The reunification of Germany was all about Germans.
This might seem obvious. After all, reunification focused largely on the coming together of ethnic Germans living on either side of the Berlin Wall. Demonstrators in East Germany initially focused on das Volk (the people) but switched after the fall of the Wall to ein Volk (one people), putting the emphasis on the national rather than the civic.
This upsurge in national sentiment, however, obscured the fact that West Germany had become a de facto multicultural country during the Cold War, as a result of immigration, the inflow of refugees, and the need for guest workers, many of whom eventually brought over their families and decided to stay. East Germany, meanwhile, had pockets of non-Germans, mostly “fraternal socialists” from other countries in the Communist world including 70,000 Vietnamese contract workers. In the 1990s, a united Germany became home to many fleeing the wars in former Yugoslavia and the chaos in former Soviet Union.
Germany eventually adjusted its nationality law to reflect the increased diversity of people living within its borders. Until 1999, German law was based on jus sanguinis: you were German by bloodline. But the law changed that year to reflect jus soli: you could be a German citizen if you were born in Germany and your parents had permanent residence or had been living there for at least eight years. Today, nearly one-fifth of people living in Germany have foreign roots (that is, either they or their parents came to Germany after 1955).
I met Matthias Schwerendt in 1990 when he was the clerk of the Young Friends, the small group of German Quakers who lived in East Germany. At the time he was working with disabled children as an alternative to military service. This experience, coupled with his Quaker background and later academic work on anti-Semitism and education during the Nazi period, has sensitized him to questions of social inclusion. It has also led him to see the changes of 1989 through the eyes of those on the margins of society.
“For us, the change in 1989 was a sort of liberation, and we had to fight for it,” he told me after Quaker meeting in Berlin one Sunday in February. “But for the Turkish community, it was a huge backlash. From one day to the next, they got the idea that ‘There’s no place for us. They don’t want us at all.’ A lot of the problems with the radicalization in the Turkish and Arab communities here come from that. If not for the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe a new generation of middle-class Turkish Arab immigrants would have emerged earlier.”
In the period after 1989, united Germany has begun to grapple with the fact that it is a multicultural society. “We’re just on the threshold where people here realize that we are a developed immigrant country,” he told me. “Of course, we’re just at the beginning of this discussion of inclusion. Also, inclusion means how to approach the training and educating of so-called ‘handicapped people.’ We are much more aware that we have to change our education system on this issue. So, on this question of the human rights of inclusion, we have made a huge step, but it’s only a first step.”
In 1990, Matthias Schwerendt helped guide me through the changing youth culture of East Berlin. In 2013, he was my guide once again, this time describing to me the trajectory of someone for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall came at just the right moment. We talked about how his life changed after the Wall fell and he was able to pursue his interest in education. We also talked about the trajectory of eastern Germany.
“From the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they’d wasted their time, their lives,” he said. “There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, ‘Stop!’”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes! I was sleeping on the mattress in my sleeping bag. I lived at that time in Chemnitz. I’d renovated a flat with my brother to live with him together there. Each morning I had the radio on to wake up, the West German Deutschlandfunk station. Normally it took me half an hour to be able to think. And I heard at half past 6, “the Wall has fallen,” and I immediately stood in my sleeping bag. I was absolutely surprised, of course.
In the summer of 1989, I went on a trip to a meeting of international Quaker Young Friends in France. I was really privileged to be able to go there as the only Young Friend from the East German Quakers. I really appreciated this, and I made a lot of friends there. It was only a small group, but we grew quite close in our conversation. It was, of course, my first time in France. Afterwards, I visited two of the members in their hometowns, one in Freiburg and the other in Hamburg. As I went back to East Germany, it was clear to me that I’d probably not see them again until I retired. Yes, 40 or 45 years! And then it was only three months later that I could see them again.
After the Wall fell, did you want to immediately go to Berlin, or immediately back to the West?
