by Iris H.
The worst thing for me is not to be challenged
Ivo Gönner has his own Wikipedia entry*. In Ulm, almost everyone knows the former Lord Mayor with the characteristic moustache. He joined the SPD in 1972. 40 years ago, in June 1980, he - then 28 years old - was elected to the Ulm City Council for the first time. Facebook comments still read like this: ‘Absolutely likeable and charismatic person.’ ‘Who wouldn't want him back...the best there ever was!’
Wikipedia (excerpts): Ivo Gönner (born February 18, 1952 in Laupheim) is a German SPD local politician and was Lord Mayor of Ulm from 1992 to 2016. He grew up in Laupheim, Upper Swabia. Attended the college of St. Blasien in the Black Forest. Before taking up his law studies at the University of Heidelberg, he enlisted for civilian service in Ulm. Gönner returned to Ulm in 1978, when he became a trainee lawyer at the district court and subsequently worked as self-employed lawyer until 1992. From 1980, Ivo Gönner sat on the city council, where he became the SPD's parliamentary group leader in 1985 and in 1992 replaced Ernst Ludwig of the CDU as Lord Mayor. In 1999 he was re-elected with 79.9 percent, in 2007 with 80.2 percent. From 2005 to the end of 2010, Gönner was president of the Baden-Württemberg Association of Cities.
On Nov. 29, 2015, Gunter Czisch (CDU) was elected Lord Mayor to succeed Gönner, who did not run again. On April 1, 2016, Gönner joined the law firm of a friend.
Ivo Gönner is married to journalist Susanne Schwarzkopf-Gönner and has two children.
What does a typical day look like for Ivo Gönner?
A certain amount of structure is important. In the morning, I take my time eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. On the way to the office, I get more newspapers and then head for one of the cafés, which have reopened in the meantime, at around 10:30 a.m. Then I need the second coffee station. On this occasion, I can read the national newspapers. If I don't have any appointments, I'm in the office at around 11 a.m. Around 2 p.m. I take another coffee break. And in the afternoon, I deal with the remaining pile of mail or prepare lectures, for example. After such a sweaty day, I again head for a café, where I have a first small glass of wine, and then go home or to an appointment.
That sounds very self-determined....
Of course, there are days when I'm already in the morning in a meeting. But I actually make the appointments myself now, and if there's stress, I make it myself. That's much freedom.
Are there other things that provide structure?
I try to keep in touch with people from the legal world and from my private environment, so that I can still keep an eye and ear out for others and their ideas and developments. Relationships that have been less intense for years are now becoming more intense. For example, we have started a small travel group, the Blaue Donau travel group, whereby the word "blue" has a double meaning... (laughs). Once a year, we take a trip to a certain location along the Danube. By train or plane. For example, to the upper course, around Linz to the Wachau, or Vienna or Budapest. With us are friends and Danube acquaintances, a pub owner, an actor... We meet people who, for example, have journalistic or artistic tasks, or who have economic contacts here, but no dignitaries or officials.
Is travel important for you?
I never planned to travel the world in my retirement. I'm not much of a traveller. Two, three, four days somewhere is usually enough for me. We have made several city trips with the family.
More important than traveling is...
For example, giving lectures on local political topics. For example, at Lebenshilfe in Esslingen on the topic of “What would a city be without disabled people?”. Other lectures have dealt with the topic of “Homeland”, for example.
You also work in the law firm of a friend.
Yes, for the law firm I advise cities and municipalities about the allocation of building ground according to the new requirement of the European Court of Justice. And for two or three years I worked on data protection. That was a new topic for me, and I got to grips with it.
But you could also lean back now...
I could, but that would leave me very dissatisfied.
I think that after a long public phase, you always need a spiritual, and in part also intellectual, challenge. The worst thing for me is not to be challenged. It's not about new achievements, but about dealing with issues. Everyone should do this for themselves as long as curiosity remains. Then, when routine sets in, it's time to move on to something new.
What about new media?
I've learned a lot there. (Laughs). I can send e-mails. But I'm a bit old-fashioned and tend to pick up the phone instead. I haven't developed any great enthusiasm for the new means of communication. My knowledge there is rather rudimentary.
