TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2003
Summer and Fall
RIAS Germany Program – Summer
June 14–28, 2003
Fourteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Dessau, Wittenberg, Brussels, Frankfurt/Main, Meissen and Dresden. Individual extension program for 8 participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Jim Armstrong, WLNE-TV/ABC6 News, Providence, RI
“From Chuck D. to Don G. in 2 1⁄2 Weeks” or, “My RIAS Experience 2003”
I think Heidi summed it up well as we headed for that morning’s champagne toast just outside Meissen: “13 years ago,” she mused, “if anyone told me I’d be taking a group of American journalists to meet a German prince, I’d say they were crazy.” Crazy. Or incredible prognosticators, I suppose. Either way, that day fell right in line with everything else that happened this summer.
That 2 weeks later I was sitting 10 rows back in one of Europe’s finest opera houses — one that had been completely destroyed and rebuilt twice over — engrossed in the spectacle of Mozart’s Don Giovanni amazes me even more. But that happened, too.
In between, I learned 13 years of terror is a micro-second in world history, but its ripple effects can last generations… so the picture I had in my head of a happily-reunified Germany is fuzzy for a reason.
I learned mesh shirts and man-capris, sandals and socks can make fashion sense. I learned I may never get better at packing a suitcase, no matter how many times I have to do it in a week. I learned that my job in the States is the intellectual equivalent to napping when compared to the thinking and questioning I did in our seminars. I learned that a 60 cent tip can be a compliment, not a reason for justifiable homicide. I learned it’s reasonable to expect half-a-century of division to take twice as long to heal. I learned 18 hours of daylight can wreak havoc on my internal clock, but can’t touch my ability to be awed by incredible people who have seen and done (and continue to see and do) more than I can even think about on most days.
I learned the grass IS always greener: the merits of a 2-party political system versus a 6-party political system can be debated forever. I learned if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels.
If the only goal of RIAS were to increase our individual working knowledge of Germany and the European Union, I’d say they were 100% successful. Co-workers who participated in previous RIAS fellowships were right to describe it as a college course crammed into a few days. Every visitor to Germany and Belgium should have access to the things we saw and did. The program changed the perspective with which I approach my job, gave me a more directed sense of purpose. In the weeks since I’ve been back, among the first things I comment on when people ask about the experience is how well we were treated. In every city, at every appointment, I felt like we were treated with respect and as equals, not as pestering Americans with annoying questions.
I appreciated the balance the program struck between our official appointments and the cultural opportunities offered in each location. I felt like I got a solid sense of what each city had to offer, helped by the amount of free time that allowed us to learn things on our own. In general, my learning curve on this trip was tremendous. I only wish there were a way to duplicate it every summer.
Gail Ballantyne, WHNT NewsChannel 19, Huntsville, AL
She has brown yarn braids, a full green skirt and is wrapped in white lace and pink ribbon. This little stuffed doll doesn’t have a name, yet she serves as a powerful reminder of bonds across borders. This Sorb doll represents an ethnic minority that lives in the Spree Forest in eastern Germany. She was given to me by the Cottbus members of “Friendship Force” and proves that strained political relations do not squelch the curiosity and desire for understanding between people. It’s a sentiment echoed in Erfurt, Frankweiler, Peenemunde and many other places I visited.
The RIAS Berlin core program served as an overview of German-American political and economic relations. It was an opportunity to hear about assimilation issues from Turkish immigrants in Berlin, hear concerns at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and visit the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, otherwise known as “Mainhattan”. The facts I learned in a seminar setting are valuable, but the experiences interacting with people during the extension program are priceless.
In Erfurt, a city about the same size as my current home in Huntsville, Alabama, they’re grappling with the same issues: bringing in more jobs, preferably high-tech businesses. Members of the fire department welcomed me with open arms and were eager to talk about their exchange with a Kansas fire department.
Despite differing opinions on war with Iraq, Frankweiler continues a special friendship with Cullman, Alabama. Residents in both places visit one another every few years. Cullman visitors brag about the “southern hospitality” they receive in Germany, while Frankweiler visitors extol on the warm welcome they get in Alabama.
The small Baltic fishing village, Peenemunde, served as a rocket development site during World War II. When German scientists immigrated to America after the war, much of that knowledge transformed Huntsville from a cotton town into “the rocket city”. The connection is not just in the past. Peenemunde’s museum and Huntsville’s Space & Rocket Center are working on a partnership that would involve sharing exhibits and resources.
This fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to go beyond official comments and newspaper clippings to understand how another culture views your own. It’s a shopkeeper in Erfurt, determined not to let a language barrier interfere with explaining the significance of a ginko biloba leaf on the postcard I was buying. It’s Mayor Guenter Stiess of Frankweiler, embracing me upon introduction because I’m a special guest all the way from Alabama. It’s a teenager in the midst of Berlin’s Love Parade, explaining above the blast of whistles, that he doesn’t like President Bush, but he still likes Americans. Through a translator, Peenemunde’s museum curator explains his displays with pride, and I see a commitment to documenting man’s space exploration that echoes Huntsville’s museum.
My visit captured an interesting time in German-American relations, as tensions hadn’t eased over the conflict in Iraq. The physical reminders of a war six decades ago are still evident in many places, from the jagged Friedrich Wilhelm church in Berlin to the work-in-progress Frauenkirche in Dresden. I was surprised at just how much the legacy of World War II still shapes public opinion, and it’s not just the older generations. From a German World War II POW to a 17-year-old visiting Buchenwald, the consensus is clear: conflict should be avoided at all costs. War causes devastation and death, and not just to the soldiers fighting. The Holocaust is remembered not only with a concentration camp gate reading “Arbeit macht frei”, but with public reminders like memorial sculptures and plaques on the streets and at subway stations.
I found Germany’s role in World War II has not been forgotten, and it seems to make many people hesitant to support any involvement in Iraq. One teenager told me it was because “our country has seen enough killing,” while another told me “war is a last resort.” I saw another example locally. For one of my stories, a Madison, Alabama woman recounted the night of September 11th, 1944 when her hometown of Darmstadt, Germany was heavily bombed by Allies. Because of the devastation she saw firsthand, she is convinced that war is never the answer.
But Germany is not a country dwelling on the past. Right now, there are several challenges to consider: carving out a new identity as east and west Germany continue to reunite while maintaining some sense of nationalism as European borders become less important. While these larger issues continue to develop, it’s important not to lose track of what drives them: people. RIAS Berlin continues the informative mission it started over the airwaves. Now, fellows have the opportunity to learn from people face-to-face.
On my little Sorb doll’s face, she has painted-on freckles and a smile. When I look at her, I smile because she reminds me of an experience in Germany too vast and broadening to be called a mere “trip”. She still does not have a name. That may take some time, just as it will take time to digest everything I’ve seen and heard during my stay in Germany.
Monica F. Bond, WTKR-TV/Newschannel3, Norfolk, VA
My trip to Germany was more than I expected. I never had an interest in visiting Europe, but decided I would participate in the German/American Journalist Exchange program because I felt it would be a great experience. And I was right.
I was in awe of the Cathedral in Berlin. It was a magnificent building. I have so many pictures of it. I’m kind of a semi-architectural buff. I really enjoy structural designs so it was a great pleasure to see the Cathedral. I also visited two museums nearby. At the National Museum, I had the chance to see paintings from famous French artists I learned about in high school. It was a treat to visit the Reichstag. I read and heard so much about it. I had never been to my state house, let alone any federal government building until after this trip. There are so many parties and the method in which Germans select their chancellor is something I know would never happen in the US.
For me, the highlight of the tour of the city was the visit to the Berlin Wall. Before coming to Germany, I knew very little about its history. I had no idea pieces of the wall were still standing. It was amazing that I had the opportunity to see up close and touch such an international piece of history. I remember watching people tear the wall down, but at the time, I never would have imagined I would touch it. After the tour, one of the fellows and I went for a walk through some of the major areas in Berlin. It was great being able to actually experience the ambiance of several places.
We had the pleasure of having dinner with local journalists. It was different meeting colleagues of another country, but I didn’t get much of an idea how television news stations are run. It would have been nice if I could have had an opportunity to visit a television news station. However, I did enjoy learning about the difference in cultures.
I enjoyed the various places we visited, especially the Stasi Headquarters. The stories we heard were incredible. Probably the most moving of our appointments was at Sachsenhausen. Hearing the stories of the men who lived in the concentration camp and the horrors they endured makes want to ensure nothing like that happens again.
Our visit to Dessau and Wittenberg were eye opening. Wittenberg is simply breathtaking. Climbing to the bell tower of the church Martin Luther once preached and looking over the town was more than picturesque. Can you imagine touching, walking inside buildings older than my own country? And the heights these churches were built without modern technology. Talk about romanticizing a trip. The gondola ride at the beautiful Worlitzer Park. The square in Dessau sort of gives you a feel for a medieval time.
Brussels, what can I say. I absolutely loved it. It’s one of the most comfortable places to visit. It gives you a different feel than Germany, and I also had an easier time communicating since I know some French and absolutely no German. I wish we had more time to explore and take in the culture scene. My favorite activity was the press conference with journalists from around the world. It would have been nice to drop in on a European Union meeting.
Frankfurt reminds me so much of Baltimore, Maryland. I could easily live there. Beautiful and scenic. It was a true learning experience to have the Euro explained and how banking operations work in other countries. Would have liked more time to learn about the cultural scene there as well.
My next ultimate trip will definitely be in Dresden. That is my favorite German city. I’m a history buff and although much of what we saw and learned was historic, there was something about Dresden that appealed more. Among the stops in Saxony will be wine castle and Meissen.
This trip was an incredible experience that I’m am so thankful I got to enjoy. However, I must say, the one thing that made this trip so worthwhile and so precious to me was the interviews of Afro-Germans. Their stories are so similar to many African Americans and I am thankful to learn that no matter where I go in the world, there will be people who are just like me, willing to reach out and unite.
Marianne Sinclair Combs, Minnesota Public Radio, St. Paul, MN
The Idiot (Or: an Arts Journalist in Berlin)
When my feet touched the ground at Tegel this past June, my mind was suspiciously blank. Maybe it was the jet lag. But from past experiences traveling abroad, I knew any amount of time in another culture had the power to change a person. I just didn’t have any idea how I’d be changed this time around. “Heck, it’s Europe,” I thought, “It can’t be that different from France.”
Okay, maybe I wasn’t that naïve, but certainly I was not prepared for the countless mind-expanding, soul-enriching moments that filled the following weeks. I wanted to get a sense for the performing and visual arts of the country, both past and present. Over the course of the RIAS program I saw 13 shows that covered an amazing breadth and depth of culture. I cried as I watched the young mute girl in Brecht’s Mother Courage bang her drum in warning, only to be shot. I laughed along with hundreds of school children at the visual tricks and comics in Rapunzel. I “oohed” and “aahed” at the acrobats and contortionists in a small cabaret — “Kleinkunst” in name only. I listened enraptured to Shostakovitch, Stravinsky and Salonen. And I saw more paintings in four hours than most people see in a lifetime, thanks to the Gemäldegalerie.