I phoned to my friends in East Berlin and said, “I will come on the weekend.” I went to the train and we met in East Berlin the next day. Then the five or six of us went together to Kreuzberg in West Berlin, and it was my first breakfast in Kreuzberg in a subculture café. For me it was clear, “I have to go this weekend to Berlin to see what happens.” For me it was a change of…of all situations. I had no clue that that meant the end of East Germany. But I was sure that it would change our lives immediately.
And you decided to move to Berlin. That’s where we met in 1990.
Yes, I was in Berlin. At that time I was in love with the woman who later became my wife. But I knew it was not the right time to come to Berlin to say, “Oh, I want to try a relationship with you.” She’d just finished another relationship, so I had to give her time. But there was a huge queue of men who wanted to…
Ask her out on a date?
Yes. So, the first motivation was love. It sounds romantic, and it was indeed. And the second reason was I wanted to change to a real city. Karl-Marx-Stadt, which was later renamed Chemnitz, had 300,000 people. It had quite a lot of the places you want to go to as a young person: theater, cinema, music, concerts, whatever. It was a nice place to grow up, but I wanted to have the whole world. Of course, Berlin was then the focus of the world. This city was changing everyday: new subway stations, old subway stations being reopened. Everyone was coming to Berlin to see what the fall of the Wall meant, and for me it was amazing. I quickly found a flat where I could stay the first month, and I felt free. I felt like how young people often feel: “the world is at my feet.”
And what were you thinking you would do?
I was in a really special situation, because in 1988 I was called up for military service. I said, “No, I do not want to go to the army! I do not want to go to the so-called Bausoldaten.” This was army service without weapons, but in uniform. So I said to the authorities, “I want to be a conscientious objector, but I want to do the so-called civil service.” There was no real civil service in East Germany. So I declared that I would stay for more than two years in social work. I started in Karl-Marx-Stadt, taking care of elder people, cleaning their houses, buying food for them, and bringing them a warm meal. In January 1990, I went to Berlin, but I still had one year left in this service. So I started to look for a social job in a children’s house. I quickly found work with handicapped children. I had made this commitment with the authorities. The authorities were gone, but I felt that it was still my commitment. I thought I’d do one more year at this social job and then I’d go to university. I knew at that time that I wanted to study something to do with education because education was a big issue for me.
When you talked to the authorities about arranging this alternative service, how difficult was it to convince them?
It was surprising to me, because it was not difficult. I came from a church high school. There were three Protestant church high schools for people who were brought up in Evangelical or Protestant families and who were not able to get into high school for political reasons. So quite a lot of young men were trained there for working with young people in church and church communities. So the local army authorities were used to getting people who refused to go to the army. They were not surprised that I said, “no.” But they had no idea what I meant when I said, “I will do some social work.” I think they had no idea that’s normal, and quite a lot of countries have this civil service. I was surprised that they labeled me a reservist without any service. I’d never heard that label before, and I never heard it again. But I was happy that they let me go.
Did you ever meet anybody else who was in a similar situation?
No. But this was 1988. In 1989, they asked quite a lot of conscientious objectors to serve, but mostly these people wanted to go to western Germany. But I never said I wanted to go to western Germany. All my friends were here. I thought, “East Germany is a moderate dictatorship for me, but I want to stay here and to try to change things, to make this state a more comfortable place, more peaceful.” Of course, I was really nervous to have all these persons from the Communist Party tell me how I have to live. Of course, I wanted to have more freedom, but for that time my place was in East Germany.
Your brother had a different experience in the army.
Yes, he had to go to the army in the autumn of 1989, a short time before the Wall fell. For him, and for all the new Baueinheiten, the recruits without any weapons, it was so strange that they didn’t have any information about what was happening in East Germany. They knew there were a lot of demonstrations, maybe the system was collapsing, but they had no really information. They wanted to go out and find out what was going on.
So then he went on leave. And he never went back. He hid himself in my friend’s flat. It was the flat of the family of my future wife. The police came to me and to my parents. The policemen said to me, “It’s your brother, you don’t have to say anything.” I could guess where he was, but I didn’t want to know for sure. I wanted to be in a sense honest with the authorities. It was easier for me to say, “I do not know.” And it was a difficult situation because part of the apartment building where my girlfriend’s family lived was reserved for the Stasi. So I couldn’t call him there anyway, because the telephone in their flat was monitored.
