Liberal and Cosmopolitan

In Memoriam Dr. Dagmar Bernstorff
Dr. Dagmar Bernstorff

Dr. Dagmar Gräfin von Bernstorff worked for the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in various capacities over the past thirty years. She passed away in her beloved India on February 24, 2018. To honor and celebrate her life, her friends assembled in New Delhi. Regional Director Dr. Ronald Meinardus paid tribute to our friend and colleague with the following words.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share a few words.

I find it appropriate that as we unite to commemorate (and mourn) we have chosen to celebrate Dr. Bernstorff’s life. To celebrate life – after death, this is a message she would have approved of, I assume.

This is an assumption only. Unlike many others, my relationship with Dr. Bernstorff was mostly professional, work related.  But then, it was hard not to befriend this wonderful person even if the nature of the relationship was more on the formal side.

I will focus on this side of Dr. Bernstorff life and personality.  And share information and comments from my colleagues and predecessors at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) of whom she was a staff member and consultant for many years.

Dr. Bernstorff was a liberal from Germany. Not a closet liberal, like others, but an activist and politician who ran for elected office both on the municipal level and for the European Parliament. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom was thus the natural place for her to go – and stay.  From the very beginning in the late 80s of last century to her last weeks she was – more or less – close to our institute. I feel privileged that I could meet her on multiple occasions and work with her. We supported her in re-publishing an updated version of her Tibet-Book.  With her encyclopedic knowledge - and incredible memory – she was a valuable source of information on all things related to the Tibetan Diaspora.

On a lighter note, one of our last meetings occurred at a rooftop bar in Vasant Vihar. Not only did the fine lady mount the steep and narrow stares on her own. To my and others’ surprise she came along driving herself. Only on very special occasions, our friend said would she engage a driver.

Dr. Bernstorff was tough, resilient, determined – and had a great sense of humor. She was apart from her academic credentials a wonderful person to talk to and joke around with – and I will always associate her with the bright smile in her face.

Dr. Dagmar Bernstorff at an open house reception of the Regional Office in New Delhi
Dr. Dagmar Bernstorff at an open house reception of the Regional Office in New Delhi

My colleagues and predecessors have asked me to share some thoughts. 

I begin with quoting Dr. Jürgen Axer, who set up the Regional Office back in the late 80s. “In all beginning there is a magic”, writes Dr. Axer. What does it mean in this context? And then he turns to the situation in the years 1988 and following:

“It was the beginning, it was work, it was tight, a day to day management with pressure from Headquarter where one could and did lose the broader picture. And all of a sudden - maybe a year or so later - Dagmar Gräfin von Bernstoff, with a PhD. from the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University - was announced as Project Assistant. And yes, she came and opened very fast the window again for the greater, the deeply cultured  India with her diplomatic style as well as she brought back the  perspective of India as a responsible part of South Asia … which led later to the creation of the SAARC Chamber initiated by the Foundation."

Following in the footsteps of Dr. Axer was Hubertus von Welck, who writes that for Dr. Bernstorff India was probably not the second but the first – and now he uses the German term “Heimat”, which the English “home country” only partially captures. This was the high time of the solidarity for the Tibetan cause; together with Mr. von Welck Dr. Bernstorff edited the book which I had already mentioned.

Nobel in character

Hubertus von Welck and Dagmar von Bernstorff had also in common that they belong to a “nobel” family which we see at the “von” in their names. But, Mr. von Welck stresses, “nobility” was not a big matter for her, she never made a point of it.

Nobility in character and not in posture, this is also an observation shared by Siegfried Herzog, my immediate predecessor at the helm of the Regional Office in Delhi. He says:

"She was someone who did not just have a noble title but a noble character. Unfailingly polite and friendly, she had both graceful manners in her interaction with everybody and a wide intellectual horizon. When I think of her face, I see her warm smile. We once travelled to a Tibetan settlement in Karnataka together for a few days, and that trip and the long discussions we had will always be one of my fondest memories."

While the nobility of her family never seduced her to behave in an arrogant or elitist manner, her family traditions may well have influenced her character and behavior. Hubertus von Welck shared a paragraph on the family history of the aristocratic von Bernstorffs, which in conclusion I would like to share with you:

"The von Bernstorffs – across the generations – produced numerous important statesmen and diplomats. They were particularly renowned in Denmark where in the 18th century they forcefully promoted the enlightenment. This was a family which was not conservative like their peers. The diplomatic family tradition produced a singular cosmopolitanism which came together with a liberal view of the world.”

Liberal, cosmopolitan: two epithets I find highly suitable – and sympathetic – for our common friend.  And the circle closes – and after life is death – and memory.

After a Hindu ceremony in New Delhi, the bodily remains of Dr. Bernstorff will be layed to rest in the family grave in the small village Zarrentin at the Schallsee In Northern Germany on April 21.

I invite you to pray that our friend may rest in peace.