So you don't have a Facebook or Instagram account?
No, I don’t.
Painting is supposed to be a hobby of yours....
Not in the summer, but when it gets a little colder. Both my children wanted a painting for Christmas. That's what I did, one for Sebastian, one for Sabina. I tried to express their preferences a bit.
But politics will probably occupy you for the rest of your life...
In any case, I have resolved that I will not comment publicly on matters of local politics. I work general political and social topics into my lectures. For me, it's about putting things into context beyond a pure analysis. Right now, for example, I'm dealing with the fact that certain impulses and developments were given by the French Revolution, which in turn had the Enlightenment as its precursor, and which culminated in freedom, equality and fraternity - and
how this has persisted over the decades and at the same time also changed, because new elements of freedom, equality and fraternity have been added. I am interested in how certain intellectual, political, and in part also philosophical developments are reflected today. I am also concerned with the question, what political, social and societal impulses does my generation leave behind?
What advice would you give to younger people?
To occupy yourself with history. But not in the sense of learning certain dates by heart. There is a famous quote: ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Studying history can increase the abstraction ability and thus, in my view, also sensitivity. The conclusions are then drawn by the individuals themselves - whether they get involved or not, whether they recognize trends early or not at all, or whether they perhaps also set milestones.
Any other advice for younger people?
The availability of information is incomparably greater today than it used to be. But information should never be equated with knowledge. Knowledge always means a creative, processing, classifying process. That's why the information society is one of the most boring things. You have everything at your fingertips, but not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge, however, should be used as a guideline for action.
Social action was always important to you. How did that come about?
After graduating from high school in 1971, I began my alternative civilian service in Ulm with the Arbeiter-Samariterbund (Workers’ Samaritan Foundation). After all those years of school, it was a great relief for me not to have to look at books anymore, not to cram drearily, in other words to be thrown into a completely different everyday life.
You come from an academic home.
Yes, I was born and raised in Laupheim. My father was a pharmacist, my mother a housewife - the classic distribution of roles. My mother also helped a lot in the pharmacy. I have two sisters. An older one, who became a pharmacist, and a younger one, who dropped out of high school shortly before graduating, went to Italy as an au-pair, and later trained as a nurse.
Was that a sheltered childhood?
Yes, but at the age of 10 I went to boarding school in St. Blasien.
Was that your wish?
No. It was said: All male family members go there. Then I was marched in there and also did my Abitur there. I was away from home a lot. And my parents didn't even notice many of my developments. Which was sometimes a good thing. My wife is of the opinion that this was a catastrophe for me, because I had a completely different family bond in front of me, which she rightly never wanted with our children. Yes, it is a life of alienation from one's own family. At one point I thought that was good, but I didn't want others to have to endure that too.
Boarding school life shaped you.
Yes, what was always important to me was this sense of community. We had a head teacher who said to us in the study hall: ‘Now there is 80 of you, in a quarter of a year there will be 40, I'll lead 10 of you to the Abitur and make decent people out of 5 of you.’ As a ten-year- old, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if you were one of the five...’.
Did you feel homesick?
That was driven out of you - also through the many activities and the structured daily routine. Devotions, breakfast, school, lunch, two hours of sports, then study until dinner, half an hour in the courtyard... The Jesuits were notorious in the Catholic Church as an elitist order. They had specialized for centuries in education and elite education. It was insanely religious, but above all intellectually challenging. One had to formulate a thesis and the antithesis and then find the synthesis. No one was allowed to just blabber away.
This naturally predestined the study of law, and also the tendency to structuring...
But structuring is nothing negative. Incidentally, the 100-plus-year-olds I was allowed to visit as mayor often told me how important structure is to them. There were quite structured people.
How would you describe the older generation?
First of all, one has to say that we have lived more than 70 years without war. Complaining about everyday things is a flyspeck compared to what previous generations experienced. How do we deal with our environment, with raw materials, with technologies? Older people should not lament, but encourage younger people: there are solutions and we should not stand in the way. After all, the older generation is also part of this highly gratifying history, this long period of peace.
How do you see the Fridays-for-future movement?
It's a typical middle-class event, not a great social movement. It will never succeed unless it becomes more widespread.