What happened to him?
When the Wall came down, the authorities basically kicked all these Unehrenhafte, the deserters, out of the army. My brother was quite happy. He started to do the same civil service I was doing, and this was the beginning of a new career for him. Now he’s a social worker and he works in a children’s house and he’s happy. He was lucky because he wasn’t caught at that time. One or two months earlier he could have landed in a military jail, which was really hard in East Germany. They really tried to destroy people. So if I say that for me, “the GDR was a moderate dictatorship,” people who were in those military prisons would not agree with that sentence.
You said that part of the building where your girlfriend’s family’s flat was located was reserved for the Stasi. I didn’t quite understand what that meant.
She lived about 200 meters away from the main station of the Stasi at Frankfurter Allee. Quite a lot of people who worked in the Stasi lived in that building, which was a huge apartment building with 500 families living there. One day at school someone in her class said to her, “Oh, it was quite funny yesterday. I took the telephone and I listened to your brother.” For her it was clear that this was the son of a Stasi officer. She was responsible for the class book where you could read the professions of the parents. Most of the parents worked in the ministry of internal affairs, so it was clear that most of the families were in the Stasi. And she had friends from these Stasi families, of course. They had an agreement: “We do not talk about politics. We do not talk about our plans. We want to have this private atmosphere to have fun and do things together.” She knew quite early on which people she could trust and what she could say around whom. Anyway, it was not a problem for my brother to live there for two or three weeks.
Right in the middle of the Stasi!
Yeah! But it was the Stasi, not the army. And in the end, if you are living among your enemies, you become more careful. From an early age you learn what you have to say and what you are able to say.
You said Karl-Marx-Stadt/Chemnitz was a good place to grow up, but it wasn’t as exciting as Berlin. What would you say was for you the most important aspect of growing up in Karl-Marx-Stadt?
I left Karl-Marx-Stadt when I was 16 and came back at the age of 18. So, at a very important time of my adolescence I was in another place. When I was 10, 12, 14, my interests were, of course, to read. I knew that I was different from most of my classmates, because I was not in any of the mass organizations, because my parents were both pastors. I moved to Chemnitz at the beginning of second grade, and this school had a high level of political indoctrination. The others were absolutely astonished and couldn’t imagine that I was not part of the mass organizations. They wanted to know why I had free time when they had to sit in school and listen to boring reports or whatever. For them it was strange. But I found that there were a lot of possibilities within the church with choirs, with music bands, concerts. There were a lot of opportunities with youth subculture. We went to the countryside to sleep outside, to walk.
For me, the most important part of what I am now, was not Karl-Marx-Stadt by itself—it was more the Young Friends group. We did quite a lot of meeting together to discuss not only religious but also political themes. We tried to do political actions, like thinking about the military and the East German textbooks. We tried to put our beliefs down in letters to give to the authorities. We made fasting weekends and seminars and work camps. Each year, we had two or three main meetings for a week or a longer weekend, plus two weeks in the summer and quite a lot of weekends around the year.
The other huge influence was the church high school in Moritzburg, near Dresden. For two years, from the age of 16 to 18, I lived there and we were in small classes all the time discussing questions of culture, of art, of philosophy. We were trained in ancient languages and theology. That’s when I learned to think with my heart. At university I was trained to think with my head, but at that time I thought with my heart, and for me it was an important time. In that high school and with the Young Friends group I learned to feel the strength and the power of a community, and I learned how to say, “No.”
My parents were not so political. Sometimes I wished they would be. But on the other hand, they were quite brave. All the time they were afraid of the Stasi. But my mother retired early because she was handicapped, and she was able to visit West Germany. And they brought Solzhenitsyn, Wolf Biermann, literature, music—which I needed like air to breath. So I got quite a lot from my parents, and I got quite a lot from this school, and really I got quite a lot from the Young Friends group.
How did you find out about the Young Friends group?
