Former SPD Leader Hans-Jochen Vogel died on Sunday, July 26th 2020, at the age of 94. Vogel played a decisive role in shaping the history and social democratic politics of Germany throughout his career, particularly as Mayor of Munich, Federal Minister of Justice, leader of the opposition in the German Bundestag and as SPD party leader.
Hans-Jochen Vogel was born into a middle-class family of civil servants in Göttingen in 1926, near the end of the Weimar Republic, and six years before his brother Bernhard. As a student in grammar school, he saw first-hand the impact of the ideology and war machinery of the Third Reich, from the Hitler Youth to the deployment at the front.
Later, as law student, he became politically active out of an inner sense of responsibility and the realization that it was not enough to secure individual well-being: the younger generation needed to be committed to the community and participate in the reconstruction of democratic structures. This was one of the reasons that he joined the SPD in 1950, impressed by its history and its commitment to social justice.
After he graduated with a doctorate in law in 1950, Vogel held several positions in the Bavarian civil service. At the same time, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Munich SPD. In 1960 he became Mayor of Munich and held the office for exactly 4444 days. Enormously popular and celebrated, he prepared his city for the 1972 Summer Olympics and set Munich on the path to becoming a modern metropolis.
Tough internal party disputes in Munich dissuaded him from running for a third term as Mayor, and he considered withdrawing from political life into the legal profession in 1972. As he considered what to do, he was warned by Willy Brandt, among others, that he would not forgive himself for stepping away from a moment of political responsibility. Vogel re-committed himself to politics, this time at the federal level, and took over the chairmanship of the Bavarian SPD until 1977.
Having already joined the SPD party executive in 1970, Vogel became a member of the influential SPD governing council in 1972 after Karl Schiller's departure. He was elected to the German Bundestag in the 1972 "Willy election", and immediately joined the cabinet as Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Building and Urban Affairs. In 1974, at the request of the new Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, he moved to the Ministry of Justice. As Federal Minister of Justice, Vogel took on important reform projects in areas such as family law (including maternity and marital law) and environmental criminal law. He was also instrumental in key government decisions such as the response to terrorist attacks by the Red Army Faction in the "German Autumn" of 1977, and strengthening the German legal system.
In 1981, Vogel answered a call for help from Berlin to take over the office of Governing Mayor in extremely challenging times. He led a remarkably strong campaign against Richard von Weizsäcker. Although he lost, Vogel remained a member of the Berlin State Parliament, stabilized the parliamentary group as its chairman, and maintained an active citizens' office in Munich, where thousands of citizens received advice and practical help until 1994.
After the change of government in Bonn in October 1982, Vogel once again took charge in a situation that seemed rather hopeless. He ran as candidate for chancellor in the early federal elections in 1983, and after an extremely respectable result – succeeding Herbert Wehner as Leader of the Opposition to Chancellor Helmut Kohl – Vogel took over the chairmanship of the SPD parliamentary group. At the time, his aim was to rebuild the party in opposition and achieve unity on important issues such as a new party platform and involving more women in the party, as well as participating in the German unification process.
From his assumption of the SPD party chair from Willy Brandt in 1987, until his departure from the chairmainship in 1991, Vogel was the first post-unification chairman of the SPD and brought together social democrats from East and West. He remained a member of the German Bundestag until 1994.
After retiring from political office, Vogel continued to contribute to the public good. He served on such bodies as the Independent Immigration Commission and the National Ethics Council; as the founding chairman of the non-partisan association "Gegen Vergessen - Für Demokratie e.V." (Against Forgetting - For Democracy); and on boards for several memorials and documentation centres to keep alive the memory of the victims and the crimes of Nazi tyranny.
With his legendary work ethic and discipline, Hans-Jochen Vogel's efforts were always based on the principles of the German constitution: human dignity, justice, freedom, and solidarity. These were bedrocks for him, as much as his Christian faith.
Even though his physical abilities grew limited over time, Hans-Jochen Vogel did not see his old age as a burden, but as a grace. He stayed focused on doing exactly what Herbert Wehner once wrote to him in 1981, and which he kept as a reminder: "despite all this: keep working and don't despair!"
Vogel remained engaged in political and social discourse up until this year. His most recent publication "More Justice! We need land law reform for affordable housing" put the decades-neglected problem of land law reform on the agenda – the most recent of his numerous legacies.
Hans-Jochen Vogel’s work touched the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in many ways: he was a member of its Board of Trustees since 1970 and enriched countless events through his participation. A large archive maintained by the FES Library bears witness to his work, and important documents from his estate will be housed in the FES Archive for Social Democracy.
Our thoughts are with Hans-Jochen Vogel's family as we honour his memory.