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The De-Trumpification of America

Let’s assume that Donald Trump loses the election in November.

Yes, that’s a mighty big assumption, despite all the polls currently favoring the Democrats. If the economy begins to recover and the first wave of Covid-19 subsides (without a second wave striking), Donald Trump’s reelection prospects could improve greatly. The Republican Party has a huge war chest ready to fund ads galore, massive targeted outreach, and widespread voter suppression. And if all that isn’t enough, the president could borrow a tactic from the dictators he so admires and cancel the election outright out of concern over the coronavirus or some fabricated emergency.

Playing up fears of Trump’s reelection is a useful get-out-the-vote strategy, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the election happens and the president loses unambiguously. A majority of Americans will sigh with relief. Still, don’t count on Trump — and more important, Trumpism — evaporating like a nightmare at daybreak.

To begin with, there’s the president’s legendary base of support, the one-third of Americans who’d continue to back him even if he were to shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue (or, through criminal negligence, effectively murder more than 100,000 people by ignoring a pandemic for 70 days). Such Trumpists aren’t going to suddenly emigrate en masse to New Zealand, as some liberals threatened to do after the last presidential election.

For the time being, the president still has an entire party apparatus behind him, having transformed the Republicans into little more than a personality cult, banishing dissenters like former Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to the political hinterlands, and silencing the handful of so-called moderates that remain.

Trump enjoys institutional support as well, having replaced so many putative deep-staters with civil servants prepared to unquestioningly do his bidding. He’s personally fired his perceived government enemies, chief among them six inspectors general. Minions like former body man John McEntee, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and presidential aide Stephen Miller have all purged experts, replacing them in the government bureaucracy with loyalists. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has done the heavy lifting in the Senate, filling the judicial system with Trump flunkies: two Supreme Court judges, more than 50 Court of Appeals judges, and 140 District Court judges so far.

Ever the money man, the president has secured a reliable cash flow, bringing the uber-wealthy class of conservative donors onto his team, a total of 80 billionaires, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, Texas banker Andy Beal, World Wrestling Entertainment cofounder Linda McMahon, Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Thanks to his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump has also funneled taxpayer money into his own business: millions spent on rooms at the Trump Organization’s hotels and golf clubs. Even before factoring in his money — Trump personally spent $66 million of his own dollars on the 2016 election — his campaign fund already has more than one-third of a billion dollars.

And then there’s the bulk of conservative civil society — ranging from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and evangelicals like Franklin Graham to the anti-abortion lobby and the International Union of Police Associations — that now operates in his corner. Despite the entertainment world’s general loathing of the president, he’s even lined up a celebrity or two like rapper Kanye West and actress Roseanne Barr along with a handful of D-listers like actor Jon Voight and Barack Obama’s half-brother Malik. On the fringes roam the true “bad hombres”: white supremacists, live-free-or-die militiamen, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Taken together, these component parts of Trumpism form that most dangerous of creatures, a political chimera with the head of an establishment machine and the body of a radical social movement. This creature has its hands on the levers of power, its boots on the ground, and its eyes on the prize of four more years.

Are all these people and institutions true believers in Donald Trump? Probably not. Sporting more of a performative style than a coherent ideology, he is, to misquote Lenin, a “useful idiot.” When he’s no longer useful — that is, no longer in power — he’ll only be an idiot and the opportunists will move on.

While Trump may be expendable, Trumpism — which lies at the intersections of racial and sexual anxiety, hatred of government and the expert class, and opposition to cosmopolitan internationalism — is not so easily rooted out. Drawing heavily on American traditions of Know-Nothing-ism, America-First-ism, and Goldwater Republicanism, Trump’s essential worldview will survive the 2020 election.

If their candidate loses in November, Trumpists will dig in their heels just as their predecessors did after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Only a month after his inauguration, the Tea Party was already up and running. But the Tea Party will prove child’s play compared to the resistance the Trumpists are likely to mount if their candidate tanks on Election Day 2020. And such resistance could succeed in finishing what Trump started — disuniting the country and destroying the democratic experiment — unless, that is, the United States were to undergo a thorough de-Trumpification.

Other societies have gone through such processes, but those efforts — Reconstruction after the American Civil War, denazification in Germany after World War II, and de-Baathification after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 — have all been flawed in various ways. Reconsidering them, however, might help us avoid repeating the mistakes of history as we try to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Regime Change

The United States hasn’t recently been invaded, lost a major war in its homeland, or had its government fall to a popular uprising.

That’s usually what it takes to dislodge a deeply entrenched ruling ideology. The South lost the Civil War, the Nazis World War II, and Saddam Hussein the second Gulf War. Those defeats provided the winners with unprecedented opportunities to remake the old order, but don’t seem to apply to America in 2020. The electoral defeat of a president and party, if that’s even what happens in November, doesn’t constitute regime change. It’s just the kind of peaceful transition of power that’s the cornerstone of democratic stability.

But let’s face it: 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a normal election year. Conservative pundits, like military historian Victor Davis Hanson, believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats have brought the country to the brink of a literal civil war. During last year’s impeachment hearings, Trump himself tweeted approvingly a comment made by Robert Jeffress, an evangelical ally, that impeachment “will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Meanwhile, typically enough, Clinton’s first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, suspects that President Trump’s flagrant disregard of the Constitution will precipitate major social unrest, even as comedian Bill Maher urges Democrats to reach out to Trump supporters as part of a bid to defeat the president — or risk civil war.

Many Americans seem to agree. In a 2018 Rasmussen poll, one-third of respondents thought it likely that another civil war would break out within five years. According to a 2019 civility poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, the consensus was that the country is already two-thirds of the way toward a civil war.

Nor is there much confidence that the 2020 presidential election will go smoothly. Take your pick from a menu of potential disruptions: allegations of voter fraud and Republican voter suppression, a resurgence of the coronavirus, voting machine software glitches, Russian hackers, confusion over mail-in ballots, or an authoritarian president who repeatedly jokes about serving more than two terms. A recent Georgia primary offered a warning of what might come, with fiascos aplenty, particularly for voters of color. There weren’t enough polling places, people waited in line for endless hours, absentee ballots never arrived at homes. Multiply Georgia by 50 and you’d have a full-blown crisis of political legitimacy.

Even if this country manages to pull off the 2020 presidential election, a post-election insurrection is not out of the question. During the lame-duck period, a defeated Trump might call on his supporters — gun owners, militia members, active-service military — to serve as a Praetorian guard to keep him in office. Mark Villalta, an attendee at Trumpstock in Arizona last October, was typical of some Trump supporters in confessing that he’s hoarding weapons just in case Trump loses. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”

It’s essential to ensure that the November 3rd election is free and fair, but if Trump loses, then the bigger problems are likely to begin.

Confederacy of Dunces

In the 1860 election, America confronted a polarized electorate, a stupendously mediocre president in James Buchanan, and a clear geographic divide between north and south, urban and rural. Not even the election of Abraham Lincoln could save the union. The attack on Fort Sumter, the opening salvo of the Civil War, took place roughly a month after his inauguration.

Donald Trump seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the “War Between the States,” resisting as he’s done recently the removal of “beautiful” Confederate statues and the redesignation of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. In the last Oscar season, he even wished that Gone with the Wind had won rather than some South Korean film he’d never heard of. Such favoritism for the disgraced and vanquished should be as politically disqualifying as a Heil Hitler salute.

The reason that Trump can get away with his Confederate nostalgia comes, at least in part, from the failure of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War to extirpate racism and its associated economic inequality from American society. In fact, as historian Allen Guelzo points out, “Reconstruction did not fail so much as it was overthrown. Southern whites played the most obvious role in this overthrow, but they would never have succeeded without the consent of the Northern Democrats, who had never been in favor of an equitable Reconstruction.”

The Democrats of the time, in other words, became a party of resistance — to Reconstruction, civil rights, and the radical Republicans of that moment. So the Confederacy continued to live on not only in the hearts and minds of defeated Southern whites but also in the racist policies that elected officials in both parts of the country would resurrect.

Here, then, is a lesson of the Civil War’s aftermath for this moment. Today’s Republicans, the equivalent of the northern Democrats of the post-Civil War era and a true confederacy of dunces, cannot be allowed to persist in their current incarnation as a vehicle for Trumpism. A thorough thumping at the polls in November is a necessary but insufficient response to what they’ve become.

Gaining a congressional majority, in other words, is not enough. The Democrats and chastened Republicans would have to work to make that party a far less extreme force in American politics, abandoning Trump and reclaiming Lincoln.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Barack Obama insisted as he entered office in 2009, sidestepping efforts to investigate the wrongdoing of the George W. Bush administration. He was convinced that such forward thinking would unite the country. He was wrong.

To avoid a Reconstruction-like fiasco, the next administration would have to drain the swamp Trump created, bring criminal charges against the former president and his key followers, and launch a serious campaign to change the hearts and minds of Americans who have been drawn to this president’s agenda.

Detoxifying Government

When Saddam Hussein fell and American troops took Baghdad, the United States established an occupation authority that attempted to expunge all traces of the former Iraqi autocrat’s Baath Party from that society. At the time, the State Department considered three basic positions on what came to be known as de-Baathification: focus just on Saddam’s inner circle of about 50 top-ranking officials, expand that circle to include a larger number of top politicians, or eradicate Baathism altogether because “democratization is simply not possible unless and until the entire apparatus of control and authority is uprooted.”

Thanks to Paul Bremer, the head of that Coalition Provisional Authority, the third option became its very first directive, which led to the ejection of between 35,000 and 50,000 Iraqi civil servants onto the streets of their country. “In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos, and soaring unemployment,” wrote pundit Fareed Zakaria in 2007. “We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly.”

That thoroughgoing purge, along with the literal dismantling of the Iraqi army, generated a deep distrust of the American occupation and provided an instant pool of recruits for any militant resistance, fueling an all-out war.

The good news is that since Trumpism has only been a governing ideology for three years, it hasn’t (yet) penetrated the civil service or the military to the degree that Baathism dominated the Iraqi government and armed forces. Since Trump appointees don’t form a particularly deep state, however much Trump would have liked to create one of his own, no Iraq-style resistance is on the horizon.

The judiciary is another matter. The roughly 200 judges that Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already managed to appoint for life will do their best to block all attempts to deconstruct Trumpism. If it can be shown that any of these judges engaged in serious ethical or criminal misconduct, then impeachment would be an option. However, you can’t impeach judges just because you don’t like their rulings (though some Republican legislators did try to do just that in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago).

Instead of attempting to remove individual judges, it would be more strategic to go after their ideological backer, the Federalist Society, an uber-conservative legal organization that has functioned as a judicial matchmaker for Trump, providing him with a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. All but eight of his federal appellate court picks have been members of the society.

You can’t outlaw a legal society, however lunatic its interpretation of the Constitution may be. However, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who’s on the Judiciary Committee, proposes to make it illegal for judges to be members of the Federalist Society. An added benefit: such a move would also go after the big money behind the attempted right-wing takeover of the court system because, as Whitehouse points out, “the Federalist Society is at the center of a network of dark-money-funded conservative organizations whose purpose is to influence court composition and outcomes.”

Detoxifying the court system is crucial not only for reversing Trump’s regressive policies but for clearing the way to prosecute him for his wrongdoing.

Hauling Them into Court

At Nuremberg after World War II, the Allied victors put nearly 200 Nazis on trial for various crimes: 161 were convicted and 37 sentenced to death. The precedents established there and at other war crimes trials have guided contemporary tribunals culminating in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It would be satisfying if the U.S. government could give Donald Trump and some of his top aides to the ICC for their violations of international law at the U.S.-Mexico border, the assassination of the head of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and similar actions. But that’s unimaginable even for a government led by President Joe Biden in which the Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. So it will be up to the American courts to charge and convict Trump, which has so far failed to happen, despite some cases related to his tax returns and allegations of sexual assault still inching forward.

The Nuremberg process developed new standards to prosecute the Nazis. Since the barriers have grown high indeed, the Trumpian opposition would have to get more creative to make sure that Trump goes to jail.

As soon as he is no longer president, federal prosecutors should label Donald Trump and his top associates an ongoing criminal organization and begin the process of bringing them to justice under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. For years, after all, the president has been acting like a mafia godfather, demanding loyalty, bullying competitors, and scorning “rats.” Last year, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee laid out in graphic detail ways in which the president and his gang were guilty of racketeering: bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice, and the like.

The House of Representatives impeached the president, but with the help of his Republican enablers, he managed to avoid removal from office. Getting read the RICO Act, on the other hand, could leave him facing years in prison and the Trump Organization would be liable for treble damages as compensation for victims. As Forbes contributor Steve Denning concluded during the impeachment proceedings:

While impeachment would obviously be a severe personal sanction for Donald Trump, convicting the Trump Organization as a RICO enterprise could be far worse. If Trump is ‘only’ impeached, he could always go back to his family business, sadder but perhaps wiser. But if the Trump Organization were to be convicted as a criminal enterprise under the RICO Act, there might be no business for Trump to go back to.

U.S. diplomat Herbert Pell, instrumental in bringing war-crimes charges against the Nazis during World War II, saw “how Confederate veterans in the South had created for themselves a misty-eyed mythology about the U.S. Civil War and was determined that the Nazis would not do the same.” As Dan Plesch explained in his study of international war crimes tribunals, “Pell’s motivation was to prevent postwar nostalgia for the Nazis breeding more war.”

Putting Trump on trial would not only remove him from the political equation but could effectively delegitimize Trumpism and prevent a second round of it from occurring.

The Popularity of Trumpism

Nazism didn’t die with Adolf Hitler’s suicide, the collapse of his regime, or those convictions at Nuremberg. More than 10% of the German population had belonged to the Nazi Party. Early efforts at denazification sputtered out largely because the United States and its allies needed a stable, prosperous Germany at the heart of Cold War Europe — and Germany quietly allowed former Nazis to remain in every echelon of society. Seven years after the war, for instance, 60% of the civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis.

Nazi ideology was even more difficult to root out. According to a public opinion survey conducted in West Germany in 1947, 55% percent of those living under the U.S. occupation believed that “National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out.” Worse yet, the majority of those in this category were under 30, not just the old guard.

As bizarre as Donald Trump might be, Trumpism itself is not a new American phenomenon. The difference is that the far right never before had such access to power, not during the George W. Bush era, not even during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It always remained on the margins, kept alive by the likes of the John Birch Society, the occasional extreme member of Congress, and weirdo talk show hosts like Alex Jones of InfoWars.

The danger of Trump lies in his remarkable capacity to mainstream views that previously had been beyond the pale (at least in official Washington). A significant number of Americans feel liberated, thanks to his imprimatur, to give voice to the worst angels of their nature. Transforming such deep-seated belief systems represents quite a different challenge than changing the guard in the Oval Office and beyond. After all, democratic societies don’t send people off to reeducation camps. Certain communities, like universities, can legislate against hate speech, but it’s people’s hearts and minds, not just their tongues, that must be reached.

To do so, it’s imperative to separate the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters from the illegitimate ones. Yes, “bad hombres” are attracted to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but many of the disenfranchised who voted for him were motivated by a disgust at political elites and the raging economic inequality they produced in this land. After the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic (and its disproportionate impact on the working poor), the economic semi-collapse that followed its spread (and the disproportionate benefits Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other billionaires drew from it), and an epidemic of police violence (visited on people of color), more and more Americans are coming to feel that the status quo is simply unacceptable. They’re disgusted by Republican duplicity but also by the Democrats’ version of business as usual.

Because Trumpism is a cancer on the body politic, the treatment will require radical interventions, including the transformation of the Republican Party, a purge of Trumpists from government, and the indictment of the president and his top cronies as a criminal enterprise. To avoid a second Civil War, however, a second American Revolution would need to address the root causes of Trumpism, especially political corruption, deep-seated racism, and extreme economic inequality.

Otherwise, even if The Donald loses this election, the political creature he represents will rise from the ashes and eventually return to power (President Tom Cotton? President Ivanka?!). America can’t survive another civil war, but neither can it afford another failed Reconstruction, a half-hearted de-Trumpification of America, and a return to the previous status quo.

TomDispatch, June 26, 2020

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Germany and the Rise of a “Fascist International”

Germany got its very own electoral shock this week when the far right won 13 percent of the vote in country’s parliamentary elections.

For the first time in more than half a century, the far right will be represented in the German parliament, with more than 90 seats. Although it’s now Germany’s third most popular party — behind the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SDP) — the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is still too toxic to become part of a ruling coalition.

But the AfD will have influence well beyond its numbers. “In a nutshell,” Deutsche Welle reports, “things are about to get a lot nastier.”

The AfD’s electoral victory has destroyed the taboo in Germany that has kept the far right on the fringes. It will inevitably pull the ruling Christian Democrats further to the right, particularly on social issues like immigration. It may even have an impact on the ongoing discussions about the fate of the European Union.

Beyond Germany, the AfD’s success will give a shot in the arm to other far-right formations, particularly after the National Front’s losses in the last French elections. Looking a little further down the road, if it manages to return to parliament in the next election, the AfD will qualify for government money to create its own party foundation, which will enable Germany’s far right to spread its message all over the world.

Europe’s rebellion against liberalism — in both its economic and social versions — is continuing to shake up politics as usual. An equally unsettling question, though, is how much it will shake up geopolitics as usual.

What the AfD Wants

The far right in Germany has followed much the same script as the Tea Party and the Trump movement in the United States.

It began in 2013 with several academics angry about the Eurozone (and, by extension, the European Union). But just like economist Dave Brat was an obscure political hopeful until he started talking about the so-called “threat” of immigrants in Virginia — and ended up taking House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s seat in 2014 — the AfD only became truly popular by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats welcomed refugees into Germany in 2015 — an influx, to date, of around 1.3 million people — the AfD began to peel away support from the center-right CDU. Even the purportedly moderate faces of the AfD, like Jorg Muethen, have made statements like, “in some German cities, I struggle to find Germans on the streets,” thus equating German citizenship with skin color or other external markers.

The party has advocated border controls — effectively abrogating the Schengen system of free movement within many EU member states — as well as new border patrols. Frauke Petry, a party leader who is also considered a moderate, has said that these new border police units should shoot at migrants if necessary as they try to make it into the country.

Central to the anti-immigrant message has been Islamophobia. The party plastered the streets of Germany with posters like one that showed two young, bikini-clad women from behind that read, “Burkas? We like bikinis.” On Facebook, it distributed an ad showing bloody tire tracks with the caption, “The tracks left by the world chancellor in Europe,” linking Merkel’s refugee policy to terrorist attacks around the continent.

The party has other deeply disturbing positions, like its denial of climate change. But what has caused some division within the party is its attitude toward German history. One party leader, Bjorn Hocke, has called for a “180-degree turnaround” in German attitudes about the Nazi era. Since current German policy is firmly in the camp of condemnation of Nazis, it’s quite sobering to imagine the kind of policy that Hocke prefers.

This German corollary to Trump’s appeal to white supremacists and neo-Nazis has divided the party. Frauke Petry abruptly walked out of an AfD press conference this week after announcing that she wouldn’t sit in parliament with the party faction. Reportedly, Petry has wanted to purge the party of its extremist elements — at least those who take an extremist position on the history question — just as Marine Le Pen attempted to clean up the National Front by kicking her anti-Semitic father out of the French far-right party.

