How diplomatic

Heiko Maas – Germany’s energetic, straight-talking, anti-Nazi foreign minister

Deutsche Meisterschaften der Langdistanz – Challenge Roth Triathlon
First swimming, biking and running; then off to tackle the world's problems. Source: Picture Alliance/Eibner-Presse

His short but wiry physique is the first hint. Heiko Maas is a triathlete. So at least in that sense, he is in top shape for his new globetrotter job as Germany’s foreign minister. But how well the dapperly dressed 51-year-old from the tiny state of Saarland near the French border will perform as the country’s top diplomat remains to be seen.

His recent rise in Berlin would have given some people vertigo: a justice minister in the morning, a foreign minister by the afternoon and hours later in Paris “to finally grab hold of the outstretched hand of Emmanuel Macron with his proposals for the renewal of Europe.” That was two months ago.

The pace of new trips and topics hasn’t slowed since: off to Jordan to discuss the war in Syria; then to Yemen for talks about refugees; later at the United Nations to pitch for a German seat on the Security Council; then to Israel to support the continuing fight against anti-Semitism; next Palestine; then Africa; Russia earlier this week, and on and on.

“Freedom of opinion ends where criminal law begins.”

Heike Maas, foreign minister

Most notably so far, Mr. Maas, a Social Democrat, appears ready to break with a long German – and Social Democratic – foreign-policy tradition called Ostpolitik, which stands for accommodating rather than confronting Russia. Mr. Maas has taken a more principled stance on Russia. He has criticized its involvement in Syria, its annexation of Crimea, and its alleged attack on a former spy with a nerve-agent in Britain.

“When Russia defines itself as increasingly distant, and even in opposition to us, the West, we may regret it but it changes the reality of our foreign policy,” he said at a handover ceremony. His approach differs from that of his fellow Social Democrats and predecessors, Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who were willing to cut Russian President Vladimir Putin extra slack.

In other ways, too, Mr. Maas carves a different figure from his immediate predecessors. Mr. Steinmeier, now president, was known to engage in the smallest of details and shy away from confrontation. Mr. Gabriel, conversely, preferred clear and occasionally provocative statements, and was eager to clash. Mr. Maas, principled, industrious, and focused, could chart a middle course. If Chancellor Angela Merkel gives him the necessary leeway, that is.

Heiko Maas, Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov didn't like everything he heard. Source: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

By training, Mr. Maas is a lawyer. He is the eldest of three sons. His father was a soldier, his mother a seamstress. His early political career was a slog. He spent it in the regional politics of his home state, Saarland, as minister in various coalition governments. Three times he tried, and three times he failed, to become the state governor. The scuttlebutt was that he was damaged goods.

But then his surprise appointment to Ms. Merkel’s previous cabinet as justice minister saved him. In that role, he conceived a string of laws, including quotas on women in business, rent controls, new anti-terror measures and better consumer protection. He drew flak, too, over a change in data-retention laws and a law on harassment over the internet. “Freedom of opinion ends where criminal law begins,” he insisted. His critics countered that he was sacrificing free speech.

He has also been speaking out on issues beyond his brief, especially against xenophobia. That has made him a target of right wingers angry about the influx of migrants and refugees. Lutz Bachmann, the leader of the anti-Islam Pegida movement, once compared Mr. Maas to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

The Nazis are, as it happens, often on Mr. Maas’s mind, but in a different way. In his inauguration speech, he said the reason he went into politics was “not out of respect for (former SPD chancellor) Willy Brandt or the peace movement… but because of Auschwitz.” He later explained that much of what happened under the Nazi regime was “so horrific” that he simply couldn’t understand it. “From that grew a deep need to make a contribution myself so that something like that never happens again,” he said.

‘Isle of Dogs’ Premiere, Berlinale 2018
Berliner politicians are known to remarry. Mr. Maas is on his second - fellow SPD party member and former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is on his fifth. Source: Picture Alliance / Geisler-Fotop

With his tailored suits, Mr. Maas also makes good fodder for the paparazzi. He is Catholic, but separated last year from his wife, with whom he has two sons, and is now in a relationship with Natalia Wörmer, a German television actress.

The demands of his new job will put Mr. Maas’ triathlon-tested self-discipline to the test. The world is expecting Germany to help fix more diplomatic problems, from Iran to Asia and Africa. But as Mr. Maas knows from his own career path, sometimes a crisis is just an opportunity waiting to be grasped.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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