Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

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

Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

An Inclusive Germany

The reunification of Germany was all about Germans.

This might seem obvious. After all, reunification focused largely on the coming together of ethnic Germans living on either side of the Berlin Wall. Demonstrators in East Germany initially focused on das Volk (the people) but switched after the fall of the Wall to ein Volk (one people), putting the emphasis on the national rather than the civic.

This upsurge in national sentiment, however, obscured the fact that West Germany had become a de facto multicultural country during the Cold War, as a result of immigration, the inflow of refugees, and the need for guest workers, many of whom eventually brought over their families and decided to stay. East Germany, meanwhile, had pockets of non-Germans, mostly “fraternal socialists” from other countries in the Communist world including 70,000 Vietnamese contract workers. In the 1990s, a united Germany became home to many fleeing the wars in former Yugoslavia and the chaos in former Soviet Union.

Germany eventually adjusted its nationality law to reflect the increased diversity of people living within its borders. Until 1999, German law was based on jus sanguinis: you were German by bloodline. But the law changed that year to reflect jus soli: you could be a German citizen if you were born in Germany and your parents had permanent residence or had been living there for at least eight years. Today, nearly one-fifth of people living in Germany have foreign roots (that is, either they or their parents came to Germany after 1955).

I met Matthias Schwerendt in 1990 when he was the clerk of the Young Friends, the small group of German Quakers who lived in East Germany. At the time he was working with disabled children as an alternative to military service. This experience, coupled with his Quaker background and later academic work on anti-Semitism and education during the Nazi period, has sensitized him to questions of social inclusion. It has also led him to see the changes of 1989 through the eyes of those on the margins of society.

“For us, the change in 1989 was a sort of liberation, and we had to fight for it,” he told me after Quaker meeting in Berlin one Sunday in February. “But for the Turkish community, it was a huge backlash. From one day to the next, they got the idea that ‘There’s no place for us. They don’t want us at all.’ A lot of the problems with the radicalization in the Turkish and Arab communities here come from that. If not for the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe a new generation of middle-class Turkish Arab immigrants would have emerged earlier.”

In the period after 1989, united Germany has begun to grapple with the fact that it is a multicultural society. “We’re just on the threshold where people here realize that we are a developed immigrant country,” he told me. “Of course, we’re just at the beginning of this discussion of inclusion. Also, inclusion means how to approach the training and educating of so-called ‘handicapped people.’ We are much more aware that we have to change our education system on this issue. So, on this question of the human rights of inclusion, we have made a huge step, but it’s only a first step.”

In 1990, Matthias Schwerendt helped guide me through the changing youth culture of East Berlin. In 2013, he was my guide once again, this time describing to me the trajectory of someone for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall came at just the right moment. We talked about how his life changed after the Wall fell and he was able to pursue his interest in education. We also talked about the trajectory of eastern Germany.

“From the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they’d wasted their time, their lives,” he said. “There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, ‘Stop!’”


The Interview


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


Yes! I was sleeping on the mattress in my sleeping bag. I lived at that time in Chemnitz. I’d renovated a flat with my brother to live with him together there. Each morning I had the radio on to wake up, the West German Deutschlandfunk station. Normally it took me half an hour to be able to think. And I heard at half past 6, “the Wall has fallen,” and I immediately stood in my sleeping bag. I was absolutely surprised, of course.

In the summer of 1989, I went on a trip to a meeting of international Quaker Young Friends in France. I was really privileged to be able to go there as the only Young Friend from the East German Quakers. I really appreciated this, and I made a lot of friends there. It was only a small group, but we grew quite close in our conversation. It was, of course, my first time in France. Afterwards, I visited two of the members in their hometowns, one in Freiburg and the other in Hamburg. As I went back to East Germany, it was clear to me that I’d probably not see them again until I retired. Yes, 40 or 45 years! And then it was only three months later that I could see them again.


After the Wall fell, did you want to immediately go to Berlin, or immediately back to the West?


I phoned to my friends in East Berlin and said, “I will come on the weekend.” I went to the train and we met in East Berlin the next day. Then the five or six of us went together to Kreuzberg in West Berlin, and it was my first breakfast in Kreuzberg in a subculture café. For me it was clear, “I have to go this weekend to Berlin to see what happens.” For me it was a change of…of all situations. I had no clue that that meant the end of East Germany. But I was sure that it would change our lives immediately.


And you decided to move to Berlin. That’s where we met in 1990.


Yes, I was in Berlin. At that time I was in love with the woman who later became my wife. But I knew it was not the right time to come to Berlin to say, “Oh, I want to try a relationship with you.” She’d just finished another relationship, so I had to give her time. But there was a huge queue of men who wanted to…


Ask her out on a date?


Yes. So, the first motivation was love. It sounds romantic, and it was indeed. And the second reason was I wanted to change to a real city. Karl-Marx-Stadt, which was later renamed Chemnitz, had 300,000 people. It had quite a lot of the places you want to go to as a young person: theater, cinema, music, concerts, whatever. It was a nice place to grow up, but I wanted to have the whole world. Of course, Berlin was then the focus of the world. This city was changing everyday: new subway stations, old subway stations being reopened. Everyone was coming to Berlin to see what the fall of the Wall meant, and for me it was amazing. I quickly found a flat where I could stay the first month, and I felt free. I felt like how young people often feel: “the world is at my feet.”


And what were you thinking you would do?