We lived around the corner from a Quaker family, the Tschirners, and I was in close contact with two of their sons. We played football together. They asked me to come to a Quaker family gathering, and I was really surprised by the lack of hierarchy. I came from the Protestant church and I was son of a pastor. If I made an announcement at Sunday service or lectures as a 13-year-old boy, it was clear that I had the role of the “son of the pastor.” But when I joined this new group, it was of no importance where I came from. It was astonishing to me that these adults, some of whom came from Western Europe, would not only talk about their own personal life or the political situation but also ask me about my opinions. There was a woman from London who asked me all sorts of things. And she was really interested: it was not just a form of British kindness.
Then there was the meeting for worship. At the first one, I thought, “Oh my God, what should I do for this hour?” After five minutes, I finished my prayers and then what? Let’s go do something else! But it was amazing to me, the spirit of that group and the family gathering. Shortly afterwards, we started a new Young Friends group. It was a great group. There were 50 members of the Society of Friends, and at our peak we were 25 Young Friends.
So you were almost the majority. Not that anything was decided by majority vote.
Yes. I think this had a really huge influence on me. And, of course, Quakerism led me to do something with education, with peace working, with human rights and anti-discrimination. In hindsight, this was the turning point for me.
We made a kind of street theatre at the Quaker work camps. We worked half a day and then in the evening we cooked and went swimming, but also we wanted to have fun. So, we made theater performances and invited the holiday camps around. We put on Grimm’s fairy tales, nothing political, just a lot of fun. We created the costumes, built the stage and whatever. We made a poster and put it up on the village shop that there would be a production of Cinderella or Rapunzel. But the Party officer of this village grabbed the paper and said, “In no village in this world can you just put up a poster without asking the authorities!” And I thought, “Fuck you! You have no clue about this! This is normal. In most parts of the world—maybe not here or in North Korea—you can do theater for children. Children want to be told a good story, and they want to have fun. And we too want to have fun. And there is nothing you can say against it.” Beside all these political questions, this was important to me: to live in a society where it’s okay for people to sit together and talk together, and have parties, and clean up the park, or do something together to make life more eventful. It’s not only these huge political questions of global survival.
You mentioned that the group did actions together, and you tried to correct the textbooks—you sent a letter to the authorities. Di you encounter any problems as a result of these actions?
No. It was already at the end of the 1980s, and the East German state was so weak. Of course, we did not realize that at the time. We were only thinking about the oppression, for instance after the Rosa Luxemburg demo in 1988 when quite a few well-known people from the Church opposition were thrown in jail and had to go to Western Europe: Stefan Krawchuk, Vera Wollenberger, Barbel Bohley. Of course, we were shocked that they were thrown out. At that time I was so political. We planned to make a fasting march. We had this idea to look at what the state said in its official announcements and then set up our own agenda. For instance, at that time were the so-called Olof Palme marches, named after the Swedish prime minister who was killed. And the East German government tried to occupy the peace movement. So we said, “Let’s go and do a so-called Olof Palme peace march from the Frauenkirche in Dresden to the SS-20 base in Bischofswerda.”
This was 1989. We planned to fast for three days and then break the fast on Easter in front of the SS-20 base in Bischofswerda. All the old Quakers said, “Oh my goodness!” They, of course, were quite good, but they were absolutely clear that we had no chance in front of the authorities. At that time I was clerk of the Young Friends and Ulrich Tschirner was the clerk of the East German Yearly meeting. So we both went to Dresden to the office secretary of church-state relations. Beforehand, I sent a letter explaining that a group of 20 people would participate in an Olof Palme peace march. The Frauenkirche is a huge symbol of the huge destruction of World War II. There are the Pershing missiles in the West, but we have these SS-20s here in the East, and we want, on this side of the Iron Curtain, to send a sign that we are absolutely peaceful. So we wanted to fast. And I also said something about Gandhi or something, I don’t know.
What surprised me was that they had no arguments. They were so unsure of themselves. They said, “If there are some provocateurs on your side, what would you do?” I said to them, “I promise that among our Young Friends group, no one would provoke the state.” The last argument from them was, “We can’t convince the Russians.” We came out of that meeting, and I realized they are so weak. They have no ideas anymore. Their pulse is gone. They could say only, “We can’t convince the Russians, and we can’t give you a guarantee how the Russians will behave.”