But I didn’t learn about the arts alone; I learned about the culture surrounding the arts. And in turn I learned to think about my own culture differently. The lines outside a modern dance performance I attended in Berlin were absolutely inconceivable in Minnesota, yet the Twin Cities is considered by many to be a major hub of new choreography in the U.S. I saw a performance of the opera Le Grand Macabre that deliberately revolted three out of five senses (thank God touch and taste weren’t involved!). What made the show even more unusual was that it was paid for by German tax dollars, and the company had the daring to run it while arts funding for the opera company was being re-evaluated. A few gray-haired ladies walked out, but most of the audience stayed and applauded heartily. German tolerance for artistic risk is obviously much higher than what I’m accustomed to.
It was at the Volksbühne that the doors of perception were blown off their hinges in my brain. There I was treated to a four-hour performance of The Idiot, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. As I walked in to the luxuriously spacious building, it became immediately clear to me that my idea of theater was heretofore limited. At the center of the building was a block of scaffolding, up onto which I was directed to climb and find my seat. Surrounding me on all sides was an entire city: apartment buildings, flats, shops, bars. And just a few feet away from me in the scaffolding itself was a video monitor. As actors performed their roles with visceral dynamism, cameramen followed them in and out of buildings, so that the audience was treated to close-ups in addition to their larger view of the stage. As scenes shifted from place to place, our metal cage rotated to face the action. Such energy! Such creativity! The company had literally taken theater apart and reconstructed it into a new form, and it worked beautifully.
I came home to the United States with a newfound wealth of experience and a greatly expanded artistic vocabulary. I also came home with higher standards for the arts organizations I cover on a regular basis. While government funding would be nice, it is not essential for the creation of a richer arts community. What I saw at the core of all the events I attended was a level of creativity and passion that I found inspiring. I also saw greater enthusiasm, interaction and critical thinking on the part of audiences, both young and old. This is something that springs from deep within: from long-standing traditions, and from a rich arts education.
For all of this I give a hearty thanks to RIAS. But the loss of innocence is always bittersweet. I rejoice at what is, but I also must live with the knowledge of what could be. Minnesota arts will never look quite the same to me again.
Kristin Emery, WLFL-TV, Raleigh, NC
Thoughts and Reflections
As I sat down to write this essay, I looked back eight years to my original letter of application to the program. Then, I was a much younger anchor/reporter working in Pennsylvania who had only been to Europe for the first time the previous year. I wrote that my stops in Germany made me curious about the underlying causes of the differences I saw between Dresden and Munich, East and West Berlin. When I wrote that, I never imagined the selection committee would choose me for the Fall 1995 program. And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being invited back for a return RIAS trip eight years later. I also looked at my essay upon returning from my 1995 trip. I wrote that I couldn’t choose a most or least valuable component of our itinerary — from seeing Handel’s Messiah in Berlin to viewing the environmental carnage of Bitterfeld.
I’ve now been home from our June 2003 trip for more than a month. It’s taken some time to reflect on what I saw, experienced and learned on my RIAS exchange. Of course, my immediate impressions were of how much I had missed Germany and its people — of how much the countryside and the culture reminds me of my Pennsylvania Deutsch heritage. It was also startling to see how much had changed since my last visit to Berlin in 1996 for the opening of the Allied War Museum. Many of the construction cranes have disappeared. They’ve been replaced by opulent new skyscrapers in Berlin Mitte. Back in ’95, many Germans joked they weren’t holding their breath until the new European currency came into use. Many doubted the Euro ever would. My! How things have changed. The reunified country then was 5 years old. Growing pains were abundant as were feelings of joy and regret, pride and resentment depending on whom you asked. This time, those sentiments were still present— but for a variety of reasons. Reunification was old hat, but ,now, Germans are left holding the bill. It’s a tab that’s sent Germany’s economy spiralling— an unusual situation for this industrious and prosperous people. Add to that the demands of meeting the European Commission’s financial criteria and you hear grousing and rumblings of discontent everywhere. And then there’s the matter of US-German relations.
I thought it would be interesting if not a little uncomfortable for our German journalists who visited us in the Fall of ’02 before the US invaded Iraq. Then, my American friends and colleagues questioned the journalist I hosted about why Germany opposed the US stance. The Germans asked us why we supported or opposed President Bush’s stance. Now, we were in Germany after the war and weathering the political fallout from it. Nearly every speaker we met with discussed the future of German-US relations and whether they could be repaired. I think if more Americans had the experience we’ve had with the RIAS program, that wouldn’t even be a question. For better or worse, we are a country of isolationists.
Our program was peppered with a wonderful mix of social, cultural and intellectual activities. We truly had access to the people and inner workings of Germany and the European Union that few Americans will ever get. What a privilege. Learning about and comparing all of the Bundestag’s political parties, seeing the remodeled Reichstag and viewing the complex and secret filing system of the Stasi files was amazing. Watching Germany’s struggle with immigration issues and social security and pension shortfalls was not that different than reading about our own daily happenings in the US. Sachsenhausen. You can’t believe you’re actually permitted to go into a Nazi concentration camp let alone the internal moral questions about whether you should or why it’s still standing. I’d been to Buchenwald and Dachau. Now, at Sachsenhausen set against the backdrop of a scenic village, the same emotional experience: initial feelings of bewilderment and curiosity accompanied by a growing sense of nausea the longer I spent there. On this day, the skies alternated between sunshine and violent winds and storms.
It seemed that God and the heavens were crying right along with us. But I’m still intrigued by Germany’s willingness to open these doors and shed light on this part of the country’s history.
The entire program is almost too much to process intellectually in two weeks. From NATO to the European Central Bank to Saxony’s efforts to attract businesses to the pros and cons of Chancellor Schroeder’s proposed welfare cuts — and then RIAS throws in the Semper Opera, the “Chamaleon” show, Worlitzer Parks’ placid gondola ride alongside the swans, shopping at KaDeWe, Luther’s kirche and Frankfurt’s apfelwine. Finally, came the Prince. Pardon the pun, but this was the “crowning” moment of our entire two-week experience. Who wouldn’t love a prince who buys his family’s vineyards and lands back… then marries a radio/television journalist?!
It’s amazing to reflect on how much Germany, the US and the world have changed in the past 60 years. The past eight years alone have brought dramatic changes in Germany. It was a rare honor to get a glimpse into these and to see it through the eyes of a young, ambitious journalist and, now, as an older and hopefully wiser person. I thought I couldn’t have experienced a better tour of Germany than in 1994 or have appreciated it more deeply. Not so. RIAS tops itself again.
My sincerest and heartfelt thanks to RIAS, RTNDF, my fellow travelers on this trip and especially to Rainer Hasters and Heidi Mauersberger. They truly make this program special and it is an honor to be able to call myself a RIAS Fellow.
Kristin Fraser, CNN, Seattle, WA
I wrote my first RIAS essays, my application, while I was in Washington DC covering the war in Iraq. As I watched the bombs fall on Baghdad, I spent my free time researching and writing about German/American relations. The world seemed to change very quickly in those days and nights. As tanks sped toward Baghdad, the unexpected quickly become the norm. This laid my framework for my whirlwind fellowship through Germany, a journey that for me was punctuated by the unexpected.
Surprise greeted me as soon as I got off the plane in Berlin. After what seemed like an eternity in the air, I was expecting to drag my one too many bags through a long winding maze only to be questioned by a customs official about every item I’d packed. I gathered up my belongings and headed out of the baggage area ready to face the scrutiny. Instead of being at the end of a long line, I soon found myself wandering out of the airport. I was sure that I had somehow by-passed a security checkpoint. I even went up to a security guard to find out where I needed to go to get through customs. Luckily, before I started an international incident trying to hunt down a stamp for my passport, I was greeted by Rainer and a group of my fellow weary travelers.
Strolling down Unter Den Linden in search of dinner brought my next big surprise. I was amazed at the architecture. I marveled at its beauty, everything from the minute detail on the friezes, to the massive scale of so many of the buildings. But it was the diversity that struck me. I felt like I could see a lifetime of German architecture all in one block. I found myself trying to picture what each block looked like 50, 100, 200 years earlier, wondering how each battle and bombing changed the landscape of Berlin.
How can you talk about the landscape of Berlin without talking about its Wall. As we toured the city, I could still easily pick out what used to be East and West Berlin. I kept waiting to see pieces of the Wall all around town. The Wall was so linked with the images of Berlin I had in my head, that I had expected to see more of it still intact. I didn’t really comprehend all this until I had a taxi driver ask me if I had noticed the bricks winding through the streets and sidewalks not far from our hotel. He explained to me that the bricks outlined where the Wall once stood, sometimes winding right through someone’s home. I off-handedly said that it was interesting that they were able to keep the base of the wall intact. He corrected me, explaining it was all new bricks that lined the pathway of the old wall. He told me that while people of Berlin never wanted to forget the Wall, they also didn’t want to have any of the original Wall to remain.
I was continually amazed that people were willing to be so open and so gracious, from having my journalist date cook me such an amazing dinner, to political types willing to take time from their schedule to talk with people they knew could never vote for them. I have to admit that before arriving I was a little apprehensive at how the war in Iraq would affect my relationship with the Germans I was so excited to meet. It didn’t take long to realize that while many Germans may have not liked American policy in Iraq, it didn’t affect their view of Americans. I even found this true when I stopped to try to talk to anti-war protestors. Somehow, even when you don’t speak the language you can look at a poster with the Bush name on it and know it wasn’t positive.
Very unexpectedly, I was able to see first hand what it’s like to be young and angry in Germany. The disenfranchised looked different in Berlin than in New York City, but I got to see those two worlds collide in of all places a German concert hall. I probably would never have gone to see the social activist rap group Public Enemy in the States, and if I did, I probably would have been one of a handful of white faces in the crowd. But that night, there were more black faces on stage than in the crowd. It was a thrill to see that neither race nor language was a barrier, as hundreds of people, mainly young men, jumped up and down with their fists in the air, chanting ‘fight the power.’
The more people I met and the more lectures I attended, I started to come to the belief that not all statements were meant to be taken at face value. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to say that I thought people weren’t telling me the truth, but instead that sometimes they were telling me what they wanted to believe. I found my favorite example of this early in the trip. It started when I would ask someone what the difference was in people that came from East and West Germany. The answer was always the same, no matter how many times I asked the question — that there was no difference now between German’s from the East and West. Without further prompting, the person would then always start to regale me with stories about their notions about people who had come from whatever side of the Wall they weren’t from.