I was in a really special situation, because in 1988 I was called up for military service. I said, “No, I do not want to go to the army! I do not want to go to the so-called Bausoldaten.” This was army service without weapons, but in uniform. So I said to the authorities, “I want to be a conscientious objector, but I want to do the so-called civil service.” There was no real civil service in East Germany. So I declared that I would stay for more than two years in social work. I started in Karl-Marx-Stadt, taking care of elder people, cleaning their houses, buying food for them, and bringing them a warm meal. In January 1990, I went to Berlin, but I still had one year left in this service. So I started to look for a social job in a children’s house. I quickly found work with handicapped children. I had made this commitment with the authorities. The authorities were gone, but I felt that it was still my commitment. I thought I’d do one more year at this social job and then I’d go to university. I knew at that time that I wanted to study something to do with education because education was a big issue for me.


When you talked to the authorities about arranging this alternative service, how difficult was it to convince them?


It was surprising to me, because it was not difficult. I came from a church high school. There were three Protestant church high schools for people who were brought up in Evangelical or Protestant families and who were not able to get into high school for political reasons. So quite a lot of young men were trained there for working with young people in church and church communities. So the local army authorities were used to getting people who refused to go to the army. They were not surprised that I said, “no.” But they had no idea what I meant when I said, “I will do some social work.” I think they had no idea that’s normal, and quite a lot of countries have this civil service. I was surprised that they labeled me a reservist without any service. I’d never heard that label before, and I never heard it again. But I was happy that they let me go.


Did you ever meet anybody else who was in a similar situation?


No. But this was 1988. In 1989, they asked quite a lot of conscientious objectors to serve, but mostly these people wanted to go to western Germany. But I never said I wanted to go to western Germany. All my friends were here. I thought, “East Germany is a moderate dictatorship for me, but I want to stay here and to try to change things, to make this state a more comfortable place, more peaceful.” Of course, I was really nervous to have all these persons from the Communist Party tell me how I have to live. Of course, I wanted to have more freedom, but for that time my place was in East Germany.


Your brother had a different experience in the army.


Yes, he had to go to the army in the autumn of 1989, a short time before the Wall fell. For him, and for all the new Baueinheiten, the recruits without any weapons, it was so strange that they didn’t have any information about what was happening in East Germany. They knew there were a lot of demonstrations, maybe the system was collapsing, but they had no really information. They wanted to go out and find out what was going on.

So then he went on leave. And he never went back. He hid himself in my friend’s flat. It was the flat of the family of my future wife. The police came to me and to my parents. The policemen said to me, “It’s your brother, you don’t have to say anything.” I could guess where he was, but I didn’t want to know for sure. I wanted to be in a sense honest with the authorities. It was easier for me to say, “I do not know.” And it was a difficult situation because part of the apartment building where my girlfriend’s family lived was reserved for the Stasi. So I couldn’t call him there anyway, because the telephone in their flat was monitored.


What happened to him?


When the Wall came down, the authorities basically kicked all these Unehrenhafte, the deserters, out of the army. My brother was quite happy. He started to do the same civil service I was doing, and this was the beginning of a new career for him. Now he’s a social worker and he works in a children’s house and he’s happy. He was lucky because he wasn’t caught at that time. One or two months earlier he could have landed in a military jail, which was really hard in East Germany. They really tried to destroy people. So if I say that for me, “the GDR was a moderate dictatorship,” people who were in those military prisons would not agree with that sentence.


You said that part of the building where your girlfriend’s family’s flat was located was reserved for the Stasi. I didn’t quite understand what that meant. 


She lived about 200 meters away from the main station of the Stasi at Frankfurter Allee. Quite a lot of people who worked in the Stasi lived in that building, which was a huge apartment building with 500 families living there. One day at school someone in her class said to her, “Oh, it was quite funny yesterday. I took the telephone and I listened to your brother.” For her it was clear that this was the son of a Stasi officer. She was responsible for the class book where you could read the professions of the parents. Most of the parents worked in the ministry of internal affairs, so it was clear that most of the families were in the Stasi. And she had friends from these Stasi families, of course. They had an agreement: “We do not talk about politics. We do not talk about our plans. We want to have this private atmosphere to have fun and do things together.” She knew quite early on which people she could trust and what she could say around whom. Anyway, it was not a problem for my brother to live there for two or three weeks.


Right in the middle of the Stasi!


Yeah! But it was the Stasi, not the army. And in the end, if you are living among your enemies, you become more careful. From an early age you learn what you have to say and what you are able to say.


You said Karl-Marx-Stadt/Chemnitz was a good place to grow up, but it wasn’t as exciting as Berlin. What would you say was for you the most important aspect of growing up in Karl-Marx-Stadt?


I left Karl-Marx-Stadt when I was 16 and came back at the age of 18. So, at a very important time of my adolescence I was in another place. When I was 10, 12, 14, my interests were, of course, to read. I knew that I was different from most of my classmates, because I was not in any of the mass organizations, because my parents were both pastors. I moved to Chemnitz at the beginning of second grade, and this school had a high level of political indoctrination. The others were absolutely astonished and couldn’t imagine that I was not part of the mass organizations. They wanted to know why I had free time when they had to sit in school and listen to boring reports or whatever. For them it was strange. But I found that there were a lot of possibilities within the church with choirs, with music bands, concerts. There were a lot of opportunities with youth subculture. We went to the countryside to sleep outside, to walk.

For me, the most important part of what I am now, was not Karl-Marx-Stadt by itself—it was more the Young Friends group. We did quite a lot of meeting together to discuss not only religious but also political themes. We tried to do political actions, like thinking about the military and the East German textbooks. We tried to put our beliefs down in letters to give to the authorities. We made fasting weekends and seminars and work camps. Each year, we had two or three main meetings for a week or a longer weekend, plus two weeks in the summer and quite a lot of weekends around the year.

