40th anniversary of Menschen für Menschen: The most important bet

The story of Menschen für Menschen began exactly 40 years ago. The actor Karlheinz Böhm made an urgent appeal on the German TV show «Wetten, dass…?» to help the hungry in Africa. It was the first impulse for Ethiopia Aid – and for our concept of «help for self-development», which has proven itself since then.

Many people looked forward to Saturday evening all week. In Switzerland, up to two million viewers gathered in front of the television, gladly together with family and friends. «Never again in later years did one have such a sure feeling of doing exactly the right thing at a certain time,» wrote author Florian Illies about this childhood experience in the early eighties: Frank Elstner’s show «Wetten, dass…?» was a TV phenomenon.

Karlheinz Böhm 1981 in the Erer Valley.

But it was also the time when emaciated people in the Sahel could be seen on television screens. The theatre and film actor Karlheinz Böhm (1928-2014) felt powerless – and angry at the avoidable suffering. When showmaster Frank Elstner invited him to the third edition of «Wetten, dass…?» on 16 May 1981, Böhm made a decision. At the end of the show, he looked directly into the camera and spoke to the audience with great seriousness. «The most beautiful quality of man is charity,» Böhm said. Then he placed his bet.

He bets that not even a third of the approximately seven million viewers in all German-speaking countries would donate one franc so that no child would have to starve in the Sahel in the coming months. «And I now wish that I would lose this bet against all of you!»

Karlheinz Böhm bei einer Versammlung

Böhm settled starving semi-nomads in the fertile Erer Valley. In the midst of the people, he was in his element.

Karlheinz Böhm won the bet, but the total of 1.2 million Swiss francs was raised. In October, Böhm travelled to Ethiopia for the first time. He founded Menschen für Menschen and ended his career as an actor. With the donations from the bet, he first provided pastoralist families with food and settled 3200 people in the fertile Erer Valley. The shepherds had lost their pastures and livestock in a long drought and were vegetating in a refugee camp «in a state of limbo between life and death», Böhm recalled in his autobiography. New villages were built in the Erer Valley and «the semi-nomads became energetic farmers». The men dug wells up to 21 metres deep by hand and learned how to grow vegetables and grain from the experts Böhm brought with him. «After only a short time, the effort was rewarded by a rich harvest.» This is how Karlheinz Böhm found the concept of Menschen für Menschen already in his first project: «Help for self-development instead of handouts».

«Wetten, dass ..?» ran for 215 editions until the end of 2014. Frank Elstner was followed by other show hosts, but for him, who visited Karlheinz Böhm’s projects in Ethiopia twice, one thing is certain: «The bet that gave rise to the Menschen für Menschen campaign is the most important bet ever on my show.»

Karlheinz Böhm’s Life