According to Spiegel’s analysis of AfD’s likely MPs, 35 of 94 are “right wing extremists.” So, it’s not just about a purge of one or two bad apples. Expect the AfD to split along the same realoand fundi — realist vs. fundamentalist — fault line of the Greens.

A key connection between AfD and Trump, the UK Independence Party, and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is their ad man, Vincent Harris. He’s responsible for the bikini and tire tracks ad campaigns. He’s adept at fusing anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and race-baiting messages. But with one of his suggestions for the AfD, Harris went too far. The party rejected his suggestion of “Germany for Germans” as a campaign slogan. Perhaps it will resurface in the next election, if the so-called moderates abandon the party.

Finally, what would a modern election be without Russian interference?

In the lead-up to the election, several major newspapers noted that Russian involvement in the German vote was scant. Perhaps they spoke too soon. First to consider are the Russian speakers, those with German heritage who’ve relocated to Germany since the 1980s — the right kind of immigrants from AfD’s point of view. The AfD estimates that fully one-third of its supportcomes from this constituency, and it has helped the party become the second most popular one in former East Germany.

Then there was the obligatory visit to Moscow, as Petry made her pilgrimage last February and met with, among others, the truly beyond-the-pale politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As the election entered its last phase, the usual trolls and Twitter bots came out to play, at least some of them Russians supporting AfD.

Again, as with Trump, the Kremlin isn’t interested in promoting a particular party in the hopes that it will win or reorient the country’s foreign policy. It simply wants to shake up a status quo that it perceives as tilted against Russia.

Has the Right Already Won?

Even though the radical right has lost some recent elections — notably in France and in the Netherlands — it has nevertheless transformed the debate in Europe.

Consider the immigration situation. This month, the two-year program to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece and Italy to other EU member states came to an end. It managed to relocate only 28,000 people, and only with great effort. Some countries — notably Poland and Hungary — refused to locate a single migrant. More than 20 member states failed to meet their obligatory target by 50 percent.

Far right populists poisoned the discourse on immigration, denouncing millions of people as well as linking this “scourge” to the EU, multiculturalism, and liberal politics more generally. Throughout the continent, EU member states are tightening their immigration laws, increasing the number of deportations, and sweeping away informal settlements like the “Jungle” in the northern French town of Calais.

“The right-wing populists have already won the upcoming elections in Europe, no matter what the outcome is,” writes Krsto Lazarevic in Deutsche Welle. “The EU has done away with human rights and Western standards of civilization by cooperating with the Libyan coastguard, African dictators, and deporting people back to war zones.”

Then there’s the issue of helping countries like Greece exit their perpetual financial crisis. Discussions this week between Athens and Eurozone officials seem to point the way toward fresh loans and the prospect of Greece becoming fiscally independent by next August. But if Merkel has to bring the Free Democrats into a coalition government, she’ll have to reckon with that party’s “red line” on reforming the Eurozone to facilitate “fiscal transfers” to countries like Greece. The Euroskeptic AfD will rejoice.

Elsewhere in Europe

The French turned back the tide of hatred in the last presidential and parliamentary elections. The National Front, once seemingly on an unstoppable roll, now has only eight seats in parliament, and its leader Marine Le Pen presides over a fractious party.

In the wake of Le Pen’s losses, pundits wondered if Trump has had a bracing effect on Europe. Europeans see how Trump has transformed the United States into a three-ring circus, and they want none of it.

But that’s France. Elsewhere, the far right continues its march.

In Norway, for instance, the right-wing Progress Party pulled in a respectable 15 percent in September elections, good enough for it to continue as a coalition partner with the Conservative Party. But perhaps that’s because the Progress Party, despite its anti-immigrant and pro-nationalist approach, isn’t quite as crazy as the National Front.

A more authentically radical right is poised to take over in Austria in elections next month. There, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is polling even better than the AfD — in the low 20s. It would be doing even better if the center-right People’s Party hadn’t started to take up its anti-immigration, Islamophobic message. The bullet dodged at the end of last year when independent Alexander Van der Bellen defeated Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer seems to have taken a boomerang trajectory.

Worse, the center right in Austria, unlike its counterpart in Germany, has no problems with forming a government with the far right. Given that one-third of Austrians don’t want to live next to Muslims — more than in Germany or France or Switzerland — it can count on considerable popular support for such a coalition.

In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, a certifiably Trump-like figure is likely to win next month’s presidential election. Andrej Babis, currently the finance minister, is a billionaire who’s skeptical of the European Union and wants to close the EU’s borders to keep out immigrants. His involvement in a corruption scandal involving one of his enterprises illegally receiving EU subsidies — oh, the hypocrisy! — doesn’t seem to have harmed his popular standing.

The AfD’s win may well encourage this political trajectory in Europe and beyond. It’s still hard to imagine the party successfully pushing through legislation or having much impact on governance. But if the party gets above 5 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary elections, it will win the right to form its own international foundation. Of course, the Bundestag might deploy various stalling tactics to prevent such an official funding stream — as it did when the left-wing Die Linke qualified — but there’s a strong bias in German political culture to observe the rules.

I’ve worked with German foundations all over the world: Friedrich Ebert (Social Democrats), Friedrich Naumann (Free Democrats), Heinrich Boll (the Green Party), and Rosa Luxemburg (Die Linke). Funded by German taxpayers, they’ve all provided valuable support for civil society and in promoting useful exchange of ideas.

The prospect of German government money helping to spread far right-wing politics globally is a nightmare scenario. Germany just took one step closer to helping globalize the alt-right and recycle from history’s dustbin something that ought never again see the light of day: a Fascist International.

 World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 27, 2017
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Articles Europe Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump: Doubling Down on Dystopia

Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories — The Giver, Hunger Games — like Goths to piercings. TV shows about zombie apocalypses, pandemics, and technology run amok inspire binge watching. We’ve seen the world-gone-truly-bad a thousand times over on the big screen.

This apocalyptic outpouring has been so intense that talk of “peak dystopia” started to circulate several years ago. Yet the stock of the doomsday cartel has shown no signs of falling, even as production continues at full blast. (A confession: with my recent novel Splinterlands I’ve contributed my own bit to flooding the dystopia market.) As novelist Junot Diaz argued last October, dystopia has become “the default narrative of the generation.”

Shortly after Diaz made that comment, dystopia became the default narrative for American politics as well when Donald Trump stepped off the set of The Celebrity Apprentice and into the Oval Office. With the election of an uber-narcissist incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy, all the dystopian nightmares that had gathered like storm clouds on the horizon — nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations — suddenly moved overhead. Cue the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.

The response among those horrified by the results of the recent presidential election has been four-fold.

First came denial — from the existential dread that hammered the solar plexus as the election returns trickled in that Tuesday night to the more prosaic reluctance to get out of bed the morning after. Then came the fantasies of flight, as tens of thousands of Americans checked to see if their passports were still valid and if the ark bound for New Zealand had any berths free. The third stage has been resistance: millions poured into the streets to protest, mobilized at airports to welcome temporarily banned immigrants, and flocked to congressional meet-and-greets to air their grievances with Republicans and Democrats alike.

The fourth step, concurrent with all the others, has been to delve into the dystopias of the past as if they contained some Da Vinci code for deciphering our present predicament. Classics like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale quickly climbed back onto bestseller lists.

It might seem counterintuitive — or a perverse form of escapism — to turn from the dystopia of reality to that of fiction. Keep in mind, though, that those novels became bestsellers in their own time precisely because they offered refuge and narratives of resistance for those who feared (in order of publication) the rise of Nazism, the spread of Stalinism, or the resurgence of state-backed misogyny in the Reagan years.

These days, with journalists scrambling to cover the latest outrage from the White House, perhaps it was only natural for readers to seek refuge in the works of writers who took the longer view. After all, it’s an understandable impulse to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. And dystopian narratives are there, in part, to help us brace for the worst, while identifying possible ways out of the downward spiral toward hell.

The dystopian classics, however, are not necessarily well suited to our current moment. They generally depict totalitarian states under a Big Brother figure and a panoptical authority that controls everything from the center, a scenario that’s fascist or communist or just plain North Korean. Certainly, Donald Trump wants his face everywhere, his name on everything, his little fingers in every pot. But the dangers of the current dystopian moment don’t lie in the centralizing of control. Not yet, anyway.

The Trump era so far is all about the center not holding, a time when, in the words of the poet Yeats, things fall apart. Forget about Hannah Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism — also a hot seller on Amazon — and focus more on chaos theory. Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.

Don’t be fooled by Trump’s talk of a trillion-dollar infrastructure boom. His team has a very different project in mind, and you can read it on the signpost up ahead. Next Stop: The Deconstruction Zone.

The Zombie Election

In February 2016, when Donald Trump won his first primary in New Hampshire, the New York Daily Newsheadlined it “Dawn of the Brain Dead” and likened Trump’s GOP supporters to “mindless zombies.” Not to be outdone, that conspiracy-minded purveyor of fake news, Alex Jones, routinely described Hillary Clinton supporters as “zombies” on his Trump-positive website Infowars.

The references to zombies spoke to the apocalyptic mindset of both sides. Donald Trump deliberately tapped into the end-of-days impulses of Christian evangelicals, anti-globalists, and white power enthusiasts, who view anyone who hasn’t drunk their Kool-Aid as a dead soul. Meanwhile, those fearful that the billionaire blowhard might win the election began spreading the “Trumpocalypse” meme as they warned of the coming of ever more severe climate change, the collapse of the global economy, and the outbreak of race wars. There was virtually no middle ground between the groups, aside from those who decided to steer clear of the election altogether. The mutual disgust with which each side viewed the other encouraged just the kind of dehumanization implied by that zombie label.

Zombies have become a political metaphor for another reason as well. What’s frightening about the flesh eating undead in their current incarnations is that they are not a formal army. There are no zombie leaders, no zombie battle plans. They shamble along in herds in search of prey. “Our fascination with zombies is partly a transposed fear of immigration,” I wrote in 2013, “of China displacing the United States as the world’s top economy, of bots taking over our computers, of financial markets that can melt down in a single morning.”

Zombies, in other words, reflect anxiety over a loss of control associated with globalization. In this context, the “rise of the rest” conjures up images of a mass of undifferentiated resource consumers — hungry others who are little more than mouths on legs — storming the citadels of the West.

During the election campaign, the Trump team appealed to those very fears by running ads during the popular TV series The Walking Dead that deliberately played on anti-immigration concerns. Once in office, Trump has put into motion his campaign pledges to wall off the United States from Mexico, keep out Muslims, and retreat into Fortress America. He has put special effort into reinforcing the notion that the outside world is a deeply scary place — even Paris, even Sweden! — as if The Walking Dead were a documentary and the zombie threat quite real.

The concentration of power in the executive branch, and Trump’s evident willingness to wield it, certainly echoes dystopian fears of 1984-style totalitarianism. So have the extraordinary lies, the broadsides against the media (“enemies of the people”), and the targeting of internal and external adversaries of every sort. But this is no totalitarian moment.  Trump is not interested in constructing a superstate like Oceania or even a provincial dictatorship like Airstrip One, both of which Orwell described so convincingly in his novel.

Instead, coming out of the gate, the new administration has focused on what Trump’s chief strategist and white nationalist Stephen Bannon promised to do several years ago: “bring everything crashing down.”

The Bannon Dystopia

Dystopians on the right have their own version of 1984. They’ve long been warning that liberals want to establish an all-powerful state that restricts gun ownership, bans the sale of super-sized sodas, and forces mythic “death panels” on the unwary. These right-wing Cassandras are worried not so much about Big Brother as about Big Nanny, though the more extreme among them also claim that liberals are covert fascists, closet communists, or even agents of the caliphate.

Strangely enough, however, these same right-wing dystopians — former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the (non-existent) death panels, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) on gun control, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter on soda bans and other trivial pursuits — have never complained about the massive build-up of government power in far more significant areas: namely, the military and the intelligence agencies. Indeed, now that they are back on top, the new Trumpianized “conservatives” are perfectly happy to expand state power by throwing even more money at the Pentagon and potentially giving greater scope to the CIA in its future interrogations of terror suspects. Despite falling rates of violent crime — a tiny uptick in 2015 obscures the fact that these remain at a historic low — Trump also wants to beef up the police to deal with American “carnage.”

So far, so 1984. But the radically new element on the Trump administration’s agenda has nothing to do with the construction of a more powerful state. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon spoke instead of what was truly crucial to him (and assumedly the president): the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Here, Bannon was speaking specifically of unleashing Wall Street, polluting industries, gun sellers, while freeing a wide range of economic actors from regulation of just about any sort. But Trump’s cabinet appointments and the first indications of what a Trumpian budget might look like suggest a far broader agenda aimed at kneecapping the non-military part of the state by sidelining entire agencies and gutting regulatory enforcement. Bye-bye, EPA. Nighty-night, Department of Education. Nice knowing you, HUD. We sure will miss you, Big Bird and foreign aid.

Even the State Department hasn’t proved safe from demolition. With professional diplomats out of the loop, Pennsylvania Avenue, not Foggy Bottom, will be the locus of control for international relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is being reduced to little more than an ornament as the new triumvirate of Trump, Bannon, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner take over foreign policy (though Vice President Pence hovers in the background like a chaperone at the prom). Meanwhile, with a proposed $54 billion future hike in its budget, Trump’s Pentagon will remain untouched by the wrecking ball, as the new president presides over a devastating shrinkage of the government he dislikes and a metastasis of what he loves. (Think: giant, shiny aircraft carriers!)

Thus far, the Trump administration has acted with highly publicized incompetence: administration figures contradicting each other, executive orders short-circuiting the government machinery, tweets wildly caroming around the Internet universe, and basic functions like press conferences handled with all the aplomb of a non-human primate. Trump’s appointees, including Bannon, have looked like anything but skilled demolition experts. This is certainly no Gorbachev-style perestroika, which eventually led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. It’s nothing like the “shock therapy” programs that first knocked down and then remade the states of Eastern Europe after 1989.

However, since deconstruction is so much easier than construction and Bannon prides himself on his honey-badger-like persistence, the administration’s project, messy as it seems so far, is likely to prove quite capable of doing real damage. In fact, if you want a more disturbing interpretation of Donald Trump’s first months in office, consider this: What if all the chaos is not an unintended consequence of a greenhorn administration but an actual strategy?

All that dust in the air comes, after all, from the chaotic first steps in a projected massive demolition process and may already be obscuring the fact that Trump is attempting to push through a fundamentally anti-American and potentially supremely unpopular program. He aims to destroy the status quo, as Bannon promised, and replace it with a new world order defined by three Cs: Conservative, Christian, and Caucasian. Let the media cover what they please; let the critics laugh all they like about executive branch antics. In the meantime, all the president’s men are trying to impose their will on a recalcitrant country and world.

Triumph of the Will

I took a course in college on the rise of Nazism in Germany. At one point, the professor showed us Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1935 documentary that covered the Nazi Party Congress of the previous year and featured extensive footage of Adolf Hitler addressing the faithful. Triumph of the Will was a blockbuster film, our professor assured us. It spread the name of Hitler worldwide and established Riefenstahl’s reputation as a filmmaker. It was so popular inside Germany that it ran for months on end at movie theaters, and people returned again and again to watch it. Our teacher promised us that we would find it fascinating.

Triumph of the Will was not fascinating. Even for students engrossed in the details of the Nazi surge to power, the nearly two-hour documentary was a tremendous bore. After it was over, we bombarded the teacher with questions and complaints. How could he have imagined that we would find it fascinating?

He smiled. That’s the fascinating part, he said. Here was this extraordinarily popular film, and it’s now nearly impossible for Americans to sit through the whole thing. He wanted us to understand that people in Nazi Germany had an entirely different mindset, that they were participating in a kind of mass frenzy. They didn’t find Nazism abhorrent. They didn’t think they were living in a dystopia. They were true believers.

Many Americans are now having their Triumph of the Will moment. They watch Donald Trump repeatedly without getting bored or disgusted. They believe that history has anointed a new leader to revive the country and restore it to its rightful place in the world. They’ve been convinced that the last eight years were a liberal dystopia and what is happening now is, if not utopian, then the first steps in that direction.

A hard core of those enthralled by Trump cannot be convinced otherwise. They hold liberal elites in contempt. They don’t believe CNN or The New York Times. Many subscribe to outlandish theories about Islam and immigrants and the continuing covert machinations of that most famous “Islamic immigrant” of them all, Barack Obama. For this hard core of Trump supporters, the United States could begin to break down, the economy take a nosedive, the international community hold the leadership in Washington in contempt, and they will continue to believe in Trump and Trumpism. The president could even gun down a few people and his most fervent supporters would say nothing except, “Good shot, Mr. President!” Remember: even after Nazi Germany went down in fiery defeat in 1945, significant numbers of Germans remained in thrall to National Socialism. In 1947, more than half of those surveyed still believed that Nazism was a good idea carried out badly.

But plenty of Trump supporters — whether they’re disaffected Democrats, Hillary-hating independents, or rock-ribbed Republican conservatives — don’t fit such a definition. Some have already become deeply disillusioned by the antics of Donald J. and the demolition derby that his advisers are planning to unleash inside the U.S. government, which may, in the end, batter their lives badly.  They can be brought over. This is potentially the biggest of big-tent moments for launching the broadest possible resistance under the banner of a patriotism that portrays Trump and Bannon as guilty of un-American activities.

And it’s here in particular that so many dystopian novels provide the wrong kind of guidance. Trump’s end will not come at the hands of a Katniss Everdeen. A belief in an individual savior who successfully challenges a “totalitarian” system got us into this crisis in the first place when Donald Trump sold himself as the crusading outsider against a “deep state” controlled by devious liberals, craven conservatives, and a complicit mainstream media. Nor will it help for Americans to dream about leading their states out of the Union (are you listening, California?) or for individuals to retreat into political purism. Given that the administration’s dystopian vision is based on chaos and fragmentation, the oppositional response should be to unite everyone opposed, or even potentially opposed, to what Washington is now doing.

As readers, we are free to interpret dystopian fiction the way we please. As citizens, we can do something far more subversive. We can rewrite our own dystopian reality. We can change that bleak future ourselves. To do so, however, we would need to put together a better plot, introduce some more interesting and colorful characters, and, before it’s too late, write a much better ending that doesn’t just leave us with explosions, screams, and fade to black.

TomDispatch, March 13, 2017

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Articles Featured Human Rights

The Lost Language of Integration

In a recent This American Life episode, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses the perils of America’s segregated school system. She points out that there has been only one proven way to narrow the performance gap between African-American and white schoolchildren, and it has nothing to do with magnet schools, or Teach for America, or any of the newfangled efforts to right a wrong system. The only strategy that has shown demonstrable success in the last half century has been: desegregation.

Between 1971 and 1988, the gap between the standardized reading scores of black and white 13-year-olds dropped by more than half. “And these scores are not just the scores of the specific kids who got bussed into white schools,” notes host Ira Glass. “That is the overall score for the entire country. That’s all black children in America, halved in just 17 years.”

The reason is quite simple. “What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids,” Hannah-Jones remarks. “And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction.”