The other huge influence was the church high school in Moritzburg, near Dresden. For two years, from the age of 16 to 18, I lived there and we were in small classes all the time discussing questions of culture, of art, of philosophy. We were trained in ancient languages and theology. That’s when I learned to think with my heart. At university I was trained to think with my head, but at that time I thought with my heart, and for me it was an important time. In that high school and with the Young Friends group I learned to feel the strength and the power of a community, and I learned how to say, “No.”

My parents were not so political. Sometimes I wished they would be. But on the other hand, they were quite brave. All the time they were afraid of the Stasi. But my mother retired early because she was handicapped, and she was able to visit West Germany. And they brought Solzhenitsyn, Wolf Biermann, literature, music—which I needed like air to breath. So I got quite a lot from my parents, and I got quite a lot from this school, and really I got quite a lot from the Young Friends group.


How did you find out about the Young Friends group?


We lived around the corner from a Quaker family, the Tschirners, and I was in close contact with two of their sons. We played football together. They asked me to come to a Quaker family gathering, and I was really surprised by the lack of hierarchy. I came from the Protestant church and I was son of a pastor. If I made an announcement at Sunday service or lectures as a 13-year-old boy, it was clear that I had the role of the “son of the pastor.” But when I joined this new group, it was of no importance where I came from. It was astonishing to me that these adults, some of whom came from Western Europe, would not only talk about their own personal life or the political situation but also ask me about my opinions. There was a woman from London who asked me all sorts of things. And she was really interested: it was not just a form of British kindness.

Then there was the meeting for worship. At the first one, I thought, “Oh my God, what should I do for this hour?” After five minutes, I finished my prayers and then what? Let’s go do something else! But it was amazing to me, the spirit of that group and the family gathering. Shortly afterwards, we started a new Young Friends group. It was a great group. There were 50 members of the Society of Friends, and at our peak we were 25 Young Friends.


So you were almost the majority. Not that anything was decided by majority vote.


Yes. I think this had a really huge influence on me. And, of course, Quakerism led me to do something with education, with peace working, with human rights and anti-discrimination. In hindsight, this was the turning point for me.

We made a kind of street theatre at the Quaker work camps. We worked half a day and then in the evening we cooked and went swimming, but also we wanted to have fun. So, we made theater performances and invited the holiday camps around. We put on Grimm’s fairy tales, nothing political, just a lot of fun. We created the costumes, built the stage and whatever. We made a poster and put it up on the village shop that there would be a production of Cinderella or Rapunzel. But the Party officer of this village grabbed the paper and said, “In no village in this world can you just put up a poster without asking the authorities!” And I thought, “Fuck you! You have no clue about this! This is normal. In most parts of the world—maybe not here or in North Korea—you can do theater for children. Children want to be told a good story, and they want to have fun. And we too want to have fun. And there is nothing you can say against it.” Beside all these political questions, this was important to me: to live in a society where it’s okay for people to sit together and talk together, and have parties, and clean up the park, or do something together to make life more eventful. It’s not only these huge political questions of global survival.


You mentioned that the group did actions together, and you tried to correct the textbooks—you sent a letter to the authorities. Di you encounter any problems as a result of these actions?


No. It was already at the end of the 1980s, and the East German state was so weak. Of course, we did not realize that at the time. We were only thinking about the oppression, for instance after the Rosa Luxemburg demo in 1988 when quite a few well-known people from the Church opposition were thrown in jail and had to go to Western Europe: Stefan Krawchuk, Vera Wollenberger, Barbel Bohley. Of course, we were shocked that they were thrown out. At that time I was so political. We planned to make a fasting march. We had this idea to look at what the state said in its official announcements and then set up our own agenda. For instance, at that time were the so-called Olof Palme marches, named after the Swedish prime minister who was killed. And the East German government tried to occupy the peace movement. So we said, “Let’s go and do a so-called Olof Palme peace march from the Frauenkirche in Dresden to the SS-20 base in Bischofswerda.”

This was 1989. We planned to fast for three days and then break the fast on Easter in front of the SS-20 base in Bischofswerda. All the old Quakers said, “Oh my goodness!” They, of course, were quite good, but they were absolutely clear that we had no chance in front of the authorities. At that time I was clerk of the Young Friends and Ulrich Tschirner was the clerk of the East German Yearly meeting. So we both went to Dresden to the office secretary of church-state relations. Beforehand, I sent a letter explaining that a group of 20 people would participate in an Olof Palme peace march. The Frauenkirche is a huge symbol of the huge destruction of World War II. There are the Pershing missiles in the West, but we have these SS-20s here in the East, and we want, on this side of the Iron Curtain, to send a sign that we are absolutely peaceful. So we wanted to fast. And I also said something about Gandhi or something, I don’t know.

What surprised me was that they had no arguments. They were so unsure of themselves. They said, “If there are some provocateurs on your side, what would you do?” I said to them, “I promise that among our Young Friends group, no one would provoke the state.” The last argument from them was, “We can’t convince the Russians.” We came out of that meeting, and I realized they are so weak. They have no ideas anymore. Their pulse is gone. They could say only, “We can’t convince the Russians, and we can’t give you a guarantee how the Russians will behave.”


In 1989, how much did you follow the meetings and demonstrations in Leipzig? The Monday night meetings, was that something that everybody was talking about, or was that all happening in the distance?