In 1989, how much did you follow the meetings and demonstrations in Leipzig? The Monday night meetings, was that something that everybody was talking about, or was that all happening in the distance?
I was not in Leipzig at that time. We discussed it in our Young Friends group. We had meetings each month, mostly in Leipzig or in Berlin, and in Karl-Marx-Stadt as well, to empower and encourage us in resisting the political pressure, which most of us had in school or during their trainings. We had to answer the question of whether to go to the obligatory military education camps. Of course, we took part as individuals in some demonstrations, but I wasn’t in Leipzig. We went to a Young Friends gathering on October 7, 1989. This was the weekend for the most difficult Monday demonstration, because on the 9th of October, it was clear that all these so-called Betriebskampfgruppen, the military formations at the factories, were forced to go to Leipzig for possible military action, and all the hospitals were open and ready for any upcoming riots or campaigns against the demonstrators.
I remember as if it were yesterday the discussions on the trains, from Chemnitz to Leipzig, from Leipzig to Magdeburg. Nearly everyone discussed whether the military would shoot or not. Would it be a Chinese solution? Would the demonstrators win or lose? It was like the whole of society was dealing with that question. For us, on that weekend, we were happy to stay together, to talk together, and not to go into political groups. For us, this was our political and religious home. Of course we took part in the demonstrations in our cities, but I was not at that time joining this party or that. Like a lot of other people, I wanted democracy, more freedom. But we were 19 years old. We had no solutions. I might have gone to the Initiative for Freedom and Human Rights or Neues Forum and said, “Hi, I’m 19, maybe I can contribute a little bit about non-violent action.” But I had no political ideas. I could ask questions, but I couldn’t give political answers.
What we tried to do was contribute to ecumenical circles. I did a weekend seminar with an English Quaker at the Augustine Cloister on non-violent action in 1988. It was the peace decade of the churches. We wanted to make a seminar about Johan Galtung, but in the end we were 19 and none of the aldermen took us seriously. So we knew we were quite limited because of our age.
Earlier you said that the revolution was largely moral. It was a moral impulse, not so much a political impulse. Can you explain that?
The difference between the East German opposition and the opposition in Poland, for example, is that the Polish opposition was much more trained and working more with political ideas to overcome the situation in their society. There was an independent union, Solidarnosc. Some were in jail. This was much more filled with political discussions, political ideas.
Here, the East German opposition was much more connected with the church. There was a huge base within the church addressing peace issues. This was mostly a discourse of the church. There was a consensus that there are economic difficulties, huge problems with ecology, a huge lack of individual freedom and public opinion, no freedom of assembly or travel. But you couldn’t reform a society with these ideas. There were no public discussions about what kind of society in which you wanted to live or what the relationship should be between East and West Germany. There were only discussions that something had to change.
In the end, we didn’t have the political leaders to fill this void. People like Vera Lengsfeld, Barbel Bohley and so on had their special function. But we did not have a figure like Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, or other representatives of the Polish opposition. In the end, we had neither the political leadership nor the political discourse on visions and alternatives for the society, whether economic or ecological or in terms of civil society. There was no real civil society in East Germany. One of the biggest mistakes of the church opposition was that they never saw this clearly. After 1953—the last uprising of the unions and the workers in East Germany—people were deeply frustrated, demoralized. Or they went to West Germany, or tried to bury themselves in consumption. There was some partial freedom in the church and in the arts – theater, literature. The novelist and intellectual Christa Wolf is an amazing person, but she couldn’t lead a state. Vaclav Havel was a singular person. But we never had a Vaclav Havel.
Before the Wall fell, what did you imagine your life would be like?
First, I thought I would study: theology or church music. For church music, even though I played organ and piano, I was too lazy. But I was really interested in questions of philosophy, sociology, and history, and language. So it was clear I would study theology. I was really happy that the Wall came down at the right time. I figured I’d try to live in East Germany and write for church services, maybe do some education work for the church. But by the time I was 17, I was clear that I would never be a priest. I do not believe strongly enough for that.
