—— Brigitte Zypries was active in national politics in Germany for more than fifteen years. She knows what it means to bear responsibility. A conversation about the challenges and dangers of acting responsibly.

Porträtfoto von Brigitte Zypries. Sie trägt einen hellblauen Blazer.


Ms. Zypries, you spent years in senior political circles at the national level. What does responsibility mean to you personally?
———— For me, responsibility means acting with deliberation and always being aware that your own actions and ­decisions affect others. Therefore you need to think carefully about the consequences that your own actions can have.
Does this also apply to responsibility in politics?
———— Yes, because I believe that there is no difference between responsibility in politics and responsibility in general.
As a politician you’re not making decisions for yourself, but for an entire country.
———— Of course, the scope of the ­decisions is different. When, as a minister, you start the process to enact a new law, that naturally has very big implications ­because a law always affects a large number of people. That is different than if I make a personal decision to park for a ­moment in a no-parking zone because I need to pop into a bakery to get some bread.
You also took on responsibility during crises when you were a politician. What is it like to be in a situation like that?
———— I took on responsibility at the federal level twice during crisis situations. Once during the feared Y2K computer crash at the turn of the year in 2000, and once during the Elbe River Flood in 2002. What’s most important in such situations is always to put together a good team, ­because one person alone can never solve such crises. You need people who have ideas and who are willing to work a lot. The group must keep each other informed and trust one another. It’s the only way you can come up with ideas and solutions together.
And what does the responsibility do to you personally?
———— For a start, you don’t get much sleep—but in the end, I was always proud when I had mastered the challenge.
When in doubt, does political responsibility also mean withholding information so as not to upset the populace?
———— There may be politicians who see it that way. However, I think this approach is wrong. I believe you should deal with the people in the country in an appropriate and informed way.
But, in the end, that means transferring the responsibility to the citizens. Is that really responsible behavior as a politician?
———— Yes it is. Politicians do not take responsibility away from their citizens per se. We carry our share—the citizens carry theirs. The corona crisis makes this clear: only if everyone keeps to the distancing rules, washes their hands and wears masks will we make it through. Political decisions alone are simply not enough.
But there are things that are deliber­ately withheld.
———— There are of course certain findings that are published at certain times, for instance the annual economic report or crime statistics. Such reports are ­often available for some time but are not yet made public, because there’s a date of publication. The time until the publishing is then used to process the information and present it in a generally understandable way. But that isn’t a conscious withholding or concealment; it’s simply the professional handling of information.

“We must assume that everything is public and must act accordingly.”

So the timing of when something is disclosed depends on the communication strategy?
———— Disclosed sounds so secretive. But it usually isn’t secretive at all. Usually it is about information that will be made public anyway, but that you don’t want to let pass without comment. When I publish criminal statistics, then I have to put them in context. For instance, it can happen that there are more criminal offenses in a certain area in a given year. The causes for this can be very different: it may actually be the case that more happened, but it can also be that there were more reports, or it may also be that there were more investigations in this area because the police were able to hire more personnel. It must be put into context so that people don’t think that there was more criminality even though the actual frequency hasn’t changed at all, it’s just ­being pursued in a different manner. And it’s the same for numerous other statistics and information—they simply need to be placed in context. This is common practice in our democratic system.
What about situations in which you don’t have the time or opportunity to put things into context?
———— I can’t think of anything from my own work right now. It can, of course, happen that something occurs and you have to react quickly. But then the matter is public in any case and it’s only about assessing it. So this is a different situation.
And what would you do?
———— When information comes from within the political arena, the government always decides how it will be made public. This gives them the opportunity to put the information in context. But it can also happen that information gets leaked, so is made public even though you don’t want it to be. Then you just have to react to it.
What happens when things are accident­ally made public?
———— For my part, the only thing to do is to take the bull by the horns. There’s no point in backtracking or claiming I didn’t mean to say that. You have to go on the ­offensive and explain the whole thing.
Are there situations in which you think: it would have been better if I hadn’t said that or said nothing at all?
———— There certainly are. Particularly with statements that are ambiguous. You must always be extremely careful not to ­exaggerate or to express things in a way that can be misunderstood. This also has a lot to do with responsibility, but you learn that quickly in everyday politics.
How do you deal with unusual situations like a pandemic, for instance, which can certainly cause panic among the populace?
———— You cannot and would not conceal a pandemic, that much is completely clear. I find that in today’s media system, you ­really can’t keep things secret anymore. My credo as a politician was always that you must assume that everything is public and must act accordingly. I don’t believe that concealment is desirable nor should we indulge in this illusion. People are generally reasonable. You can communicate difficult or unpleasant facts. This was also seen in the corona pandemic.
In the fight against the virus, technical solutions have repeatedly been brought into play. To what extent can you handle data responsibly during a crisis situation?
———— Data must always be handled responsibly, whether there is a crisis or not. Data protection is enshrined in law and this also applies during a crisis unless lawmakers decide to change this for overriding reasons.
What reasons can justify the suspension of data protection laws?
———— That depends on the situation. When I was dealing with the Elbe floods, I didn’t need any special data. For a ­pandemic like we have now, things are ­different. It’s a question of traceability: Who was in the same place and could be infected? Data is naturally important for this and, as a citizen, I’m obliged to assist and leave my name and telephone number at the hairdresser or in a restaurant. Fighting the pandemic thus takes precedence over my right to anonymously go to a restaurant.
This specifically means that I must put aside my personal interests and freedoms for the greater good?
———— This may require re-consideration of basic rights in certain situations for a limited period of time, yes.

You retired from politics several years ago and are now active as a speaker and as a member of supervisory boards. Do you miss bearing responsibility?
———— No.
And are there other projects for which you would like to take on responsibility in the future?
———— I’m always open to taking on responsibility. But I have so much to do right now that I haven’t yet gotten around to taking a proactive approach. I’m more likely to react to inquiries and have the luxury of being able to choose what I’d like to take on responsibility for and what I wouldn’t.