I was not in Leipzig at that time. We discussed it in our Young Friends group. We had meetings each month, mostly in Leipzig or in Berlin, and in Karl-Marx-Stadt as well, to empower and encourage us in resisting the political pressure, which most of us had in school or during their trainings. We had to answer the question of whether to go to the obligatory military education camps. Of course, we took part as individuals in some demonstrations, but I wasn’t in Leipzig. We went to a Young Friends gathering on October 7, 1989. This was the weekend for the most difficult Monday demonstration, because on the 9th of October, it was clear that all these so-called Betriebskampfgruppen, the military formations at the factories, were forced to go to Leipzig for possible military action, and all the hospitals were open and ready for any upcoming riots or campaigns against the demonstrators.

I remember as if it were yesterday the discussions on the trains, from Chemnitz to Leipzig, from Leipzig to Magdeburg. Nearly everyone discussed whether the military would shoot or not. Would it be a Chinese solution? Would the demonstrators win or lose? It was like the whole of society was dealing with that question. For us, on that weekend, we were happy to stay together, to talk together, and not to go into political groups. For us, this was our political and religious home. Of course we took part in the demonstrations in our cities, but I was not at that time joining this party or that. Like a lot of other people, I wanted democracy, more freedom. But we were 19 years old. We had no solutions. I might have gone to the Initiative for Freedom and Human Rights or Neues Forum and said, “Hi, I’m 19, maybe I can contribute a little bit about non-violent action.” But I had no political ideas. I could ask questions, but I couldn’t give political answers.

What we tried to do was contribute to ecumenical circles. I did a weekend seminar with an English Quaker at the Augustine Cloister on non-violent action in 1988. It was the peace decade of the churches. We wanted to make a seminar about Johan Galtung, but in the end we were 19 and none of the aldermen took us seriously. So we knew we were quite limited because of our age.


Earlier you said that the revolution was largely moral. It was a moral impulse, not so much a political impulse. Can you explain that?


The difference between the East German opposition and the opposition in Poland, for example, is that the Polish opposition was much more trained and working more with political ideas to overcome the situation in their society. There was an independent union, Solidarnosc. Some were in jail. This was much more filled with political discussions, political ideas.

Here, the East German opposition was much more connected with the church. There was a huge base within the church addressing peace issues. This was mostly a discourse of the church. There was a consensus that there are economic difficulties, huge problems with ecology, a huge lack of individual freedom and public opinion, no freedom of assembly or travel. But you couldn’t reform a society with these ideas. There were no public discussions about what kind of society in which you wanted to live or what the relationship should be between East and West Germany. There were only discussions that something had to change.

In the end, we didn’t have the political leaders to fill this void. People like Vera Lengsfeld, Barbel Bohley and so on had their special function. But we did not have a figure like Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, or other representatives of the Polish opposition. In the end, we had neither the political leadership nor the political discourse on visions and alternatives for the society, whether economic or ecological or in terms of civil society. There was no real civil society in East Germany. One of the biggest mistakes of the church opposition was that they never saw this clearly. After 1953—the last uprising of the unions and the workers in East Germany—people were deeply frustrated, demoralized. Or they went to West Germany, or tried to bury themselves in consumption. There was some partial freedom in the church and in the arts – theater, literature. The novelist and intellectual Christa Wolf is an amazing person, but she couldn’t lead a state. Vaclav Havel was a singular person. But we never had a Vaclav Havel.


Before the Wall fell, what did you imagine your life would be like?


First, I thought I would study: theology or church music. For church music, even though I played organ and piano, I was too lazy. But I was really interested in questions of philosophy, sociology, and history, and language. So it was clear I would study theology. I was really happy that the Wall came down at the right time. I figured I’d try to live in East Germany and write for church services, maybe do some education work for the church. But by the time I was 17, I was clear that I would never be a priest. I do not believe strongly enough for that.


So, you finished your year working with handicapped here in Berlin, and then you went directly to university?


Yes, I started studying education science. In the first two years, I worked more on theoretical questions, and I finished my sociology studies. My interest at that time was to understand political economy, on the one hand, and on the other to understand gender politics. I started working with young people on gender issues. At that time there was this huge rise in anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and racism. I started to think about how we generate ideology and how ideology comes from discourses, from ideas and institutions. This was one of my main topics for the next years: the huge ideological systems of the 19th and 20th century.


And you said you wrote a book. What was the topic?


At the end of my studies, I stated to work on National Socialism and the Third Reich. I started with the education of the officers in the concentration camps. I started with the question, “How do people become traitors?” I had the possibility to work at the university on two projects. One was about how questions of race, hygiene, eugenics, and racism became part of the discipline of the institutions from the beginning of the Nazi time to the end of the Nazi time. We did a huge research project to understand these concepts in the schools and throughout the education system. We found more than 2,000 books and articles, and nearly 900 persons who were involved with this process. This was a rare chance to see how in 12 years new concepts could be introduced into education to shape a dictatorship. I learned quite a lot about the history of science, about the so-called Schreibtischtäter: desk perpetrators, the people who kill people from their desks.

The other book is my Ph.D., which was about anti-Semitism in textbooks. This was more the question of how you produce ideological texts. The ideas of anti-Semitism were maybe 60 years old, from the 1870s when the first radical anti-Semitic action groups started in Germany. Of course, we have the earlier period of Judeophobia, but my interest was how this became a really new paradigm. Where did these ideas of nationalism and anti-Semitism come from, and how did they come together? And then I wanted to understand the semantics of anti-Semitism in texts. At the end of my PhD—it took me quite a long time—I started to study a new topic: Arab modernity and the European view of the Middle East and the Arab World. In the end I was quite happy when I realized that it all fits so much together.