Before long the topic would always turn to driving. If what I was led to believe was true, I would have never gotten in the car with any German at the wheel. I came to the conclusion that how you said something, could sometimes be more important than what you said. This tidbit surprisingly helped me understand a lot of the political frustrations that many Germans had with the US.
The biggest surprises for me came in the form of a German airline mechanic I met in Washington State while working on a story about a WWII German airplane. Rolf Bohn and I kept in touch via e-mail. When I was accepted into the RIAS fellowship, I thought he would be helpful with a few restaurant suggestions and maybe a list of must-see tourist spots. Rolf insisted on flying to Berlin to see me. He and his grade school classmate Wolfgang (who only spoke German) took me out for dinner. The two let me ask questions about Germany all night long. They taught me that German’s had a drink for everything. They taught me that you don’t need to know the language to know what someone is saying. And they taught me that people will always surprise you. I met up with Rolf again in his hometown of Frankfurt. More questions and more answers followed. He took me out into the country to a museum. It was a place most tourists would never see. Tucked away in the back of this house was this amazing collection of pieces of planes found since WWII in the surrounding neighborhoods and towns. His hospitality meant so much to me. I came to Germany with an acquaintance and I was pleased and surprised to leave with a friend.
As a parting present, he gave me about a half dozen cans of meat from his hometown. I have to admit, it came as no surprise that those cans of meat didn’t make it any further than US Customs, but I took home so much more. It was in those unexpected people, places and politics that my memories of Germany were formed. I feel lucky for the opportunity RIAS gave me and look forward to adding more memories of Germany someday soon.
Mark Gillespie, The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ
I write this essay with mixed emotions. In 1995, I went on one of the first RIAS exchange programs to Germany. At that time, we saw a nation undergoing rapid change following unification. While there were still feelings of uncertainty — particularly in the areas of the former East Germany that we visited, I still saw people optimistic about the future of their nation.
In many ways, I can compare the Germany of 1995 to a child. Shackled by limits and immaturity, yet full of hope for a bright future. The Germany I saw in 2003 is more like a teenager — rambunctious, argumentative, and ready to strike out on its own.
For nearly 50 years, East and West Germany were like twin children — only with different parents. The East’s parent was much more restrictive and demanding — and the West’s was more permissive, but also overprotective. Since 1990, the twins have been living together under one roof, and the growing pains are clearly evident. Unemployment remains high, and the economy has started to stagnate. It is now very clear that mistakes may have been made in the glow of unification — mistakes that may take years to rectify.
For instance, was spending the millions of marks or Euros on rebuilding the Reichstag and the rest of the Bundestag complex, the Chancellor’s residence, and other federal buildings in Berlin justified? They are beautiful modern-day palaces, but they do little to build the economy in a city-state where the economy is now in crisis. Germany — like any young person entering adulthood — must make some difficult choices. The spending spree along the Spree can be compared to a teenager with his or her first credit card — and the bills are now due. In fact — as we heard several times during our discussions — Germany’s current economic state would not meet the standards it set for monetary union with its European neighbors. High deficits, higher unemployment, and a deflationary economy are not what the world expected from Germany in 2003.
The other comparison to a teenager comes in the political arena. Before unification, Bonn may have been the capital of West Germany, but its leaders toed the NATO — and by extension — the U.S. party line (just as the leaders of East Germany toed the Warsaw Pact/Soviet party line). The recent debate over the war in Iraq reminds me of an earlier time in history — the Vietnam era of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Picture the Bush Administration as the angry parent arguing that the United States needed to defeat the North Vietnamese to stop the spread of communism. Picture the Schroeder-led Germany as the long-haired teenager arguing for peace and saying “hell no, we won’t go!” Sound familiar?
Germany is finding its way in the post-unification world, and this day was as inevitable as the first serious clash between teenager and parent. Following World War II, the Marshall Plan put the United States in the role of West Germany’s parent (along with the rest of Western Europe), dispensing allowances and guidance. Now, the post-pubescent teenager is ready to make its own way in the world — along with the mistakes that accompany the transition to adult independence. (I leave it to others to draw the comparisons to France as the neighbor kid down the block that parents really don’t trust their kids to hang around with because he’s a bad influence.) This may sound negative, and to some, perhaps even anti-German. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have complete confidence that Germany will correct its economic issues over time. The German economy may not resume its place as the well-oiled manufacturing machine that drives Europe — largely because of limits it imposes on itself through European political and monetary union. The expansion of the European Union means Germany will have to accept the loss of manufacturing jobs to cheaper labor markets, such as Poland — and develop a services-based economy (similar to what the United States has faced for the last 20 years).
I see this as a maturation process for Germany, much as a teenager matures into adulthood. No longer will Germany be able to promise its citizens the moon (as a teenage boy would promise a girl everything for one kiss). Germany will mature by reforming its tax and social security systems to a more realistic and economically sound model — thus encouraging the investment climate and the creation of new jobs. However, this process will not happen overnight — and as we also discussed many times during the exchange program — it may take a generation or more to complete the maturation process.
My comments have addressed the greater view of Germany, but I must also address the individual view. I see the future of Germany in its people — the craftsmen we saw in Meissen, the bureaucrats at the Reichstag, and even a certain ballroom-dancing bus driver. In these people rest the ability to change their nation’s future. They will succeed — they will make mistakes along the way — but they will succeed. It is time for the United States to stand back and accept Germany as part of the “New Europe” — for it is closer (economically, politically, and spiritually) to the countries of that so-called region than it is to our nation. In years to come, we may need Germany to support us — as we will one day need our children to care for us in our old age.
Julie Goodwin, WFPL, Louisville, KY
My first visit to Germany came at the end of the war in Iraq, a war that had divided the leadership of the United States and Germany. I wondered if, as an American, I would receive any negative feelings from the German people. Not once did this happen, but rather I found everyone to be accommodating and friendly.
One of my favorite aspects of this trip involved the numerous opportunities for discussion. From the formal interviews to the informal talks, it was intriguing to listen to so many diverse perspectives. I discovered more about the history, people, and culture of Germany than I could have ever learned by reading a book.
Beginning the adventure in Berlin helped me see the transition Germany has made from the past to the present. Many of the changes can be seen through the architecture of the buildings. Many buildings destroyed after the war have been restored to match the look of their former glory. It was difficult to tell whether some of the buildings had been destroyed at all. Other buildings now carried a very modern look. I was most fascinated by the dome of the Reichstag. The glass and spiraling walkway gave the building a feeling of progressiveness and openness. Of all the reconstructed cities we visited, Dresden was my favorite in terms of the architecture.
While in Dresden, I conducted an interview that impacted me greatly. I spoke with a lady who had survived the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Sitting in my hotel room, I switched the microphone between her and the interpreter. The lady told the story about going into a bomb shelter as a nine-year-old girl, and then finding that she and her family had lost everything. She told of how they left Dresden and started a new life in a nearby village. Although I only understood her words through the interpreter, the intense emotion and pain in her face were easily understood. It was moments like these that I the scars from Germany’s past were most evident.
The most difficult part of the trip was the visit to Sachsenhausen. The eerie feeling of death and darkness seemed to permeate the entire place. I battled the feeling of nausea as I walked silently through a place where so many had suffered. The weather that day seemed to symbolize what had happened there. Strong winds and sporadic heavy rains seemed to war against me as I tried to walk forward. I recognized how easily power could corrupt completely, and thought about how the world should be cautious to prevent such a thing from happening again.
While on my extension, I made many connections with the people of Mainz, Louisville’s sister city. In fact, I stayed two nights with a German family. This taught me a great deal about family life in Germany, and gave me insight on day-to-day life activities.
Most everyone in my group agreed that it would be better to work in Germany than in the U.S. I know the two weeks of vacation I receive each year pales in comparison to the time off most workers receive in Germany! I found the struggle of the workers of the former east interesting. The tension over worker inequality with those who’d lived in the west was clearly communicated. Those in the east continue to hope for fewer hours and better benefits. But I must say, both groups are better off than many workers in the United States!
If I ever go back to Germany, I hope to speak more of the language by then. But I must say, I was very impressed by the English-speaking ability of most all Germans I met. The other two things I would change include packing much less and bringing better shoes!
Overall, this had been the best trip of my life. Truly, RIAS treated us like royalty, and for that I am so thankful!
There were many things about Germany I wish I could have taken home with me; including the white asparagus; Neuberger sausages; the smooth taste of the chocolate; the fun beer hall in Frankfurt; the in-line skating nights; the efficient train transportation; the fascinating art; the stain glass windows of the towering cathedrals; the sunset from the radio tower in Berlin; the beautiful parks; the breathtaking view from Prince George’s vineyard; and the friendliness of the people that I will never forget. But thankfully the memories will be at home with me always.
Tom Hawley, KVBC-TV/Channel 3, Las Vegas, NV
The Berlin portion of the trip is naturally the longest segment, as is appropriate for the seat of government. Most days were a fascinating look at what the components are which result in today’s Germany. The most interesting day may have been the one spent at the Reichstag. It is somewhat difficult keeping the alphabet soup of the many different political parties straight, but I think most of us had a fair idea of the general setup due to the research we had going in.
As a general comment about speakers, I think there is a cultural difference in the relationship between public officials and the press in Germany, compared to the United States. Due to the nature of local television — and to a slightly lesser extent, radio — news in the US, only relatively short sound bites are used … 10 – 20 seconds. Many seasoned US officials realize this and instinctively speak in short “sound bites”, with the idea that if they edit themselves, there is less chance for misinterpretation. German officials, by contrast, tend to speak much longer in response to any given question.
The most surprising thing for me was the general consensus of just how serious Germany’s current economic woes are. I cannot remember a single speaker who looked toward good times right around the corner. Most of Germany’s present problems (economic slump, entitlement disparity, dissension over the military) seemed quite familiar and comparable to problems in the US, except perhaps more so.
The Turkish Immigration issue may be the exception to that. There are certainly problem areas related to racism and immigration in the US, but they are generally related to larger populations within the country. And while the problems exist in the US, there is a general mind set of what is politically correct and proper in terms of integration, whereas in Germany, the issue seems to be so new — at least in large numbers — that the country has yet to fully come to grips with the concept of being multi-cultural. Side note: During my extension in Cologne, I noticed a billboard campaign with the slogan “Multi is Kulti”, which seemed to be encouraging the acceptance of cultural differences.
I think that the essays required for acceptance into the program are a valuable tool not just for evaluating applicants, but for necessarily educating the applicants as part of the process. For that reason, I think none of us were particularly surprised by most of what we learned in person, but it served to fill in many of the blanks.
It is difficult to come up with any negative comments at all, as it was such an incredible experience for all of us, and I think we each felt very fortunate to be a part of it.
This portion of the trip started on a down note, with the visits to Stasi and Sachsenhausen. But these were certainly important locations that are enormously helpful in setting the backdrop for what Germany is about today. It speaks well for how Germany confronts its past as openly and honestly as possible.