Court-ordered desegregation has not completely ended. Just this summer, a U.S. District Court ruled that a school district in Mississippi integrate its schools — 50 years after the filing of the first legal action. For the most part, however, this kind of legal intervention is a thing of the past, particularly after the Supreme Court decided in 1991 that desegregation was never intended to be permanent, thus letting school districts off the hook.

As a result, inequality has sharpened. In a 2005 Nation article, Harvard’s Gary Orfield told Jonathan Kozol that “the desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has receded to levels not seen in three decades.” According to a more recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the number of students attending highly impoverished schools with mostly black or Hispanic students doubled between 2000 and 2014. Moreover, across the nation “the typical black student is now in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39%, respectively),” the Civil Rights Project reported in 2012.

The failure here is not one of ideas or policies. We’ve known for half a century what works to end educational apartheid in the United States. The failure is political. Our elected representatives are not willing to take the necessary political risks to implement a program that works but encounters resistance among some (white) people.

When I travelled throughout Eastern Europe a couple years ago, I encountered nearly the same educational apartheid. Nearly half of all Roma children attend segregated schools in Hungary. In Slovakia, school districts are gerrymandered to keep Roma children separate, and where that’s been impossible, administrators separate out Roma by floor within schools. In Romania and Bulgaria, many Roma children don’t receive any education at all. I spoke with Roma activists who have tried to challenge these inequalities legally and politically. Some organizations relocate a handful of Roma children to better schools. Virtually everyone recognizes that government-directed desegregation is the only viable, long-term solution. Anti-Roma prejudice, however, is even more endemic in the region than racism in the United States (no one I talked to could even imagine a Roma president, for instance). Very few non-Roma politicians in Eastern Europe are willing to stand up for Roma and for what is right.

Not all integration works the same way as desegregation in pushing everyone to meet higher standards. The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, integrates the economies of three countries, but in a way that fails to lift the labor or environmental standards, not to mention the GDP, of Mexico to the level of Canada. As Donald Trump is also proving every day, one can unite people by appealing to their worst instincts rather than their best.

If the failure of integration were limited to the educational sphere, perhaps enough political will could be mustered to overcome fear, prejudice, and just plain inertia to reduce institutional racism. But what if not enough people believe any longer in bridging large gaps in wealth, performance, and achievement through collective action? Perhaps the entire enterprise of integration, a cornerstone of the progressive agenda, has simply collapsed.

The Seductions of Inequality

It’s intriguing that school integration reached its high point in the late 1980s and declined after a 1991 Supreme Court decision. The timing coincides with three other notable failures of integration: the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia in rapid succession. It was easy enough to blame communism for the failure of these multiethnic states to cohere after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the inability to maintain integrated states was only tangentially related to Marxism. Both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia existed as multinational states prior to communism, and much of what became the Soviet Union had been unified under the tsars.

The two primary causes of disintegration were nationalism (the assertion of a separate identity from the more encompassing multiethnic one) and resentment (that the resources of the state were unevenly divided among the subnational entities). Slovaks felt that they were getting a raw deal from the new democratic government in Prague; Slovenes and Croats felt that Serbs were disproportionately represented in the federal authorities and were unhappy with the flow of funds to underdeveloped regions to the south; Ukrainians, Georgians, and Armenians bristled at the way the Kremlin dictated policy. Anger at “their” economic and political policies dovetailed with the nationalist call to assert “our” control instead.

These suspicions of misdirected funds and the arrogance of the “imperial” metropole have reappeared in a new guise in the current Euroskepticism sweeping through Europe. In countries that once complained of Moscow, you now hear complaints about Brussels. And the anger at “lazy” Kosovars or Bosnians during the days of Yugoslavia has become anger at “lazy” Greeks.

The European Union was once the greatest example of “harmonizing up.” The EU was committed to bringing its poorest members up to the level of the richest. Nor could the poorer countries take a shortcut by establishing lower environmental or labor regulations to attract polluting, sweatshop industries. Integration meant a step forward for everyone.

But this process butted up against a much more powerful force moving in the opposite direction: globalization. At first glance, globalization would seem to be the greatest of all integration projects. The increased flow of trade around the world means that Mongolians are more likely to watch Korean soap operas, Germans more likely to listen to Brazilian pop music, Americans more likely to enjoy authentic Moroccan food. But this cultural intermixing is superficial. For more often than not, globalization results in the dominance of market leaders (Hollywood films, Chinese textiles). Moreover, for the most part, globalization pushes countries to compete with one another by gutting regulations and standards in a race to the bottom.

The EU doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the deference it pays to the financial sector, the pressures of free-trade agreements, and the demands of sovereignty, the EU has begun to tolerate much greater gaps in wealth than it would have done in the past. Strict budgetary constraints now make it more difficult for individual governments to pour money into job retraining programs or infrastructure development that could mitigate income inequality. Integration has become a step forward for some, stagnation for many more.

Another striking example of this declining commitment to integration can be found in the campaign against “multiculturalism” in Europe. At the top, leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron have declared that “multiculturalism” has failed because large numbers of new immigrants have not acculturated into the dominant society. In Foreign Affairs, Kenan Malik has penned a couple essays on how “multiculturalism” has departed from liberal principles of individual civil liberties — and treating everyone as equal citizens — in favor of collective rights that emphasize difference rather than commonality. And right-wing populist groups have denounced the “multicultural” policies that have turned France or Germany or the Netherlands into pluralist societies that no longer resemble the imagined homogenous countries of old.

In all these cases, the critics have bundled together all the things they don’t like about the changing demographics of their societies and slapped the label “multiculturalism” on it. Thus, multiculturalists are to be blamed for the persistence of honor killings, female circumcision, terrorism by Islamic extremists, rioting in “no-go” zones, and the like. However, this explanation fails to take into account that such deplorable behaviors take place in countries like France, which require assimilation into a dominant civic culture, and the UK, which has generally favored a more laissez-faire, patchwork approach.

Ultimately, the issue has nothing to do with a clash of cultures, any more than the difference in test scores between whites and blacks in the United States can be attributed to cultural (read: racial) differences. When people have access to the same resources, they perform at the same level. In Europe, when people have access to the same education, housing, and jobs, they similarly perform at the same level (i.e., as responsible citizens). Sure, there are outliers, just as there are plenty of middle-class, non-immigrant French or Germans who commit crimes or behave abominably. But when Denmark makes a big show of cutting social benefits to immigrants by 45 percent, it reveals the erosion of the belief that integration at the level of resources can eliminate disparity in results.

The backlash against the current wave of refugees coming from Syria can’t be understood outside of this context of disappointment with efforts to integrate immigrants who arrived in the past. The same holds true in the United States, where fears of Syrian terrorists hiding among the refugees intersects with rhetoric about Mexico “not sending their best” and the necessity of Americans to speak English all the time.

The EU’s motto is “united in diversity.” The EU is bold in insisting that unity doesn’t depend on assimilation and forced homogenization, and that diversity, meanwhile, does not necessarily lead to fragmentation. That is the ideal of integration. And it no longer seems to command the same respect that it once did. Inequality has become an accepted state of affairs among an increasing number of people who either benefit from the status quo or hope to do so some day.

The Powerlessness of Ideas Alone

Washington think tanks expend enormous energy — and resources — in coming up with ideas that will solve the problems of the day. But as the case of desegregation of schools demonstrates — in the United States, in Eastern Europe — the problem is not a lack of ideas. We know what works. We simply lack the political will.

Nor does political will appear magically when the right person in the right place suddenly, through some mysterious process, has a conversion experience. That rarely happens. Political will usually appears as a result of pressure from the outside that changes minds on the inside. Lyndon Johnson was by no means the likeliest candidate to usher through civil rights legislation. He was a thoroughgoing racist who opposed civil rights for two decades. But he was also an astute politician who bent to the winds of change. The civil rights movement’s achievements were the offspring of collective pressure and political opportunism.

We face other realms of policy where we know what works but can’t muster the political will to make the necessary change. Cutting carbon emissions and switching to renewables is the obvious way to avoid burning the planet to a crisp. Ending the embargo on Cuba will help pull the island out of its economic doldrums and accelerate political reforms. As with desegregation, however, significant obstacles loom in both cases, whether it’s major corporations that profit from fossil fuels or a right-wing Congress committed to fossilized ideologies. Overcoming those obstacles requires political will that in turn requires social movements.

But those social movements also need a unifying belief. Building a fair and equal multiethnic society requires a belief that disparate communities can be brought together for a common goal without one community absorbing the other or both communities tearing each other apart. From desegregation to the European Union to societies that welcome and cherish immigrants, a belief in the power of integration is essential. Yet in today’s fragmenting world, many people are losing faith.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 28, 2016

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

After Empire

Let’s say the car stops and we get our teeth around the tire. Let’s say that we bite down hard enough to let out all the air from the U.S. empire.

Now what?

Those of us who have campaigned for a radical reduction of the U.S. military footprint overseas, for a major scaling back of U.S. interventionist capabilities, and for a shift of Pentagon funding toward necessary improvements on the home front have spent so much time detailing our objections to the status quo that we don’t have much time left over to consider what would happen if we succeed.

Sure, it’s easy enough to talk about the distribution of the surplus here in the United States. We all have our favorite human needs to fund (infrastructure, education, green energy projects). And certainly some funds would be left over to address global problems as well. All of that falls into the category of “doing good.”

The much more challenging issue is dealing with the other part of foreign policy: “countering bad.”

If the United States were to close all of its military bases tomorrow, withdraw its troops and Special Forces from the 130-plus countries where they’ve been operating, and even stop arms exports, bad things would still happen around the world. Wars would still take place. Governments would still repress their citizens. And countries would still violate each other’s sovereignty.

Those of a more isolationist bent will argue: It’s none of our business, and the United States usually ends up aggravating the problems we swoop in to solve. The usual progressive response is: Strengthen international institutions and empower civil society organizations. These answers contain some necessary insights, but they’re not sufficient.

And because these alternatives are not sufficient, other options have gained an unacceptable credibility.

Which brings me to Barney Frank.

Sharing the Burden

When he was in Congress, Barney Frank was a strong advocate of reducing the military budget, upholding human rights, boosting foreign aid, and supporting internationalism in general. I met him during our efforts to shrink the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa, an initiative he supported at the time, and was impressed with his candor and commitment.

Of course, because Frank was a politician, pragmatism shaped his principles.

Although the Sustainable Defense Taskforce that he chaired back in 2011 recommended more than $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, Frank himself voted for Congress to contract with General Electric and Rolls Royce for a second engine for the already over-priced F-35. Even a sophisticated jet fighter only needs one engine, and another manufacturer had already won the bid to build it. But the GE plant meant jobs in Frank’s district, and no politician can ignore employment-generation schemes — even if they produce an entirely useless product.

Frank is no longer in Congress. He does, however, write a column for Politico that offers a similar blend of principle and pragmatism. In his latest effort, he quite sensibly takes Republicans to task for demanding substantial increases in U.S. military spending:

I simply don’t understand why Republicans accept the view that the entire burden of providing the world’s military force should be borne by American taxpayers, even leaving aside my belief that advocates of these huge increases in American military spending greatly exaggerate both the threat that disorder overseas presents to us, and even more, to what extent America could effectively resolve these problems by military intervention.

But then, in posing his alternative, he dusts off an old argument that has been present in U.S. policymaking circles for decades: burden sharing. Conservatives have traditionally argued that the Pentagon can get more bang for the buck by leaning on allies to pick up more of the tab for U.S. military bases, spend more overall on their militaries, and take the lead on various military campaigns. Liberals, like Barney Frank, trot out burden sharing as a way of gaining bipartisan support for Pentagon budget reductions. As our allies spend more, we can spend less.

The concept of burden sharing is so mainstream, however, that I wonder why Frank feels the need to devote an entire column to it.

The U.S. government is always trying to pressure allies like Japan, South Korea, and Germany to pay more as part of their host nation support. Through NATO, the United States has relentlessly pushed Europe and Canada to meet their informal obligation of spending 2 percent of their GDP on the military. Yet the burden sharing argument can be found equally in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and libertarians skeptical of U.S. military actions overseas.

In part, Frank’s column was a sideways contribution to the ongoing debate over the budget in Washington. The Obama administration vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act last week — which would have given the Pentagon $612 billion — largely because it objected to spending caps applied to non-defense expenditures. But a deal this week, just as John Boehner heads out the door as House speaker, will provide the Pentagon with $607 billion, up the non-defense spending caps, and raise the national debt ceiling in order to keep the lights on in government until at least spring 2017.

Frank has been trying to persuade his former colleagues in Washington that the Pentagon can safely and sustainably cut $100 billion a year. His colleagues aren’t listening to him. They like the idea of burden sharing. They also like the idea of maintaining the same level of U.S. military spending, which in their minds translates into more jobs in their districts.

But the other reason for talking about burden sharing now is Frank’s argument that Russia and China pose a destabilizing threat to the world order. Frank doesn’t want the United States to face down these threats in a High Noon standoff. Rather, he wants to deputize other countries to hem in the regional hegemons. For that reason, Frank recommends “that it’s time to rearm Germany and Japan.”

A Dodgy Proposition

The strangest part of Frank’s argument is that Germany and Japan are already rearming themselves.

Yes, as Frank points out, the United States spends 3.5 percent of GDP on defense while Germany spends closer to 1 percent (1.2 percent to be precise). But somehow he must have missed the German government’s announcement earlier this year that it would increase spending by more than 6 percent over the next five years as part of a comprehensive modernization.

Japan has traditionally tried to keep its military spending to under 1 percent of GDP. But conservative leader Shinzo Abe is pushing the boundaries. Tokyo has increased its military spending for the last four years and recently submitted its largest increase ever. The Abe government has also passed legislation that will allow the now-misnamed Self Defense Forces to engage in military operations overseas.

Okay, so they’re already rearming, in part in response to the same threat perceptions that Frank identifies. Are they still freeloaders, as Frank suggests?

Japan by no means gets a free ride from the Pentagon. It’s generally covered around 75 percent of the costs for maintaining U.S. bases in the country (compared to percentages around half that by Germany and South Korea). The debate is in the news (in Japan at least) because Washington is currently trying to get Tokyo to increase its share even as the Abe government is petitioning for a reduction. This comes after Washington has already pressured Tokyo to cover the costs of a new military base in Okinawa that the vast majority of the residents there oppose.

As David Vine writes in his invaluable new book Base Nation,

Today, Japanese sympathy payments subsidize the U.S. presence at an annual level of around $150,000 per service member. For 2011 alone, Japanese taxpayers provided $7.1 billion, or around three quarters of total basing costs. In addition to agreeing to pay $6.09 billion to help close Futenma and move marines off Okinawa, the Japanese government agreed to contribute around $15.9 billion toward a larger set of transformations involving bases in Okinawa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Iwakuni, Japan.

As for Germany, with the end of the Cold War and the drawdown of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been closing bases there for the last quarter century. Several major garrisons in recent years have been closed. Paying for U.S. bases in Germany has now morphed into dealing with economic dislocation connected to these closures. Vine also details several cases of extravagant and entirely unnecessary upgrades at U.S. military bases in Germany, some of them just prior to their closure. Prudent Germans would be right not to want to cover such costs.

So, our allies are already upping their commitments. Congress is not reducing the Pentagon’s budget. And militarism continues apace.

But it gets worse.

Unintended Consequences

The United States has historically put itself forward as an honest broker that can deter and mediate conflicts because of its lack of interest in acquiring territory. Territorial expansion, of course, is only one factor that can compromise the neutrality of a mediator or justify the presence of military bases. But still, this argument has persuaded many countries to support a distant superpower in order to balance the regional power closer to home.

Both Germany and Japan have managed to some degree to overcome regional suspicions that date back to their World War II conduct (and earlier). Fearful of a resurgent Russia, Poland has moved closer to Germany. Similar fears of China have prompted the Philippines to welcome Japan’s turn away from its “peace constitution.”

And yet the specter of resurgent militarism in Germany and Japan still makes many Europeans and Asians uneasy. South Korea, for instance, has yet to settle its territorial and historical concerns with Japan. And many EU members are uncomfortable with Germany’s disproportionate economic influence over European affairs. Turning Germany into a military giant will not improve intra-EU relations.

Then there’s the issue of adding yet another driver to the global arms race. It’s bad enough that the United States spends so much and peddles so much. Pushing our “junior partners” to take on more “mature” commitments will only keep global military spending hovering at the $1.8 trillion mark at a time when those resources are so urgently needed elsewhere. Its overall military spending on the decline for some time, Europe has been the one bright spot in global trends. Asia, meanwhile, is on a military spending binge. Adding a resurgent Japan to this mix only makes it more volatile.

Although both Europe and Northeast Asia are comparatively wealthy, they too face economic challenges. Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for decades, compounded by the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Europe, facing a plethora of challenges from refugees to highly indebted states, is hard-pressed to meet its NATO obligations.

The notion that countries like Germany and Japan would advance as the American empire retreats comforts some liberals by preserving U.S. power projection beneath a veneer of multilateralism. But it’s the mechanism of militarism that is ultimately the problem — not who’s controlling the levers.

Alternatives to Empire

Barney Frank’s burden sharing option is already basically in play. Our key allies are spending more on their militaries. And this hasn’t led to any bipartisan agreement to cut U.S. military spending. What alternatives are there to the United States continuing to go it alone, or embracing Frank’s option of policing the world with more assistance from a couple of hand-picked gunslinger allies?

Let’s start with isolationism versus internationalism.

The isolationists and their fellow travelers make a good point about the limits of U.S. power. But focusing exclusively on domestic affairs is an argument more fitting for 1515 rather than 2015. Today, the globe faces any number of very difficult challenges that no one country can solve by itself: global warming, a refugee crisis, a growing divide between rich and poor. Moreover, Washington is partly responsible for the fires that are burning around the world, so we have an obligation to be part of the bucket brigade. We just need to be sending our diplomats and humanitarian specialists, not our soldiers, to help put out the fires.

Which brings us to the internationalist option. I lean in this direction, but just invoking the United Nations is, frankly, not enough. UN peacekeeping, which just received an infusion of troops and equipment at the UN meeting in September, has worked most successfully when deployed after a peace agreement (as in Sierra Leone and Cyprus). Their efforts to stop the outbreak of violence or reduce its scope — in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia — have more often than not failed. And such missions need constant oversight, for they often suffer from the same problems as other armed forces (for example, sexual violence and child prostitution).

International mechanisms such as tribunals and treaties are equally important. But they require enforcement, which is hampered by lack of resources and lack of international consensus. The best agents of implementation, of course, are civil society actors on the ground. But such actors are most effective where the rule of law is already reasonably strong. What chance do civil society organizations have against forces like the Islamic State in conflict-torn Iraq and Syria?

Clearly, to address the palpable evils of the world, international institutions are not yet up to the task. So, what can be done in this interim period as we beef up the capacity of international institutions and push to reduce the U.S. military footprint?