Because you were working on anti-Semitism in texts, did you read the diaries of Victor Kemperer?


I read the diaries. And his book, The Language of the Third Reich, was quite important in the 1960s, even in the 1980s. But I started my Ph.D. research about eugenics and the race paradigm in the Weimar Republic and in the Nazi era at the end of the 1990s. Then I started the work on the semantics of anti-Semitism in 2000-2001. At that time, his book was outdated. When I read the Klemperer books during my studies, I of course was shocked at how quickly a society could establish limits for minorities like Jews and how quickly you can lose the freedom to teach, to publish, to do whatever, even to drive a car or go to the library.


When you read the third volume of his diary, the volume that takes place in the GDR, was there information there that was surprising to you?


On the one hand, I was aware of the anti-Semitism of the East German authorities. On the other hand, I was a little bit amused by Erich Honecker’s political strategy at the end of the 1980s to try to win influence from American Jewish organizations with a new synagogue here. For me at that time it was not clear that it was a form of anti-Semitism to think that you could get influence with the White House via the Jews by commemorating the Holocaust, that this is a classic anti-Semitic stereotype. I only thought at the time: “This man does not clearly see his limitations.”

I knew that there was undercover racism and anti-Semitism in East Germany. You felt it with how foreigners were treated here, the jokes made about them. These Gastarbeiter – guest workers – the people from Vietnam, Libya, Mozambique, Angola, Poland all had quite a hard life here. The daily racism was quite hard. And there were no discussion about it, because East Germany was a so-called anti-fascist state. I knew about this problem, but I was still shocked at the huge racism that emerged. For instance, right after the fall of the Wall, construction workers from eastern Berlin went to western Berlin to try to displace the Turkish construction workers. “Now it’s our job,” they said.

I realized quite late what all this meant for the Turkish community. For us, the change in 1989 was a sort of liberation, and we had to fight for it. But for the Turkish community, it was a huge backlash. From one day to the next, they got the idea that “There’s no place for us. They don’t want us at all.” A lot of the problems with the radicalization in the Turkish and Arab communities here come from that. If not for the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe a new generation of middle class Turkish Arab immigrants would have emerged earlier. Now we have this generation of young Muslim people or people from near Middle East who say, “We want to be part of society here. We bring our knowledge and we have good grades in schools and we want to study. And we want to have part of the cake.” But for them it has been a huge backlash.

We were all so occupied first with our East German issues, then with the German-German question, and then with the nationalism and the racism. Then came 9/11, and then came the killing of Theo van Gogh in 2004. That’s when the Islamophobic discourses began. Only now are we again at the point where we could have been at the end of the 1980s, when a generation of children of immigrants is in the pole position. So maybe we lost 20 years because of the fall of the Wall. Maybe I’m not right, but that’s my thesis.


It’s definitely an interesting thesis. Certainly so many resources and so much attention went from the West to the East. And the East and the labor pool became suddenly bigger with folks from the East, so that definitely put a lot of pressure from the Turkish community.


And the political elites are much more different now, because we’re much more European. It’s not just getting the euro and thinking in economic terms. We are still struggling with what Europe means, and what are the borders of Europe. And there’s this huge discussion about whether Turkey is part of Europe. That is ridiculous! All along, the whole Near East area has been part of Europe. It’s part of European culture, so entangled with European culture. We have these debates about identity that keeps us from focusing on the real questions, like how we want to live together. But now the elites are much clearer that people are to be integrated as people, not only as an economic resource.


What do you think remains of the culture of the GDR?


This is such a difficult question. After 1989, it was important not to make the same mistake after the Nazi era to integrate too quickly the people who were very much involved in the dictatorship. There was not much of a debate about what it means to have a divided Germany and then what would be the place of a united Germany in Europe. The debate that did take place, and this was not the most important debate, was about the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and how there was too much from the old system in this new Left party. This was a mistake of the intellectuals from East and West Germany. Most of the so-called Left intellectuals were a bit ashamed about their view of East Germany, their positive impressions of this “other” state. But this was not an anti-fascist state, it was not a liberal state, it was not even a socialist state. It was a sort of corporatist state. People were shocked about the lack of civil society here. So there was a perceived need to build up civil society here.

And from the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they’d wasted their time, their lives. There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, “Stop!”

One of the biggest mistakes is that we haven’t had a debate about a common constitution. We had to take over the Grundgesetz, the Basic Law of West Germany, but there was no debate about our common purposes, our common values and how we should live together today and tomorrow. This was a huge frustration for a lot of East German people. And this was the beginning of the rise of the extreme Right, the right-wing populist groups and movements, which said, “We have to make a Volkish community and go back to the Third Reich.” On the other extreme, people were saying, “We want to live in the socialist wonderland again.” It was best to keep out of this kind of debate. I lived for a short time in a special district where there were a lot of people who served in the military service around the Berlin Wall in the so-called Feliks Dzierdzinsky Wachregiment. This was the Cheka of East Germany. They still have their meetings and groups and whatever. With such people and such culture, you can’t have an open debate. So for me it is important that you have these memorial places of East German oppression, like the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen. But I wish we could have another political debate about East German history, about the daily experience in East Germany.

There is group called Third Generation East. These are people who were teenagers or younger around 1990. They want to keep this experience and start new debates about what it meant to be brought up in East Germany, to live with parents who are deeply frustrated, to live in a society far away from the idea of democracy and minorities, what it means to feel like the losers of history. This was a missed opportunity. You can have part of this debate with young people with reports and films and exhibitions. But you can’t have this public debate in common, because it’s 20 years later, and it’s gone. Maybe 10 years ago we should have had this debate, but now it’s gone. It’s interesting that quite a number of Western intellectuals are irritated that now we have a chancellor who is an East German Protestant. Twenty years later, people are realizing that East Germany is not only a place for consumption, a place to invest money, to buy houses. It is a place that had a special experience and that has its own intellectual resources as well.