While most Americans have been made aware of the concentration camps in World War II, it was certainly a fascinating experience to actually see one in person. But I think that most Americans are much less aware of the details of Stasi, and I think this was one of the most interesting presentations for many of the program participants.
The rest of the Dessau portion was a pure pleasure. What’s not to like? Wonderful hotel, great food … and side trips to Wittenberg, Woerlitz and Sanssouci (Potsdam) that were educational on one level…. but also just plain tourist fun! Our group seemed to take well to bus driver Frank, also.
This portion of the trip had a slightly different flavor, as it was the only part outside of Germany’s borders. It was more about Europe as a whole, than Germany in particular.
Two of the sessions stood out in particular. First, the former BBC journalist now with NATO. Due to his background as a broadcaster, I think our group found him particularly easy to relate to. The other was Luc Veron at the EU, who seemed to upset a couple of our group with his observations about the United States. I differ with those who were upset. The comments he made about self-interest and lack of world knowledge and languages were — I thought — generally accurate. A couple of our people cited themselves as examples, but from my view, they are exceptions to the rule. I also appreciated the very thing that some of our group disliked: The way he challenged questions which were incomplete, or which carried premises which he did not concede. Bravo. I think the press needs to be challenged.
This part of the trip was all about money, of course … which happens to be an area I feel weak at. Perhaps for that very reason, it was a valuable visit. Certainly it educated all of us on just how the ECB works, and how it has developed within the EU. The most interesting speaker here was probably Mr. Walter at Deutsche Bank, who seemed very sure of himself and his opinions. His frank answers to questions caused offense with one of our group … but as with Luc Veron, I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the role of journalist does not include active advocacy or persuasion on an issue. Tough questioning, yes. But not convincing. Both meetings were very informative and illuminating on the European economy in general, and the German economy in particular.
The most interesting part of the Dresden trip from a journalistic standpoint is the contrasts which still exist between the eastern and western parts of post-reunification Germany. This was underscored by the Volkswagen factory strike which was underway while we were there, which seemed to be spearheaded by western elements of the union, while unwanted by most eastern workers. The speakers we heard from the state of Saxony seemed very anxious to see more investment in that part of the country take place prior to EU membership for Poland, the Czech Republic and other nearby areas. The elimination of the visit to the Volkswagen factory was disappointing, but understandable under the circumstances. The city tour was also very interesting, in pointing out the process of postwar rebuilding in one of the most heavily damaged cities in the Second World War.
Falguni Lakhani, MSNBC, Secaucus, NJ
Alles Klar…One of the first German phrases I learned upon arrival to the beautiful nation. It is a phrase that best described the sentiment I felt in Germany- ALL IS WELL. One of the first things that struck me as we drove to our first hotel in Berlin was the large group of Turkish immigrants. It was an important finding, one that played a theme for me personally throughout the rest of my trip. It was a topic that fascinated me, and until now I am still efforting a piece on just that.
My impressions of Germany prior to arriving there changed drastically after this fellowship. This fellowship provided journalists the opportunity to explore the cultural, political and social aspects of a country, that I believe is strongly misunderstood. There was not much we were unable to experience —- from the remnants of the Berlin wall, to the Opera house in Dresden…a concentration camp, a gondola ride with a tour of castles, from the Reichstag to the Stasi and of course from NATO to the European Union. We were taken all over Germany including Berlin, Dresden, Dessau, Frankfurt and then to Brussells, as well. All places with significant historical and cultural meaning. In fact, one of my favorite moments was having dinner with a host family. It was a chance to see how people really live there and carry out their daily routine. Not to mention, I was impressed with my hosts because they live in the Turkish quarter and served up some delicious Indian fare.
Yet, there is also a sadness attached to the country. So much is in the process of being rebuilt and people are still rebounding from all that they endured through the years. It’s almost hard to believe that this was once a war ridden country— but then again when you see the construction sites, the bombing sites and broken down buildings—the evidence could not be clearer. That is also what makes Germany, well Germany. It is difficult to sum up in a page or two a fellowship that has left a mark on me both personally and professionally. But I will conclude with this thought, I hope that my fellow RIAS prpgram participants (an impressive group of intelligent and interesting people, I might add) took away from Germany what I did. It is a European nation that is sadly overlooked and downplayed. It is a country so rich in culture, history and politics…that everyone should spend at least a month there in their lifetime.
Monica Miller, New Jersey Public Radio, Trenton, NJ
The mudslinging between Berlin and Rome simmered at the end of the summer after weeks of in-house fighting amongst European Union members. It all started when EU President and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compared a German European Parliament member to a Nazi prison camp guard. This comment was followed by others comparing the Italian Prime Minister to the Godfather, topped by the resignation of an Italian junior minister after his description of German tourists as being “hyper-nationalistic blondes.” The skirmishes ended in August when Berlusconi and Prime Minister Gerhardt Schroeder shared a photo-op handshake, burying the past for the time being.
As it continues to break out of its post-war shell, Germany today is a country well aware of its limits. On the international front, it recognized the value of building strong relations with its neighbors, starting with its partnership with France after World War II. The initial trade agreement to exchange steel and coal between Germany and France was the beginning of a united Europe. In the following years, it continued to pave the way for Europe economically and politically, as well as in partnerships with countries across the Atlantic. But keeping their leadership role in check can be tough. Members of the Bundestag commend EU members for taking action in the recent Congolese conflict without help from NATO. Yet they were much more cautious when mentioning the idea of lending troops to a potential Middle East peacekeeping mission. Margit Hellwig-Bötte of the Social Democratic Party described German-Israeli relations as being “very special.” But in the next breath she asked, “Are Israelis ready to see German troops on the land they claim as their own?”
At home, Germany’s symbolic images of its dark history are constantly in flux. One tour guide in Berlin described some of its architecture as being politically tainted. The country is blanketed by a combination of Prussian decadence, Albert Speer’s haunting grandeur and the communist’s sense of equality. Yet none of these styles solely represents who Germans are today. Some of the buildings are imploded or leveled, replaced by the sleek translucent structures like the Sony Center that now occupies the area once known as no-man’s land between the former East and West. Others are replicas, or their preserved facades are reinforced by a new building. There are few hints to the laborious artistic and scientific efforts behind rebuilding these structures. The fresh paint and new stonework blend like finished jigsaw puzzles, pasting the past and present together.
Healing historical wounds has proven to be a costly business. The current financial woes have many Germans yearning for the days before reunification. Today, East Germans are paid less, work longer hours and suffer from higher unemployment than their western counterparts. For West Germans, promises of great change while incorporating the eastern population have been dashed as money spent on social services per person decreased over the past 13 years. These problems are topped by a low birthrate, dwindling welfare, pension, health and social security systems, only reinforcing the so-called “wall of the mind”.
To be fair, it’s a tall order to have people who lived in two entirely different political, economic and social worlds for over 30 years to accept one another overnight. Many Germans rationally understand the necessity of working together as a unified country. But their hearts say something else. There was more behind saving Berlin’s three opera houses this summer than Germans love for the art. Two of the structures were in the former east and one was in the west. Deciding to close one or consolidate two of them is a decision this generation of Berliners was not willing to make. Also, a new television series about life in the former east and an amusement park with the same theme are in the works.
Yet to look only at the obstacles Germany faces today is to look at only half the story. Many problems stem from the fact they are trying to make an example of their behavior and offer resolution to those who suffered at their hand. One example is a complete turnaround when it comes to civil liberties. Two world wars were fueled by paranoia. Cold War spymasters made probing into people’s lives an art form. Today, Germans have a great concern about guarding their privacy. Cornelia Bull, press officer at the former Stasi Headquarters and Archive, said there are several Germans who want to know what the government kept from them in order to reclaim their lives. She said her agency has processed over five million requests for access to their records since the “freedom for my file” protest in 1989.
In light of their history, many Germans say they are fearful of what they see with the American actions in the so-called “war on terrorism.” In particular, they point to what is happening to American civil liberties since the 9/11 terrorists attacks. As the U.S Attorney General expands powers, rules and regulations guiding the USA PATRIOT Act, one Holocaust survivor said, “This is how the Nazi’s got started.”
History defines the hearts and minds of the German people. It also has the tendency to stifle them. After decades of constantly making changes, the new normalcy in Germany is one that includes the ritual of remembrance. No, the world will never let them forget what happened. But many people feel it is time to press forward into the future. Michael May, executive director of the Jewish Community to Berlin, said the German guilt complex has gone too far. The German Jewish population has begun to replenish itself with the influx of Russians and other Eastern Europeans. In his opinion, the awesome undertaking of offering reparations to justify the atrocities has materialized.
The soul-searching and analysis of the why and how their volatile history unfolded is an ongoing process. Germany continues to build an abundant resource of their findings through the memorials, museums, building preservation projects, as well as donated international humanitarian aid. The overwhelming sense of responsibility was driven home while taking a tour of Dachau with German high school students on a mandatory field trip. Watching them bum cigarettes off one another dressed in their hip-hop apparel and cornrows seemed rather normal to me. Yet, their purpose for being there was extraordinary in that they were seeing first-hand the gruesome legacy of their grandparents. The mind set of the next generation is seen as the answer for moving beyond the shame and images of past. Hopefully, they will be given the opportunity to do so.
Victoria Sama, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO
Twelve years after the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin wall, a divide still separates the former East from the former West. This was evident in the trip RIAS journalists made to Dresden, where Volkswagen workers were on strike to demand the same wages as their western counterparts. Dresden plant workers apparently work longer hours and get paid less than the workers at Volkswagen plants in the western part of the country. In a meeting with business leaders from the state of Saxony, RIAS journalists were told that only 20 percent of the Volkswagen workers were on strike. The rest, we were told, were either afraid to complain and lose their jobs or just didn’t care. This economic disparity exemplifies the divide. Germans who grew up in the East were quick to challenge West Germans about equality, and visa versa. This is not to say that eastern and western Germans do not get along. On the contrary. I participated in a Berlin volleyball game where young Germans played together without prejudice about where they were from. In fact, one of the women on my team from Saxony, was dating a German from the West. Regardless of the outward display of friendship, when it comes to economic and social issues, such as welfare, tension exists.
Overall, the RIAS program is a terrific and pleasant learning experience, not only for journalists but also for journalism educators. Rainer Hasters and Heidi Mauersberger are wonderful hosts. Participants learned about German history, from the Kings of Prussia who built castles for mistresses and foreign guests to the unique architectural designs at the Bauhaus. Meeting with Prinz von Lippe and rowing around in a gondola at the Worlitzer Park, were the highlights of my visit. Much of what I learned I have used in my journalism classes, and my students would now like to visit.