Here are three modest suggestions:

  • Rather than provoke Russia and China to accelerate their own military modernizations, engage them in new rounds of arms control. Both countries have their own economic worries and could ultimately find negotiated limits on deployment attractive particularly if coupled with other guarantees (like a freeze on NATO expansion or one on new base construction in Japan).
  • Rather than push individual countries like Japan and Germany to rearm, strengthen inclusive regional security mechanisms. If Europe is to play a stronger military role in the world, the burden should fall on the EU as a whole and not one country like Germany. Northeast Asia, meanwhile, urgently needs a regional security structure to handle its myriad territorial disputes. Regional responses to crises can suffer from the same defects as international efforts. But locating crisis-response mechanisms at the regional level can ideally avoid both the difficulty of marshaling consensus at the international level and the self-interested motives of unilateral actors.
  • Rather than add fuel to the fire, support international gun control. The global arms trade — valued to be at least $76 billion in 2013 — has flooded conflicts with enormous firepower. The Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force at the end of last year, takes a first step by making arms sales more transparent. The next step, an incomparably more difficult challenge, is to reduce the flow.

At the moment, we’re still chasing the car. If we don’t start thinking about concrete alternatives, we’re not likely to achieve our goal. And we might just get run over trying.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 28, 2015

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Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured

The New Middle Passage

Peter, a Sierra Leone migrant living in Hungary, is one of the lucky ones. He has a job. He has a supportive community of friends. After seven years in the country, the Hungarian government approved his application for asylum. He started a very successful NGO devoted to helping other migrants make a new life in Hungary.

I interviewed Peter in Budapest two years ago. It was not exactly the best of times to be a migrant or someone working on migrant issues in Hungary. The right-wing government of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party had turned a cold shoulder to the influx of newcomers from the global south. Two migrant rights organizers I interviewed at the time refused to allow me to publish our conversation for fear of government reprisals.

Little did we know that the situation two years ago was halcyon compared to today.

Hungary is the epicenter of a new wave of migration hitting Europe. In 2011, about 7,000 migrants arrived in Hungary. Now the country is experiencing as many as 3,000 per day.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hungary has become even less hospitable to these new arrivals, most of whom are heading north from the Middle East through Greece and then Macedonia and Serbia. This year, the Hungarian government has granted asylum to only 278 of the 148,000 people who applied. And Fortress Hungary is constructing a new 109-mile fence across its southern flank to dissuade others from arriving.

Most of the migrants who make it to Hungary, unlike Peter, see it as just a stop on the way to more welcoming countries, like Germany. But it’s not easy to complete that journey. Smugglers charge exorbitant rates. And the trip can be just as dangerous by land as on the rickety boats that routinely capsize in the Mediterranean.

On the road between Budapest and Vienna, a truck was discovered last week with 71 corpses rotting in the back. These unfortunates, hoping for a new life in Austria, suffocated in unspeakable conditions and then were abandoned by their Bulgarian and Afghan smugglers. They’d already made it on the first leg of their journey — out of their country and into southeastern Europe — and they were hopeful that the final leg would bring them from amigrant-processing center somewhere in the European Union to an apartment, a job, and a life of safety.

But these middle passages are often the most treacherous.

A Crescent of Crisis

During the slave trade, which forcibly transferred 12.4 million Africans from their homeland between the late 15th and 19th centuries, as many as 1.8 million died during the infamous “middle passage” to Europe and the Americas — a casualty rate of around 15 percent.

The conditions on the slave ships were horrifying. People were stacked practically like firewood, and many died of malnutrition and dehydration. Sharks followed the ships to feed off all the bodies thrown over the side. “Human ‘wastage’ was simply part of the business, something to be calculated into all planning,” writes Marcus Rediker in his book The Slave Ship.

Today’s migrants are not slaves. They’re coming to Europe voluntarily. Indeed, they’re desperate to leave their homelands and find even the lowest-paying jobs in Europe. The countries they’re abandoning — Syria, Afghanistan, Mali — have become death traps, so they’re willing to risk everything to bring themselves and their families to safety.

But between the horrors of their home countries and the security of Europe lies a middle passage that all too often resembles the terrible transit experienced by enslaved Africans long ago. More than 2,300 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean. Over 3,200 died last year.

Meanwhile, the number of people trying to get across by boat from Africa to Europe hasjumped 40 percent since 2014. The casualty rate is lower than during the slave trade — approximately 1 percent versus 15 percent — but this comparison should not make Europeans sleep any better at night.

The deadly middle passage doesn’t only involve Europe.

In 2014, 307 people died trying to get from Mexico into the United States (down from 445 in 2013). Since 2000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 40,000 people have died trying to cross borders around the world. “The true number of fatalities is likely to be higher, as many deaths occur in remote regions of the world and are never recorded,” according to the 2014 IOM report Fatal Journeys. “Some experts have suggested that for every dead body discovered, there are at least two others that are never recovered.”

No doubt the smugglers responsible for many of these deaths also calculated “human wastage” as part of their business.

Since Europe is the closest safe haven for people trapped in a crescent of crisis, which stretches from Ukraine through Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and into northern Africa, it must deal with the surge in migration. Eliminating the push factor by ending the civil conflicts in the crescent of crisis is the only sustainable solution to the current migration problem. But Europe can’t wave a magic wand to make Afghanistan, Syria, and Eritrea into safe and stable countries.

As an interim measure, then, Europe must find a way of reducing the horrors of the middle passage as well as providing a safe haven at the end of the journey.

Never Again?

Europe wasn’t always such a stable, peaceable place. During the Fascist takeover of the continent in the 1930s, large numbers of Europeans were fleeing certain death in Germany and Austria. In 1938, 32 nations met in Evian, Switzerland to discuss the growing refugee crisis.

“The outcome of the meeting was clear: Europe, North America, and Australia would not accept significant numbers of these refugees,” writes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “In the verbatim record, two words were uttered repeatedly: ‘density’ and ‘saturation.’ The European countries were already beset with population ‘density’ and had reached a point of ‘saturation’ — in other words, there was simply no more room at the European inn.”

The world’s nations will again meet to discuss a large-scale refugee problem, this time in New York at the United Nations, in an emergency session convened by Ban Ki-moon for later this month. EU ministers will gather two weeks before that to work out their own strategy. The early signs suggest a replay of Evian 1938. As I wrote earlier in Our Refugee World, rich countries have simply not stepped up to the plate.

Germany is the major exception. Here is a country, at least, attempting to learn the lessons of its own history. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently decided to allow thousands of Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany. The country now expects to take in 800,000 refugeesthis year, four times the figure from 2014.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel write that “the response so far does not meet the standards that Europe must set for itself. The EU cannot put this off any longer — we need to act now. We must therefore pursue a European asylum, refugee, and migration policy that is founded on the principle of solidarity and our shared values of humanity.”

Their 10-point plan focuses on establishing more consistent and humane Europe-wide policies, a fairer distribution of refugees, more money for countries on the front lines like Greece, and a more concerted marine rescue effort. Presumably Germany will bring this plan to the meeting of EU ministers and then to the UN.

The German plan is necessary if still insufficient. But even this modest initiative is generating backlash within Europe. “Germany’s neighbors are reluctant,” The New York Times reports. “The leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary are scheduled to meet ahead of the European Union ministers’ meeting to oppose any quotas on accepting migrants.” They too will probably talk of “density” and “saturation.”

The reluctance doesn’t just lie to the east. Britain, for instance, has taken in just 216 Syrian refugees — roughly equal to the poor showing of the United States on this issue — and Prime Minister David Cameron promises that the number won’t go above a thousand. Home Secretary Theresa May, meanwhile, even wants to cut back on legal migration from other EU states! Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks writes that “in Denmark — where asylum applications have not increased significantly compared to 2014 — the parliament approved a cut in refugee benefits, with the declared intention of making the country less attractive to refugees.”

Addressing the Rising Tide

This is no time to give into the rising xenophobia and racism of the anti-immigration forces in Europe (which feeds on and into comparable sentiment in the United States). Here are three more suggestions to add to Germany’s 10-point plan.

1) Beef up law enforcement where it can be most effective. There’s no military solution to the refugee crisis, though some governments would like to call in troops to restore order. There is, however, a role for law enforcement: to break up the smuggling rings and prosecute the coyotes. These are the people in charge of the monstrous middle passage, and they have to be run out of business. Punish the ruthless opportunists, not the refugees.

2) Provide more funds to the countries even closer to the source. Turkey has taken in 1.6 million Syrians at a cost of over $4.5 billion. The EU should provide Turkey with more resources to handle the issue — along with Lebanon and Jordan and other frontline countries. This should reduce the burden on Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary.

3) Create a Europe-wide jobs program. Europe is still struggling with high unemployment rates — around 10 percent in the EU. The exception to the rule is Germany, where the unemployment rate is under 5 percent. But Germany, as the country most opposed to deficit spending and priming the pump, should realize that high unemployment and elevated rates of immigration are a volatile mix. This is the time for Europe as a whole, led by its German bankers, to create a jobs program that can employ both new arrivals and native workers who have been out of work for months or years.

Back in Hungary, my friend Peter is doing just that. His NGO provides computer training for new migrants so they can get jobs and become productive members of Hungarian society. Think of how much more could be done if the Hungarian government, with EU funds, provided jobs to the graduates of the migrant training program — as well as all the disgruntled unemployed Hungarians who resist the arrival of anyone else from the global south.

Yes, there’s a rising tide of refugees in Europe. But with some smart policy corrections, the EU can ensure that a rising tide lifts all boats.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 2, 2015

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

The Persistent Gap

It was a shock for many East Germans when they visited West Germany for the first time – not just in 1989 but way back in 1959. Thirty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany had already recovered from the devastation of World War II. Between 1950 and 1960, the average GDP growth for West Germany was 8.2 percent, and it was during this period that the London Times declared the country’s performance a Wirtschaftswunder, an economic miracle.

Many East Germans were so impressed by what they saw in West Germany that they didn’t return. “Since the foundation of the GDR in 1949 and the end of Honecker’s first full year as Secretary for Security in 1958, 2.1 million East Germans had fled the country that Ulbricht built,” writes Frederick Taylor in The Berlin Wall. “Almost a million would leave during he next three years. In the first twelve years of its existence East Germany lost around a sixth of its population.” It was no surprise, then, that the GDR built the Wall in 1961.

Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany’s economic performance still serves as a model for those further to the east. Poland, for instance, has posted one of the more successful economic records of the countries of East-Central Europe. But this success is nothing compared to what West Germany was able to achieve in the two decades after World War II. And that’s one reason why two million Poles have left their country.

Adam Jagusiak is one of those Polish émigrés. When I met him in Sopot in 1990, he was working with other activists to stop the country’s first nuclear power plant in Zarnowiec, a protest that ultimately succeeded. But the group that Jagusiak was involved with – Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj or WiP) – was dying out, and he was not optimistic about the future. Eventually he took a job with the Polish foreign ministry that brought him in 1992 to New York to work at the Polish consulate. He has stayed there ever since, only returning to Poland as a visitor.

When he looks back at what has changed or not changed over the last two decades in Poland, he is most disappointed with the economic performance.

“It’s 23 years since 1990,” Jagusiak told me in an interview in New York in November 2013.  “It’s longer than the interwar period, the intermission of Polish independence. In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe. It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What’s most disappointing, for most people not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap. It’s there. We closed it to a certain extent, but now it just plateaus. Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That’s a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe 2 or 3 percent. There’s no closing the gap in sight.”

If the Poles were to look to the east or the south, they would be no doubt pleased with their relative success compared to Ukraine or Bulgaria. But Poles generally don’t look in those directions for comparison purposes, any more than Americans judge their economic success by Mexican standards.

“For us, Germany is the point of reference,” Jagusiak continued. “For Ireland, it’s England, but they closed the gap. Finland was the poor cousin of Sweden, but they closed the gap and maybe they’re even better off now. But this whole block or camp of countries is still lagging behind. Slovenia is perhaps closest, but it’s a small country, cozy between Italy and Austria. The Czech Republic is wealthier than Poland, but still it hasn’t closed the gap. It was wealthier in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Habsburg rule, under Communism. This area has been wealthier for the past 200 years. But they still haven’t closed the gap. And I don’t really know why. Twenty-three years looks like a long time to achieve something economically. Maybe it’s impossible to grow like this. Maybe Japan and South Korea were in the right place at the right time. Maybe that’s all we can do.”

We talked about his time with Freedom and Peace, his experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the potential reasons why his car was subjected to multiple attacks when he was living in Queens.

 

The Interview

 

In 1990, you discovered that you had friends in high places.

 

Yes, and it was a very new experience. That’s why I was offered a job in the foreign ministry. It was called “new people” in Polish. The system needed new people. I was one of those new people, and I was offered a job in the foreign ministry and I accepted. In 1992, I took a job in the Polish consulate in New York City. Which I did for five years.

 

In 1990, Freedom and Peace (WiP) was basically over. Was there a particular time when you think it ended?

 

It ended in spring 1989 with the Round Table negotiations.

 

And it ended because?

 

It definitively ended then. At the end of 1988, there was already a decline in the movement. It ended because it lost momentum. It lost its purpose.

 

One of the focuses of WiP was military service.

 

That was most important.

 

When did that issue become resolved?

 

Actually, it was only really resolved two years ago with the abolition of conscription in Poland. I don’t really know what was going on for the last 10 years, the kind of alternative service that was offered or the conditions in which people served. It was probably easy to get. But the way I see it, it was resolved with the final abolition of conscription. Nobody gets papers from the army now. It’s the first time in a long time in Polish history.

 

There’s no obligatory service. But you can volunteer.

 

Yes, it’s professional. I’m not sure how it works, but you sign a contract and maybe stay on as a professional. This is the final solution of the alternative service question.

 

How old were you when you had to deal with the military service question?

 

For young men, if you didn’t go to college or university at the age of 18 or 19, then you went to the army. If you were accepted into one of the academic institutions, they would let you graduate and delay conscription. In the 1980s, when I graduated from Gdansk University, they would take you only for one year rather than two years. Then you’d be an officer. You didn’t get the lowest military rank. They basically treated you better for one year because you were educated and the military evidently appreciated this.

 

You graduated from Gdansk University, and then what was your experience?

 

I was called for a medical examination, which I passed. Then I was supposed just to wait for the letter that tells you that you have to report somewhere — to this particular unit on this particular day. At that time, I started looking for contacts with WiP. Maybe they didn’t want to conscript me because of this. I tried to postpone it. I never did anything so radical as what some of my friends did. I didn’t refuse or reject conscription openly. Some burned their military documents, which was like a booklet with data in it. They wouldn’t accept the call-up papers. I had to be careful not to sign this registered letter because once you signed it then you were supposed to know what you were going to do. If not, it wasn’t delivered. I managed to postpone it until I was 28 years old. When you’re 28, the army doesn’t want you any more. That was three years. Someone helped me delay on medical grounds for a couple years. By 1988, I was already 28. And then it was over.

 

How did you find out about WiP?

 

I don’t remember really. Maybe someone told me that there was a movement that could be suitable for me. I got the address of an apartment in Sopot. It was the epicenter of the movement for the Gdansk area. Once I got there and from then on, I knew. The whole issue was how to get there, to find the apartment.

 

If you were 28 in 1988, you were 20 in 1980. Were you in university during the strikes in Gdansk?

 

Yes.

 

What was that like?

 

It was absolutely wonderful, fantastic. That might have been my first political experience, the strikes at the university in 1981 before Martial Law. It was living in a pure fantasy. I had no idea what would happen, how it would be resolved. Some more experienced people knew for sure. I was not even 21. We were planning to change the curriculum, which classes to suspend and which should be continued. It was pure fantasy. But I loved it. I stayed there for three weeks in a sleeping bag. It was constant stimulation: talking, lectures, meetings.

 

Were there people on the faculty opposed to the strike?

 

Yes, there were. But they were in a minority. The majority was for it. If they were opposed, they didn’t show up there. But they didn’t try to indoctrinate us.

After some years, it occurred to me that my whole education was under a Communist system behind the Iron Curtain: eight years plus four years plus five years. For all those 17 years, no one asked me to read a passage from Marx or Engels. No one asked me to read anything from Marxist philosophy. Nobody cared. I had one lesson in primary school, a sort of a civics class, where the teacher asked us, “Who rules our country?” And the whole class shouted “Edward Gierek!” That was in the 1970s. The teacher was vulgar. She said, “Not Edward Gierek you idiots,” that’s how she called us. “It’s workers and peasants.” But we didn’t know. We didn’t know that the workers and peasants ruled the country. They were children of workers, but it would never have crossed their minds that their parents had any say in the rule of the country.

The strike in 1981, I remember this as very unreal, surreal. We had very daring plans in which we got rid of Brezhnev and this whole clique, transform the studies at the university, take things into our hands. It was all fantastic and daring, but maybe appropriate for that time and age.

 

Was there much contact between the university and the Gdansk shipyard?

 

Not really, not as far as I know. Then Martial Law came, the university was closed, everyone was kicked out, and we had enforced vacation for a month. When we came back at the end of January, it was already very different.

 

Do you remember the day the Martial Law was declared?

 

Yes, I remember. I was at home in Sopot.

 

Were you surprised?

 

I was surprised. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had no real insight. I didn’t have any inside information. I was just living in this fantasy world, enjoying this semi-freedom for those few months. Some people said that the ending would be brutal, but I didn’t know when or how it would be resolved.

 

Were any of the student leaders arrested?

 

Probably some were interned, the ones most active in the Independent Student Association, but I didn’t know about them. Back then I was a face in the crowd. There were a lot of people there from my group. My group was 30 people. At least 25 were there.

 

Your group…?

 

That I was doing the program with. I was doing linguistics.

 

When you were in university, what did you think you would do after graduation?

 

I didn’t know. I was postponing this. I didn’t know what I would do after graduation. I could be a teacher of English language. Many of my friends did that, and that’s still their career. I found out the hard way when I graduated in 1985. That year was very depressing, the doldrums, a hopeless time. Many of my friends left the country. I thought about it. I debated. But I didn’t. But so many people left that you felt left out.

When I graduated, I didn’t know what to do. The choice was this way or that way, join the Party or not. I was young and educated, but the Party didn’t have much to offer. It wasn’t that you joined the Party and you immediately had a career. But if you tried and worked hard, it was a path for some people. I knew foreign languages, so if I joined the Party, I could maybe do foreign trade. It was a Faustian deal. You could join the system and try to benefit from it. Or you could be an outsider like most of society. Most people weren’t in the Party. They made their living, they had families. But a small minority of people decided to do something, not to sound highfaluting, for dignity. I saw it as doing something for myself. Looking for political opposition, searching for like-minded people, doing something with them — I saw it as also doing something for myself.

 

Your decision on military service, what motivated that?

 

That I didn’t want to go? Nobody wanted to go. But for most young men it was just a thing that you did. You didn’t think about it. Actually most didn’t go to any universities or colleges. Maybe one third lived in the countryside. They were sons of farmers. So they just went to the army, unless they had a farm of their own. But who has a farm of their own at the age of 18? Maybe some very rare cases. They just went without questioning. If you graduated from some vocational school, you learn a trade, you went to the army, and then you got a job. It was only two years. For most people it was not a problem.

I made a big mistake when I was 20. I was still suffering from something psychologists called “primary egocentrism.” That usually ends at the age of two. When a child is hungry, it thinks the whole world is hungry. If a baby wants to sleep, it projects its feelings on the whole world. When I was in my twenties, I thought that my issues and problems and what I thought was important, everyone thought the same way. But it was not true. Only much later I realized it was not like this.