You said earlier that you felt that you were drawn to looking at minority questions in part because when you were growing up you felt like a minority as a Quaker. Are there other aspects of your life before the Wall fell that are still with you very strongly in the way you think and the way you act?


Yes, I felt as a minority as a Protestant, because of the church politics of East Germany, which was sort of repressive. I can give you an example. In school, I was asked to make a report about evolution and Genesis in the Bible. In my paper, I explained the philosophical and the historical meaning of religious texts. In the end, I tried to show them that you have to read texts in a hermeneutic way. It’s stupid to say that something is written in a religious text and that’s all. Religious texts are part of a tradition, and you have to understand the tradition. In the middle of my report, the teacher said, “No, I don’t want to listen to your talk. That’s not the topic.” She made two mistakes. First, she gave me that topic, because then she gave me this possibility to talk to the class. The second mistake was that she stopped me in the middle. This was not a class of intellectuals, but I think each person recognized that when she stopped my presentation, I have won. The teacher probably thought she could embarrass me as a creationist. But I was not a creationist. I had no problem with evolution. At that point, I realized how stupidly this teacher, with a strong socialist education, thought about religious traditions. If she had just listened to me, it would have been clear that our positions were not that different. For me it was a good experience to learn how simple people try to give you a kick and also how I can persuade people.


When you look at the future of Germany in particular, where are you most hopeful about?


We’re just on the threshold where people here realize that we are a developed immigrant country. Of course, we’re just at the beginning of this discussion of inclusion. Also, inclusion means how to approach the training and educating of so-called “handicapped people.” We are much more aware that we have to change our education system on this issue. So, on this question of the human rights of inclusion, we have made a huge step, but it’s only a first step. We talked earlier, before the interview, about this neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground. I’m afraid that the discussion about this group is turning in the wrong direction in our society, because we missed an opportunity to talk about racism in the middle of society and not just on the fringes. So there is still quite a lot to do in that direction, but I think we are on the right path.

My second hope for the future is to have a debate about sexism in politics. We have a new generation of really tough young women who want to be a part of the community. There is consciousness about these problems, but still we are in the first steps of this national debate. Third, this issue of military intervention for human rights. On the one hand, we have a re-militarization of society, and on the other hand there’s a huge resentment against military intervention. We are not a pacifist society, but there are still huge restrictions on the use of military intervention. Finally, I’d like to see a discussion about what it means to be in Europe, and what should Europe look like in 10 years, in 20 years? There are a lot of questions that are not discussed, like this question of Roma in Europe. We are seeing some dark sides of transformation in states like Hungary. I think there would be a greater outcry in Europe if people understood what was written in the Hungarian newspapers. The pogroms against Roma and the rise of the Hungarian neo-Nazis are absolutely shocking to me.

So, these are the topics that interest me, about Europe and civil society. I do some writing and some teaching, some education projects. I do not change the world as a whole, but I’m happy I have the possibility to work on these questions in my individual way. This is the motivation for my life and my work, and I think the basis of this lies in my experience of East Germany.


When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate that here in this country on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?


I think I would say 5. A lot has changed, a lot of opportunities were missed, and there is a lot of potential. Maybe it’s boring, but I would take the middle choice.


And then, your own personal life?


I was happy at the beginning of the 1990s, not only because I found my love. I found a nice place to live: Berlin was fantastic. I was happy because I was in a pole position. The fall of the Wall came at the right time. I could start studying. I was privileged. I had the East German experience without the East German limitations. And today I am happy. I have two daughters, I have a family, I have the chance to work on questions that I’m interested in.


That sounds like a 9 or a 10 to me.


Okay, let’s say 9.5.


Finally, when you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Germany over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?


I would say 7. I think there is here a huge potential. We also made a huge profit from the economic crisis. The newspapers complain about the transfer of money to East and Southeast Europe. But we got so much benefit from the crisis that we should transfer some of it.

There’s a mentality here of being behind the Wall and remembering the resources of the really rich years of the 1960s and 1970s. But this time is over and life is changing all the time. We need more people who say, “This is how life is right now, and we have to be flexible.” That doesn’t mean giving up all your friends and moving somewhere else in this global village. I think you can live flexibly and stay in your home. We don’t need each year more growth of economy. We need more ideas.


Berlin, February 3, 2013


Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

Confronting History

Germany, it seems, is in a constant process of debating its own history. In fact, there’s a word in German, historikerstreit, that means “the historians’ dispute.” It refers specifically to a debate at the end of the 1980s about the crimes of Nazi Germany, often in comparison to those of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the word could just as easily refer to a number of other debates that have taken place among German historians – often with the interventions of historians from other countries — over the role played by average Germans during the Nazi period, the treatment of the Holocaust in popular culture, the activities of the Stasi, and so on. Although historians might naturally disagree, Germany would appear to be cursed with too much history.

There wasn’t as much visible dispute over history in East Germany. There was a Party line, and for the most part everyone followed that line publically. According to the Party’s interpretation of history, for instance, the Nazi period was a late stage of imperialist capitalism. The East German government emphasized the struggles of anti-fascist fighters and tended to de-emphasize anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and anything else that didn’t fit smoothly into the narrative of the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.

