How is Volker?

Image removed.
We are the people!
We are one people!
We are a stupid people
I am Volker!

(Volker is a person's name, but here it sounds as if it is the comparison of "Volk" = people)

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany and the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung together with the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya held a German-Israeli conference entitled 60 Years of a Different Germany – An Assessment 20 Years After the Fall of the Wall. On June 28th 2009, some 130 people gathered in the auditorium of the Marc Rich Library at the IDC in Herzliya to participate in the event.

In his opening remarks, Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, articulated the doubts about a possible change in Germany that many Israelis had 60 years ago. Apart from what was dictated by the Allied Forces after the war, the German people didn’t show much effort to deal with what they had done during the years before. Primor continued that today however we know that Ben Gurion was right, when he spoke about a new, a different Germany. Diplomatic ties between countries are essential, but even more important are the relations between its peoples. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, among others, is making major contributions to the efforts to constantly improve the relations between the peoples of Israel and Germany, Primor said.

The German ambassador to Israel, H.E. Dr. Dr. h.c. Harald Kindermann, identified the Fall of the Wall in 1989 as the end of one of the most dangerous confrontations in history, in which several million soldiers were stationed in both parts of Germany. In a peaceful revolution great danger was averted without the use of violence, which proves that fundamental changes can be induced peacefully, he said. According to Dr. Kindermann both countries can hopefully learn from each other and maybe even find a mutual position on these issues despite different experiences in Israel and Germany in the younger history and thus different perceptions and approaches to certain issues (e.g. security questions).

In his greetings, Jörn Böhme, the director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Israel, emphasized the purpose of the conference, namely the attempt to evaluate how Germany has been and is doing. Dealing with one’s own history is an important and continuous process, he said. No politician, journalist, or intelligence agent was able to anticipate the turnaround in Germany in 1989. These events impressively demonstrate how quickly things can change. He concluded however, that there is no reason for superficial optimism as the changes can also lead to new crisis and even war as the example of the former Yugoslavia proved.

Marianne Zepp, director of the department for contemporary history at the headquarters of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Berlin, who moderated the event said in her introduction that in Germany it had been possible to develop a successful and stable democracy.

The historian Prof. Dr. Hans Mommsen from Ruhr University in Bochum presented his view on the connection between the constitution of the Weimar Republic and the current German constitution. He explained which mistakes had been made in the former that led to the specific characteristics of the latter. Compared to the Weimar Republic he saw definite progress in post-war Germany concerning the role of the political parties. On the other hand he said, the negative results of the plebiscitary elements in the Weimar Republic had been overestimated.

Bettina Gaus, political correspondent for the German daily newspaper die tageszeitung (taz), gave an overview of major events in German history since 1949: When the Federal Republic of Germany was founded, there were many good reasons for mistrust. The majority of the Germans quickly started to see themselves as the victims, who had merely been seduced by Adolf Hitler and who didn’t even know about most of the terrible crimes. They thus refused to take responsibility for their actions. The easing of this mistrust is closely connected to the first German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who resumed diplomatic ties to former enemies, initiated the reconciliation with France, and made economic recovery possible. During this time a large number of migrant workers was recruited, which today, in the third generation, leads to identity questions that have not been solved yet. Does a young Turk, who only recently became German, have to consider Auschwitz an important part of his own history? If not, is he not “really German”? Also in the Adenauer era, in 1961, the Wall was built, which for decades buried the hope for a reunification of Germany. Only the student movement in the late 60’s, that finally started to radically question their parents’ generation, brought about a thorough accounting for the past to schools and the general German society. It is not very surprising that only the post-war generation found the strength to do so. After all, it’s much easier to criticize the parents than having to deal with one’s own guilt. In 1970 chancellor Willy Brandt fell on his knees at the monument for the victims of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. This picture is one of the most famous documents of the German post-war history. In 1982 Helmut Kohl came to power, who in 1984 became the first German chancellor to give a speech in front of the Knesset, where he used the well-known phrase of the mercy of the late birth. Although Kohl’s policy was basically a restoration of conservative values, he also is the chancellor of the reunification of Germany and the European integration. In 1998 his conservative government was replaced by a  coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, which sparked many hopes for reforms and extraversion, but because of social cuts and military engagements in Kosovo and Afghanistan also disappointed many of its supporters. Since 2005 Angela Merkel, the first East German and first woman, has been chancellor. What her term brings is yet to be determined.    

Prof. Dr. Moshe Zimmermann, director of the Richard Koebner Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained how Israelis perceive Germany today. Israel could well adopt certain parts from the German constitution, such as the sanctity of the human dignity and the 5% hurdle for political parties to win seats in the parliament. The student movement, which can be seen as a major step in the German democratisation process, was not paid close attention to by many Israelis, because at that time Israel faced a confrontation that could have led to its occupation or conquest, the Six-Day War. By looking at Germany’s national football team, that includes players of Turkish and Iranian origin, it’s obvious that Germany actually is different now, which most Israelis have accepted. During the football world cup 2006 in Germany 60% of the Israelis didn’t see any difference between this one and world cups in any other country. Those who did attach a unique importance to this world cup, explained this with the tragedy at the Olympics in Munich in 1972. Surprisingly only a small minority referred to the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. In addition German movies are also more and more famous in Israel. To the average Israeli the picture of a different Germany seems reasonable, not because of different politics, but rather because of its image in the media.

David Witzthum, editor and presenter on Israeli Television (Channel 1) and lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, outlined the special role of the media during the process of the German reunification. Although the taking of office by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 already marked the symbolic end of the cold war, it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 that everybody remembers as the biggest media event. In this night it was not the political activists, reformers or protesters who brought about the change, but rather the average East German TV viewers, who earlier saw the press conference on easing the procedures at the border checkpoints and now wanted to make use of the new regulations. Most people remember exactly where they were and what they did when they first saw these pictures, that at the same time changed the way many Israelis saw Germany. While TV coverage and documentaries about Germany until then predominantly generated negative feelings, the coverage of cheering, singing, crying, Germans enjoying their freedom mainly drew a very positive picture.

Cem Özdemir, chairman of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the German Green Party) was the first German MP of Turkish origin, gave insight into his own experiences and challenges connected to the belated entry into German history: He was born and raised in Germany and finally applied for German citizenship at the age of 18 in order to gain the right to vote. By becoming German citizens, migrants do not only take on Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing, but also the history between 1933 and 1945. This does not primarily mean dealing with guilt, but rather being aware of joining a community that has a responsibility and internalizing the imperative that Auschwitz must never happen again. The growing number of migrants, who do not have a personal family connection to National Socialism and the Holocaust, requires a new dialogue about the “memory culture”. In a school that comprises 80% students of a migrant background it is simply not possible for the teacher to discuss their grandparents’ role during the Nazi-regime. What is needed is education towards democracy and tolerance, based on the principles of the German constitution, a somewhat republican approach similar to the American model. An example for how to accomplish this within the Turkish community could be teaching about the Jewish refugees that came to Turkey, thus addressing their sense of pride. For the modern German pluralistic society it is at the same time a challenge and a chance to continuously keep dealing with its history from new perspectives.

Written by Ben Wittig (Intern at the Israel office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung from March - September 2009)

Greetings by Jörn Böhme, Director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Israel (German, 5 pages, 32 kB) 
Presentation by Bettina Gaus, political correspondent for the German daily newspaper die tageszeitung (German, PDF, 11 pages, 80 kB)