For most people, serving in the military was not a problem because everything was done by the time you were 21 — your schooling, your military service, your trade. You were good to go. For those who went to schools and universities, it was different. We were older. We saw it as wasting a year. But most decided to go because it was only a year. And when I graduated, maybe it was only half a year — a few months in the barracks and then you went home and worked for the army. But for me it wasn’t about how long it was. I just didn’t want the government to have control over my life, ordering me to go to a particular place on a particular day. It was also political. WiP began with the military oath. We had this humiliating text for the military oath, swearing allegiance to the Soviet army. This was the first bone of contention. For me, it was not such a big deal. Swearing an oath to a country that was a dominating power was humiliating, but I didn’t think about this, about them making me utter those words. It was more like: why should I do this? Avoiding military service took more energy and trouble than doing it. But I just didn’t want to do it.

 

I remember some of the members in WiP were focused on the military oath. But if the oath was removed, they were perfectly happy to serve in the military.

 

Maybe for some people, if you removed the oath, they would serve. Now my thinking is different. I think: was Adam right? He was right in some sense. But maybe if he had gone to the military and not seen it as a kind of yielding or surrendering, maybe it could have been a sociological project to get to know his generation. For this purpose, I think maybe he should have done it. But he was not interested in this sociological experiment. He thought he knew his generation. But he didn’t know it. He knew a very small section of his generation. If he went, he would have had a chance to make some observations, to get this experience.

 

As you said, most people were willing to go to serve in the military. But did you mean that there were other differences between you and your generation. Were there other things that you didn’t understand?

 

I knew people from WiP. They were my generation though mostly a few years younger. I didn’t know my generation in the sense that I didn’t know typical people from my generation. I knew them, but I didn’t find them interesting. It was wrong and unfair. I don’t divide people like this any more. Maybe it’s pardonable when you’re 20.

 

During the Martial Law period, was there much contact between WiP and the rest of the opposition?

 

Do you mean the whole 1980s since technically Martial Law ended in 1983?

 

The whole 1980s.  

 

WiP was launched in 1985. Was there much contact between Solidarity and WiP? It depended on the area. In Gdansk, not so much. In Wroclaw, yes. In Krakow, I don’t know. In Gdansk, we had Walesa and Father Jankowski. It was called the Court. They were not so easily accessible like some local activists in smaller places. In Wroclaw, the relationship was especially close, and they would let WiP use their equipment. I never met Walesa. It’s not that I avoided him. It just never happened. Some people from the Gdansk chapter of WiP knew some people from Solidarity, and they had a friendly relationship.  Solidarity paid our fines as we were constantly harassed with arrests and fines as a tool of political repression. Solidarity paid those fines to help us. Otherwise bailiffs would come to our homes and confiscate our mostly meager possessions. Some people had labels on their refrigerators that read “property of the state” or something like that.

 

During that period, what did you think was going to happen? Did you think you would be in this political limbo for the rest of your life?

 

This was something I didn’t think about much then. It was two years for me of living dangerously. I started in 1986, but I really got into it in 1987 and 1988. I lived with such an intense feeling as if on a high every day. Occasionally I’d think about it but it was suppressed by another event. The measure of success or failure was very individual, very detached from reality. If we achieved something for the movement, this was success and I was happy. If something didn’t go well, it was a failure, and I was unhappy. It’s impossible to live like this for a longer time. If not for the changes in 1989, if it had continued tike this, after three or four years, I would have reached a point of frustration. But it was disrupted by 1989. It was terminated before I started feeling frustrated and starting to think about what I would do with myself.

I worked translating movies. This was my job, my income. There was a company in Gdynia. It was illegal. The black-market economy was thriving in the country back then. It was the time when videotape was a novelty in the 1980s. VCR, videotapes — it was just introduced in Poland. The owners of this company had someone tape movies on TV in England and send them. This was also the time when this laser disc was introduced, like a record player with a sapphire needle. It was cheap technology, and you could only play it a few times. I translated the dialogue into Polish. Someone else read them. They paid well. I made more money than people working in the factory. It was easy too, just working one or two days a week. Sometimes I spent a whole day translating a movie, for 14 hours, and it was like a monthly wage for some people. But this was an aberration. It couldn’t go on like this. But I didn’t think about it back then. I was already 27 or 28. I was young, but I wasn’t that young. If it had been one or two more years, I don’t know what I would have done. I didn’t want to know. It was some kind of denial.

 

You worked one or two days a week. And the rest of the time you devoted to political activity?

 

Social or political activity, there was no difference for me. The rest of the time I devoted to living! I worked for two days and I lived for five days. This was a wonderful time. You talked to someone, you did something: everything furthered the cause, in my opinion.

 

When you think back to those two years, what stands out in your memory?

 

Interactions with people on the street. Public actions were our method. When you collect signatures, you have to deal with people, explain to them. Also we had many people coming from different countries to talk to us. I was one of the few who could talk with them. My first contact with WiP was teaching English. Not very successfully. The small group of WiP activists who wanted to learn had some enthusiasm but it was short-lived, and then this little group disbanded.

I was one of the few who could communicate with the foreigners. My explanations were okay, but I thought that what I was doing something no one had ever done before. Which wasn’t true. People had done this before in other countries. I considered some people who came from Western Europe more naive than they were. I considered them badly informed, somehow completely lost. Some of them knew very well the extent of repression in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. I tried to say everything, leave nothing unsaid or untouched. I don’t know how they reacted to it, what they really thought.

Those were the highlights — speaking to people on the street and talking to people from other countries. At that time, behind the Iron Curtain, we didn’t have so many contacts. The idea that someone coming from another country was interested in what we were doing and wanted to talk to us was in itself exciting. Before nobody was interested, and this was the first time that someone seriously listened to what I had to say. I was telling them the whole truth!

 

When the Round Table negotiations were announced, did you think that this was the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland or did you consider this to be a bad strategy for the opposition?

 

I didn’t think it was a bad strategy because I didn’t have any other alternatives. I wasn’t cynical back then. I took many things at face value. I didn’t think about any secret deals or secret agendas. For me, it was an acceptable solution. I thought that it would probably be the end of the system, but how it would end and what would follow, I didn’t know. I don’t think anyone expected the collapse — maybe the collapse of the system in Poland but nobody was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nobody talked about independent Ukraine or Lithuania. This came later. Maybe I thought of it more as a liberalization. The real end of Communism dawned on me the night the Wall fell when I was in Berlin.

 

You were there? By accident?

 

Yes. I didn’t plan it. I knew some people from East Germany. We had contacts. They were Lutheran priests. I visited them. I could go to East Germany in the 1980s. I couldn’t travel outside the Soviet bloc, but I could travel within. The terminology was amazing. Our bloc was called “camp” — oboz — which means exactly “camp.” We lived in a camp. We could travel between blocs in the camp. So, I traveled to GDR in 1988. I was with my friends on Leipzigerstrasse, right next to the Wall, and they were saying that they didn’t think they would see the fall of the Wall in their lifetimes.

“It’s there to stay,” one of them said. “I don’t think about it. I just try to block it from my view. When I pass, I don’t want to look at it.”

I said, “I’m not sure,” not because I knew something but just to tease them. “One day it might go.”

And exactly one year later, I was going by bus from Amsterdam in November 1989 to get back to Gdansk. We were going through West Berlin where I had to cross the border and take a night train to Gdansk from East Berlin. When the bus was traveling through Germany, the driver said, “Oh, they announced that the border is open. People are gathering at the border.” When we crossed the border, the inter-German border, there was a bunch of people in cars trying to get to the West. And they could pass. When we went to West Berlin, it was a mob scene, a human river. I was just carried by people. My feet never touched the ground. I was carried across. I left West Berlin for the train station in East Berlin and took a train back home. But I saw the fall of the Wall, this brutal symbol of division, and then I knew that it had to be real. Before that, I thought it could just be liberalization. That I could get a passport in fall 1989 was not such a big deal. Many people did. I had been able to leave the country in 1979 when I went to England. Poland wasn’t the GDR. But when I saw this scene, then I knew it was real. This was something that could not be reversed.

 

The crowds were pushing you from where to where?

 

I was trying to go the other direction from the crowd, which was moving from east to west. But I couldn’t. They just carried me. I spent some time there, in West Berlin. Then I crossed back to East Berlin. I don’t think they even checked my documents. No one was checking passports.

 

You were very lucky to be there on that day.

 

I couldn’t have even planned it! Maybe ten people knew that it was going to happen on that day. Gorbachev, Honecker, maybe Kohl, maybe Reagan. It’s something that’s hard to forget.

 

By November 1989, there was the Solidarity government of Mazowiecki –

 

We still had this contract parliament and Jaruzelski as president. But the next year we had free elections, so it was a short-lived deal with this contract parliament.

 

In January 1990 was a new economic reality in the country. How did you experience that?

 

It was bananas on a cot. This was my experience of this economic transformation. The Polish market had no stuff, no goods. Everything was rationed and very limited and bad quality. But after these fiscal changes, two things were different. One was free exchange rate for dollar and Deutschemark. Kantors – exchange booths — were everywhere. This was big business for some people. And producers, national factories, could sell things from trucks. It wasn’t necessary to deliver to stores. They would just park a truck in the center and sell stuff from the truck. Clothes, cookies, whatever. Bananas. It filled up amazingly quickly in 1990. These rationing coupons were still issued in 1989, but they disappeared.

 

You were still translating movies at this time?

 

In 1989, I’d already stopped. I was teaching English a little bit. I opened an art gallery. This was a bad idea for me. It was just a whim. I knew nothing about art. It only lasted for a few months. Then in 1990 I already got a job offer from the foreign ministry. I moved to Warsaw and started working there. The job came right on queue. The timing was good. The revolution came at just the right time — when I had nothing else to do!

 

What were your responsibilities at the ministry in Warsaw?

 

I worked in the consular department. I was supposed to go to Berlin. It was a rotation. You spent four or five years and someone took over your duties. The position in Berlin was dealing with the Polish community. But they cancelled this position. And I was offered New York. I took it. I worked in the legal section. You didn’t have to be a lawyer for this. I worked in the estate section. The consulate back then still did the transferring of estates. If someone died here in the United States and some heirs entitled to the estate lived in Poland, the consulate would help transfer the estate. Now they don’t do it any more. It’s a private issue. People hire their own lawyers.

When I came here, I lived in Queens where there was a whole consular community. Very quickly I became a target of aggression. Someone broke a window in my car. I thought it was just vandalism. But it was a nice area in Middle Village, and nothing like this every happened. Then someone broke into my trunk and stole jumper cables and a spare tire. Then again they smashed the windows a few times. Everyone was surprised. No one knew what was going on. Finally my car was totally burned. Nothing was left but a pile of ash. I didn’t really know why, though it was quite a strong message. What was next? An attack against me, that I would suffer bodily harm? I was a bit scared. The police came but were not very impressed. They said it was just arson. I had no idea why. And I still don’t. I moved out. The consul general advised me to move out from this area. The secretary suspected something, maybe even someone from the consulate doing it.

But years after I read a report that there was something in Poland called WSI, military intelligence. They survived until 1994. It was an abandoned institution that turned into a criminal mafia, like the Tonton Macoute in Haiti, which survived the fall of the regime. The WSI made a few spectacular thefts of estates through fake documents of vital statistics, amounting to a million dollars. Maybe somebody before me was cooperating with them, and they wanted to scare me so that I would leave the country. Nobody told me, and I’ll probably never find out. That’s the only logical explanation that I can come up with now. When I moved, it was over.

 

You worked for the consulate for five years. Then you started working as a journalist?

 

Yes. After five years, my term expired but I got a job offer from one of the Polish-language daily newspapers here. I took the job.

 

Could you have gone back to Warsaw and worked for the ministry?

 

Yes, I could have, but it would have been tough — not politically but just renting an apartment in Warsaw. I worked at the consulate at the worst economic time. Before then, you were paid in dollars. If you took $100 to Poland in the 1970s, it was a big deal. For the past decade they pay much better. But in the 1990s, they kept us on these wages that were supposed to be a big deal back in Poland but they really weren’t very impressive. But I didn’t leave the consulate because of the pay. I left exclusively for personal reasons. And I decided to stay here in New York because of circumstances. I took the job with the paper and worked there for many years.

 

You were reporting on events here in New York and also in Poland?

 

Just here. I reported on community news, focusing on practical issues: on New York, immigration, and the Polish community. We covered some topics of public discussion covered by other newspapers, with some entertainment. But it was mostly practical. The paper was supposed to be friendly. You found out where you could get free flu shots. They used to buy a news service from Poland. We couldn’t possibly do the reporting on Poland here.

 

Which paper was it?

 

I’d rather not say. They didn’t treat me well in the end. They had to lay off people. Soon it will only be an online edition. That’s the way newspapers like this are going.

 

You went back to Poland semi-regularly. But you said that you had difficulty understanding what was going on there.

 

Because I didn’t live there. I didn’t really have difficulty understanding. But if you don’t experience something… I saw what it looked look, I lived there for a few months but I didn’t work there. So it was more like being a tourist.

 

When you went back, were there things that surprised you more than others?

 

No, it was gradual. Maybe if I went back now, there would be surprises. But I was never away for more than two years.

 

How would you evaluate the trajectory of Poland since 1990 from your point of view? Are you satisfied?

 

What is most disappointing now is the economic performance. It’s 23 years since 1990. It’s longer than the interwar period, the intermission of Polish independence. In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe. It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What’s most disappointing, for most people not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap. It’s there. We closed it to a certain extent, but now it just plateaus. Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That’s a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe 2 or 3 percent. There’s no closing the gap in sight.

For us, Germany is the point of reference. For Ireland, it’s England, but they closed the gap. Finland was the poor cousin of Sweden, but they closed the gap and maybe they’re even better off now. But this whole block or camp of countries is still lagging behind. Slovenia is perhaps closest, but it’s a small country, cozy between Italy and Austria. The Czech Republic is wealthier than Poland, but still it hasn’t closed the gap. It was wealthier in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Habsburg rule, under Communism. This area has been wealthier for the past 200 years. But they still haven’t closed the gap. And I don’t really know why. Twenty-three years looks like a long time to achieve something economically. Maybe it’s impossible to grow like this. Maybe Japan and South Korea were in the right place at the right time. Maybe that’s all we can do.

People ask, when will it be better. The answer: it’s already been better. We had it better already, didn’t you know? That’s the most important thing. That’s why many people left the country, in disappointment. We still look at Europe from below. It’s so deeply imprinted, a mixture of inferiority covered with some superficial bravado.

Young people don’t use the phrase “the West” anymore. They don’t say someone is in the West. They say someone went to France or England or Sweden, because “the West” doesn’t make sense. But in our generation, it was the West. When I lived in Poland, the West was one place, whether it was Los Angeles or Berlin.

The changes are absolutely huge and very positive. You can drive from Warsaw to Lisbon, and you don’t to stop the car on the way. But the economic gap is still there, and it’s so persistent and it doesn’t look like it will go away.

 

New York, November 13, 2013

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Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The Wall

I was at the library at Northwestern University, putting the final touches on the galleys of my first book, which addressed the topic of Soviet foreign policy. There was a FedEx box at the library, and my deadline was the last pick-up time. In a mad rush, I finished the remaining fact-checking chores, did one last proof, and dropped the manuscript in the box just before the truck pulled up to retrieve the packages. I was done, and I was exhilarated.

I went back to the apartment in Chicago where I was temporarily staying. It was late in the evening, and I was looking forward to having a celebratory drink. I walked into the apartment to the sound of the television. I stared at the images and couldn’t quite make sense of them. There were people on top of a wall. No, wait: there were people on top of the Wall.

It was November 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall was falling. It was an extraordinary event. I was one of the few people in the United States whose joy was mixed with dismay. The manuscript that I’d just painstakingly proofed would now need some serious revisions.

For most Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall remains the iconic image of the changes that took place in East-Central Europe 25 years ago. Just look at how the U.S. media has been covering the anniversary of 1989. The Polish elections that took place on June 4, 1989, the cutting of the barbed wire “iron curtain” between Hungary and Austria that took place several weeks later, and the Monday demonstrations that began in Leipzig that September have all received scant coverage.

But the anniversary of the Wall’s demise has gotten the full treatment. There was, after all, something cinematic about the fall of the Wall: the crowds of ebullient people, the shocked politicians, the physical dismantling of the thing itself. An election or a street demonstration just didn’t have the grand narrative sweep or generate the sheer number of photo ops. At acurrent exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, DC, you can see all the American artists who have been drawn to the Wall over the years, from Keith Haring to Chuck D.

The events of November 9, 1989 had a similar impact on me. My whole life had taken place in the shadow of the Wall, which divided East and West, capitalism and Communism, the “free” and the “fettered.” I’d gotten my first glimpse of the Soviet bloc when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, studied Russian in Moscow in 1985, and lived in still-Communist Poland in the first half of 1989. It was hard to adjust to the shattering of this world order. However noxious the Cold War was, it was at least predictable. But what began on November 10 was something altogether different, and somehow I had to revise my manuscript to reflect this brave new world (the eventual title, Beyond Détente, captured some of that flavor).

I assumed that the fall of the Wall had a similar impact on everyone in East-Central Europe. But when I returned to the region in 2012-13 to conduct interviews with nearly 300 opinion leaders, I discovered that, with some important exceptions, the Wall didn’t occupy such an important place in the regional imagination. Many people just couldn’t remember what they were doing on the day it happened or what they were thinking at the time.

The exceptions were, of course, the Germans themselves. Nearly every German I interviewed had an interesting story to tell about that day in November.

Former East German activist Marina Grasse, for instance, was organizing a forum in East Berlin on educational reform on November 9. “We thought maybe 10 people would come, maybe 20,” she remembered. “But there were two or three thousand people. For many of them, it was the first time that they talked in public. And all of us there were just listening. And it was not easy to listen. We started around 7 pm, and then it was 8:30, and something was going on. People were running around, coming and going. I asked my colleague to go and to ask, “What’s going on?” And he came back, and he said, ‘The Wall fell down.’ I don’t think I understood what he said because I answered, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll continue.’ After another 30 minutes, the hall was empty.”

Many people in the East dropped whatever they were doing to rush to the border and go across. Another former East German activist, Vera Lengsfeld, crossed over with some friends and found themselves at a bus stop on the other side. “The regular bus was pulling in, and the bus driver was very surprised,” she told me. “He asked, ‘Well, where are you guys coming from?’ It usually was a very quiet bus stop right at the border. We told him we are coming from East Berlin. And he was so surprised that he dropped his usual route and he gave us a sightseeing tour through West Berlin.”

West Germans were also making their way to the border. Politician Eva Quistorp rushed from Bonn to Berlin to experience the change. “From that moment when I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, I forgot time and food and everything,” she told me. “I don’t know if I ate anything in those hours or drank any water. It was incredible. It was better than Woodstock!”

Other Germans were almost paralyzed by shock. “I was standing there and people started crossing to the other side,” Reinhard Weisshuhn, an East German human rights activist,related. “It was open or it was about to be opened. But I couldn’t cross. I kept standing there for some time and then I went home. I didn’t go to the West. I could not do it. I then followed it via TV, but I could not react.”

