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Interview with Norbert Walter-Borjans

Photo: Finanzministerium NRW


Ein unkonventioneller Denker

Unser Alumnus Norbert Walter-Borjans ist ehemaliger Finanzminister von NRW und einer der renommiertesten Finanzexperten der Republik. Er machte sich bundesweit durch seine Ankäufe der sogenannten Steuer-CDs einen Namen, mit deren Hilfe er entschieden Steuerstraftäter verfolgte. Wir sprachen mit ihm über seine frühere Arbeit als Finanzminister. Außerdem gibt er unseren Studierenden wertvolle Tipps und blickt auch selbst zurück auf seine eigene Zeit als Student.

Lieber Herr Walter-Borjans, Ihnen wurde Kreativität und Mut bei der Arbeit zugeschrieben. Sie wurden sogar als „Robin Hood“ der Steuergerechtigkeit gefeiert und als Finanzminister, der die Steuer-CDs kaufte, bundesweit prominent. Was hat Sie motiviert, so „unkonventionell“ zu handeln? Was trieb Sie im Berufsalltag an? 

Das hat viel mit Gerechtigkeit zu tun. Wenn wir unser Land zukunftsfest machen wollen und die Kosten dafür nicht nur bei denen hängen bleiben sollen, die keine Chance haben, sich zu drücken, dann müssen wir zu allererst dafür sorgen, dass alle sich an die Gesetze halten. 

Und dass die Gesetze keine Scheunentorgroßen Schlupflöcher haben, die nur einem speziellen Kreis zur Verfügung stehen. 

Was mich antrieb war, für eine solide Finanzbasis zu sorgen, damit der Staat seine Aufgaben erfüllen kann - und gleichzeitig dafür zu sorgen, dass die Ehrlichen bei der Lastenverteilung nicht die Dummen sind.

What drove me was to ensure a solid financial basis so that the state could fulfil its tasks

Norbert Walter-Borjans

For many years you have been responsible for extremely demanding tasks and have certainly experienced many interesting encounters/situations. Would you like to tell us briefly about one of your most unforgettable experiences?

Maybe it is because of my good memory that there were many unforgettable experiences. As government spokesman in the 1990s, I was with the Pope together with the then NRW Minister President Johannes Rau, met Gorbachev, Arafat and many others. That was certainly the most spectacular. 

The most shocking thing in 1993 was a visit to the Solingen House, where a Turkish family of five had died the day before in a cowardly arson attack. 

From my time as Finance Minister I remember how many people said in letters, on the street, in the pub: "Just keep on making sure that the tax cheats are stopped. This is still happening today. It remains unforgettable, because praise is not the normal thing for a politician.

After the NRW state elections in May 2017, you will retire from the office of Finance Minister. Will you tell us something about your plans and wishes for the future?

I turned 65 a few months after the election defeat. Even though I certainly don't intend to sit on the sofa as a political pensioner, I don't have to look desperately for a career perspective. I'm glad that there are many requests from very different sides to tell you about my experiences. The economy, science and politics are also alienated because they all find it so difficult to accept each other's point of view. I was fortunate to have been active in all three areas. If that can help build bridges in a time of perceived truths, I'm happy to be part of it. And I also have a few hobbies that have been neglected, such as sculpture.

Even though I certainly do not intend to sit on the sofa as a political pensioner, I do not have to desperately search for a professional perspective

Norbert Walter-Borjans

Did you already know as a student that you would go into politics?

As a student, I was interested in politics and sometimes dreamed of one day reporting on politics as an editor of the SPIEGEL. I was not politically active. That only changed when I did my doctorate at Cologne University. Before that, I had already worked for almost two years in marketing at Henkel in Düsseldorf - also a good and unforgettable time during which I learned a lot. It was Helmut Kohl's vote of no confidence against Helmut Schmidt that prompted me to become actively involved in politics. I was 30 at that time and decided to join the SPD.

As a student, I was interested in politics and sometimes dreamed of one day reporting on politics as a SPIEGEL editor

Norbert Walter-Borjans


Were there any coincidences, situations, encounters with certain people during your doctorate at the WiSo faculty that inspired you and had a special impact on your professional career?

The topic of my doctorate, comparing the contribution of highway construction to regional economic development with the consequences for the environment, was a hot potato in the early 1980s from an economic and ecological point of view. Because the result was also aggressively communicated by the press office, I suddenly had all kinds of inquiries from the media. 

It started with the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, continued with the ZEIT, and reached all conceivable forms of radio interviews: live in the studio, recordings, telephone etc. That was not only an instructive crash course in communication, but my work also caught the attention of citizens' initiatives and politicians. 

I became a co-founder of the environmentally oriented Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) and got the chance to become a consultant in the NRW State Chancellery for questions of structural change and later also for finances. That cannot be planned. But one lesson is: communication is a very important component.

Please complete the sentence: Cologne is for me...

...colourful, down-to-earth, chaotic, worth living - and very communicative!

What would you like to give to your fellow students? What are your three tips?

1. study contents are necessarily becoming more and more specialised. Don't forget that every science is part of a larger whole. Ivory-tower science without a self-conception as part of society as a whole would leave many opportunities for progress behind.

2. do not seal yourself off. Exchange with each other. Communicate. Also through activities outside of studies and university. Cologne offers many opportunities for this.

3 This concerns my science, economics: insist on promoting the plurality of scientific schools of thought. Economics is not a natural science, but a social science. As far as I can see, this is less apparent here than in the USA, for example.

Thank you very much for the interview!

The questions were asked by Ayla Wisselinck

About Norbert Walter-Borjans


Dr. Norbert Walter-Borjans studied at the University of Bonn and received his doctorate at the WiSo Faculty of the University of Cologne. He was a research assistant at the Institute for Transportation Science/Seminar for Economic Theory under the direction of Rainer Willeke. 

From 2010 to 2017 Norbert Walter-Borjans was North Rhine-Westphalia's Minister of Finance. Before that, the SPD politician was head of department and city treasurer in Cologne. In addition to various functions in the state government, he held positions as government spokesman and state secretary. He is the father of four adult children and works as a sculptor in his spare time.