Missy Shelton Belote, KSMU-FM, Springfield, MO
Before the Trip
What I knew of Germany I learned during the long afternoons spent in Advanced Placement European History at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tennessee. Our studies focused on Germany’s role in both world wars. I couldn’t understand how the Vaterland of Goethe could breed a political party like the Nazis. Sure, I’d heard the stories about the post-World War I economic depression, about how Germans would pay for a beer when they first entered a bar, because the price would go up by the time they finished drinking it. However, I still couldn’t understand how the Nazi party came to power. Of course, I knew the trip wouldn’t just be about Nazi history. Still, the questions about the Nazis lingered…
As a political reporter, I was looking forward to learning more about modern politics in Germany. The first week in Berlin was amazing. The trip to the Reichstag was a highlight for me. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the politicians discuss the economic situation. It was interesting to hear similarities between the political debates in Germany and the political discourse in Missouri. In both cases, it’s a question of not having enough tax revenue to support government programs. Missouri politicians are just as far from finding a solution now as they were when I left for the trip in June. I hope German politicians are faring better than politicians in Missouri.
The day we visited Sachsenhausen was the only day I recall having threatening weather. It was cold, rainy and overcast. How appropriate. I remember someone asked our guide if it was depressing for him, a German to work everyday at a concentration camp. He said it wasn’t depressing because he felt he had an important job — to make sure no one ever forgets what happened.
The second week, we went on a whirlwind tour of Brussels, Frankfurt and Dresden. I thoroughly enjoyed listening (in French) to the press conference at the E.U. The discussions at the European Central Bank were enlightening. I especially enjoyed learning about the integration of the Euro because I find it difficult to imagine giving up my country’s currency for something completely new. And for our final day together as a group, we got to meet Prinz von Lippe. Upon my return, I told many Americans that there really is a Prince Charming and I met him in Germany!
For the final week, I was on my own. At last, I would get to talk to two men who were alive when the Nazis came to power. I was scheduled to interview Franz Engelmann and Rolf Wunderlich, two German prisoners of war who were held in Missouri after World War II. I hoped they would tell me all I wanted to know. My first stop was Steinheim-Bergheim. Franz Engelmann and his whole family were waiting for me at the train station. After coffee and cake at his home, Engelmann recounted stories from his time as a prisoner of war in Missouri. He told me I could ask him about anything. I told him it was hard for someone my age to imagine what it was like when the Nazis came to power. He told me it was hard for most people in this rural part of Germany to understand how it happened. He told me about the police coming to a Jewish-owned sausage shop in the town and throwing all the meat into the street and taking the owner away. The tone of his voice conveyed disbelief, as if, after all these years, he still couldn’t believe such things had happened in his small town. He told me how people in the town talked among themselves about the terrible things that were happening to the Jews. He said everyone was afraid. They knew if they spoke out, the police would come and they would disappear too. Engelmann said he didn’t want to fight but he was drafted. He said the best part was being in America as a POW.
I left Steinheim-Bergheim and went to Meerbusch where Rolf and Martina Wunderlich met me at the train station. They hugged me right away and had tears in their eyes. Wunderlich couldn’t believe a journalist would come all the way from America to listen to his stories about being a POW in Missouri. Like Engelmann, he told me he would discuss any topic. He too told me about the terrible things that happened and how helpless everyone felt. He and Martina had visited Auschwitz several years ago and said every Germany should be forced to go there. Despite all the horrors of the war, Wunderlich got to experience something extraordinary. He said, “At the end of my life, the time I spent in Missouri was the most important part.” He said the time he spent in Missouri as a POW opened his eyes to the world and made him want to travel. He has traveled to more than 90 countries. As I sat on the plane coming home, I felt like my questions had been answered. Two men in their 80’s told me things about Germany’s history that no textbook could have taught me.
After the Trip
It wasn’t until I returned to my home and job in Springfield, Missouri that I could really reflect on all the wonderful adventures I had in Germany. I got my film developed and told friends and family about the things I did. But it was in the quiet moments alone that I thought about my own ties to Germany and World War II. My grandfather was drafted and fought in the war. He was part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy and got shot in the arm. It was not a fatal wound but he carried the bullet with him to the grave. I thought about how the world has changed since then; how the granddaughter of a World War II vet could sit down and have coffee and cake with men who once fought in the Nazi army. Though he loved his country and fought for it, my grandfather knew the ugliest sides of war. And I remembered something he said once about the German soldiers he fought: “Those boys didn’t want to be there anymore than we did.”
Charlie Wolfson, CBS News, Washington D.C.
Most Valuable: Berlin (by far) … then Dresden … Brussels … Frankfurt … Dessau/Wittenberg/Sachsenhausen/Potsdam.
Berlin was hands down the most important and essential part of the trip as far as I was concerned. There was a terrific combination of substance, history, architecture and culture — and enough time to sample it all. The number of days devoted to Berlin also allowed a more relaxed approach to pick and choose what one was interested in and allowed program participants to go individually or in groups to visit the next place of interest. In retrospect, I think it was also more manageable because it came in bite sizes which were more easily digested. Going to the cabaret was an unexpected highlight, even without translation. I still double check to see if all the buttons on my shirt are in place.
In Brussels, I thought the NATO visit was beneficial — and I have been there a number of times, and I have the same feeling about the EC.
Dresden was terrific for a number of reasons: history, culture and royalty in the vineyards! The opera was lovely and the Zwinger clearly deserves a repeat visit. Finding an American style shopping mall in the heart of downtown rebuilt Dresden was a little disconcerting but who am I to stand in the way of globalization.
Frankfurt was ok but I think I enjoyed the city more than the central bankers and economists. They were interesting but I’m afraid my attention span is too short for their wisdom. (Believe me, I’m sure I’d say the same thing if I went to the Federal Reserve in Washington and/or sat through a session with a Citibank economist.)
The trip also revived my faith in guided tours, which I usually shy away from. I really think I was able to learn a good bit from the short bus/walking tours we took.
There’s no question the program easily met my expectations, exceeding them in several areas. My personal view is that it was 2 or 3 days too long, but that’s just me. Heidi and Rainer did a great job of preparing things and guiding us through the two week program. In sum, a very very worthwile trip — and that’s without the added bonus of discovering QUARK. Breakfast will never be the same.
RIAS Germany Program – Fall
September 27 – October 12, 2003
Fifteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Brussels, Munich and Leipzig. Individual extension program for 3 participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
David Bruns, KCRA Channel 3, Sacramento, CA
Germany: Discovered Through Two Natural Exhibits:
As the plane dipped slowly downward, and our approach to Berlin-Tegel Airport began as a methodical yet gentle descent into the cloud cover, my neck was craned over three seats — past a suave looking man who was anxiously reading an investment book in Polish, past a young woman resting her head on the seat in front of her, and past the windows, through the quick patches in clouds, and into the green checkered expanse that was Germany below. I was intent on seeing the city — a symbol of Germany — of Europe, and of contemporary history, from high above as an overview. Over the next two extraordinary and personally revitalizing weeks, I would be given the opportunity to see much of Berlin, and other parts of Germany in a much closer perspective. And although we would tour many sights, travel to several cities, meet many interesting people — I found the most revealing experience to be a simple afternoon, isolated, absorbed in the simple commonality of myself, with the German people.
I had always considered myself an admirer of the late American President, John F. Kennedy, if not always for his politics, then for the altruistic manner in which he seemed to make his passion for social activism contagious. Using the hours that I had off, I wanted to spend the reunification holiday visiting several museums that were nearby our hotel — and one in particular, the Deutsches Historisches Museum, was showing a John F. Kennedy exhibit for just two Euros.
At first — the exhibit seemed a letdown. Right inside the doors was a framed letter from the U.S. State Department, explaining that many of the pictures, speeches, and other Presidential articles requested, had been denied due to post 9-11 security fears. In their place were lithographs. After meandering for an hour disappointed — perusing walls littered with copies of campaign speeches, meetings, Cuban Missile Crisis spy plane photos, buttons, and Kennedy family memorabilia that I had seen many times before — I turned a corner and discovered an exhibit that the curators of the museum perhaps hadn’t anticipated — a gathering of over a hundred mostly German teens: transfixed, sitting, standing, gathering, hugging, standing on tippie-toes to see a VCR playing the entirety of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. I had never paid close attention to the speech before — but now watched it for an hour, in a packed room, no one saying a word, and I found myself overwhelmed. I half stared at the VCR for my own education, and half-stared at those who were also watching — engrossed, being moved by the simple power of a speech devoted to the universal commonality of free people.
This feeling was in contrast to many impressions I had during the previous six days of the fellowship. During that time, the RIAS group had been educated in German-American relations from a variety of angles — historical, economic, cultural, and political. Economically, it seemed obvious that German-American relations would continue to be mutually interdependent. But through our meetings, there was a subtle, but persistent underlying theme of tensions between the White House and the Bundestag over the military action in Iraq. Even in discussions with the “German journalists” we met personally — there was a palpable and evident perception of disenchantment with the institution of American Presidency, and its representation of the American political will. Personally, I had even cultivated a growing sense of near shame — shame that Uncle Sam’s gunboat Manifest Destiny had seemed to now include the philosophical mindscape of the Middle East, while “Old Europe” had been relegated to the de facto role of compliant assistant or detracting observer.
The sight, in that museum, of nearly one hundred young people attentively listening to the words of an American President — passionately encouraging the German people not to lose faith in the enduring promise of democracy — was a powerful reminder that the bond and obligations of all free people to refresh and maintain those rights, which are inalienable for all people, is a perpetually symbiotic, and co-dependent effort, and is more enduring than the transitory rhetoric of various administrations. That bond that Berliners had felt on June 26, 1963 — I felt I was somehow beginning to comprehend.
Outside from the Deutsches Historisches Museum, I walked up Unter den Linden, the rain having now stopped and my clothes now dry. I walked past shops lit for evening, restaurants crowded with people leaning into each other in candlelight, others standing at bars — past bookstores, street vendors selling cameras and tour guides, past the giant 2006 World Cup soccer ball — to the Brandenburg Gate — resplendent in a natural lighting that gave the interior an austere glow that was only interrupted by the occasional long shadow cast by a person moving in rigid patterns beneath it.
Here I would find my second natural exhibit of Germany on the reunification anniversary.
Just through the Brandenburg Gate — standing starkly in contrast to the dark shadowy canvas of the Tiergarten — hundreds of couples, children, and individuals had gathered to light candles, and place them along the two bricks that marked the line that once was The Wall. That jagged scar — so much a symbol of the Cold War and the separation of ideologies that Kennedy had stood for and against, now flickered in the soft glitter of miniature flames, ablaze for children to contemplate, and adults to reflect against. Candle by candle in tranquility — The Wall was erected again, but only as a reminder of what Kennedy, and the hundreds of thousands that had gathered to see him speak in 1963 had abhorred. I watched couples kiss, families gather for a photo, an elderly man pause, walk through the Brandenburg Gate — simply shrug his shoulders — and walk back. In the span of an afternoon, my shame had now turned to a pride — pride that I had been privileged enough to witness this kind of exhibit, one of people far removed from where I reside, treasuring the same basic ideology that I treasure, regardless of politics.