For East German activist Thomas Klein, the fall of the Wall made the task of changing East Germany (formally known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) much more difficult. “We were not interested in being able to go to West Germany,” he told me. “We were concerned with building a new GDR, and we belonged to organizations that did not support the idea of reunification. We wanted a different, independent East Germany.”

Journalist Roland Jahn had been kicked out of East Germany and had to push against the crowds moving west in order to revisit East Berlin. “I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East,” he told me. “And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within.”

Some dissidents in other countries in the region also distinctly remember what they were doing on November 9, 1989. Czech oppositionist Jan Urban, recently released from jail, had gone to the Bohemian spa town Marianske Lazne where West and East German tourists were forced to stay on separate floor at the hotel.

“We were walking that day on the colonnade,” Urban remembered. “Until then, East Germans and West Germans always walked in separate groups. But this time everybody was screaming, laughing, crying, drinking from champagne bottles. We didn’t understand a thing. So we went back to our hotel. There were more crying people. But this time nobody went along with the selection of floors. Everyone flocked into the West German TV room. I just couldn’t believe my eyes: people standing on the Berlin Wall—beautiful.”

But aside from Germans and a sprinkling of dissidents in other countries in the region, the fall of the Berlin Wall was just one of a series of events that took place around the same time. “From that period of changes, other moments were more memorable and stay in my mind better than the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Hungarian environmental activist Veronika Mora told me in a characteristic comment.

On that very same weekend in November, for instance, the Bulgarian Communists removed long-serving Party chief Todor Zhivkov from his position. The Czechs and Slovaks, a mere week after the fall of the Wall, launched their own Velvet Revolution. The Hungarian government had already let 600 East Germans cross by foot into Austria the previous August and sent another set by bus along the same route in September. Hungarians are more likely to remember the June 1989 reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of the 1956 revolution, than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Poles, like the Hungarians, had been at the forefront of change, carefully negotiating with the Communist government for a revolution that proceeded inch by inch. They’d had the first semi-free elections in the region in June 1989. They’d formed the first non-Communist government in September. They were the first ones to make a political breach in the Iron Curtain. But suddenly, after November 9, the spotlight shifted away from them and to the countries that were experiencing sudden, unexpected change. Poles generally feel damned by the faint attention.

But attention isn’t always a good thing. We remember what happened in Romania in December 1989 because of its violence. The first signs of revolt took place in Timisoara in mid-December, as residents protested the forced removal of ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes from his church. The protests—and the violent response by the government—spread to Bucharest. Over a thousand people died during the Romanian revolution, including Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. Many of my interviewees who didn’t remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell were quick to add that they clearly remembered the execution of the Ceausescus.

The Romanian experience served as a reminder that not all transformations are miraculous. Until December 1989, the activists in the region had been extraordinarily lucky. Hardliners in the Czech Communist Party and the Army could have fought back against the Velvet revolutionaries—we “could have been shut down with 20, maybe 50, people with AK-47s,” Jan Urban reflected—and much blood might have been spilled. The Polish Communist Party acquiesced to their stunning electoral loss in June 1989.

And the Stasi, that formidable institution of surveillance and repression, didn’t put up any fight at all. “I talked to a lot of the Stasi people, and they said that they were told during the period of upheaval, ‘Stay in your barracks, don’t do anything. The Wall’s open, we’re going to cut a deal, and everything will be okay,’” journalist David Crawford told me. “If these people had been told, ‘Stay in your barracks, we’re going to have reunification, and when it’s over you’re going to get 800 DM a month as a pension, and you’re going to be unemployed, and you’re going to be a pariah to society, and you’re not going to be able to work in the public service,’ there might have been a lot of public resistance.”

With the violence of the Romanian revolution, the first happy phase of transformation was over. Still to come was the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia as well as the many conflicts that took place with the unraveling of the Soviet Union. The drastic dislocation that accompanied economic transition from plan to market threw millions of people out of their jobs and sent millions more abroad to seek employment. Corruption spread as quickly as an infectious disease. The gap between Europe’s east and west—which the Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians expected to be bridged within a generation at most—remains stubbornly wide: per capita GDP in Hungary is about $23,000, while in neighboring Austria it is nearly double that.

There would be new freedoms, accession to the European Union, and a growing middle class. But the expectations raised during those revolutionary days of 1989 were so high that disappointment was inevitable. Still, no one could have imagined back then that public opinion polls in the region would, more than two decades later, reveal that a majority of people—in Romania, in Hungary, in Serbia—would say that life under Communism had been better.

Even in wealthy Germany, reunification was anything but smooth. “East and West Germany were like a couple that had rushed into marriage with very little understanding of what it would be like to live together, merge finances, come to joint decisions, and make all the little adjustments that are necessary when two people with very different backgrounds are suddenly thrown together,” I write in Conflict Resolution and German Reunification. Despite the billions of Deutschemark poured into the former GDR, the standard of living in the eastern parts of Germany is lower than in the west, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher.

In part, that’s because all those inter-German payments largely went into the pockets of westerners. “The transfers didn’t end up all in East Germany, they rather passed through it like a boomerang,” German economist Rudiger Frank told me. “Just think about it: what was the money used for? It was used for infrastructure projects, for building up an efficient administration, for the social security network, for investment. Now, who benefitted from all that investment? It was West German companies who expanded to the east. So that was a subsidy to West German industry. Infrastructure projects, highways, roads, telecommunication networks, who did that? West German companies, because all the East German construction companies were either bankrupt or bought up by West German competitors.”

Still, 25 years ago, Germans had an opportunity that few are given in history: to tear down the walls of their oppression with their own hands. It was not violent or aggressive. It was a popular celebration. In a world of war, pestilence, and poverty, we should celebrate these few precious victories as we try, in so many ways to tear down the walls that still divide us.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 12, 2014

 

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

Conflict Resolution and German Reunification

If any country were in need of a national program of conflict resolution at every level of society, it would have been Germany after it reunified in 1990. East and West Germany were like a couple that had rushed into marriage with very little understanding of what it would be like to live together, merge finances, come to joint decisions, and make all the little adjustments that are necessary when two people with very different backgrounds are suddenly thrown together. Marriage counselors can help a new couple sort through all these challenges.

But Germany didn’t have a national agency of marriage counselors to mediate the conflicts that arose after reunification. It took a rather traditional approach. West Germany acted in many ways like the husband in a patriarchal family. West Germany was the primary breadwinner, the one that brought the lion’s share of the wealth to the union. And so West Germany made most of the decisions.

When I met Jamie Walker in 1990, she was a specialist in mediation and conflict resolution. She worked in this capacity from her home in West Berlin, becoming involved in the peace movement, doing violence-prevention work in the school system, and eventually pioneering efforts in mediating cross-border family conflicts.

As German reunification proceeded, she became involved in inter-German conflict resolution. But it was not a systematic program. “Mediation was hardly used in those days,” she told me in an interview at at a Kreuzberg restaurant in May 2013. “I can’t remember a special program for solving the conflicts. People from the East especially felt at a certain point that they were just being told, ‘Okay, this is the way it is now. You have our system now, so forget the old system and just get used to this.’ There wasn’t a lot of give and take. And people felt threatened because of losing their jobs. The whole system changed. I had friends who worked in the health system — family centers, psychological counseling centers, stuff like that — but they belonged to the Ministry of Health in the East. Then, all of a sudden it was the Ministry for Social Issues or something like that. But I don’t think there was any systematic way of handling conflict, although in the different organizations they must have had mechanisms.”

She conducted some trainings in the East, but it was often as part of workshops just for former East Germans, such as teachers who had to go through retraining to be recertified. “When we did them in the East a couple of times when it was all very fresh, they were not used to the informality,” she remembered. “They were used to the frontal approach. The teacher stands at the front, and the students address her as “Frau Doktor,” and they sit, and they’re the ones who are learning. Maybe they ask a question. But the teacher is the one who knows it all, and they are learning. And then we came in and said, ‘Oh no, let’s put the chairs in the circle. Of course we have something to say, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but what you have to say is important too. We don’t know what it’s like to work in the schools everyday, you’re the experts on that.’”

It was a novel approach. But it also ran up against certain structural problems. “There was a lot of resentment from the teachers,” Walker added. “They had been working as teachers for 10 or 15 years. They’d been qualified under their system. And now they had to go get additional training. They really resented that.”

These sessions revealed something of what was happening under the surface in former East Germany, such as the growing rebelliousness of young people.

“From what the teachers told us in the East, things started to get more difficult because everything was changing in their society, and the kids stopped doing everything they were told,” Walker explained. “I’m sure they didn’t do everything they were asked before, but it kind of changed. And then the teachers didn’t know how to deal with it. The reason I became an adult educator is so that people would come to me voluntarily and wouldn’t be forced to. But after the Wall fell, people would be sent to some kind of training to add on to their hours of education. I’d want them to talk about their conflicts, and they would sit there and say, ‘I don’t have any conflicts. I’ve never had a conflict in my life.’”

She continued, “That was a little frustrating. I thought, ‘Okay, so now I see why the kids don’t have conflicts either.’ I’m not saying they were totally repressed before, but they did have a different level of behavior. And later they started acting out, which is normal. And the teachers didn’t think it was their problem, just the kids’ problem, of course. I just remember being totally shocked that anybody could claim they’d never had a conflict in their life. But, of course, they weren’t there voluntarily, so there’s a good explanation for it.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I was in Berlin, very close to the wall. I was watching the news. They were talking about it like it couldn’t really be possible and yet it seemed to be happening. Then my boyfriend came home, and I said, “Keep your shoes on, we’re going down.” And that’s what we did. We stood there for hours.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie. There were more and more people gathered on the West side. We couldn’t see the East side. Then some people were taking the hats of the police. And there was a couple of times when I thought, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here.” It could’ve become violent. But at a certain point they started letting people from the East over, and then there were all these hurrahs. We ran into a friend of ours from West Berlin and into a friend of theirs from East Berlin. We went back to our apartment and stayed up all night. Yes, it was a party.

 

Did you have any expectations that that would happen?

 

In Berlin there were a lot of signs that things were really changing, starting maybe in 1987 or 1988. Things were starting to slowly open up. It was getting a little bit easier for people from the East to come over. They would have to have a relative in the West. At first it needed to be a very close relative, and then it could be a relative a little further away, and then you could invent a relative. I know someone who invented their relative. Then there was a huge demonstration in East Berlin on November 4 right before the Wall opened. Friends of mine said, “You should come over to the demonstration.”

I said, “I’m afraid.” But things were happening that had been unthinkable with all the protests. But you still didn’t dare think, “Oh, so, when is the Wall going to finally open?” So it was a surprise, and it wasn’t totally a surprise.

 

Why were you afraid to go over to the demonstration? What did you think might happen?

 

I thought it might get violent and that the East German police might try to prevent it from happening. I thought I might have problems getting back over the border. You know what, I was really afraid in those days. I had friends in the East, and I thought that they would stop giving me a visa to go to the East. That’s why I was careful.

 

Did you go over to Quaker meeting in the East?

 

A couple of times, not regularly. I knew the office in East Berlin: I had been to it.

 

What brought you to Germany in the first place?

 

I came to Germany in 1977 after I finished college. I stayed to learn German and to discover the world and be somewhere else. I had been to Germany once for two months on study abroad the year before, and I just fell in love with everything because it was so different. I thought that it was great. I needed to get away from my mother who was breathing down my neck. We didn’t have all these magical ways of communicating at that time.

 

And you stayed?

 

I went back after three years. I went back to Philadelphia for a year. And then after that year I decided to return to Berlin and stay.

 

When did you start doing the conflict resolution work you’re doing now?

 

When I was in Germany, the first three years I was doing youth work in a church, so that’s what politicized me. And then an American friend of mine in the same program wanted to do conflict resolution training for the kids in her church where she was working. So I did that, and that got me interested. Then I went to Philadelphia and worked in the Life Center at the Movement for New Society from 1980-1981. I took part in a training course, and then I became a trainer all within that year. I came back to Berlin in 1981, and that’s when I started to get really involved in the peace movement and doing conflict resolution training.

 

Tell me a little bit about the trainings and the peace movement. Was that exclusively with West Germans?

 

We did a couple of seminars in the East without calling it that. One time was with some friends who were involved in the church, and we basically did a non-violence training in someone’s apartment over the weekend. The other time was with some families who were most of them involved in the church. That was a training on non-violence that included children. We were there for Easter or some kind of vacation. I knew people in the peace movement in the East. In 1983, the peace movement got really very popular. I was in a group called Non-Violent Action Berlin, in the training group. All of a sudden what we did was super popular. We did all kinds of weekend trainings for people to go to demonstrations and civil disobedience. I was training people to do this, but I wasn’t doing the civil disobedience itself because I didn’t want to get run out of the country. Then, after the Pershings and Cruise missiles were stationed in West Germany, it went way downhill.

 

What would you say were the major differences between doing trainings in the East and the West? Obviously you couldn’t advertise the ones in the East. But just in terms of the interactions or how people dealt with issues?

 

I only did a couple of trainings in the East. But you always knew there was probably the Stasi listening in. And it was newer to people, especially when we did the family training with a friend of mine who came from Amsterdam.

 

Obviously the peace movement in East Germany was non-violent up through 1989. What do you think that came from? As you said, you were afraid that there might have been violence…

 

Yes, but from the state not from the protestors. I think the commitment to non-violence came from their hearts. It may sound really stupid. They knew that if they became violent they would have been slaughtered in absolutely no time. Nobody knew what would happen then. Probably the West would protest, but big deal. The West certainly wasn’t going to invade just because they beat up or even slaughtered some protesters. They probably felt like that was the only choice they had. There wasn’t a big discussion about “should we become violent?” And there wasn’t the tradition we always had in West Berlin of the “Black Block,” the demonstrators who at the end of the demonstration would often become violent. They have them in the East now, but that didn’t exist in the East back then.

 

You said that after the cruise missile issue faded, the peace movement in the West declined.

 

The peace movement declined and the need for the non-violence training dropped.

 

So you shifted to different kinds of training.

 

That’s when I got involved with non-violence training and teaching social skills to children. In the mid-1980s, I did my Master’s thesis about that. I was studying adult education. That was a totally new thing in Germany. The problem of violence in schools – and the approach of violence prevention — was just beginning. I thought, “Okay, if they don’t want to be trained in the peace movement anymore, I’ll look for somebody else who does want to be trained.” Because there was also a Quaker program of trainings in prisons, I thought: either schools or prisons. But the schools were easier to get into.

 

Do you still do those programs today?

 

Not those kind. I was involved in violence-prevention work in schools for about 17 years. It was one of the main things I did. I taught at a university later, but it continued to grow. I did school mediation for a long time, and I did tons of seminars. I wrote books about it, I wrote brochures about it. But I like to do the pioneering work. So when it’s really going, and there are lots of books already, I say, “Okay, this is getting boring.” So I look for the next thing. From 1999-2008, I had a mediation practice with a colleague. Teaching those 200-hour mediation courses was pioneering. This wasn’t what I was doing in the peace movement. It was more for professionals who wanted to learn mediation in different fields. We also did community mediation programs. That didn’t catch on as well as the school stuff did. The school stuff became really established — not in all schools, of course, but in most schools. The community mediation I found more difficult because when you work with teachers in schools, social workers, and psychologists, they’re all professional. And when you work with neighborhoods, it’s not.

 

It’s not their job.

 

Yes. People just didn’t come to the mediation. We ran out of funding. So now I’m specialized in cross-border family mediation training for cross-border family conflicts, including parental child abduction. I’ve got a leaflet with me if you’re interested. It’s a very specialized area. But to me it’s all part of the continuum since I was active in the peace movement. It’s just refined for different people. And what I like to do the most is trainings in other countries. I like working with people from different countries, the more the merrier. That’s why I gave up the mediation center in 2008, so I could do more stuff abroad. It’s just hard to earn a living that way because it’s a very small niche. But it’s extremely interesting. We did a new project that trained people from 26 of the 27 EU countries.

 

And it was a training of cross-border mediation within families? Or specifically around questions of abduction?

 

Not only abduction but including abduction because as soon as you have an abduction the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction comes into force. People often go to courts, the judge recommends mediation, and that’s how they end up in mediation. But we’re getting more and more cases of people who don’t go to court first, they go to mediation first, which is, of course, an excellent idea because then it doesn’t escalate.

 

I’m familiar with these cases because they’re big around Japan.

 

Right, and Japan is right now joining the Hague Convention. One of the groups I work with is called Mediation in International Conflicts Concerning Parents and Children, and one of my colleagues was invited to Japan just in January to talk about this subject. They’re signing the papers now to join the Convention.

 

There are a lot of cases where the husband or the wife just takes the child and goes to Japan, and they basically disappear.

 

Yes, they disappear, exactly. What I like about mediating in these cases is that they’re extremely challenging. They almost always involve really high conflict. But it’s not the peace movement.

 

I want to go back to 1989 for a moment. The Berlin Wall falls. Tell me what it was like in those first few months for you, in terms of contacts in former East Germany, in terms of how life changed.

 

Maybe the city got fuller. And we saw a lot of Trabis driving around. My friends from the East could visit me, and I didn’t have to go and visit them. And we didn’t have to pay money when we crossed the border. We could go on vacations in the East because we didn’t have to apply for a visa anymore.

For a couple of months it was a great deal when they still had East German money. They had their Marks and we had our Marks, and you could take a taxi in the East anywhere for their Marks, and that was a great deal. It was a super exciting time. It was like waking up. Aufbruch, we say in German.

 

Awakening.

 

Yes. It was just wonderful. A lot of things were happening, and it was exciting because you never knew what the next thing was going to be. Obviously there were all these political things going on. When Reagan came and said, “Gorbachev, tear this wall down,” I thought, “Oh, what a naive idiot.” But here we were. Things were happening so fast, and here was a great place to be experiencing it.

In summer 1990, after the Wall had fallen, we started a group called the Network for Conflict Resolution. It was actually what later became the Bundesverband Mediation, which is one of the established mediation associations in Germany. Of course, it was possible then to have people from the East and the West. We were sitting at this meeting and talking about mediation, and one of my friends from the East said, “If somebody doesn’t tell me right this minute what ‘mediation’ is, I’m leaving.” It was a coming together of ideas.

 

There were obviously some conflicts between East and West. How were those handled? You mentioned the creation of this network. But was there an initiative, for instance, by the government to handle these in an organized way: conflicts in the workplace, between the new governmental organizations? Or did people just deal with it informally?

 

Mediation was hardly used in those days. I can’t remember a special program for solving the conflicts. People from the East especially felt at a certain point that they were just being told, “Okay, this is the way it is now. You have our system now, so forget the old system and just get used to this.” There wasn’t a lot of give and take. And people felt threatened because of losing their jobs. The whole system changed. I had friends who worked in the health system — family centers, psychological counseling centers, stuff like that — but they belonged to the Ministry of Health in the East. Then, all of a sudden it was the Ministry for Social Issues or something like that. But I don’t think there was any systematic way of handling conflict, although in the different organizations they must have had mechanisms. I mean, how long did it take for the German Quakers, East and West, to join up together? At least three years? It was really kind of funny.