Historian Kurt Paetzold was an exception to this sanitized version of history. In the early 1980s, he published a collection of materials related to Jews in the Third Reich and then a subsequent volume on Kristallnacht. “The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in,” he told me in an interview in February. “My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this.”

Nor did Kurt Paetzold shy away from addressing these difficult questions after 1989. In spring 1990, he was offering a course at Humboldt University entitled “Historical Thinking and History Teaching in the Crises of Our Time.”

But by that time, he was already anticipating the backlash within the university system and the end of his own teaching career. “It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged,” he told me. “There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves ‘the independent historians,’ and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.”

He remains philosophical about these changes: “A historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues.” He wasn’t immediately laid off. The dismissal didn’t come until the end of 1992. “There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi,” he explained. “As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.”

We also talked about the controversy surrounding Daniel Goldhagen’s work, the aspects of the GDR system that should have been preserved, and what he called the “hour of the minorities” in the changes that took place in 1989.


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


Of course. I was living in Berlin. I was aware beforehand that this state would collapse. The clearest sign was the utter cluelessness and helplessness of the leadership. On October 7, I was at a conference in West Germany in Bremen and was staying as a guest at a friend who was a pastor. From there, I went to Austria to do research in archives and returned to Berlin on October 18, 1989. Upon entering the apartment I told my wife the famous quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” To make a long story short, the end was no surprise to me, and it was clear to me that this end would bring about far-reaching changes for society and for my personal life. It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged.


Was there a particular moment when you were thinking that “this regime would not last”?


No, it wasn’t a moment. It was a process. And it really only became apparent in connection with the conflict with the Soviet Union, and this conflict only became noticeable in 1989. It had a backstory in the sense that Gorbachev was someone at the head of the Soviet leadership who had no concept of the crucial questions. You can tell in the speeches of Gorbachev that he was conjuring up many things but without any economic or social concepts. At the same time, it was clear that under him the Soviet Union would leave all its allies – not only the GDR – more or less to their own devises.


Did you communicate any of your doubts about the fragility of the GDR state to anybody else?
Of course with friends. I have a friend from my school days, a professor of economics, and it was clear to us since Gorbachev assumed power in 1985.


Did you observe among your students an increasing skepticism or a certain questioning of the system?


In individual cases. There had been a showing of a movie in 1989 about the crimes of Stalin, and there were discussions surrounding this. Overall, among the historians, there was no crisis situation – no crisis of thought. It just wasn’t the case. As far as I know, the students weren’t involved in any protest actions in Berlin. No, there wasn’t a new condition among the students. There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves “the independent historians,” and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.


It must have been a difficult personal experience for you to go through this change at the university…


Well firstly, a historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues. Socially my future path was unemployment and then retirement, so materially I had no problems. That also came about because of the connections with West Germany and the rest of the world. To give an example, for tactical reasons we started a trial before the Labor Court against our dismissal. In the morning we had the trial before the Labor Court in Berlin and on the same day I had to be at the Bodensee in the south of Germany to give a lecture before the Catholic Academy there. This is a concrete example showing that I did not have a problem of “what to do now.” The drawback for my academic work was that there wasn’t enough financial means to visit archives or libraries abroad. And today publishers require a contribution fee to publish books. For this our pensions weren’t enough. It was enough to live on but nothing extra.


In one of his books Milan Kundera says that regimes like the one in Czechoslovakia talked about controlling the future but they were really more interested in controlling the past. I was wondering if you observed that phenomenon here in your particular field of history, where the government tried to interpret that period of history in a particular way.
The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in. My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this. For my colleagues dealing with the history of the workers movement in the 20th century, however, this was very different.


The book by Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, was very controversial on the role of public opinion during the Nazi period.


I have written some articles arguing against Goldhagen. The core of the problem is that he declares anti-Semitism to be a German attribute. That is something he thought up, but it’s not researched. The unsettling thing is more that the murderers of the Jews weren’t all anti-Semites. The Führer was, and the ones giving orders were. But the masses, not all of course but many of them, were just following orders. Part of the success of Goldhagen’s lectures in Germany can be explained by the fact that the people sitting across from him in the discussions were old people of my age. The audience could then say that the old guard was merely defending its claims. If one had seated researchers there of the same age as Goldhagen, the debate would have gone a lot differently.


I have one last question about that history, and then I would like to return to the period of 1989. Have you read the diaries of Victor Klemperer?




Klemperer of course wrote a book about the language of the Third Reich and then in his diaries he talked in code about the language of the “Fourth Reich.” What he meant was that many of the manipulations at the level of language by the Nazis he also observed under the GDR as well. He didn’t write about it except in his diary. I was wondering if you agreed with his comments on that issue?


In short, no. As a student, I read LTI: The Language of the Third Reich, the book that Klemperer wrote in an admirably short time after 1945. It was an extremely enlightening book. It was a sensation. What we had in the political language of the GDR was not in the literature, not in Becher or Brecht or Wolf. These were people with an extremely rich language.

In the political language, of course, there were certain fabricated, cookie-cutter wordings, but they had nothing to do with the terminology of the Nazis. It was a different kind of fabricated terminology that was also poor — in the sense of being without imagination. And there was a certain obligation within political circles to use this language. But the schools in the GDR really emphasized learning language and literature. I had a look at the schoolbooks of my grandchildren who are now going to school and it is horrible. Our students were still able to write their own work. Nowadays there are people who earn their money by bringing the work of students, even Ph.d. students, to a presentable minimum in written form. Simple things render me speechless. For example, the students in schools today don’t even learn poems anymore. I asked my granddaughter when the last time was that she had to read a poem, and she answered: “two years ago.”


