The Political Culture of Germany: How present is the past?

The 3rd International Diplomats Programme in Berlin

10/11/2011 | 09:00 - 20:00 | DGAP | Invitation only

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What are the tasks of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR (BStU)? How does Germany deal with its past and how present is this past in contemporary political culture? How do German political foundations contribute to a better understanding of Germany abroad? These questions were the focus of the 9th IDP programme day, which took participants to numerous places in Berlin that are connected to recent German history.

In a discussion with Herbert Ziehm, the BstU’s Deputy Head of the Information/Disclosure Division, and Dr Karsten Jedlitschka, the Head of the General Affairs Division, the diplomats acquainted themselves thoroughly with the work of the agency. Ziehm spoke about the important role of civil society in the former GDR in 1989-1990: by safeguarding the Stasi records during this period of transition and calling for an effort to come to grips with the past, private citizens made possible the later establishment of the BStU and the passing of the Stasi Records Act. He added that the fact that the BStU had received 42,000 requests to inspect files last year alone showed just how great the demand for detailed information about the Stasi remained. Jedlitschka drew on archival material - a total of 111 km of written records, 47 km of microfiche and 1.6 million photos, videos and films - to elucidate the magnitude of spying, of which more than 5 million citizens and non-citizens of the GDR became targets.  

With a view to the recent revolutions in North Africa, Ziehm emphasized that the safeguarding of documents needed to be ensured prior to any societal debate on their future use. As a cautionary tale he cited the example of some eastern European countries where only a few remnants of the Communist-era documents could be retrieved by the early 1990s, with most files having been destroyed.

Brief talks by representatives of political foundations highlighted the importance of critical voices for any democratic society today. Dr Michael Lange of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Jürgen Stetten of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Ernst Hebeker of the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, Bernd Asbach of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Charles du Vinage of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung and Verena Liebel of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, despite the differences in their respective areas of focus, all stressed that the work of the foundations was not only an additional channel of information alongside bilateral diplomatic relations, but also a meaningful complement to it. Given that the foundations mainly cooperated with opposition and civil society groups, the speakers said, they encouraged a pluralistic political system like Germany’s in their target countries. Their publications, according to the speakers, also offered citizens and political decision-makers a fuller picture of the political landscape of a given country.

A discussion with two other experts showed the participants the extent to which Germans’ relationship with their recent past has changed, especially regarding the Third Reich and the GDR. Dr Gabriele Camphausen, Head of Section for Civic Education at the BStU, who was joined by Dr Thomas Lutz, Head of the Memorial Museums Department of the Topography of Terror Foundation, stressed that in both the Nazi and the Communist dictatorships, an atmosphere of fear and arbitrary use of power had rendered the work of the opposition difficult. When asked how victims of the Stasi had come to terms with the GDR past, Camphausen replied that studies of this issue to date had yielded widely divergent results. She said that perhaps one of the most central lessons of research on the Nationalist Socialist and GDR eras was that in both periods there had been more than one society - the differences in the ways those affected by the past came to terms with it revealed that there had been many different motivations for political opportunism or opposition.

The International Diplomats Programme, a joint initiative of the Federal Foreign Office and the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt, organized with support from the German Council on Foreign Relations, invites twelve young diplomats from the Middle East, North Africa, South, East and South-East Asia each year to experience Germany from a variety of perspectives in a year-long programme conducted in English. It offers participants first-hand insight into Germany’s cultural, political, and economic life, and enables them to experience the workings of our political and federal system. Through an intensive series of events covering a broad spectrum of issues related to both Germany and the wider world, the programme aims to give participants insight into topics that will be both relevant to their work and of value in dealings with their interlocutors in Germany.

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