Baron Hermann von Richthofen, diplomat who attempted to change the stereotypical British image of Germans – obituary

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Baron Hermann von Richthofen meets Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street - James Fraser
Baron Hermann von Richthofen meets Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street - James Fraser

Baron Hermann von Richthofen, who has died aged 87, was the West German, then German, ambassador to Britain from 1989 to 1993 and a great nephew of Manfred von Richthofen, the First World War fighter pilot known as “the Red Baron”.

A trim, patently decent and cultured man, von Richthofen was an anglophile who like many Germans, was bewildered by the way the British cling to the antiquated stereotype of the jackbooted Hun, and made it his business to try to correct the portrayal, assuring guests at embassy receptions, at which he presided with his elegant wife Christa, a psychotherapist, that there is a new Germany of which no one need be afraid.

Von Richthofen was used to tough diplomatic postings. His first was in Saigon, then capital of South Vietnam, at the height of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. In Britain the challenge was political rather than physical, his posting coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and Britain’s traumatic ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

He chalked up something of a diplomatic coup on the evening the Wall came down – November 9 1989 – when he met Britain’s Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd by chance and persuaded him to become the first western Foreign Minister to visit Berlin a few days later. Hurd’s visit to the Brandenburg Gate made headlines.

Hermann von Richthofen's great-uncle Manfred von Richthofen, 'the Red Baron' - Shawshots/Alamy
Hermann von Richthofen's great-uncle Manfred von Richthofen, 'the Red Baron' - Shawshots/Alamy

But other pillars of the British establishment proved more resistant to his message. When von Richthofen visited the editor of the country’s best-known tabloid to complain about its stereotyping of his nation, he was rewarded with the headline “The Sun Meets the Hun”.

And convincing Douglas Hurd’s boss, Margaret Thatcher, of Germany’s bona fides was also an uphill task. Government papers released in 2016 revealed that her suspicions ran so deep that she had to be coaxed into making a positive statement when she appeared for a photocall with von Richthofen on the eve of formal German reunification in October 1990. “The key is to get in the words ‘friend, ally and partner’ (if you can bear it),” Charles Powell, her foreign adviser, pleaded in a handwritten note. “Otherwise a message risks being judged negatively, which undermines the only purpose of the exercise.”

Relations with Mrs Thatcher’s successor John Major should have been easier, were it not for Black Wednesday, September 16 1992, Britain’s humiliating departure from the ERM.

A few weeks after the debacle, von Richthofen was “asked to call” at the Foreign Office after the German embassy had given some British newspapers copies of a statement by Helmut Schlesinger, president of the Bundesbank, which showed the startling extent of German intervention to support the pound, roundly rejected British criticism of the bank and implied that Britain had been less than committed to defending the pound inside the ERM.

The Red Baron and comrades in 1917 - akg-images/Alamy
The Red Baron and comrades in 1917 - akg-images/Alamy

The statement was embarrassing because it appeared to rob the British government of one of its main excuses for the crisis – that it had been fuelled by the Bundesbank’s apparent lack of support. The embassy claimed that the release had been authorised by the bank, but the bank later claimed that it had never intended the statement for publication, leading Britain to accuse Germany of a breach of confidentiality and prompting the Right-wing Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor to declare that the Germans were “getting too big for their jackboots”.

In Bonn, an unrepentant Foreign Ministry insisted “the release of Schlesinger’s statement was made in good faith and in accordance with the Bundesbank” and added: “In light of the discussion in Great Britain the embassy made contact with the Bundesbank and requested a paper outlining its arguments. The ambassador’s actions were well-intended.”

When, at the end of October 1992, von Richthofen’s wife Christa produced a coffee-table book, Germany, her publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, felt it prudent to inform readers: “This timely publication is a visual portrait of a united Germany that makes no mention of the Bundesbank.”

Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen was born on November 20 1933 in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), the son of Baron Herbert von Richthofen and his wife Gisela, née Schoeller. He enjoyed a rural childhood in what was the old Prussia, where his father farmed until the Russian advance in 1945.

The Baron and his wife Christa, Countess von Schwerin - Henry Herrmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
The Baron and his wife Christa, Countess von Schwerin - Henry Herrmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

He was educated at the universities of Heidelberg, Munich and Bonn, concluding his studies with a PhD in law in 1963.

He began his diplomatic career the same year as an attaché in Boston where, among other things, he recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors in preparation for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-1965.

This was followed by two years (1966-68) in Saigon, where he coordinated German humanitarian and development aid measures during the Vietnam War, followed by another two years in Jakarta.

During the 1970s von Richthofen was intensively involved with handling the sensitive relationship between East and West Germany, working on trust-building between the two states and the four powers. He worked on the Four-Power Agreement in 1971 as a staff member of the legal department of the West German Foreign Office. In 1975, he went to East Berlin to work at the Permanent Mission, and he later worked at the West German Chancellery as head of the German Policy Working Group, and later as Political Director of the Foreign Office.

A lighter aspect of his activities in Britain was dealing with the interest in his great uncle, the “Red Baron”, famous for having shot down 80 British, Canadian and Australian aircraft between 1916 and his death in 1918 – more than any other pilot of the First World War. Hermann von Richthofen described his swashbuckling forebear as “the last gentleman in a terrible war, a man who displayed courage and heroism to the nth degree.”

The family connection brought him an invitation to visit RAF Wittering as a guest of honour in 1990, and he was lured to Oxford, where the Red Baron had been an undergraduate before the First World War, by the Foreign Office mandarin Sir Julian Ballard, to visit Druckers, the Oxford bootmaker, where he was presented with a bill for 54p which his great-uncle had failed to pay. Bullard invited the local newspaper and television station to witness the ambassador’s delight in offering to settle the debt.

Von Richthofen’s last posting before his retirement was as German ambassador to Nato, though he continued to be active in promoting Anglo-German relations as president of the German-British Society, as co-organiser of the German-British Königswinter Conference and as a long-standing participant in the Munich Security Conference.

Appointed an honorary GCVO in 1992, Hermann von Richthofen married Christa, Countess von Schwerin, in 1966. She survives him with two daughters and a son.

Baron Hermann von Richthofen, born November 20 1933, died July 17 2021

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