Undiplomatic German ambassador admired for his plain speaking retires
Christian Pauls made many headlines as German ambassador to Ireland, and leaves with something near folk hero status, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin
OF THE many ways to end a career as ambassador, making the wrong kind of headlines is the most effective.
Christian Pauls made many headlines as German ambassador to Ireland, but he leaves today with something approaching folk hero status as the undiplomatic diplomat who earned kudos for his plain speaking.
Mr Pauls entered the annals of modern Irish history in September 2007 after reportedly telling a German delegation that economic success had made Ireland a “coarse” place.
Even if the ambassador’s reported remarks differed from what was actually said – no record exists – many welcomed the straight-talking about the other side of the boom. As one letter-writer to this newspaper said: “Madam Chancellor, promote this man!”
Mr Pauls said himself: “My favourite letter was the one: ‘Madam Chancellor, please receive this package of one ambassador, slightly used.’
“I know an ambassador is not supposed to be a point of contention, but I didn’t intend to be. And yet I had the feeling that quite a number of people said, ‘Yes, that’s what we have been thinking’ .”
He was back in the headlines last March for reportedly saying that Ireland would “throw away its future” by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty a second time. His remarks were divisive and controversial, welcomed by some and viewed by others as inappropriate for a foreign diplomat.
Regardless of the remarks themselves, the ensuing reaction held a mirror to Irish society to see the reflection: of the emotional, empty-headed Punch and Judy show that so often passes for public debate.
Though unwilling to revisit his remark about the Lisbon Treaty, he hopes Irish voters will use the second vote as an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the treaty’s main concepts.
“It is unacceptable that 40 per cent of people who voted ‘No’ last time said they didn’t understand the treaty,” he said. “How can you vote if you don’t know what you are voting about? Citizens have a duty to make themselves as knowledgeable – and don’t tell me the Irish media didn’t present that possibility.”
Mr Pauls knows a thing or two about ambassadors being in the headlines. His father, a decorated Wehrmacht officer who later entered the West German foreign service, was appointed the first post-war German ambassador to Israel in August 1965.
Archive footage shows a ramrod-straight Pauls snr presenting his credentials to a line-up that included a stony-faced Golda Meir, the Israeli foreign minister at the time.
Outside, protesters waved signs reading “A German-Free Israel” and “Pauls, You are Unwelcome.” “When I close my eyes I can still see the images – it was terribly intense for both sides,” remembers Pauls jnr, who was in Germany at the time. “I couldn’t have walked up there, my knees would have buckled.”
The timing of that appointment came, says Pauls, in a narrow historical window: just 20 years after the end of the second World War, but before memory of the Holocaust in Israel had been fully publicly acknowledged.
“It couldn’t have happened 15 years later. My feeling looking back is that, at the time of the appointment, the Israelis were so concentrated on building up the country that they almost pushed back a bit the enormity of the Holocaust so as not to overwhelm themselves,” he said.
After studying law, he followed his father into the foreign service in 1975. A daunting move for the son of a respected diplomat?
“I’d say it was probably more of a burden and a hindrance, but I never had the feeling I was standing in any shadow. At the same time, I always took delight when someone said, ‘You’re different from your father’.”
His own career has been filled with extraordinary moments, including intense months in 1990 working on the 2+4 agreement leading to German unification.
Now, after nearly four years in Ireland, and countless rounds of golf – “I’m leaving a happier duffer than when I arrived” – the country he is departing is vastly different to that of 2005.
“For the first time in your history, you were given a good hand of cards, and played them well,” he said. “The basic things [that] made Ireland such a success story are still there, and these things will be attractive in the years to come.” Returning to Germany and retirement with his wife, Gabriele, he senses a lighter mood among his countrymen.
“When we came back from my posting in Rome in 1989, I remember my daughters asking over dinner why we Germans can’t be a bit more easy-going and fun-loving like the Italians. I said, ‘Oh you should have seen us 30 years ago.’ We’ve come a long way. There will always be a certain stodginess and seriousness about the Germans but, at the same time, when we’re having fun, we have fun just like anyone else.”