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Guido Goldman: A Celebration of Life

November 09, 2022
7 min read
Photo credit: The German Marshall Fund
The German Marshall Fund (GMF) is privileged to have had a visionary founder in Guido Goldman.

His creativity, magnetism, humanity, and dedication to transatlantic relations, particularly the creation of a post-World War II German-American partnership, were instrumental in inspiring the government of German Chancellor Willy Brandt to mark the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. That inspiration led to a major foundational gift that established the German Marshall Fund of the United States in 1972. 

Guido Goldman was intimately involved in GMF’s work until his death in November 2020. He was GMF’s first president and board chair, occupying the latter position for four decades. He retired in 2012 only to serve thereafter as chair emeritus.

Guido Goldman helped found several transatlantic organizations and fellowships, including the institution now known as Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. His unyielding dedication to transatlantic relations was recognized in 1978, when the German government awarded him its Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit.

Guido Goldman was a true renaissance man, with wide-ranging interests and talents. In addition to being a transatlantic institution builder, he was the most prodigious American collector of ikat, a Central Asian textile art, and a long-term supporter of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented a memorial gathering from being held shortly after his death. But on November 4, 2022, his friends and colleagues gathered for a “celebration of life” event at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the attendees was GMF’s Berlin-based Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the Guido Goldman Distinguished Scholar for Geostrategy. He delivered the following address: 

It is a great honor for me to be invited to say a few words about Guido Goldman today, especially since I am such a late addition to his circle of friends. I had known him for “only” 21 years before he passed away two years ago. That seems like nothing as I look around this room and see some of his lifelong friends.

Friendship meant something to Guido. He was an extremely loyal friend. Once he embraced you as a friend – and I don’t mean a Facebook “friendship” – he was faithful, he was dependable, he was forgiving. And, if need be, he could be your staunchest defender. In Guido’s definition, friendship was once and for life. You can surely detect some of his German heritage in this attitude.

Henry Kissinger, his old friend and doctoral advisor here at Harvard, in a 2018 tribute to Guido Goldman, mentioned that Guido had never asked him for a favor. Never. Kissinger’s experience was that a person of his position in public life would always be asked something at one point in life. Not Guido. He invested in a friendship, no questions asked, no favors asked.

For me, it wasn’t all that easy to get to know Guido. At first I did not even get to know Guido Goldman, the man, but Guido Goldman, the room. It’s true: My first encounter was with his office here at Harvard, at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, back in 2000. I was a mid-career fellow at the center, and on my first day Abby Collins, executive director at the time, took me around and showed me my desk. I expected to be led to a cubicle in the basement. But, no, she took me up a flight of stairs to a grandiose corner office and said, “This is Guido Goldman’s office. He is our founder, but he is rarely here. So, you can use it.”

For me, that was quite a moment. “Goldman,” of course, was a legendary name in Germany. Guido’s father, Nahum, stood for German-Jewish and German-Israeli reconciliation. And Guido, like no other living person, represented the German-American postwar relationship.

I started to study Guido’s library to learn something about the man. I thought I was pretty successful until, years later, Guido told me that this library really did not say much about his intellectual life. It consisted mostly of books that had been given to him or that publishing houses had sent for review. I never knew if I should believe him.

In his Harvard office library there was certainly one book that he could not run away from. And that was one that he had written himself, titled “The German Political System,” in 1974. In the first chapter, even on the first page, he raised all the big questions about Germany’s uncertainty with nationhood, about its constantly shifting borders, about its uneven modernization process. What Guido wrote about was what he called the “pathology of German history.” And that pathology fascinated him.

This lifelong interest did not come to Guido naturally, even though he grew up in a German-Jewish family in New York. On his first visit to West Germany, a semester abroad, in Munich in 1959, he didn’t find all that much to like and moved on to Paris, which he liked much more.

It took a class by Professor Karl Kaiser, here at Harvard, to spur his interest. He learned about Germany’s relevance. Guido took that to mean Germany’s relevance to the United States. He certainly did not believe in a special relationship with Germany, but he saw the bilateral relationship as indispensable if America were to remain a European power. The United States needed to have a positive, a productive, and a trustful partnership with Germany. Otherwise, the relationship with Europe as a whole would become unstable. He believed the United States needed to invest in Germany, and, if needed, woo it.

It was one of the great pains of his late life to witness an American administration adopt a “blame-Germany-first” attitude for the first time since World War II. In the last years of his life, Guido grew more concerned about the state of democracy in the United States than in Germany, which, he felt, had morphed into a reliably liberal country.

The best expression of the centrality that Germany enjoyed in Guido’s thinking is the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Harvard University’s Center for European Studies certainly was Guido’s academic and intellectual home, but GMF was his other baby. It was his creation. It was the instrument to achieve his vision of a network of responsible citizens who would carry the bilateral relationship forward, if need be through difficult times.

Guido Goldman always understood that bonds between peoples start with bonds between people. He felt it is not enough to have political ideas, to have political actors, to have national interests. Public life, including among nations, needed personal relationships, needed an atmosphere of trust among the actors over long periods of time.

That is why Guido personally cultivated political friendships. And within the institutions he founded or supported, primarily GMF, the programs that were dear to him were not necessarily the academic or policy programs, but the fellowships.

It wasn’t just about what we today call “networking.” It wasn’t just putting people together. Guido always thought that relationship-building leads nowhere if not supported and guided by institutions. Institutions that are grounded in values and ideas. Institutions that guarantee continuity and repetition. Institutions that frame such relationships.

That is why Guido became the great institution builder that he was.

Guido dedicated his book on Germany to Alex Möller, then finance minister, who was his partner when the initial German gift to GMF and to Harvard University was negotiated. Guido Goldman also built a relationship with Chancellor Willy Brandt, who came to Harvard 50 years ago to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan and announce GMF’s founding as a living memorial to the Marshall Plan. It was Brandt’s foresight to make GMF’s mission not just about German-American relations, but about European-American relations. And it was Guido Goldman’s insistence that ensured there would always be a German-American core to that work. As founder and board chairman emeritus, Guido had an outsized influence on GMF’s direction into the late 2010s.

Today, I suspect, Guido would be proud if he learned that GMF, his institution, has been working on the design of a new, modern Marshall Plan. But this time a Marshall Plan for Ukraine.

And personally, I can proudly say, that it is one of the great fortunes of my life to have been a disciple in Guido Goldman’s school of transatlantic relations.