“Politics is the attempt to expand the realm of what is possible,” our editor-in-chief wrote recently. She leaves a deep legacy in the fields of foreign policy, transatlantic relations, and German-Israeli ties.
Our colleague and friend, Sylke Tempel, passed away on October 5, 2017, at the age of 54. She was struck by a tree and killed in Berlin during Xavier, a flash storm. Tempel served as editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik since 2008 and founded this publication, the Berlin Policy Journal, in 2015.
Tempel was one of Germany’s most prominent foreign policy thinkers. She was a regular guest on the political talk show circuit; she moderated panels at conferences across the world; she lectured students at Stanford University’s Bing Overseas Studies Program in Berlin; she worked with leading policy-makers on shaping international relations; and she chaired the German chapter of Women in International Security (WIIS).
Her sharp intellect and critical thinking resonated on the global stage. She thrived in debates, engaging opinions from across the political spectrum and fearlessly confronting high-ranking politicians, thinkers, and analysts. She loved a good argument, but she was never intransigent. She did not waver on her values – staunch advocate of democratic ideals and open, tolerant societies that she was – yet she listened to and engaged with other views.
Sylke Tempel was not merely erudite; she was also able to communicate complex topics to a broad audience in straightforward, unambiguous language, free of the jargon that so often clouds political discussions.
“She always thought about how to communicate the debate surrounding foreign and security policy here to a wider audience, not just in Germany but also abroad,” said Thomas Bagger, Director of Foreign Policy in the Office of the Federal President and a former director of the Federal Foreign Office’s policy planning staff. “Her ability to view things from the outside, to understand what people saw and expected of Germany, earned her particular prominence because there are so few in Germany who do so.”
Emily Haber, State Secretary in Germany’s Interior Ministry and a friend of Tempel’s over many years, recalls her immense desire to examine an issue from all sides – not to reaffirm her own beliefs, but to truly understand intricacies and nuances. It was a trait that set her analysis and coverage of Israel apart, for example. Her deep love and sympathy for the country did not prevent her from taking account of the various perspectives of the region’s political struggle, or building close friendships on all sides of the conflict.
“She wasn’t able to lie to herself. She wasn’t able to embellish things if they weren’t there to be embellished. She was extremely honest,” said Haber.
Sylke Tempel was born May 30, 1963, in Bayreuth in northern Bavaria. As a young woman, she aspired to study medicine in the city of Augsburg. She was waitlisted, however, and enrolled at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University instead. It was there that her love for history, political science, and Israel blossomed. She wrote her thesis on “The Reparations Question: Relations between the German Democratic Republic and Israel between 1945 and 1988.” She never did return to medicine.
After receiving a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation, Tempel conducted research for two years at Columbia University in New York – freelancing for the German-Jewish Aufbau – and then completed her Ph.D. on “The Relations between Jewish-American Organizations and the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945” at the University of the Armed Forces in Munich.
She moved to Israel where she would spend more than a decade reporting on the Middle East for various German, Austrian, and Swiss publications, including Die Woche and Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading national Jewish weekly. Fluent in Hebrew, she covered a vast range of stories in the region, including the Oslo Peace Process and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Tempel authored six books, including Freya von Moltke: Ein Leben. Ein Jahrhundert, a portrait of an anti-Nazi resistance fighter, and Wir wollen beide hier leben. Eine schwierige Freundschaft in Jerusalem, featuring letters of correspondence between an Israeli and Palestinian student. She was honored with the Quadriga Prize for the latter.
She was also a dedicated transatlanticist, contributing to numerous American and international publications and lecturing at the Institute for German Studies at Stanford in California. Just before her death, she joined a group of leading German foreign policy experts to pen a transatlantic manifesto titled “In Spite of it All, America.”
“She had strong faith in her values,” said Joachim Staron, an editor at Internationale Politik. “Not even Donald Trump could shake her belief that the transatlantic relationship was fundamentally important.”
“A German With a Sense of Humor”
Throughout her life, Tempel remained passionately curious. She was a voracious consumer of books, articles, and films on the most varied of topics, from ancient history to contemporary satire, Harry Potter and the latest Tarantino movie. She drew upon a rich reservoir of knowledge, making her one of the most sought-after moderators and commentators in her field.
Despite the prestige and many honors bestowed upon her, Tempel also remained unfailingly kind, generous, and funny – so very funny, in a disarming, mischievous way. Her broad smile and warmth filled the room, and even the busiest of days were punctuated by the sound of laughter emanating from her office. She delighted in silly YouTube videos that she circulated among her colleagues and Loriot sketches she would recall in editorial meetings – and the Minions, a particular favorite. She drew parallels between Asterix and Obelix and Mickey Mouse and mankind’s most fundamental conflicts with a twinkle in her eye.
“She said it was always her advantage to be a German with a sense of humor because no one expected that,” said Rachel Tausendfreund, editorial director at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, who worked with Tempel at Internationale Politik. “She was elegantly charming.”
Tempel had a penchant for jewel-toned jackets and brightly hued purses and shoes, a jolt of color in the often-drab foreign policy world of black and gray suits. Of her many projects, one was to update the IP and BPJ offices on the top floor of the German Council on Foreign Relations. When renovation work unexpectedly stalled (after a week, inexplicably, only two of six doors had been sanded and painted) she and her colleagues rolled up their sleeves and went to work painting themselves.
She ensured that all birthdays were celebrated with singing and generous portions of cake. She treated her colleagues’ children as her own, welcoming them to spend time in the office and share in her appreciation for Donald Duck. And she actively mentored younger colleagues, serving as a role model particularly for women trying to find their feet in male-dominated domains like foreign policy or defense.
Her long-time colleague, Uta Kuhlmann, said Tempel remained so firmly grounded due to her upbringing in the countryside in southern Germany and her close relationship with her family. She built her life upon three pillars: friends, family, and work. If professional commitments grew difficult, she would draw joy from her private life, surrounded by a small circle of good friends, her parents, her godchildren, or her partner.
“Sylke was just happy. She chose what she surrounded herself with in life, and she managed to do so because she was so clever and smart and optimistic,” said Kuhlmann.
Despite her professional commitments and busy travel schedule, Tempel was also deeply devoted to her nephew and her godchildren. She and her partner spent hours helping with homework assignments and traded in their convertible for a family car. Tempel also served as a reading ambassador, reading to students in a Berlin school in the morning before going to the office. She was generous with her time and attention, regardless of her audience.
“Sylke would completely concentrate on the person she was talking to at the moment. She gave you all her attention and concentrated on what linked her to you, and what would interest you,” said Emily Haber. “She would get the best of people because she took interest in what they could offer. That’s rare.”
Tempel led the push to turn Internationale Politik into a leading political affairs magazine, growing the brand and sharpening its profile to include IP Wirtschaft, or IP Business, in 2012. She had been working with the head of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), Daniela Schwarzer, on plans to restructure the think tank as well. She was also selected to be among the first class of Thomas Mann fellows, a program bringing leaders from across German society to the US to foster dialogue and exchange with intellectuals and institutions in the US.
Sylke Tempel is survived by her parents, her sister, her nephew, her partner, and her friends and colleagues.