“Let them come to Berlin,” Kennedy had refrained during his speech. Now united, it may also be said: Let them simply come to Germany.
Kaci Christian, KBAK-TV CBS 29, Bakersfield, CA
In the fall of 2003, I had the great fortune to be selected as one of fifteen American broadcast journalists to participate in the RIAS Berlin Commission’s German/American Journalist Exchange Program. Our group gathered in Berlin in late September for an intensive two-week exploration of the socio-politico-cultural tapestry of contemporary Germany.
From my perspective, any chance to travel abroad offers the opportunity to expand our horizons and explore similarities and differences, but the RIAS Berlin Commission program offered a special incentive: the possibility to explore Germany in the capacity of a journalist, providing even greater access to community leaders, government officials and elected politicians.
In just a short, intensive two-week span, there were so many events that marked special highlights of the program, including a private dinner in the home of a German journalist who had previously participated in the RIAS exchange program; a group meeting with a member of the federal German Parliament (MP); a session with the Executive Director of the Jewish Community of Berlin; a day of briefings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium; an evening with German alumni of the RIAS program in a restaurant in Leipzig; or a group interview with the Lord Mayor of Leipzig; a briefing on the city’s application to be considered as a venue for the Olympics; and a community festival hosted by the Mayor.
I was also granted a special extension of my program, invited to stay for an additional week to compare and contrast the concepts of celebrity and fame and entertainment coverage between Germany and the United States.
During this period, I met with entertainment reporters; spent a day on the set of a show comparable to Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight; enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the number one-rated daily dramatic series in Germany (Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, translating to “Good Times, Bad Times”), meeting with successful actors from the program; and spent an evening with the cast and crew of the popular annual performance piece, Jedermann. Many of these arrangements were organized or expedited by the people at RIAS Berlin, who made calls and sent quite a few emails and faxes to make sure that I was able to meet with people who would help with my research.
While speaking German is not a prerequisite to participate in the program, I can tell you that having some basic conversational knowledge of the language was a very valuable asset. The core program — the first two weeks — found us mostly in scheduled meetings with people who either spoke and understood English, or who had interpreters, but in our free time we had the opportunity to explore the life in the various cities we visited (Berlin, Munich and Leipzig). Speaking German really facilitated being able to get around, ask for directions, purchase gifts or souvenirs, order meals, utilize Internet cafes, and just generally visit with people. For the extension, during which I traveled alone from Leipzig to Munich (München), then to Cologne (Köln), it was extraordinarily helpful, perhaps even integral, that I had studied conversational German and felt comfortable speaking the language.
I learned that Germany and the U.S. have a lot more in common than I’d previously imagined. For example, the United States, particularly in the southwestern regions, deals with the matter of Mexican immigration and the challenges of culturally assimilating Mexicans into the fabric of society; these issues are parallel with those of Turkish immigrants in Germany. People in both countries are doing their best to try to survive, to hold down jobs and make a living for themselves and their families, and that taxes, high unemployment rates and immigration issues are common concerns.
My experience with the RIAS Berlin Commission has given me a wider perspective, particularly in my role as a journalist, enabling me to see that our countries have so many similarities. The program also allowed me to get to know other American journalists throughout the country whom I’d otherwise not had the chance to meet. It was such a great opportunity, and I wholeheartedly encourage others to take advantage of the program and avail themselves of the chance to explore Germany with the support and patronage of the RIAS Berlin Commission and the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF).
La Neice Corrine Collins, ABC News, New York City, NY
I initially applied for the RIAS Berlin Commission Fellowship in the hopes that I would learn more about the European Union in general and Germany in particular. In the areas of professional, cultural, and personal development the RIAS Commission Fellowship exceeded all my expectations.
Our two-week adventure began with dinner at a German journalist’s home Sunday night. The opportunity for cultural and professional exchange in a relaxed atmosphere was an invaluable introduction to my stay in the country. My host and the other guests were funny and insightful, and gracious in answering my questions about Germany ranging from music and movies to the tax system and the state of universal healthcare. The dinner was a great start to our fourteen-day learning experience.
Throughout our visit I was amazed at our access to top-level officials throughout the German government, the European Union, and NATO. We met with representatives from the political parties at the German Bundestag as well as members of parliament and the Federal Commissioner for Integration. In addition we were introduced to community leaders and business people to learn more about the economic and social concerns facing the nation. These issues were put into historical perspective with visits to the Sachsenhausen Memorial, Potsdam, and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
There were a number of opportunities to meet with fellow journalists including a visit to NTV in Berlin, a talk with American journalists working in Germany, a luncheon with diplomatic staffers at NATO, and a dinner with former RIAS participants in Leipzig. These exchanges were invaluable in learning about the differences and similarities in how Germans and Americans get their news, and helped explain in part the different perspectives that citizens of both nations have about world events.
I immediately fell in love with the vibrancy of Berlin, but visiting Munich and Leipzig gave me a more comprehensive understanding of the country, the varied industries that drive the economy, and the diverse terrain that make it so interesting. Our stay in Munich was on the heels of Oktoberfest and it was easy to see why this friendly and open city hosts one of the biggest parties in the world. A visit to the Department of Labor and Economic Development impressed me with the economic strength of the region in a country that has battled its share of unemployment and economic slowdown in the last few years.
Leipzig was an example of a former East German city with an amazing heritage as a cultural, academic, and commercial center, but also in the process of a 21st century renaissance. In the span of one day we met with the Lord Mayor of Leipzig, a representative of the Olympic GmbH to discuss the city’s 2012 Olympic bid, the vicar of Nikolai Church, and attended the Bürgerfest at City Hall. Walking the streets of Leipzig felt like traveling through a time machine, seeing the haunts of Goethe on one street, visiting the site of pre-unification protests on another block, and passing the venue for the Leipzig Jazz Festival on a different street.
I was constantly amazed at the breadth and depth of civic life in the country from high voter turnout for elections to Stiftungs and other tax-supported community based civic programs. The media plays no small part in the civic life of the country by keeping people informed through ample coverage of politics and a variety of newspapers and magazines we can only imagine here in the United States where media consolidation has resulted in fewer and fewer voices in the marketplace of ideas.
As the largest economy in Europe and the third largest in the world, I was interested in Germany’s economic woes and how issues that we face in the US such as healthcare, retirement savings, unemployment benefits and other social safety nets are being dealt with there. Talks with German journalists who cover these issues, a visit to the German Federation of Trade Unions, and talks with business people and an American Chamber of Commerce representative provided an overview of these problems from various perspectives giving me a real sense of how people from different groups view the same issues.
Throughout our meetings as I listened to political leaders, journalists, community leaders, and business people I was struck by the number of shared interests between the two nations, despite the recent difficulties within the alliance. Strong economic ties, the fight against terrorism, contentious political campaigns, immigration issues, and questions about social welfare are all things the two countries have in common. My time there also showed me that the friendship between the two nations forged in the aftermath of World War II is stronger than any single administration and I left feeling optimistic about the future of US-German relations.
While I learned a great deal about political and economic issues, there was plenty of time for cultural opportunities. I visited the wonderful museums of Museumsinsel including Pergamonmuseum, saw a performance of Puccini’s Turandot at the Deutsche Staatsoper, took a tour of the Spaten-Löwenbräu Brewery and had dinner at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, attended the Leipzig Jazz Festival, and took a boat ride up the Saale River to Freyburg ending the evening with a wine tasting and dinner at Rotkäppchen.
The RIAS Commission Fellowship was an opportunity for personal and professional growth that exceeded my wildest expectations. The cultural and professional experiences I had in Germany have been invaluable in furthering my understanding of US-German relations and providing a solid foundation in international affairs that I hope will lead to further exploration and coverage of the EU and Germany. I know that I am a better journalist for the experience and hope to use this knowledge to better serve my station and our viewers.
Dennis Crowley, United News & Information, Washington D.C.
The RIAS staff is just great. RIAS Berlin made my trip to Germany smooth and enjoyable. The staff went above and beyond the call of duty in arranging visits and meeting individual needs.
The most important aspect of the trip I feel is introduction to the “new Europe”. Many Americans still believe Germany is consumed with politics and power. I found the German people far more concerned about quality of life than political ideology.
German Broadcasters are facing many of the same challenges as those of us who work in North America. Changing technology, and restructuring of ownership mean constant changes for the way radio and television news is aired in Europe.
The group was great. This was a great opportunity to meet people from networks here in Washington and stations and networks around the country. I was able to learn quite a bit from the other team members about improvements I can make in on air delivery and story coverage. This was a “broadcast seminar” on the road of sorts.
As a result of my trip, I have been able to improve our network’s story selection and focus on many issues I did not consider important before this trip. The United States has been isolated from Europe for many years. We have heard stories about kids in school who can’t find countries in Europe on the map. I very much believe this is going to have to change. The Internet and the European Union mean the United States is going to have to be part of a global system and a global economy. During our RIAS stay in Brussels I had a chance to learn quite a bit about the European Union and the structure of the EU. I have had a chance to do follow up stories on the EU and the Euro currency, and its importance to the United States.
I am the world’s most dedicated jogger. On several occasions, I got lost in Berlin and could not find my way back to the hotel. I learned to take bearings on the “big TV tower” and I made it back to the hotel in plenty of time for breakfast. This was a lot of fun. I did the same thing in Brussels. The streets are old, and there were plenty of hills. I would encourage joggers to check out Brussels. This city is totally cool.
I was totally amazed at the hospitality of the German people. I didn’t expect the people in Germany to be as friendly. I was also pleasantly surprised at what I saw of the former East Germany. Leipzig is a beautiful city.
Kristen Feeney, WTTG Fox 5, Washington D.C.
Wonderful. Delightful. Insightful. Just a few words to begin to describe my RIAS experience and hosts.
From day one it was evident that every detail was planned out in the spirit of the Gesamtkonzept. Our days were filled with meetings with various community and political leaders, city tours and memorials. The one appointment that stood out for me was our visit to Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, the former Stasi prison. A former prisoner took us deep inside the building and relived his experiences as a political prisoner, taking us right to the very cell where he was kept. Seeing an empty cell is one thing, but being able to hear the stories in a first-hand account made the experience seem so real; the inhumanity of humankind.
Another stop in Berlin was the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Our host, Mr. Özcan Mutlu discussed the different generations of Turkish immigrants who have made Germany their home. As an immigrant himself and a Greens party member, Mr. Mutlu pointed out that the biggest obstacle immigrants must overcome is learning the German language. It’s all intertwined. They need jobs to support themselves and their families, but they can’t get a good paying job without learning the language. Mr. Mutlu also showed us around the Bildungswerk Kreuzberg. It is a trade school for Turkish immigrants. There, they have the opportunity to learn a skill like woodworking, electronics, and cosmetology among others. It appeared to be a very nurturing environment for learning.