Has anything of value in your opinion been preserved that was worth preserving from the time of the GDR?


I would ask how much time you have.


As much time as you would like to have.


It depends on what areas we are talking about. Let’s take, for example, the entire area of workers’ rights and labor laws, or the entire area of marriage laws. I think many people would have been happy if these laws had carried over. Or take the costs of tertiary education. The dispute happening in Munich at the moment about tuition fees wasn’t even a subject for us. There were no waiting lists at daycare centers and kindergartens. So there’s this entire social field including the unemployed and the homeless. When someone was released from prison, he would get a place to work and a small place to live. So, if you look at the lower echelons of society, then one would have to say that the GDR lived above its means, that it was morally in the positive.


You talked about what should have been preserved. Was there anything that was preserved?


I’d already told your colleague that I am too far removed to talk much about the present. This question puts me into a quandary, because I only look into pieces of the picture. There is some discussion at the moment about certain aspects about the GDR that should have been kept. But the process is not completed yet, for instance, in relation to the school system where there is some discussion among educators about continuing certain teaching practices. Otherwise I don’t see too much.

It’s a different question to ask what survived. In the relationships between the middle-aged and aged generations, there is a certain association between people, a certain closeness and day-to-day helpfulness. I can compare it to life in the south, because I sometimes spend time in Stuttgart. There is something in the day-to-day behaviors of people to each other, but I don’t think it will last. If you ask older people, you will probably get the answer that there was a certain warmth. It has nothing to do with politics, although it was of course the result of the situation. There also weren’t as many partitions or barriers between families. For example in predominantly female workplaces, women would talk about their families, the behavior of their husbands. People were open and exchanged experiences. That was part of a past that won’t last, that cannot last.


I would like for a moment to go back to that period after the Wall fell in 1989. You said that you expected they would replace the historians and you were involved in the labor court on this case. Were there other ways you became involved in what was happening in East Germany at the time between November 1989 and the end of the GDR in October 1990?


I wasn’t immediately laid off. My dismissal was signed on December 31,1992. There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi. As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.


What did you think about the results of the elections in March 1990 here in the GDR?


That will be a difficult analysis for the historians one day to study. There are some puzzles, though, related to the elections. Take, for example, the results of the elections in Saxony. Saxony is a state with a long tradition of social democracy and Communism, but since then it has been voting for the Christian Democrats. How can you explain that? This is a meager answer to your question, but I have no better analysis.

One has to imagine that millions stood before a situation that they could have never dreamed of. And even though they hadn’t been promised the land of milk and honey, they were told they would very quickly reach the material standard of living of the West.

Later this situation was a bit different. One can estimate that around 30% of the older generation made material gains in this time. They built houses, had nicer cars, and were able to travel more. About one-third of the population would say that they have a better life than before. This is of course connected to the very tricky question of how people’s needs and wants come about.


In the period 1989-1990, did you think about getting involved in the new politics of the GDR and a united Germany? Also, have you had any second thoughts about the positions you held in 1989-1990, your philosophy or ideas about politics or economics or society?


Firstly, I come from a social democratic family. My parents were left-leaning social democrats. My grandfather was a miller, my father a locksmith. They were both involved in the workers’ movement. My mother and father made no concessions to the fascists, other than the fact that they had to work and make money. I knew a Jewish family from the inside, something unusual for my generation: my family had contact with them until they were deported. So, in short, the question of whether socialism is a desirable form of society was not something I asked myself in 1990. The imagination of something different was part of my family’s political tradition.

The question was, then, why did we fail with our social project? This was a project I had helped sustain with my work and activities. When today people discuss if one should even talk about Communism, I find that silly. We can’t just ignore thousands of years of history and say that “we might have talked about it in the past but not anymore.” This idea that we have arrived at the end of history is ridiculous. If there is a future in which we can give a society the name “socialist,” I don’t know. In this respect I adhere to the well-known principle: as long as it hasn’t been proved to be impossible, one can try it with modest means and without making any predictions.

As a historian, my role is to provide an analysis of the past and teach a younger generation what happened. Like a dairy farmer, I make a product: what people do with it is up to them to decide.

In terms of the second question, of course this period was a test of whether I had the right thoughts and opinions. The fundamental error was: we thought we were in a historical era and we weren’t in such an era. You know the saying “socialism always wins.” It was agreed that this was the future. Nobody thought it was remotely possible that the civil order (“bürgerliche Ordung”) — I prefer this to the term “capitalist order” — would spread across Europe and Asia. That is the overall situation. Behind it are an unlimited number of questions, for example, what influences the behavior of the public masses and what is the role of ideology in the behavior of public masses? We totally overestimated that. The role of ideology as a crucial element in the lives of people was extensively overestimated.

The Left has always been reluctant to look at the way the public at large reacted or behaved in certain ways in history. Those are some of the questions I think about differently. It will take some time until a comprehensive history of the GDR is written. The interesting question is: why couldn’t the social system and governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union persuade people that this was a desirable way of life. In history overall, the results of a historical process is never what was expected at the outset.

For 1989/1990, it is claimed that the majority of people wanted to liquidate the GDR. But in such a crisis as we had then, the majority of the people were clueless and it was the hour of the minorities. There were masses on the streets claiming “we are the people,” but this wasn’t the majority. This minority then took things into their hands. These demonstrating masses had no social idea. This was given to them later. Over the course of the movement, the idea of wanting one’s own state was given to them. For the historian, the question is: when do these movements begin and who decides in what direction they should go? You can tell that the year 1989 has left more questions for me than answers.

Berlin, February 1, 2013