 

Why did it take so long?

 

Because the Quakers take their time with these processes. They wait until everything is right, and then they do it. There was still a yearly meeting of the German Democratic Republic a couple of years after the GDR didn’t exist anymore.

 

Were you involved in any trainings in educational settings in former East Germany?

 

In 1991, we did the first training in school mediation. And in the early 1990s we were doing some trainings in the East. And they were super surprised. There was one training center for the further education of teachers, so it was a mixed group of teachers. But when we did them in the East a couple of times when it was all very fresh, they were not used to the informality. They were used to the frontal approach. The teacher stands at the front, and the students address her as “Frau Doktor,” and they sit, and they’re the ones who are learning. Maybe they ask a question. But the teacher is the one who knows it all, and they are learning. And then we came in and said, “Oh no, let’s put the chairs in the circle. Of course we have something to say, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but what you have to say is important too. We don’t know what it’s like to work in the schools everyday, you’re the experts on that.” It didn’t always have something to do with East or West. You’d have people in a seminar who only looked at me when I was doing the seminar. They didn’t look at the other participants. I’d do all kinds of tricks to try to get them to look at everybody else.

There was a lot of resentment from the teachers. They had been working as teachers for 10 or 15 years. They’d been qualified under their system. And now they had to go get additional training. They really resented that.

 

And the additional training was on a variety of things?

 

Of course, certainly not just my seminars.

 

Was violence a serious problem either in the classroom or the school setting?

 

In the East? No. In fact, I remember these friends of mine who were psychologists and family counselors in the East asking me, when we still had the Wall, “Why do all the children in the West have so much self-confidence?” That’s what struck them. And what struck me and maybe other people was that the children in the East were so well behaved. Not in a repressed kind of way. But they would go up to you and shake your hand every time.

 

I’m only familiar with kind of the trainings that take place in the United States, which often are around prevention of violence, peer mediation in the schools, encouraging students to resolve the problems and such.

 

We did that, too.

 

Were the East German kids open to doing that?

 

Yes, but actually I worked a lot with the teachers, and they were setting up the programs, so I didn’t do the peer mediation training much myself. From what the teachers told us in the East, things started to get more difficult because everything was changing in their society, and the kids stopped doing everything they were told. I’m sure they didn’t do everything they were asked before, but it kind of changed. And then the teachers didn’t know how to deal with it. The reason I became an adult educator is so that people would come to me voluntarily and wouldn’t be forced to. But after the Wall fell, people would be sent to some kind of training to add on to their hours of education. I’d want them to talk about their conflicts, and they would sit there and say, “I don’t have any conflicts. I’ve never had a conflict in my life.” That was a little frustrating. I thought, “Okay, so now I see why the kids don’t have conflicts either.” I’m not saying they were totally repressed before, but they did have a different level of behavior. And later they started acting out, which is normal. And the teachers didn’t think it was their problem, just the kids’ problem, of course. I just remember being totally shocked that anybody could claim they’d never had a conflict in their life. But, of course, they weren’t there voluntarily, so there’s a good explanation for it.

 

What other kind of experience did you have during those kind of trainings and mediations in former East Germany?

 

I didn’t do that many trainings. They weren’t used to an egalitarian learning context. But they were extremely curious, really open to new things. I guess it just took some getting used to, this different way of working. They kept saying, “But not everything was bad.” They really needed to be recognized for all the good work they had been doing all those years. They didn’t expect that everything would have to change.

 

In your opinion, have things changed tremendously?

 

East Germany has changed a lot. But I wouldn’t say that everything has changed. In those days you could look at people and tell by their clothing where they were from. You can’t do that anymore, of course. And you know that thing about the way the people from the East greeted each other? In the West if you come to this big table, and everybody’s sitting around, and you come to a party or something, then you say “hi” to everybody. In the East, they went and shook everybody’s hand. Things like that have changed.

But sometimes you still see things that are the same. You know Berlinerisch, the Berlin dialect? People from the East are more likely to speak with a dialect, even if they’re educated. At least that was the case years ago. The East it was the workers’ state, and they wanted the workers to go to university and get educated. They weren’t ashamed of speaking in dialect, and they didn’t feel like they had to speak High German all the time. And in the West, if you were educated you were expected to speak High German.

 

So this was a dialect that previously everyone in Berlin had spoken?

 

Yes, and then when it was divided, more the lower class in the West spoke it, and in the East, not everybody obviously, but a lot more people than in the West. And, of course, those people who were talking with that dialect 20 years ago have not usually changed the way they talk now.

What else is different? Sometimes something will happen to you and you think, “Oh, typical East.” Like people being unfriendly sometimes. I hate to say it, but…

Then there’s people’s attitudes towards women. Women were always very independent and always worked in the East. The attitude was that it’s normal for a woman to have children and keep working. That’s still there, to a certain extent. To tell you the truth, that’s much better than in the West. But of course, it all depends on the region, at least in the West. For a while I used to spend time out in Mecklenburg, between here and the Baltic Sea in East Germany. And there were a lot of people in the villages who never left these villages. If they came to Berlin, they’d say, “Ah, yes, I went to Berlin once. I went to IKEA.” But there are people in the West who live like that, too. It has to do with level of education.

 

I was told that a surprisingly large number of people in West Berlin and East Berlin don’t actually go to the other side of the city. They’ve always been in West Berlin, and they stay in West Berlin.

 

I live in Zehlendorf. Kleinmachnow is just down the street in Brandenburg, close to Potsdam. It was cut off by the Wall, and we couldn’t go through. It was an enclave where a lot of artists and writers lived. It’s a beautiful suburb. And now tons of people from the West have moved in. There’s still animosity between people from the East and people from the West because the people from the East got kicked out. Maybe they were living in a house that belonged to somebody in the West who was never there, and they were living there for practically nothing. Then, all of a sudden, they had to leave because that person decided to sell it or move into it themselves or whatever.

If you go to some place like Thuringia, a lot of people there went to the West only once or twice. They went to look, and that was good enough. With the young people, they go wherever – to university, to get a job. Young people are moving around.

 

You’ve talked a little bit about how things have changed for folks in the East. Have folks in the West changed at all as a result of 1989?

 

Not much. Everybody from the West went over to the East a couple of times. A lot of people go on short vacations. If you live in Berlin, it’s much closer to go to Spreewald or the Baltic Sea. Some places like Weimar and Erfurt have really been fixed up. They’re really beautiful cities, and people tend to go there. But they maybe go there once and that’s it.

 

What about their attitudes?

 

People from the West have a reputation for being arrogant and know-it-alls. And maybe some people still think they do know better. In the West, the system we’re living under is the system that people here were brought up in. But if you’re from the East, it’s not the system you were brought up in. There’s a different attitude toward job security. There are a lot of people in the West who would not want to go free-lance. But in general people in the West can deal with insecurity better than some people in the east — because they were used to things being taken care of. If people grew up with these attitudes and lived 40 years of their lives this way, then not everything changes. And sometimes you can even tell in the second generation.

 

Someone told me that what they think ultimately will happen is already happening: that the notion of “East” and “West” will basically disappear. People will still be interested in where you came from, but it will be more regional – such as Bavaria, Saarland, or Thuringia.

 

Maybe now we’re at the point when we say, “Ah, you’re from Thuringia ’in the east.’” But to tell you the truth, I feel much closer to the east than I do to the west. If you lived in Berlin, even with the Wall, you were in the East. And once the Wall opened up you went to all these places. They’re just plain closer.

 

It sounded like you meant more than just geography, though.

 

Yes, I think so, too. But that’s all regional, too. I mean, I’m sorry to say it, but I’m not big on Bavarians. And when I go to a lot of places in the east or in the west, it seems like the provinces to me. Okay, Munich is not the provinces. But even Bonn feels provincial.

 

I would think that the reunification of Germany would have a kind of cosmopolitan effect so that these parts of west Germany that previously had been somewhat provincial became more worldly.

 

I don’t think they really change. I don’t live there, but I don’t really think so. People go where the jobs are, and there are more jobs in the west. It’s less and less a matter of principle. It’s going to take a while.

 

Did you notice any difference in attitudes towards you, as an American, before 1989 and after 1989?

 

Well, not everybody I talk to knows that I’m American. But in old West Berlin people never asked me for a work permit or anything. They just assumed that we were the allies and we were still occupying and we had all the rights. People don’t need to ask anymore — that’s all gone. Otherwise, I don’t think they care. Maybe when I used to go to the east when it was still the East, people were certainly fascinated because they probably had never met any Americans before, and of course that’s worn off. The West was much more oriented toward other countries, and they had much more exposure to other countries. The East wasn’t. I know people in the east now who also send their kids off to England for high school, but it’s not as ingrained in them as maybe in the west.

 

You’ve been to Eastern Europe before and after 1989….

 

Yes. I went to a conference in Bulgaria last year. And I thought, “Oh my god, they’ve gotten stuck in Eastern times.” Because it was still just listening, listening, listening. It was a solid day in which every ten minutes a new person spoke. It was in a big university theater. There were about 150-200 people listening. And there was no small groups, no even talking to your neighbor. There was nothing interactive. Nothing. I said to the people, “Why are you organizing like this?” They said that audience was all from Bulgaria and didn’t have a chance to get out of the country much to be exposed to what’s going on in other places. That’s just the traditional way of doing it, and it just drives me crazy. That’s not how people learn, not really.

 

Tell me a little bit about your cross-border work, especially within Europe.

 

There are now 87 countries in this 1980 Hague Convention, and that includes all of the EU and most of the Western world. If your child has been abducted, if the child is under 16 and both parents have custody, then you can apply to have the child returned. The idea is have the child returned and then let the court decide what’s going to happen. Young people are moving around the world a lot more than when I was a young adult. They fall in love; they’re of marrying age; so there’s more and more potential for children born to parents from different countries. According to the law, the parents have joint custody. One parent can’t just go back to their home country and decide to change the status. The court will only decide return or no return. It’s all very dramatic. People are terrified of losing their children. You can guess who usually abducts the children.

 

In the Japanese situation, it turned out to be mostly the women.

 

Yes.

 

But in the European case?

 

It’s 70% women. Because it’s usually small children, and it’s usually the primary care giver. A lot of times the couple got married, and the wife moved to the husband’s country because of him. They had a crisis, they split up, or she wants to split up. She goes back home on vacation and thinks, “Oh, isn’t it great, here I can get my old job back!” Or she finds an old boyfriend. And she concludes that it’s much better for the child there anyway. The husband goes into a panic, even if he doesn’t want the kid back. He goes to court because he thinks, “Maybe I’ll never see the child again.” If it’s within Europe, it’s a lot easier to organize visits. With mediation, which even the judges support, you can decide a lot more things such as where is the child going to live and where are the parents going to live and what are the visiting arrangements going to be? Sometimes the wife agrees to return to the husband’s country but doesn’t want to live with him any more. Perhaps he even agrees to pay for a new apartment. So you can get way more settled through mediation.

 

Has there been any resistance or challenges or difficulties for any of the new EU member states with these regulations?

 

In some countries, like in Germany, there are specialized courts that do the Hague Convention cases. So the judges know how to deal with the cases. In other countries, for instance in the United States, there are no specialized courts. According to the Hague Convention, they have to deal with the case within a year. And it’s supposed to be decided within six weeks. But there are countries that don’t keep to the six-week deadline. They drag it out and out and out. That’s not only new countries to the Convention. Italy, for instance, has a bad record. Every country has to have a central authority to help the left-behind parent to find the child. Sometimes in Germany they even fly the father, if he can’t afford it, to the States or Australia or wherever. So it’s a challenge to new countries to the Convention – and that includes new EU countries — because they have to create all this stuff. And that’s what they’re doing right now in Japan and in Russia. Russia is joining too. But there are controversial decisions, even in Germany. Of course, you can go one step higher up if the judge doesn’t decide the way you think they should.

 

One last question: when you think back to how you looked at the world in 1990 and everything that has changed, has there been a change in your perspective, your Weltanschauung?

 

I changed a lot, of course, because I got older and raised a child. I’m still idealistic. But even in 1990 I decided that once I finished my degree here I had to go out there and start earning money at some point. My goal was to combine my ideals with earning money. I would say that it has worked out 100%. But I don’t go to demonstrations anymore. I was very proud when my son – I shouldn’t say “went through that phase” – was a lot more radical. That’s when I noticed that I was getting a little bit not as radical. I’m more pragmatic. I don’t vote, not yet, but I’m applying for German citizenship. If I could vote I’d vote for the Greens. But the Greens have really changed, of course. They’ve become a lot more assimilated.

So, I’m more pragmatic. I voted for Obama, of course. He’s certainly a lot better than what we had before. For eight years I was only embarrassed. But my son said he couldn’t vote for Obama because of the drones. And that’s a responsible thing to do, to stick to his principles. I don’t do it as much as I used to. Because I think I’d rather have Obama than some person who’s worse.

If anything I’ve become more interested in international matters. My international perspective used to be U.S.-Germany and then a little bit in the East. I worked in Brussels for the Quakers also for a year in the 1980s. And now it’s all opened up. We’ve done mediation in child protection conflicts in Australia. I’ve seen more of other countries, and I keep thinking it’s not enough. I want to do more trainings in other countries. That has widened my perspective.

 

Berlin, May 29, 2013

 

 

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Fighting for Equal Opportunity

Revolutions elevate a new and unexpected group of people to power. In East-Central Europe in 1990, an electrician became the president of Poland, a playwright the president of Czechoslovakia, and a philosopher the president of Bulgaria. After this brief period of the world turned upside down, the professional politicians took over again (or in the case of Vaclav Havel, the playwright morphed into a professional politician). But for a year or two or three, “ordinary” people were suddenly in charge of transforming the country.

Marina Grasse is a biologist who was involved in the independent peace movement in East Germany in the 1980s. I met her in 1990 (when she was Marina Beyer) to talk about the Pankow Peace Circle and how it was adapting to the new circumstances in a democratic East Germany. As the mother of four children, she was also passionately interested in educational reform. In fact, on the evening just before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, she helped to organize a forum on educational reform in East Berlin. They expected 10-20 people. A couple thousand showed up.

Later, in 1990, Grasse joined the newly democratic East German government as a state secretary for equal opportunity. Her confirmation process inadvertently revealed the need for just such a government position.

“There was a coalition between the new East German Social Democratic Party and the old CDU,” she told me in an interview in June 2013 in her apartment in Pankow, a neighborhood in Berlin. “And in this coalition, they agreed that there should be a kind of state secretary responsible for equal opportunities for women and men. They were looking for somebody who could do that. Some people in the Social Democratic faction knew me. So they asked me if I would do that. I did. I didn’t know what a state secretary was, and I didn’t know what “equal opportunity” meant. But nevertheless they invited me. This was such a crazy time. I already had four children at this point, two boys and two girls. I was invited to come to the Volkskammer to introduce myself. I didn’t know why I should go there. But I went there.

They asked me, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’

‘What should I do?’ I asked.

‘You’ll be the state secretary for equal opportunity.’

‘But I don’t know what that is!’

‘It doesn’t matter, we don’t either! Now tell us your biography and some ideas about equal opportunity…’

I didn’t know what to say. But in the end, I said, ‘Okay, equal opportunity for women means that, since probably women are discriminated against, they think they need equal opportunity…’ So I talked for some time about that.

Then it was time for questions, and a man stood up and asked me as the first question. ‘We have heard you are the mother of four children. How do you think you can combine your private responsibilities as a mother with your responsibilities as state secretary?’

And I thought, really, what am I doing here? This is completely stupid! But then another person stood up and said, ‘That’s a very interesting question because in this group there are many men who have two, three, four kids. And never, never, never, never has somebody asked them how they could combine their responsibilities.’

That’s when I understood what it was about, and I agreed to do it. I needed some days to talk with my family and with my husband and with my kids to see if they would agree. Nobody knew what it was all about, but they agreed. As I said, that time was crazy. So I became state secretary for equal opportunity.”

Grasse discovered soon enough that equal opportunity was not on the agenda. The East German parliament, tasked to oversee the transformation of East Germany into a democratic society, very quickly became focused on one issue about everything else: reunification. And reunification, in turn, imposed a very abrupt term limit on all the new members of the East German government. Grasse decided to apply the principles of equal opportunity for women more broadly in the region.

“Then the so-called unification came, and my job was over because the government was over,” Grasse explained. “And I was not so interested to work with the new government. But I was also not so interested in going back to the university. So, together with some women from this Peace Circle and some other friends, we sat down to think about what we should do next. And we decided to set up a project called the East-West European Women’s Network (OWEN). The idea was that after the fall of the Wall, it would be very important that women who are interested in politics and women’s issues to organize a kind of exchange to understand what other society and what it meant to grow up in this other society.”

We talked about the work she and OWEN did in Ukraine, the unfortunate careerism of both the educational system and NGOs, and why change is about people and not ideas.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I remember. You know this was a very exciting time full of hope. And in the DDR that was the time of many citizen…

 

Burgerbewegung? Citizens’ movements?

 

Yes, Burgerbewegung. I was working at the university, and I was always interested in education. In spring 1989, not only in our university but in also in many other places in the DDR, people set up citizens’ initiatives for changing the educational system because there were a lot of things that we didn’t like. The Neues Forum also had an interest in the education field. So we decided to organize an open forum about what kind of education we would like to have for our kids, for the next generation. We organized this in a big conference hall in the Alexanderplatz. We didn’t know who would come because there was no e-mail and no Internet. We held it on November 9. 1989. And it was scheduled to start at 6 pm. I was one of the few who were helping to organize it. We thought maybe 10 people would came, maybe 20. And it was completely full.

 

So, like a hundred people?

 

It was two or three thousand people.

 

Two or three thousand people?!

 

They came from cities all over of the DDR. There were teachers, students, parents, young people… it was completely full. And together with some colleagues of mine I had to moderate it. Our idea was that people could stand up and talk about their experience and nothing more. People started to do that, and it was very surprising that the others were listening. For many of them, it was the first time that they talked in the public. But they had the courage to do that. And all of us there were just listening. And it was not easy to listen. And then around –

 

Why was it not easy to listen?

 

Because people were talking about very different experiences. Therefore it was not easy to keep an atmosphere where the people in the audience didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong,” or were disgusted by something someone said. It was about experiences, not about wrong and right. It was about us. It was very important, again and again, to say, “This is about us.”

We started around 7 pm, and then it was 8:30, and something was going on. People were running around, coming and going. I asked my colleague to go and to ask, “What’s going on?” And he came back, and he said, “The Wall fell down.” I don’t think I understood what he said because I answered, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll continue.” After another 30 minutes, the hall was empty.

 

Everybody just started leaving…?

 

Around maybe 30 or 40 people decided to stay. For me that was a shock. And I understood that it was over. The DDR was just over. And I started to cry. Because for me that was… I thought we really had a chance. A friend of mine came up from Dresden that night, and she said, “Oh, the Wall came down, let’s go!” But I was not interested in doing that. I was very, very angry. I was very disappointed, very angry, very worried. And so we ended up staying at home. It was already very very late. Then my husband came home and said to me, “Oh, you have heard? The Wall came down! It’s over.” And then we started to discuss, and I was really very angry. We went to bed around 1 am.

