From degree-holding farmer to federal minister of agriculture

Josef Ertl was born on 7 March 1925 to a liberal Catholic farming family in Murnau on Lake Staffel. The local priest took the talented student under his wing. After graduating high school and doing fatigue duty, he was inducted into the air force in 1943 and trained as a dive-bomber pilot. He made the rank of cadet and was wounded shortly before the end of the war. He joined the Nazi Party in 1943.

Education and university studies

Because his older brother had taken over the family farm, Josef Ertl resorted to a career in agricultural administration. He began to gather experience in farming through formal training, completing his apprenticeship with honors in 1947. He then studied agricultural science at the Technische Hochschule München in Freising-Weihenstephan, where he received his diploma in 1950 and passed the state examinations in 1952. During his studies, he became active in the Agraria student association on the Munich campus. In 1953, he spent time abroad as a student in the United States.

Ministerial career

Ertl worked at the Bavarian Ministry of Agriculture from 1952 to 1959; from 1959 – 1961, he headed up the Miesbach agricultural office and was promoted to head the agricultural council. In 1953, he married Paula Niklas, daughter of then German Minister of Agriculture Wilhelm Niklas (CSU). Ertl joined the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in 1952, where he tended toward the right wing. He was a member of the Munich district assembly from 1952 to 1956, and the Miesbach district assembly from 1966 to 1971. He was first elected to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, in 1961 and became deputy chair of the FDP’s parliamentary group in 1968. Despite his antipathy to Social Democrat (SPD) Willy Brandt’s chancellorship, Ertl was part of the social-liberal coalition and was named Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Forestry in 1969. He continued to hold that post in the cabinets of chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, although he was obliged to step down in March 1983, after the FDP lost one ministerial post in the wake of the general election.

European agriculture policies

With his solid expertise in agriculture, Ertl was able to make an impact at the European Union level. He was always an energetic champion of farmers’ interests in Brussels. He opposed EU plans for industrialized agriculture, speaking out, instead, for extensive rural agriculture. He supported the modernization and rationalization of German agriculture with a stimulus program. When the Deutsche mark was revalued in 1971 and German farmers were threatened with a loss of revenue, he pushed through compensation payments from the EU. He also fought against cuts in producer prices. A staunch European, he played a crucial role in the development of joint European agricultural policies. One of his great strengths was that he never lost contact with the farmers themselves.

We all know that we need this Europe if we don’t want to be at the mercy of the powerful in the end.1

He felt particularly strongly about social welfare policy in the agricultural sector. He succeeded in setting up a social security system for farming families. He also fought for better educational opportunities and was devoted to the cause of protecting the environment and natural resources. In Ertl’s view, it was essential that farmers, conservationists, and consumers work together on these central issues.

A Bavarian country boy

Although he had deep roots in rural Bavaria, Ertl was also cosmopolitan. He cultivated personal contact to his European counterparts, such as France’s Jacques Chirac, that often matured into friendships, which made it easier to smooth over some contentious issues without a lot of red tape. A practicing Catholic, in 1975 he was one of the initiators and the first chairperson of the FDP’s Catholic-Liberal Association (KLA). From 1984 to 1990, he was president of the non-profit German Agricultural Society (DLG). He was also president of the German Ski Association (DSV) from 1978 to 1991 – skiing and hiking were among his great passions. Ertl also felt strongly about preserving the language and culture of South Tyrol, a German-speaking area in northern Italy, and was co-founder and chair of the “Kulturwerk Südtirol” in the 1970s. Following an attack by a bull at his son’s farm in the spring of 1993, Ertl was confined to a wheelchair. On 10 November 2000, Josef Ertl was badly hurt in a fire and died six days later of his injuries.


Among the numerous honors Ertl garnered, we might mention the Bavarian Order of Merit (1971),the Golden Decoration of Honor for Services to Austria (1971), the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1973),the German Order of Merit with star and ribbon (1975),the Karl-Abetz Prize for services to the economic advancement of German forestry (1975),the Ernst Reuter commemorative coin from the city of Berlin (1979), the Andreas Hermes medal bestowed by the German farm association (1979), the Great Cross of Merit of Germany (1979),the Professor Niklas Gold Medal, named for his father-in-law (1990), and the Medal of Honor in gold of the Bavarian farmer’s association (1995).Tokyo University also awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 2001, the German Agricultural Society (DLG) endowed the Josef Ertl Medal to commemorate an outstanding German minister of agriculture who did not slavishly follow the zeitgeist, but stayed true to his convictions in both word and deed.

1. From the eulogy for Josef Ertl by the German Minister of Agriculture Karl-Heinz Funke. State ceremony in the German parliament on 30 November 2000. (Last accessed on 2 May 2018.)

Photo: German Federal Archives, Koblenz B 145 Bild-F053620-0004 / Photographer: Wienke, Ulrich / License CC-BY-SA 3.0