Let's get back to your civilian service, which, in addition to your time at boarding school, also seems to have had a great impact on you. What was it like?
It was mainly physically and mentally handicapped children that I collected every morning from seven o'clock for two hours in a VW bus and took them to school. Then I transported sick people or blood, delivered food at lunchtime and picked up the children again at 3 p.m. Sometimes I had evening duty and every four weeks night duty. That was a completely different world. I felt and saw that there are people who are alone and lonely. That's a big difference. There are people who are alone for different reasons. And there are people who are alone and lonely. That touched me and opened my heart and eyes.
For politics too?
Yes, these experiences coincided with the exciting political issues back then, when it came to the so-called Ostpolitik. Those were incredibly rough conflicts, and I realized that I couldn't just stand aside, but had to get into the fray. The decisive moment actually came in the fall of '71, when Willy Brandt spoke at a large SPD meeting in Swabia and the mood was very aggressive. The writing on some walls at the time read "Brandt against the wall.” It was clear to me: I have to join in.
But then you started studying.
After about two years with the Arbeiter-Samariterbund, I started studying law in Heidelberg, which was good for me. At that time, I needed something theoretical again. But I'm a big supporter of the idea that after a long period at school, social work can be required from both boys and girls. I also thought it was great that my daughter had done a social year.
Was there another important turning point in your life?
After the end of my training, because there was always the question of what I would do then. By then I had already been on the local council for a quarter of a year. I had always intended that before I became a full-time politician, I would first establish a professional basis so that I could be independent. The worst thing is to be politically active and dependent on an office. I have to be able to say every day: I quit. That's why I started my own business as a lawyer.
Other turning points?
The question of whether I should run for mayor. I made my first attempt in 1983, more or less as a test. That was quite instructive. After that, I continued to work as a lawyer. And then I said: I'll make a second attempt. Always with the knowledge that it is an interesting threefold task: political, administrative and representative. In all three things, you have to be communicative. I thought: this fits. My mother also encouraged me a lot, because my maternal grandfather was Lord Mayor in Schwäbisch Gmünd. She took me to the town hall once, and there was an oil painting of him there. I knew then that a mayor would be hung someday, but in oil.
How did you experience the opening of the Wall?
My wife and I saw the amazing pictures on television in the evening, and before that we went out to eat. It was literally unbelievable for me. My thought at the time was: I hope nothing happens. I had the 1956 Hungarian uprising in mind, how the Soviet tanks drove through Budapest.
Wouldn't you have been interested in a political job other than that of mayor?
No, running for the country or the state parliament, for example, interested me just as little as inquiries as to whether I wanted to become a minister or a top candidate. I've always said: Leave me alone with that. My world is the local grassroots, which I find incredibly important for the democratic fabric of socitety. Then I was elected, and that was a new phase.
With the consent of your wife Susanne?
Always. I would never have done it without her support. Without her goodwill.
Your division in the relationship was always classical, she gave up her job when you became Lord Mayor.
Yes, that was clear from the start. For both of us. The children came shortly after that, and she kept them out of everything. That's a super achievement. She watched like a lioness to make sure that the children were never present at public events. She also always said: ‘No home story’.
And the end as Lord Mayor - also a turning point?
I set the end for myself after 24 years. It's part of my self-determination to say, ‘That's it, no more extensions.’ I'm privileged in that respect, because I still have a professional basis that supports me.
You are physically fit. But have you ever thought about how you would spend your old age if you had limitations?
I don't worry about that. I'll let that come at me.
When you were 20, what did you think you would be like when you were 60 or 70?
Like all young people, I thought I would be immortal. I didn't want to be a natural scientist or a pharmacist like my father and his father and his father's father. My father had his 60th birthday in 1974, and I had the impression then that he is a very old man. Maybe that had something to do with this generation, which was drawn into the war and experienced all kinds of things. My grandfather dropped dead at 62 in the pharmacy, my father too. When I celebrated my 63rd birthday, I took a deep breath.
Do you have a motto in life?
To each his own. That doesn't mean only tolerance, but also respect. You can be tolerant of everything. But having respect is several degrees different. Respect must be demanded and practiced.