Hildegard Hamm-Brücher

Hildegard Hamm-Brücher (born 1921) was a prominent liberal politician in Germany. She held state secretary positions from 1969 to 1972 and from 1977 to 1982. In 1993 she became the Free Democratic Party's candidate for the federal presidency elections to be held the following year.

Born on May 11, 1921, in Essen in the heart of the Ruhr district, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher grew up with four siblings in a nonpolitical bourgeois family. Her father was director of an electric firm; her mother maintained the household. Unexpectedly, her parents died within a year of each other when she was only ten and eleven years old. Her widowed grandmother, residing in Dresden, brought up young Hamm-Brücher and several of her siblings. The grandmother came from an industrial family whose ancestors had converted from Judaism to Protestantism. In the early 1930s young Hamm-Brücher made the acquaintance of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who later during the Hitler era was imprisoned in two concentration camps. She remained his close friend in the post-war period.

While Hitler governed, the nonconformist and antifascist Hamm-Brücher attended several secondary schools, was conscripted briefly into the Reich Labor Service, and during the war studied chemistry at the University of Munich. She was a sympathizer of the White Rose student resistance group at the university after her grandmother committed suicide rather than face imminent deportation to a concentration camp. These events later sparked Hamm-Brücher's interest in politics, even though with the Ph.D. that she received in 1945 she could have had a successful career in academia or industry.


Budding Politician

From 1945 to 1948 Hamm-Brücher worked as a journalist in Munich, becoming interested in educational policy questions. This led in 1949 to receipt of a U.S. Government-sponsored one-year grant to take courses at Harvard University. It gave her a chance to observe the American way of life, which she found most impressive. In the meantime, in 1946 she had interviewed Theodor Heuss, the future federal president of what was then West Germany and leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), who urged her to go into politics. In 1948 she joined the newly founded party and gained a seat in the Munich city council.

From 1950 to 1966 she was a deputy in the Bavarian legislature and from 1954 on deputy chairwoman of the FDP parliamentary group. She fought hard for democratic educational reforms and supported the establishment of secular schools in rural areas having only denominational schools. As a result of her efforts, the voters had a chance to vote for a change in the educational provisions of the constitution through an initiative and referendum. In 1964 she was instrumental in forcing the resignation of the Bavarian minister of culture, who as a criminal lawyer in the Hitler era had written the legal commentaries justifying anti-Jewish laws.

In 1963 Hamm-Brücher became a member of the party's federal executive committee in Bonn and remained on it for 13 years. From 1972 on she served on the federal presidium, the top policy-making organ of the party. During this time she traveled abroad to study different educational systems.


State Secretary of Education

In 1966 when the FDP could not gain the minimum 5 percent of the vote necessary for its candidates to win election to the Bavarian legislature, Hamm-Brücher lost her seat. Having built up a reputation in the educational field, the minister for education in the state of Hesse, who was a Social Democrat, asked her to become his state secretary. She hesitated, partly because of the heavy administrative duties of the job and partly because of her family obligations. Her husband, Erwin Hamm, a lawyer and city councilor in Munich, and her two children would not be able to join her in Wiesbaden, Hesse's state capital city, but they urged her to take the position. In 1967 she took up her new tasks, and she found great satisfaction in further developing a democratic educational system built on the principle of equal opportunity for all children.

When the Social Democratic Party formed a national coalition government with the FDP in Bonn in 1969, Chancellor Willy Brandt and the minister of education and science requested her to become state secretary in the federal ministry for education and science. She accepted, especially because she did not want to continue in her Hesse position under a new, more radical Social Democratic administration. In 1972 she returned to Munich to become chairwoman of the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian legislature.

In 1976 she won a seat in the Bonn federal Parliament, but soon accepted the post of state secretary (titled state minister) in the Foreign Office. In charge of cultural affairs, she urged the government to increase cultural contacts with other states. When Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) was abroad, Hamm-Brücher represented him in cabinet meetings, in Parliament, and at receptions for foreign dignitaries. Conversely, she represented Genscher on numerous official visits throughout the world. Thus she had to be familiar with all aspects of German foreign policy, rather than just the narrow segment of cultural policy.


Presidential Candidate

When the Social Democratic-FDP coalition broke apart in 1982 and the FDP allied itself with the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, Hamm-Brücher and a minority of other liberal FDP leaders broke with their party and opposed the new coalition government headed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Hamm-Brücher resigned her post of state secretary but remained a deputy in the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament) until 1990. During this time she became active in the movement to reform and strengthen the Bundestag vis-à-vis the government. Although she announced her retirement from politics beginning in 1991, two years later she accepted her party's nomination to be its candidate for the federal presidency of a united Germany. She had no chance of being elected in 1994 because of the small number of FDP deputies in the federal assembly (the president is chosen by state and national legislators). However, her candidacy was a symbolic victory for women, demonstrating that they can succeed in German politics.


Further Reading on Hildegard Hamm-Brücher

The best sources of information on Hamm-Brücher are in German. Two biographies shed some light on her:Paul Noack, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher:Mut zur Politik—well ich die Menschen liebe (1981); and Ursula Salentin, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher:Der Lebensweg einer eigenwilligen Demokratin (1987); See also her own writings, such as Der Politiker und sein Gewissen (1987).