Helmut Kohl. A tumultuous end to his domestic political career opened the door to a request from Chancellor Kohl to represent Germany in negotiations in Washington DC over reparations of Nazi and German company use of slave labour – a role for which he was widely praised by his American counterparts for being “creative and indefatigable.”

Amerika!

The same father, now representing the Free Democratic Party in the Bundestag, insisted his son head for his own American adventure – a Rotary exchange to Waukesha, Wisconsin. He graduated from high school there in 1973. “Without this year in the US, I would not have joined the diplomatic service.” When Diplomat asked, somewhat directly, why Wisconsin?, he came back on the defence: “What’s wrong with Wisconsin? Nothing’s wrong with Wisconsin!” The link was personal then and became more so.

America, and American politics, had a profound impact on the young man. He and his father were in a motel in Alabama, not long after his father was first elected, when Nixon resigned. Young Nikolaus had earlier skipped school to watch the Watergate hearings and was mesmerised by the American political drama.

“It was the most fascinating political thing I could imagine.” However, when asked if this love made him think he should become a politician, he was unequivocal: “I’m not really up to the task of being a politician. [It needs] certain qualities, certain interests… It’s often undervalued how tough the job is…I started to look for something which would keep me as close to politics without me needing to become one [a politician].”

A year as an army medic convinced him medicine was not his calling. Degree after degree in politics and economics followed (and an internship at a shipyard) and then he successfully entered the German diplomatic service – just as his father left domestic politics, clearing a path for the next generation to make their own name.

Graf Lambsdorff the younger completed the standard diplomat training and worked in Bonn for some years before receiving his first posting – Jakarta. Newly-married with a pregnant Gräfin, a US citizen who had grown up in Germany, he sent her somewhere safe for the birth – Waukesha, where his high school host family’s father, an obstetrician named Dr. Schmidt, delivered his son. 10 days later, the whole family was in Jakarta.

He’s a big believer in exchange programs: “What exchange programs can do, look no further! Enormous influence on not just my life but, of course, on the lives of my family.”

He was back again, in Washington DC, from 1993– 1997, working mostly on development issues. His polyglot son took on the American accent right away. His only disappointment with America? “I’d really been looking forward to the Presidential elections. That was quite a disappointment because it was no contest from the very beginning. Bob Dole vs. Bill Clinton.” For those not familiar, it was essentially no contest with the media struggling to create the atmosphere of a real race to sell papers. Not the fireworks a political junkie was looking for.

Diplomat asked him if his time in America impacted him: “Always has and always will. Positive… It’s funny, no one has ever asked me that question.”

“There is no one I get along with better and easier than the Americans – American colleagues, American diplomats. I find it very easy to work with Americans.”

“It also helped me to work in international organisations. I worked a while for the UN, and worked in the EU…Even in the EU some of the American manners of dealing with others…you can at least feel it, it’s there. It’s easier.”

The Baltics and the former Yugoslavia: Democracy on the knife’s edge

An uncle in the diplomatic service had landed Latvia as Ambassador after the fall of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union all of a sudden disappeared. Baltic states regained their independence. Then Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher called my father and said, “Now where is your family from?” The answer, Courland, saw another Lambsdorff – Hagen von der Wenge Graf Lambsdorff – off to represent Germany again. “He wanted the Germans to be number 1!” – meaning first on the ground. Young Nikolaus caught wind of this and wanted to know what was going on in the Baltics. This curiosity saw him land in Estonia. Here, the politics were raw. The student of politics and economics witnessed the birth of Estonia’s currency, pegged to the DM. Estonia asked the Bundesbank and the Bank of England who advised slowing down, caution. Finally, they decided they had endured enough of the hyper-inflationary roubles and moved. It was tough on people, especially the poor, at first. It quickly proved a success for the whole country – “Look at Estonia now!”

A quick stint in Lithuania preceded his return to America (see above). His return to Europe was less than a masterful move and more of a blunder. A colleague asked him if he wanted to go to BrČko – he thought it might be a place for lunch. After some quick enquiries that did not encourage him at all, he was called back the same day – and told he was going to BrČko, Bosnia & Herzegovina. “That’s where it all began with the Baltics and me.”

“After 3 weeks I was in BrČko (pronounced ‘brudge-co’). And this was tough. It was right in the middle of nowhere. It was right after the war. It was dangerous.” Diplomat: Everybody wanted to kill each other? “Yes, so it seemed, at least in the beginning – in particular those who wanted to return to their own homes. There were booby traps there, it was really dangerous.” Diplomat: Death threats? “That happened, although not very often.”

BrČko was the corner of Bosnia no one could make up their mind about after the wars that rent Yugoslavia and displaced millions in ethnic cleansing. Until decisions could be made, Germany was committed to providing a supervisor for the area. As Graf Lambsdorff tells the story, they wanted a German military man – but settled for him. He imagines the HR officer must have thought “I found an idiot who is ready to go to BrČko!”

The main part of the task was to identify homes, determine ownership, and then find the owners – most driven away by intimidation. While he had his old friends, the Americans, nearby in Camp McGovern, it was still lonely, dangerous work. Homes were booby-trapped or simply destroyed to discourage people from returning.

He continued working in the region, shuttling between the region and Bonn, then Berlin, for 10 years. He worked as the Senior Political Advisor to the Special Representative of the UN-Secretary General for Kosovo. Then he was promoted to Deputy Special Representative and Head of the EU Pillar of the UN Mission in Kosovo. After being told his BrČko service should have earned him placement in milder places, his depth of experience meant he kept getting called back again and again to the sensitive region where so few had experience in so many difficult places.

He was present for the first real elections in Estonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and later – Moldova. These experiences shaped his view of what it takes for real democracy to take root.

Head of Mission, proper

He was technically the head of his mission in Pristina, Kosovo, but his first official posting as Ambassador was again a post-Soviet nation – Moldova – the ‘poorest country in Europe.’ “No one really looked after it, or cared for it.”He was excited to take the position: “This is different from being #2 in Madrid or Brazil.”

Moldova was also developing its democratic muscles. He was able to walk the line of the role of diplomat and provide guidance to nascent political parties seeking a means to cooperate and depose the leftover Communist party. “I had the unforeseeable opportunity to observe and even participate in a change in government. For the first time in 15 years, Communist rule came to an end through democratic elections.”

“We could really tell them how to do it. The politicians would come to us. I gave them copies, for example, of our coalition agreements…after they had finally, after two elections, come to the conclusion a four party coalition could be formed against the Communist party.”

“We helped them do it. They had no experience…For us [Germans] it is a very normal thing to come up with coalition agreements.”

The diplomat who decided that political life wasn’t for him had a chance to make a direct impact and help the people of Moldova in their development. He met with future leaders like Iurie Leancǎ, who came back to Moldova in 2007 and told him, “People like you, you have to come back here. You have to get involved in politics. It’s now or never.” That man went on to become the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and later (and is currently) Prime Minister Iurie Leancǎ.

“[It was a] Chance in a lifetime. This really was politics. This was not really diplomacy, this was politics.”

After BrČko, Pristina, and Moldova he had done it all in the former Soviet states. There were no posts left in the region, with the German or UN missions, equivalent to his rank. The Moldovan Ambassador position has been upgraded to meet his rank already. 13 years in the hot seat was quite enough and was capped with another not-so-relaxing 3 years still keeping an eye on South East Europe and Turkey.

His wife had been pushing for ‘palm trees’ for some years – it was time for Hong Kong.