So, you finished your year working with handicapped here in Berlin, and then you went directly to university?
Yes, I started studying education science. In the first two years, I worked more on theoretical questions, and I finished my sociology studies. My interest at that time was to understand political economy, on the one hand, and on the other to understand gender politics. I started working with young people on gender issues. At that time there was this huge rise in anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and racism. I started to think about how we generate ideology and how ideology comes from discourses, from ideas and institutions. This was one of my main topics for the next years: the huge ideological systems of the 19th and 20th century.
And you said you wrote a book. What was the topic?
At the end of my studies, I stated to work on National Socialism and the Third Reich. I started with the education of the officers in the concentration camps. I started with the question, “How do people become traitors?” I had the possibility to work at the university on two projects. One was about how questions of race, hygiene, eugenics, and racism became part of the discipline of the institutions from the beginning of the Nazi time to the end of the Nazi time. We did a huge research project to understand these concepts in the schools and throughout the education system. We found more than 2,000 books and articles, and nearly 900 persons who were involved with this process. This was a rare chance to see how in 12 years new concepts could be introduced into education to shape a dictatorship. I learned quite a lot about the history of science, about the so-called Schreibtischtäter: desk perpetrators, the people who kill people from their desks.
The other book is my Ph.D., which was about anti-Semitism in textbooks. This was more the question of how you produce ideological texts. The ideas of anti-Semitism were maybe 60 years old, from the 1870s when the first radical anti-Semitic action groups started in Germany. Of course, we have the earlier period of Judeophobia, but my interest was how this became a really new paradigm. Where did these ideas of nationalism and anti-Semitism come from, and how did they come together? And then I wanted to understand the semantics of anti-Semitism in texts. At the end of my PhD—it took me quite a long time—I started to study a new topic: Arab modernity and the European view of the Middle East and the Arab World. In the end I was quite happy when I realized that it all fits so much together.
Because you were working on anti-Semitism in texts, did you read the diaries of Victor Kemperer?
I read the diaries. And his book, The Language of the Third Reich, was quite important in the 1960s, even in the 1980s. But I started my Ph.D. research about eugenics and the race paradigm in the Weimar Republic and in the Nazi era at the end of the 1990s. Then I started the work on the semantics of anti-Semitism in 2000-2001. At that time, his book was outdated. When I read the Klemperer books during my studies, I of course was shocked at how quickly a society could establish limits for minorities like Jews and how quickly you can lose the freedom to teach, to publish, to do whatever, even to drive a car or go to the library.
When you read the third volume of his diary, the volume that takes place in the GDR, was there information there that was surprising to you?
On the one hand, I was aware of the anti-Semitism of the East German authorities. On the other hand, I was a little bit amused by Erich Honecker’s political strategy at the end of the 1980s to try to win influence from American Jewish organizations with a new synagogue here. For me at that time it was not clear that it was a form of anti-Semitism to think that you could get influence with the White House via the Jews by commemorating the Holocaust, that this is a classic anti-Semitic stereotype. I only thought at the time: “This man does not clearly see his limitations.”
I knew that there was undercover racism and anti-Semitism in East Germany. You felt it with how foreigners were treated here, the jokes made about them. These Gastarbeiter – guest workers – the people from Vietnam, Libya, Mozambique, Angola, Poland all had quite a hard life here. The daily racism was quite hard. And there were no discussion about it, because East Germany was a so-called anti-fascist state. I knew about this problem, but I was still shocked at the huge racism that emerged. For instance, right after the fall of the Wall, construction workers from eastern Berlin went to western Berlin to try to displace the Turkish construction workers. “Now it’s our job,” they said.
I realized quite late what all this meant for the Turkish community. For us, the change in 1989 was a sort of liberation, and we had to fight for it. But for the Turkish community, it was a huge backlash. From one day to the next, they got the idea that “There’s no place for us. They don’t want us at all.” A lot of the problems with the radicalization in the Turkish and Arab communities here come from that. If not for the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe a new generation of middle class Turkish Arab immigrants would have emerged earlier. Now we have this generation of young Muslim people or people from near Middle East who say, “We want to be part of society here. We bring our knowledge and we have good grades in schools and we want to study. And we want to have part of the cake.” But for them it has been a huge backlash.