Then somebody knocked at the door. It was our very close friends who had left East Berlin for West Berlin in the 1980s. And they said, “Come on, open up, let’s go!” And so, I decided to go with them to go into the West. We had a wonderful night. In the end we had a wonderful night, and then we crossed back. So, something opened and something closed. And I would say I’m still in the same situation, still trying to understand what it means to say goodbye to something and whether to welcome something else.

 

That’s quite an experience.

 

Yes, I would say it was very symbolic. In the end, I’m happy that I could be a part of this kind of event.

 

Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the Pankow Peace Circle?

 

Hans Misselwitz and I were old friends. I met him again in the 1970s, in 1975 or 1976. He’d formed with other people a little circle, the so-called Adorno Circle, and he invited me to go there. It was self-organized and very interesting. We talked about the Avant-Garde in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and about philosophy, and so on. Then in the 1970s, Hans and Ruth, and me also, we all had children. In 1981, there was a new phase, this nuclear policy of over-kill. And we had a feeling that it was time to do something. It was not enough to sit down and to talk. We had to do something. I had two sons at the time, and I was really afraid. At school, there was more and more of this “creating an enemy” picture. I come from a family that was really fed up with any kind of war. So I was really afraid. I could see that these little boys were a little fascinated with these bombs, and I could see how easy it would be to instrumentalize this feeling.

At this time Ruth was already in this community here, and she thought it was a great opportunity at least to invite people from society to talk about their own life and what they were afraid of. We organized the first meeting in November 1981. And after this we invited people who were interested in continuing. So people came. And that was the beginning of this Pankower Friedenskreis, the Pankow Peace Circle.

 

And at that time you were at university?

 

No, at that time I worked in the Academy of Science. I’m a biologist, as you already know. I changed my job a little later to the university. And also Hans, he worked at the Academy at this time. He was also a biologist. I specialized in behavioral science, and I think he did biophysics.

 

Were you worried about losing your job when you became involved in the Peace Circle?

 

I never lost my job, but of course I did get into a little trouble. I expected to get into trouble since I was getting involved in something that the government didn’t really like. So, I was not really afraid. Also, there was my family background. My grandfather and other people in my family were in the resistance during the Nazi time. So for me, I felt that I had to do it. But I wouldn’t say that I’m a “victim” of the system. If you decide to do something that is not very opportune, sometimes you get trouble. And I was a little afraid that they could take me away for some time – and I had these two boys. So we organized something so that it would be clear what would happen with the kids. That was important. It was also quite clear that the Stasi was there, in the Circle.

 

You even knew who it was?

 

Yes, we knew. In the end, we were disappointed. I was disappointed. But if I had been on the other side, I would have done it in the same way. It’s very logical. It’s a very very odd story to break somebody this way.

 

When did you become interested in reforming the educational system?

 

Ever since I went to school myself! Not really, but I never really liked to go to school because I was always a little afraid there. When I finished school and I took my Abitur, I decided to become a teacher, and I studied for two years in Potsdam. During those two years I noticed that it would be a little too much to reform the education system just by myself. I would need to have at least some other friends who are also interested to do it. Then at the end of the 1980s, it became clear to me that it was time to do something. Education is such a crucial thing. I’m very close connected to Paulo Freire. Also during the 1980s, when we had different circles and this peace group, I was in a group devoted to peace education. That was when I started to read Freire. That’s when I began to understand that education is about emancipation, and about consciousness, and it’s not about this “boom, boom, boom”…

 

Pouring information into people’s heads…

 

Yes, people are not empty vessels. I think education is an instrument, and you can make people completely stupid or you can make them very brilliant.

 

After 1989 did any of the aspects of the emancipatory side of education enter the new education system?

 

In the united Germany? No. There are some islands. But more and more this educational system is directed toward careers and the labor market. So, people start to think about education only in terms of the labor market, their career, money, and status. There is a lot of manipulation as well, and it’s very specific because it is so liberal. You’re so free. This is what Freire talked a lot about. In the DDR you could feel the pressure. But now you don’t really feel the pressure. In the end, people stop thinking, which is very dangerous.

 

I work now in Neukoelln, a district in Berlin.

 

It’s a poorer district?

 

It’s a very, very poor district, where 80% are migrants. Many of them came from Turkey, from Lebanon and the Arab world. There are also Roma. There you can see what is missing in the education system. It is not about integration – I don’t like this “integration” at all – it’s all about “giving them something.” That makes me a little afraid, to have a next generation that is not educated to feel really responsible. The education is not about dignity. It’s not about how to be a human. It is about knowledge, about some facts. But people don’t understand what all these facts mean. It’s just feeding. Here in this middle-class district, on the other hand, we have more and more private schools, which I don’t think of as a solution. Separating kids from very early on — what kind of society will they create if they’ve never had contact with people from different social backgrounds?

 

Why do the parents send their children to private school?

 

They think it is better. Or so that their wonderful kids will have a much better career. Or because “this education is more liberal.” Or because of personal freedom. But behind this, the parents are afraid.

 

It’s the same problem in the United States.

 

It’s even worse, I would say.

 

Yes, it is. The public schools generally are not as good as in Germany. The problem also is the yardsticks of measurement. You can use the rather simple one of better scores on tests, which is what they use in the United States. The other would be the Freirean model of creating a critical environment.

 

It is important that people understand why things are as they are. This is the idea of education. And it is missing, also in many of the so-called private schools here.

 

I’ll come back to the education. But I’m curious about what happened after that first night, November 9. What happened in the next week or so for you as things were changing so quickly?

 

I still was in the university at that time. And I was involved in education and this group. And then the election came. I was very disappointed with the results of the election. Now I understand the results, but at the time I couldn’t understand why people voted for the CDU.

There was a coalition between the new East German Social Democratic Party and the old CDU. And in this coalition, they agreed that there should be a kind of state secretary responsible for equal opportunities for women and men. They were looking for somebody who could do that. Some people in the Social Democratic faction knew me. So they asked me if I would do that. I did. I didn’t know what a state secretary was, and I didn’t know what “equal opportunity” meant. But nevertheless they invited me. This was such a crazy time. I already had four children at this point, two boys and two girls. I was invited to come to the Volkskammer to introduce myself. I didn’t know why I should go there. But I went there.

They asked me, “Now, what are you going to do?”

“What should I do?” I asked.

“You’ll be the state secretary for equal opportunity.”

“But I don’t know what that is!”

“It doesn’t matter, we don’t either! Now tell us your biography and some ideas about equal opportunity…”

I didn’t know what to say. But in the end, I said, “Okay, equal opportunity for women means that, since probably women are discriminated against, they think they need equal opportunity…” So I talked for some time about that.

Then it was time for questions, and a man stood up and asked me as the first question. “We have heard you are the mother of four children. How do you think you can combine your private responsibilities as a mother with your responsibilities as state secretary?”

And I thought, really, what am I doing here? This is completely stupid! But then another person stood up and said, “That’s a very interesting question because in this group there are many men who have two, three, four kids. And never, never, never, never has somebody asked them how they could combine their responsibilities.”

That’s when I understood what it was about, and I agreed to do it. I needed some days to talk with my family and with my husband and with my kids to see if they would agree. Nobody knew what it was all about, but they agreed. As I said, that time was crazy. So I became state secretary for equal opportunity.

It was very challenging because very soon I could see that nobody was really interested in this topic. This was the time of the parliamentary negotiations around unification. And the idea of equal opportunities was not on the agenda. But nevertheless it was very very interesting because I could see the rules of the game: who set the rules and how it worked. At the beginning, you’re very clear what you want. And then step-by-step you reduce your intention. By the end people are also very afraid. For many of them it was clear that in this so-called “united Germany” they could lose their job. Nobody really knew what would happen. But people from the West, since they knew this society already, were our teachers.

This was not only a time when Germany was changing but the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe. We were blind to the impact of unification on the rest of the world. It was very very risky. And also in East Germany you could see what was going on with the labor market. People lost their jobs. That happened later in in Central and Eastern Europe, and it was not from one minute to the next like it was for us. Also we had this wonderful rich big brother, West Germany, that paid us a little bit. So we could be a little satisfied and say, “Thanks, my brother.” We had to be also a little grateful for all these presents. This was also a rule of the game.

Then the so-called unification came, and my job was over because the government was over. And I was not so interested to work with the new government. But I was also not so interested in going back to the university. So, together with some women from this Peace Circle and some other friends, we sat down to think about what we should do next. And we decided to set up a project called the East-West European Women’s Network (OWEN). The idea was that after the fall of the Wall, it would be very important that women who are interested in politics and women’s issues to organize a kind of exchange to understand what other society and what it meant to grow up in this other society. We did this because we didn’t know very much but also because we had very strong pictures in our head. We created this project, and we were unemployed. There was a lot of money at the beginning for people who were unemployed. If you had a wonderful idea then you could get money. We had a wonderful idea, and we got money. This was in 1992. And I’ve been in this NGO ever since.

 

It’s still going on today?

 

It’s still here. In the 1990s, we saw an elite develop here in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t exactly a new elite. It was a small group of government people who were known in the West as key actors. They were put on a list to travel around and to talk and give papers. These people were more from an intellectual or academic background. I met a lot of them. There were some very clever and very intelligent and very political women. But they had no link to the larger group of people in their countries – the poor people, the people who became unemployed. These were people who had other lives and spoke another language. We could talk about feminism and blah blah blah. But what about these women? Then we realized that poverty is not new in the world. It is a very common phenomenon. Women in other parts of the world were for many many years already forced to survive. So, this was about survival and self-organizing and dignity.

In 1991, I received an invitation from the Goethe Institute to go to the United States to talk about the unification. Through a friend of mine, I made contact with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. This is a network of grassroots women in the United States that is connected to other networks in the so-called Third World countries. They are inspired by the community organizing idea, connected to the Chicago School of Community Organizing. Their work is very much about the daily needs of women. They invited me to see some of the groups organized according to this philosophy. It was very close to Paulo Friere’s ideas as well. This was a completely new world. It had nothing to do with what I had thought of the United States. It was brilliant. And I tried to bring this idea back to what we started to do in Eastern Europe.

We started to work in the eastern part of Ukraine in the 1990s. It was just like an inferno there, just terrible. And poverty became such a major issue. We created a four-year project to work with women in self-help, community-based groups. This was a great experience. We learned a lot, and through this we could learn the importance of the past. The idea of this self-help group was that it was self-organized and that the women in this group shared the resources they had for the common good. This was also a great challenge because you had to negotiate. And in this process of negotiation, the past became very important. Who was this person in earlier times? Why did she have this kind of status, these connections, while we did not? It was full of conflicts.

Then we started working on something else called “Women’s Memory.” It was not our idea. The idea came from our partners at the first women’s center in Prague.

 

With Jirina Siklova?

 

Yes, with Jirina Siklova. She had the idea to create an international project called “Women’s Memory.” And she asked us to take part in this project. And we were very proud because we noticed that Jirina understood that we came from the same background. We were from the East. The project did 500 or so interviews in all, and we did 120 of them with women from East Germany born between 1920 and 1960. It was three generations, more or less. That was the best history lesson I’d ever had. I realized that my idea of the DDR, even though I’d lived in the country for years, was completely wrong. I heard from all these women who came from quite different backgrounds that I’d never met before, women who worked in factories or in the Genossenschaft (cooperatives). It was a completely different world. It forced us to ask ourselves, “What does it mean if we understand ourselves as feminists but we don’t know about the lives of so many women?” This is again about education and about Freire. You have to change your language, your attitude.

In the 1990s, there were conflicts not only in the former Yugoslavia but also in the former Soviet Union – in the Caucasus, in Nagorno-Karabakh. So that means that change was not so very peaceful. We decided to think about how to combine the idea of feminism and the idea of peace. In 2002, when our network was 10 years old, we invited people from the so-called Third World countries, from the United States, from Eastern Europe, and from the former Soviet Union here to Berlin to a conference — to reflect on what went on during the previous 10 years and what we thought were the most important things to put on the agenda. We decided the most important thing was peace. All of the women from South Africa told us of their great hope for the transformation process but that 10 years later it had become very very difficult. We also talked about xenophobia and Islamophobia. And we concluded that we were in a new system that needed enemies, that kept looking around for enemies.

For the last eight years, we have worked mainly in the international context with peace activists in the former Soviet Union, in Russia and the Caucasus. Because of this experience, we decided that it was important for our network also to look more at what’s going on in our own country because there is a link. It’s not only there, it’s also here, how this society relates to these strangers, to the migrants. Our “migration policy” is more and more about the labor market, and it’s like what it was with slaves: we need you because you have strong teeth or whatever. We were talking about peace, but we weren’t doing it. So we decided to move our little office to Neukoelln.

We are now in a deep crisis. We don’t have any money, and it’s not easy. I’m unemployed, but I’m still working there because I like this kind of work. But I ask myself, “Is this idea of social movements over? Do we need all these NGOs? Do we need all these projects? Did all these NGOs destroy the idea of social movements?” Social movements only work if you keep the idea of solidarity. But this society doesn’t seem to need the idea of solidarity. It needs the idea of business. This civil society sector more and more embraced the idea of business: the peace business, the poverty business.

 

You have to have a business plan to survive in civil society today.

 

Yes, a business plan! In Georgia, it was terrible. And Soros was very big on bringing in all this money so that they could set up the NGOs. And then these organizations started to compete. I understand that there’s a theory behind all this. But I think it was wrong. When the labor market collapsed in this region, many people who were very educated, in various academic fields and so on, lost their jobs or they didn’t get paid. Then in this NGO period a new kind of labor market emerged, so these people tried this new opportunity. But the idea of civil society is not the idea of a labor market. It’s a completely different idea.

 

So the same problem in education–education geared toward career–is reproduced in civil society, which is no longer about empowerment or emancipation, but about career.

 

Yes, it’s about career, and it’s about money. On the one hand, everybody needs a vision, an idea, and hope. So I ask you, what do these young people hope for? But on the other hand, we also have to be realistic. How can you combine your dreams with realism and avoid getting depressed? You have to look for people who are just as crazy as you are.

 

Your point about the NGO culture that has emerged in this part of the world is a good one. One argument is that NGOs are just representatives of neo-liberalism because they take over the state services that that no longer available because the state has shrunk through privatization.

 

I’ve always been critical of that. For example, OWEN refuses any kind of service. But in the end we don’t have any money. Our colleagues are unpaid, and many of them are very educated young women. They need to earn money. And I have to make money too. So it is not easy to find a way.

 

When I was doing conflict resolution training in Korea, I was working with peace groups that also had difficulty raising money. One possibility was to continue to do social movement work but also have a paying job doing conflict resolution or mediation work. It’s still working on peace issues, but it’s a slightly different focus. Instead of combining movement work and career work in one NGO, you continued to do unpaid movement work and a paying job in a related field. Maybe that’s a third way of resolving this issue.

 

The risk is that you set up this situation in which you have the word of the experts and then you have the word of the people who are really in the conflict. Freire’s idea was that “we” are not the experts but “they” are the experts. This is so difficult, but I always try to keep in mind that I am not an expert. I am privileged. I’m still privileged. I’m not ashamed to be privileged, but still I am privileged. I live in this wonderful flat. And they are the experts. When working in Neukoelln, we try to do something like confidence-building in our relationship to women who live in this district. It’s not easy to get their confidence, and I understand why it is. But step-by-step, they start to talk about their daily life. And I understand more and more that I don’t know. I could be an expert at asking good questions and maybe an expert in learning. But I don’t know about them. It’s another world.

 

When you think back to what your perspective was in 1990, how you looked at the world, how is that changed? Have you had major second thoughts or major reappraisals over the last 20 years?

 

In 1990 my perspective on the world was naïve. I couldn’t travel around. I had an idea of the East but nothing beyond that. Now I would say I’m not so naïve. And I’ve noticed that sometimes people who live far away are closer to me than people who live nearby. We have more in common. Now that I can travel around, my perspective is broader. This broader perspective has been painful but it has also allowed me to meet people who give me hope. You can find them everywhere.

Before 1990 it was not so clear to me, but now I realize that the change is about people. I grew up in this society with big ideas of socialism and parties and so on. But the change is not about an idea. It is about people. That kind of change takes time and several generations. We just have to be patient. Maybe there are not so many of us. But you can find us everywhere. You can smell us, I think. It’s more about the nose.

 

Berlin, June 1, 2013

 

Interview (1990)

 

I met with three members of the group: Barbara Hahnchen, Marina Beyer, and Frau Olszewski (I didn’t catch her first name). The group began in 1981 around the issue of the Euromissile deployments though many in the group were interested in other questions such as ecology and peace education. Originally, the members had worked within the church and then decided that there should be a group outside the church that dealt with peace issues. They decided that although they could not influence the deployment of U.S. Cruise and Pershing missiles on West German soil, they could try to prevent the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles on East German soil. “It was OK to be critical of the Americans but as soon as we were critical of the Soviet Union, then…” said Marina Beyer. From 1983 on, the Stasi clumsily infiltrated their meetings, sometimes comprising half the audience. Everyone knew who they were. But the Stasi never threw the whole group into jail, fearing that if it did, there would be too much protest. Above all, the Stasi wanted to keep the peace.

Two major events that influenced the growth of the movement were the JPIC process and the legitimization that Gorbachev gave to internal reform when he came to power in 1985. When we discussed events after 1985, the history of the group seemed difficult to separate from the history of the opposition in general.

The 1988 Rosa Luxemburg–Karl Liebknecht demonstration was a turning point. Traditionally a day commemorating the martyred German Communist party leaders (Luxemburg was actually Polish-German), this January event was the scene of a counter-demonstration in 1988. Using Luxemburg quotes to place into ironic contrast the positions of the government, many protestors came out into the open–but these were generally those dissidents who wanted to leave the country. They were arrested, some thrown out of the country, some thrown into jail. What the Stasi had feared the most happened. The arrest of so many people triggered substantial solidarity and the churches were packed with concerned people. The lawyers who chose to defend the activists would eventually become the leaders of the new Germany: Gregor Gysi, Ibrahim Bohme, Lothar de Maiziere, Wolfgang Schnur. Though unquestionably courageous for their decision to defend the activists, these lawyers also had to work with the Stasi. Thus the question has now emerged–to what extent were these soon-to-be politicians compromised by their connections. The key issue has not been whether they talked with the Stasi, but whether they received any money for the work. This was the discovery that precipitated the downfall of Schnur in March.

From this point in 1988 to September 1989, political discontent continued in the churches. Then, after Leipzig, the opposition enjoyed its greatest influence from October 9 to November 9. [I will be going over this history in more detail in the next report when I write up two discussions I had with Leipzig pastors]. After the wall fell, however, it was the Deutschmark that captured people’s attention.

The day we met in Pankow there had been a demonstration in front of the Volkskammer against elected parliamentarians with suspected Stasi connections. One of the women said that the atmosphere at the 10,000 strong demo was like that of old with cries of “Stasi out, Stasi out” reverberating through the square. We talked about the potential for a continued citizen’s movement and they stressed the need for “mature” citizens. The following somewhat paradoxical formulation emerged: a citizen’s movement is necessary to create mature citizens who then in turn create a successful citizens’ movement. Which comes first: the maturity or the movement?