Real Leaders

Germany’s First Jewish Mayor on How to Build a City of Peace

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash


  •  Peter Feldmann is the mayor of Frankfurt, a city that has traded on diversity for centuries.
  • The city has shown that discrimination will lead to lost customers and business.
  • Staying visible and keeping citizens informed in a transparent manner is the best way of getting people to lead with you.

What inspired you to run for the position of mayor of Frankfurt?

I come from a very socialist family and my father always tried to educate me on saving the world, how to promote business, leadership and more equality. But, as a realistic person, I decided to start in Frankfurt – not to save the world, but to save my hometown first.

One priority was to fight children’s illness and develop education. Another was to improve the situation of the elderly, because everyone’s a little bit afraid of become old and wants a nice life, even if they’re not super rich. A third priority was to work on internationalizing our city and the region, because it’s crucial for change. You have to be aware of your surroundings and not only your own feet. Housing needs attention as it can sometimes create trouble when unaffordable or with high rents. My final focus is against the noise and franticness of society, relating to airports, motor traffic and public transport. I concentrate on five main issues, that’s it. I don’t promise more.

The main quality of a leader is to inform people to lead together with me. To not believe in me, but to believe in themselves, and to push people in a way that is logical, rather than using orders and dictatorship.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your first two years in office?

To be happy about every small step we take, not only about the big things. To make it public and transparent, so that everyone knows why you’ve taken those small steps. Explain what the aim is and the process in achieving those aims, so that everyone can understand it. If you don’t communicate what you’re doing, you’re lost. It’s better to give your energy you to the people around you. 

frankfurt city

How do you keep the big vision alive while making people aware that they need to do small steps?

It’s about trust. People trust me, and they know social justice and equality cannot be created in one day, month or year. I also try to teach myself, and those around me, that we need patience. Patience usually hits many markers, that put things in motion. If people see you haven’t changed your life too radically after assuming political office, it gives them the feeling that you are one of them, that you can make the same mistakes as ordinary people, but can still stay focused on your aims.

Can you give me one high point and one low point of your mayorship so far?

I fought for years to get more money for housing because we have a large backlog. Every year 15,000 new people move to Frankfurt and it’s a small city. Any mayor of a German city would be proud to get a 10 to 20 percent increase for more housing, but in the end we got more than 100 percent of what we asked for. It was a big success, not only for me, but for the whole population of Frankfurt.

On the downside, my personal and family preferences were called into question. At the beginning of my term in office, a large part of the city establishment wanted to know why I didn’t show up at some galas and glamorous events. They said it was part of my duty as mayor, but I had to decide between that and spending time with my small daughter. I had to choose between putting her to bed or going to an event. After one year the critical articles in the press became less and less and was finally extinguished when a survey was done among the residents of Frankfurt. They were asked: Should the mayor of Frankfurt care about his child? Almost 90 percent said yes, and this topic was finally laid to rest within 24 hours. It was a very tough time for me, but I only have one child and she will always be more important to me than politics.

If you had a vision for the future what would it be?

People should fight for their traditions, religions and feelings in a peaceful way. Everyone should be allowed to remain a little conservative in their behaviour. You shouldn’t force people to change too fast, but rather give them a platform to change. If no one is pushing you to change, you become less fearful. If you create a platform of social security and let people realize they can retain regional identities, tradition and family life then they can become revolutionaries for change. If you are poor, sick or weak, you will never change because you are full of fear. Through economic and political development you can create more wealth for all people, resulting in a quality society. It will create a better quality leadership too.

A city is only as good as its citizens and businesses. How does a city attract good citizens and businesses?

Frankfurt has the highest quota of global populations in the whole of Germany. We have an official migrant quota of 30 percent, but if you include those with German passports it’s closer to 48 percent. We have profited from this fact for hundreds of years, back to Roman times. Frankfurt has always been a place of trade and it was useful to be tolerant and open-minded. If you discriminated because of skin, eye and hair colour, or religion, you lost customers immediately. Not just one customer, but the whole family too. Business here has always been integrated with humanism and values. A person from anywhere in the world will find a suitable social structure here, it’s part of our strategy.

frankfurt-2 city

Much has been made in the media about you being the first Jewish mayor of a major German city since the Second World War. Is this still a relevant fact today?

To be honest, it’s a very boring question. People living in Anglo Saxon countries, such as the United States, England or Australia, started asking questions at the time, citing big changes happening in Germany. The big surprise in Frankfurt was that no one really cared. 

What is the best way to keep diversity alive in a city while still encouraging cohesion between the many cultural groups that form part of most major cities today?

People should learn that you can profit from diversity, different experiences, information and habits. It brings the most profitable solution for everyone and improves social stability. If people get to know each other well, they can learn so much from each other – emotions, religions, structures and development. Ultimately they will understand the world better.

In contrast, a city like Berlin might make progress in only one neighbourhood. In New York, London or Paris you’ll find Jewish or Italian quotas. In Frankfurt it’s been the opposite for hundreds of years. It’s important to meet neighbours from a different place of birth, let your children play with them, learn another language and see how to solve conflicts peacefully.

In Paris you might have a young Muslim migrant assaulting a Jewish guy, or in London, a street fight with police, but we don’t have those things in Frankfurt. The wealthy boss of an international bank can send his daughter to a state school anywhere here and nothing will happen. You don’t need bodyguards, gated communities or 24-hour security for your home. If you create an atmosphere that people profit from, then people will rather want to fight to maintain this atmosphere of peace.

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