Former tennis star Boris Becker raised eyebrows earlier this year when, in a bid to stave off bankruptcy, he claimed to be a fully-fledged diplomatic officer of a landlocked African nation.
Amazingly, it turned out that Mr. Becker was not the cultural attaché of the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries in the world. But his claim wasn’t quite as outlandish as it may seem: There are nearly five hundred honorary consuls in Germany, often representing nations without a Berlin embassy.
Most of these consuls are respectable provincial types, with little or nothing to do with the far-off lands they represent. Rolf Herpens is a typical case: he is a retired dentist in Düsseldorf, whose suburban house is decorated with the arms of the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.
“The consulate stands at the disposal of all Seychelles citizens who may require it,” he said. He even offers emergency sleeping quarters, although no Seychellois citizen has yet taken advantage of the offer.
One attraction of becoming an honorary consul is that once awarded, the position is yours for life. Inevitably, this means many of Germany’s honorary consuls are rather advanced in years.
No diplomatic immunity
But they are far from dying out. Jochen Blöse is among the nation’s youngest consuls, a sprightly 46 when he became Benin’s consul five years ago. He takes his responsibilities seriously and recently arranged a meeting between Benin’s pineapple growers and a major German supermarket chain. No deal resulted, but Mr. Blöse had done his diplomatic duty.
Not everyone is quite so high-minded. “Every single consul I know has applied for the ‘CC’ car registration plate,” said one consul. CC stands for “Corps Consulaire,” but the CC plate won’t help you escape parking fines, it’s purely a vanity thing. Just like the consular position itself, according to skeptics.
Mr. Blöse’s day job is as a bankruptcy lawyer, based in a small town near Cologne. Like many of his consular colleagues, prior to his appointment he knew almost nothing about the country he now represents. He was offered the position on the recommendation of a diplomat friend, and admits his first action was to look Benin up in an atlas.
Becoming an honorary consul
Many consuls have similar stories. Peter Aicher is CEO of a Munich ambulance company, but also represents Liberian interests in southern Germany. The West African country contacted him through an acquaintance in the diplomatic corps. Jorrit Plambeck, founder of the Africa-focused trade fair company Fairpros, is Zambian honorary consul in Germany. After doing some work for the country’s economics ministry, they asked him to represent them on a permanent basis.
Two groups of people dominate among the consuls: lawyers and businesspeople. The latter profession helps foster economic ties between Germany and their consular nation as one of the main functions of the job, at least nominally. But the preponderance of lawyers has another explanation — many countries award the title in lieu of paying expensive legal fees.
Informal contacts remain the best route for anyone with ambitions of becoming an honorary consul. There are a few agencies which offer to procure the honor for an appropriate fee. But they also tend to sell academic honors and minor aristocratic titles, and should be best avoided. Not all diplomatic credentials stand up to scrutiny, as Mr. Becker learned to his cost.
A version of this article first appeared in business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com.