We were all so occupied first with our East German issues, then with the German-German question, and then with the nationalism and the racism. Then came 9/11, and then came the killing of Theo van Gogh in 2004. That’s when the Islamophobic discourses began. Only now are we again at the point where we could have been at the end of the 1980s, when a generation of children of immigrants is in the pole position. So maybe we lost 20 years because of the fall of the Wall. Maybe I’m not right, but that’s my thesis.
It’s definitely an interesting thesis. Certainly so many resources and so much attention went from the West to the East. And the East and the labor pool became suddenly bigger with folks from the East, so that definitely put a lot of pressure from the Turkish community.
And the political elites are much more different now, because we’re much more European. It’s not just getting the euro and thinking in economic terms. We are still struggling with what Europe means, and what are the borders of Europe. And there’s this huge discussion about whether Turkey is part of Europe. That is ridiculous! All along, the whole Near East area has been part of Europe. It’s part of European culture, so entangled with European culture. We have these debates about identity that keeps us from focusing on the real questions, like how we want to live together. But now the elites are much clearer that people are to be integrated as people, not only as an economic resource.
What do you think remains of the culture of the GDR?
This is such a difficult question. After 1989, it was important not to make the same mistake after the Nazi era to integrate too quickly the people who were very much involved in the dictatorship. There was not much of a debate about what it means to have a divided Germany and then what would be the place of a united Germany in Europe. The debate that did take place, and this was not the most important debate, was about the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and how there was too much from the old system in this new Left party. This was a mistake of the intellectuals from East and West Germany. Most of the so-called Left intellectuals were a bit ashamed about their view of East Germany, their positive impressions of this “other” state. But this was not an anti-fascist state, it was not a liberal state, it was not even a socialist state. It was a sort of corporatist state. People were shocked about the lack of civil society here. So there was a perceived need to build up civil society here.
And from the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they’d wasted their time, their lives. There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, “Stop!”
One of the biggest mistakes is that we haven’t had a debate about a common constitution. We had to take over the Grundgesetz, the Basic Law of West Germany, but there was no debate about our common purposes, our common values and how we should live together today and tomorrow. This was a huge frustration for a lot of East German people. And this was the beginning of the rise of the extreme Right, the right-wing populist groups and movements, which said, “We have to make a Volkish community and go back to the Third Reich.” On the other extreme, people were saying, “We want to live in the socialist wonderland again.” It was best to keep out of this kind of debate. I lived for a short time in a special district where there were a lot of people who served in the military service around the Berlin Wall in the so-called Feliks Dzierdzinsky Wachregiment. This was the Cheka of East Germany. They still have their meetings and groups and whatever. With such people and such culture, you can’t have an open debate. So for me it is important that you have these memorial places of East German oppression, like the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen. But I wish we could have another political debate about East German history, about the daily experience in East Germany.
There is group called Third Generation East. These are people who were teenagers or younger around 1990. They want to keep this experience and start new debates about what it meant to be brought up in East Germany, to live with parents who are deeply frustrated, to live in a society far away from the idea of democracy and minorities, what it means to feel like the losers of history. This was a missed opportunity. You can have part of this debate with young people with reports and films and exhibitions. But you can’t have this public debate in common, because it’s 20 years later, and it’s gone. Maybe 10 years ago we should have had this debate, but now it’s gone. It’s interesting that quite a number of Western intellectuals are irritated that now we have a chancellor who is an East German Protestant. Twenty years later, people are realizing that East Germany is not only a place for consumption, a place to invest money, to buy houses. It is a place that had a special experience and that has its own intellectual resources as well.
You said earlier that you felt that you were drawn to looking at minority questions in part because when you were growing up you felt like a minority as a Quaker. Are there other aspects of your life before the Wall fell that are still with you very strongly in the way you think and the way you act?