Our excursion sent us jet-setting across Germany and Belgium. We met with NATO media specialists, took in an EU briefing, toured NTV, and listened to the City of Leipzig’s 2012 Olympic pitch.We also had opportunities to take in Germany’s rich culture.
Some of us spent an evening at the infamous Chameleon cabaret. And we were fortunate enough to catch a very modern take on Puccini’s opera “Turandot” by the German State Opera. I can honestly say it is something I’ll never forget.
The RIAS exchange changed my life. I immersed myself in my surroundings as I learned more about the German people and way of life. Most importantly, I can say I’ve seen my own country through someone else’s eyes. And I have a much better understanding of how all of our countries mesh and, hopefully, work together.
Allison Frost, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland, OR
In the East German city of Leipzig, a statue marks the entrance of the Forum of Contemporary History. But this one is unlike the statue of Goethe across the street or others scattered about the city. It’s a gray, metal, stickfigure-like impression of a German man striding across a line with his head scrunched down, all but hidden in his jacket. Both arms are raised, one in a Nazi salute, the other bent at the elbow pointing up, representing the communist regime that ruled East Germany for four decades. This is Leipzig-based artist Wolfgang Mattheur’s interpretation of the collective psyche of Germans— one foot in the past, the other in the present, still trying to fully overcome the history of war, oppression and the holocaust.
Of course, this may ring true to the average German to a greater or lesser degree. But what I do believe is apparent in German society at large is a reflectiveness and thoughtfulness that stands in all too sharp contrast with American culture. The great many memorials to victims of the holocaust and communists and the exhibits that detail life under the GDR, seem to reflect a collective determination: that history will not be repeated; that war brings destruction and should be avoided at all costs; that totalitarian regimes will never again thrive on German soil. This is in part what I felt as I observed the small pieces of the Wall and sections left standing in Berlin; the bricks that run along the streets and cut through the asphalt and concrete of the modern city marking where the wall once stood; Sachsenhausen, the model concentration camp; the former Stasi prison in former East Berlin; the placard next to the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial painting of red, black and white that hangs in the Reichstag, among other sights. This also speaks to what I perceive as a German willingness to examine their own culture and history. I find it interesting yet consistent that an eight p.m. TV newscast is the top rated program in its time slot. That fact combined combined with an 80 percent voter turnout indicates a level of involvement in civic life that is crucial to a thriving democracy.
There is a kind of collective value that is evident, one which is perhaps less uniquely German than European, but one that regardless contrasts sharply with American culture. Politically, the parliamentary democratic reflects this. Rather than a winner-take-all model, the system better represents the views of the greatest number of citizens. The social safety net and the work-related benefits also present significant contrasts to the system of American capitalism. Ironically, this seems to result in a greater emphasis on the value and care of the individual, not simply as a worker but as a person outside the economic context. Although the social benefits of the safety net are widely believed to be too expensive, even reduced significantly, they would likely still outshine the pittance the U.S. government provides those who are out of work, disabled, mentally ill, or otherwise unable to hold down “productive” jobs.
I was also struck by the relatively few people who attend church and the apparent lack of variety of diverse denominations of churches in Germany. I saw Islamic Mosques, Jewish temples and Catholic and Lutheran churches. Of course, there are no doubt some others but there are many fewer proportionally compared with the U.S. My state is also famously one of the least “churched” states in the country. I wonder if some of the functions that the church as an institution provides have expressed themselves in other parts of the society, like a sense of common purpose and community or a caring social network. Perhaps the lack of apparent religiosity might also have to do with the German tendency to critically evaluate. Are they less likely to accept a particular text as an article of faith if it is not reasonable or just because an authority told them this or that is so? This may relate more to those who came of age after World War II, to the degree it applies. As a Unitarian, I personally don’t believe critical thinking and religious belief are mutually exclusive or even incompatible, but I can imagine other church going people who adhere to religions that rely on literal interpretations of certain historical texts may struggle more with the tension between thought and faith.
Another aspect of German culture that impressed me was the encouragement to speak the native language. It’s embarrassingly different than the treatment that visitors receive when they visit the U.S. All too often, one can observe an impatience with people who speak less than perfect English. While even the most modest, “Guten Tag” or “Danke” are encouraged and often greeted with “Gut! Sie sprechen Deutsch!” in Germany. I felt embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of German, even as nearly every German who spent time with us apologized for his or her grasp of English, which was far more often than not nearly perfect.
Of course other things impressed me that I had not expected to see: the thriving city and culture in Berlin, the opera, the theatre, the vibrant market places. The high unemployment and bankrupt government we were told about were not apparent and were frankly belied by the sights we saw. I saw only a handful of obviously poor people, and they may or may not have been homeless. I also sensed something of a love-hate relationship with America and a refreshing distinction made between Americans and American Government. This might be characterized as a love of American culture, and a hate of the unilateral and arguably imperialist approach of the U.S. government on the world stage, especially in Iraq. Despite this, I felt I gained an understanding of the importance of continued military strength, specifically to ensure the security of Europe.
Perhaps most of all, the RIAS exchange program was an emotional experience for me, particularly in Berlin. I had never experienced the overwhelming nature of what I felt at the concentration camp Sachenhausen, walking on the same stones the prisoners assembled on in fear and standing in the place were some prisoners worked and some died. At the former Stasi prison in the former East Germany, I walked with Hans wonderingly as he told of his 10 month incarceration there, his isolation, having his only human contact be the interrogation. I couldn’t help the tears when Hans described in his former cell how he wept just to hear the guard speak his name out loud, or when Hans recited most of a Shakespearean sonnet that he said had given him much comfort as he passed each day alone in a cell with no books, paper, company or entertainment. But I also cried at the beauty expressed in the music and sheer talent of the performers of the Cabaret show, and laughed and wondered at the off-the-wall interpretation of Turandot at the Berlin opera. And I could have cried, though didn’t, at the way the German journalists I had the chance to speak to engaged with me on such a passionate level about issues of public, of global importance. As if we could solve the world’s problems, right there in that moment, in that conversation.
I also felt strongly that I have been given an impression of Germany and Europe through this trip, which I feel an obligation and an eagerness to deepen. I also felt that I would like to bring some of the positive aspects of German culture back to the U.S. I think the Americans have much to learn about acknowledging “sins” and determining that history will not be repeated. In the few weeks since I returned, I have experienced three examples of Americans focusing on Nazism. These included comments from an acquaintance about goose-stepping after I mentioned my trip; one from a coworker that questioned how Germany could challenge the U.S. determination to go to war given its own history; and one from another acquaintance that poked fun at a new German exchange student friend of mine, calling him Schultz, when his name was Jan, saying that he didn’t speak much English because he spoke with an accent. I asked this acquaintance not act like a certain farm animal, and apologized profusely to Jan for this “ugly American” behavior. I suggested to my coworker that it was perhaps because of German history that Germans were in a unique position to be critical of a war. As for the goosestepping comment, I am sorry to say I could think of no adequate reply but said I didn’t think that really covered the culture. It occurs to me that because Americans, especially my generation and younger, have not gotten a good educational grounding in World History or current affairs, the holocaust is among the few historical events that they have studied and have at least some understanding of and so they are more likely to make comments that reflect that knowledge, regardless of the shallowness or lack of insight the comments may reflect. And of course, World War II and the Nazi regime specifically have been immortalized in countless movies, “Hogan’s Heros” television series, and other cultural artifacts, which for good or bad, seem to be always with us. We Americans don’t study history but we do love our movies and television.
The U.S. is expansive geographically and ethnically and is in some ways hard to characterize. But I believe all our citizens could benefit from an acknowledgment of some of the atrocities committed by our own country. Some of these are actions that reflect both active and passive cruelty and disregard for human life. In that way I believe they are not unlike the holocaust, though I know it’s passe and impolitic to compare anything to that event. Slavery, the decimation of countless Native Americans, their tribes and cultures; dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the detaining of Japanese Americans during World War II are among the horrors most Americans are all too happy to overlook and rather point to something that happened somewhere else as the example of what can go wrong, of “evil” Perhaps if there were more acknowledgments of past violations of human rights, the way the German government has acknowledged in the many monuments and memorials, it might not be as easy for the Bush administration to curtail civil liberties domestically.
Some of the stories I am planning for my station include highlighting the economic ties Oregon already has with Germany; the encouragement of the cultural and economic relationship via the nonstop Lufthansa flight between Portland and Frankfurt; profiling the German subculture in Portland; the recent efforts of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski in his trade mission to Germany and a couple of other European countries; and the potential for Oregon trade with one of the U.S.’s biggest trading partners and one that is in the top 10 in per capita income.
Of course so many experiences are what you make them, and I was fortunate to meet a particularly adventuresome group of people who eventually named ourselves, “the Fab Fünf.” This moniker stuck, despite the fact that there were often a total of six or seven of us on our nightly excursions. The group ventures to Slubice, Poland and Roosendaal, Netherlands, as well as the lesser excursions to night spots in Berlin and bars and jazz clubs of Leipzig and Munich are among the experiences I will carry with me always.
Although I feel any experience is greater than the sum of its parts and that one can never convey an experience completely with words, I hope these lines help get some of the way there.
Lastly this: I never felt more alive than when I was in Germany.
Eric Hanson, KCCI-TV, Des Moines, IO
The Faces of Europe
In 16 short days, your view of the world can change. It happened for me during the fall of 2003. As a local television news reporter in Iowa, my days are filled with car crashes, state politics, and senior citizens who play banjos in their auto mechanic’s garages. They are stories that are important to our viewers. My RIAS-Berlin experience helped me realize how many important stories exist outside our viewing area. They are stories that would interest Iowans. Stories of the memorable people I experienced during my 16 short days in Europe.
Shortly after arriving in Berlin, I found myself alone. I was 5,000 miles away from home in a foreign city, perking up my ears to hear anyone speaking familiar words with my familiar Midwestern accent. While wandering the streets, waiting for other RIAS fellows to arrive, I stumbled upon a barricaded street at Potzdamer Platz. Thousands of Berliners lined the street. I didn’t know what was happening, I assembled a few German words and asked a man crowded up against the gates what everyone was so excited about. His response came in a dialect I couldn’t understand. For a few minutes, we struggled with words and hand signals, trying to communicate. Eventually, I understood we were waiting for thousands of Berlin Marathon runners to pass by the street.