Yes, I felt as a minority as a Protestant, because of the church politics of East Germany, which was sort of repressive. I can give you an example. In school, I was asked to make a report about evolution and Genesis in the Bible. In my paper, I explained the philosophical and the historical meaning of religious texts. In the end, I tried to show them that you have to read texts in a hermeneutic way. It’s stupid to say that something is written in a religious text and that’s all. Religious texts are part of a tradition, and you have to understand the tradition. In the middle of my report, the teacher said, “No, I don’t want to listen to your talk. That’s not the topic.” She made two mistakes. First, she gave me that topic, because then she gave me this possibility to talk to the class. The second mistake was that she stopped me in the middle. This was not a class of intellectuals, but I think each person recognized that when she stopped my presentation, I have won. The teacher probably thought she could embarrass me as a creationist. But I was not a creationist. I had no problem with evolution. At that point, I realized how stupidly this teacher, with a strong socialist education, thought about religious traditions. If she had just listened to me, it would have been clear that our positions were not that different. For me it was a good experience to learn how simple people try to give you a kick and also how I can persuade people.
When you look at the future of Germany in particular, where are you most hopeful about?
We’re just on the threshold where people here realize that we are a developed immigrant country. Of course, we’re just at the beginning of this discussion of inclusion. Also, inclusion means how to approach the training and educating of so-called “handicapped people.” We are much more aware that we have to change our education system on this issue. So, on this question of the human rights of inclusion, we have made a huge step, but it’s only a first step. We talked earlier, before the interview, about this neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground. I’m afraid that the discussion about this group is turning in the wrong direction in our society, because we missed an opportunity to talk about racism in the middle of society and not just on the fringes. So there is still quite a lot to do in that direction, but I think we are on the right path.
My second hope for the future is to have a debate about sexism in politics. We have a new generation of really tough young women who want to be a part of the community. There is consciousness about these problems, but still we are in the first steps of this national debate. Third, this issue of military intervention for human rights. On the one hand, we have a re-militarization of society, and on the other hand there’s a huge resentment against military intervention. We are not a pacifist society, but there are still huge restrictions on the use of military intervention. Finally, I’d like to see a discussion about what it means to be in Europe, and what should Europe look like in 10 years, in 20 years? There are a lot of questions that are not discussed, like this question of Roma in Europe. We are seeing some dark sides of transformation in states like Hungary. I think there would be a greater outcry in Europe if people understood what was written in the Hungarian newspapers. The pogroms against Roma and the rise of the Hungarian neo-Nazis are absolutely shocking to me.
So, these are the topics that interest me, about Europe and civil society. I do some writing and some teaching, some education projects. I do not change the world as a whole, but I’m happy I have the possibility to work on these questions in my individual way. This is the motivation for my life and my work, and I think the basis of this lies in my experience of East Germany.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate that here in this country on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
I think I would say 5. A lot has changed, a lot of opportunities were missed, and there is a lot of potential. Maybe it’s boring, but I would take the middle choice.
And then, your own personal life?
I was happy at the beginning of the 1990s, not only because I found my love. I found a nice place to live: Berlin was fantastic. I was happy because I was in a pole position. The fall of the Wall came at the right time. I could start studying. I was privileged. I had the East German experience without the East German limitations. And today I am happy. I have two daughters, I have a family, I have the chance to work on questions that I’m interested in.
That sounds like a 9 or a 10 to me.
Okay, let’s say 9.5.
Finally, when you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Germany over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
I would say 7. I think there is here a huge potential. We also made a huge profit from the economic crisis. The newspapers complain about the transfer of money to East and Southeast Europe. But we got so much benefit from the crisis that we should transfer some of it.
There’s a mentality here of being behind the Wall and remembering the resources of the really rich years of the 1960s and 1970s. But this time is over and life is changing all the time. We need more people who say, “This is how life is right now, and we have to be flexible.” That doesn’t mean giving up all your friends and moving somewhere else in this global village. I think you can live flexibly and stay in your home. We don’t need each year more growth of economy. We need more ideas.
Berlin, February 3, 2013