I never got the man’s name, but his pleasant, 40-year-old face is still with me. Our paths happened to cross in Germany’s capitol city. Our conversation was short and interrupted by words we didn’t understand. Despite the obstacles, he affected the way I think of the world. The marathon spectator lives his life thousands of miles away from my home, speaking a language I don’t understand, dealing with personal issues I know nothing about. Still, he and I interacted. We both were attempting to enjoy a few entertaining moments, cheering on passing runners. In the days and weeks since that encounter, that race fan has appeared in my mind several times. His face reminds me to think globally. Our paths will most likely never cross again, but several international issues affect us the same way. Billions of ordinary citizens like him exist all over the world, far beyond my station’s viewing area. Just because they aren’t watching the 10pm news does not mean they are not important.
Six days into our Berlin stay, our eyes opened wide. Our bus dropped us off outside a concrete wall and a tall, iron fence. The word ‘Hohenschönhausen’ didn’t mean anything to us, but within minutes, the British-accented gentleman shared stories that will stay with me for years. He had been an inmate in this former East German prison. The stasi prisoner had been held in an underground cell for 10 months because he wrote an essay critical of communism. The Stasi accused the then-22-year-old college student of ‘endangering order’ in the GDR. Nearly 50 years later, the same man now gives tours of the facility where he once lived. He showed us how East German officials mentally and physically tortured prisoners. He gave us a tour of his eight-by-twelve foot cell, showing us the wooden bed where he rested. He opened up interrogation rooms where guards pelted him and hundreds of other prisoners with questions about their opposition to the communist government.
The former prisoner is now about 70 years old. Physically, he has aged. After his release, his life returned to normal. He married another former prisoner. His mind, however, possesses a wealth of knowledge. His experiences shocked me. Even more eye-opening was the realization that these cells and these walls held prisoners until 1989, just 14 years ago. The inmates were not guilty of murder or theft. They were imprisoned because of their beliefs and their thoughts. Any tour guide could have showed us the beds and the locks on the cell doors, but the former inmate with a weathered face told a story from his own, personal experience. He showed his emotions in his eyes and his words. Our time with the now-proud German and several others like him gave us more than just a lecture—it gave us a face to put to the problem. A face I’ll remember each time I think of the struggles of unifying the east and west sides of Germany.
One day later, five of us felt adventurous. Not knowing what to expect, we paid 5 euro, hopped a train, and headed for Poland. As soon as we crossed the border on that rainy Friday evening, we ducked into a few shops. Some sold cigarettes, others offered liquor, and one sold men’s clothing. As we folded up our umbrellas and stepped inside, the woman behind the counter welcomed us with Polish words. The confused looks on our faces gave away the fact that we didn’t understand her greeting. As soon as we tried to figure out how we were going to explain our situation, her eyes lit up. We were Americans. She proudly and quickly switched gears and began speaking English—communicating in a language she rarely got to use. The beautiful woman about 30 years old helped us try on shirts, convert Polish sizes to American inches, and suggested patterns that matched. Once the sale was complete, she continued talking—excited to speak English to real Americans. She asked us where we lived, suggested a restaurant down the street, and even took the time to teach us a few basic Polish phrases.
The big smile on her face told the story. The retailer whose day is usually spent speaking Polish in the small storefront was thrilled that real, live Americans had traveled thousands of miles and were spending money and time in her store. She had heard so much about the United States, but had never been there. Judging by her appearance, she was living a good life in the eastern European country. She seemed satisfied. The sudden surprise of seeing five honest-to-goodness Americans made her bubble over in delight. We didn’t spend a fortune in the store, but by being friendly to a complete stranger, taking our picture with her, and leaving her with a smile, we built an international relationship. Based on her reaction and excitement, I’m guessing she remembers that experience just as fondly as we do. In just 10 or 15 minutes, I gained a first-hand perspective on how many people around the world perceive Americans. While many disagree with our policies and beliefs, many others seem truly fascinated by our culture—just like I’m fascinated by theirs.
In the remaining days of my European experience, I encountered political leaders, teachers, journalists, and taxi drivers. Each of them have stories. Each of them live lives that are similar to mine in many ways. They are working to better their futures. They get frustrated when things don’t go their way. They crack up laughing when something catches them off guard.
With each person I met, I learned an important lesson. A waiter at Augustiner Bierhall in Munich taught me that regardless of the country, some people try to cheat tourists out of a little extra money. A journalist in Leipzig taught me that despite the fact we speak different languages, we all just want to have a little fun in life, including evening trips to the local pub to let off a little steam. An American journalist traveling in our group gave me a new perspective on his beliefs, his lifetime of travels, and his style of reporting the news from around the world.
The RIAS-Berlin experience is truly an amazing experience. Since my return, I have looked at cultural issues and my own life a little differently. I wonder how that guy at the marathon would react, or whether that former prisoner would think it was a big deal, or how excited the Polish saleswoman would be. They are perspectives I’ll use for the rest of my life. I look forward to building on them and sharing them with my friends, my family, and my viewers each day.
Liv Hawn, KCPQ-TV, Seattle, WA
Ah, Germany. What can I write about the RIAS Berlin trip? It was by far one of the most exciting, important and rewarding trips of my life.
When I first applied for the program, I did not quite know what to expect. I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit another country and learn something about another culture. But, I did not expect it to have such an impact. The trip instilled in me an incredible sense of pride — pride as a journalist, a professional and as a person. After returning home, I found I had set the bar higher for myself. The experience will stay with me as a way to keep my goals high and to not settle for less than what I deserve.
The RIAS Berlin program also opened my eyes to the importance of other countries in the world and the understanding that we must carry with us each day.
My experience was enhanced by an opportunity I was given here in Washington state. After learning of my impending trip, the World Trade Center in Tacoma asked me to serve as a guest journalist and write a diary of my trip for their web site. It was an opportunity to share my learning and experiences with those back here at home. As many of the fellows on the Fall 2003 trip know, I spent many hours in Internet cafes writing this journal and sending it back to the states.
When it came time to write my essay, I thought why not share excerpts of that journal with my RIAS colleagues? It is a first hand, day-to-day account of my impressions of Germany. These are the freshest impressions I have from the trip, as most of them were written before I came home.
- Day 2, September 27
While walking around after dinner we (me and some RIAS colleagues) suddenly came across a section of the Berlin Wall still standing. On the western side: colorful graffiti, on the eastern side: cold, gray concrete. On the street you can still see the line of where the wall once stood. We’ve all heard about the wall but it’s whole other experience to actually see it.
- Day 4, September 29
Last night, I had the most amazing dinner with two German reporters from the TV/radio station RBB. We spent more than five hours talking about the German tax system (which by all accounts is extremely complicated), crime in Berlin (there doesn’t seem to be much), American TV (which is extremely popular in Germany), how Germans face their country’s unique history (most deal with it as teenagers) and much more.
- Day 6, October 1
After lunch, our day took a more melancholy turn as we headed outside Berlin for a visit to the Sachsenhausen Memorial — the site of a former concentration camp. It is an eerie afternoon the group will not soon forget.
- Day 8, October 3
Germany is bordered by eight nations; the closest to Berlin is Poland. Since none of us had ever been there before, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to add another stamp to our passports and to visit Eastern Europe.
So the five of us made our way to the train station at Alexanderplatz and less than two hours later we were in Slubice, Poland.
Once again I was surprised to see that the town was different than I had expected. I had anticipated a rundown border town, but what we found instead was a charming little village filled with friendly people.
- Day 11, October 6
With proper identification in hand, we arrived at NATO headquarters. Flags from the various NATO member states lined the highly secured entrance.
The first thing that struck me about NATO is that it is like a small city; we walked past everything from a barbershop to a library. It was amazing to be in a place I have heard so much about and where so many important decisions are made. This is the hub of international security.
- Day 12, October 7
By the end of the morning we are all up to speed on the future of Europe, EU-U.S. relations and the policies of the European Union. We are then invited to participate in the commission’s daily press briefing for the Brussels accredited press corps.
When we arrived there were journalists buzzing about chatting and smoking. It felt a bit like a nightclub, but once it was time for the briefing to begin, it was all business. The journalists filed into the pressroom (at times, up to 900 journalists attend this briefing.) The briefing is in French but headphones are provided with English translation. There isn’t much news today and just a few questions from the crowd. But, despite what seems like a routine day, I am in awe of the commission’s press representatives. Not only do they need to be prepared to answer the tough questions, but also they need to be able to do it in French, English, German and who knows how many other languages. Amazing!
- Day 14, October 9
We arrived in Leipzig after dark. The first thing that struck me when we arrived at the hotel is the energy of the city. The air is filled with excitement and creativity. After settling into our rooms, we head into the central square for dinner. At the historic Paulaner restaurant we meet up with some of the German RIAS fellows. After dinner a group of us headed to a part of town that is home to several bars and restaurants. One of the other fellows tells me that when he moved to Leipzig 10 years ago there weren’t any bars at all. I tell him it must have been quite something to see the city grow and change into the happening city it is today.
- Day 15, October 10
Early in the evening, a few of us stopped into St. Thomas church to hear the boys’ choir sing. It was beautiful. It was wonderful to sit in the historic church with the citizens of Leipzig, close my eyes and listen to tomorrow’s generation sing centuries old music.
- Day 16, October 11
It is our last day in Germany.
We spent the afternoon on a boat on the river Saale southwest of Leipzig. The river runs near a town called Naumburg in Saxony’s wine country. The area reminds of the Silverado Trail in California’s Napa Valley. The charming hillsides are filled with vineyards and romantic stone buildings. We end the day with a tour of the Rotkaeppchen champagne cellars and a farewell dinner in one of the champagne caves. It is a bittersweet day. The setting is beautiful, but the air is filled with the emotion of impending goodbyes. I have learned so much and made amazing friends. It has been an incredible trip that will stay with me for a lifetime.
Stephanie Ho, Voice of America, Washington D.C.
I had originally planned to write some sweeping and insightful essay, cataloguing all the deep things I learned about Germany. The problem is, though, I just don’t really know what to say. I learned so much during a total of three weeks in Germany — two weeks on the fellowship and one week doing my own reporting — but I also was aware that I just scratched the surface.
In this essay, I’ll focus on two topics that were of interest to me. The first was „Ostalgia”, or a nostalgia for things from the former Ost, or East, Germany. Hans-Eberhard Zahn, the former inmate at the Hohenschoenhausen Stasi prison, had a simple, but vivid description of what he saw as the basic problem, “People talk about a wall in the brain. People talk about the effects of different socialization of East and West people.”
Thomas Habicht, senior political editor of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg elaborated on the very dark downside of the former East. These negatives included low wages and about a thousand people shot by border guards trying to flee to the West. But he also acknowledged there is a good reason for former East Germans, especially in the older generations, to feel a little lost in unified Germany, “If you, as an East German, believe that you have done a good job — in the wrong system, but you, yourself have done a good job. Then there are West Germans coming who tell you nothing which you did was valuable. Nothing you did was any productive contribution. We now have to pay for your situation. It’s the ‘rich uncle’ attitude. So, I believe it’s perfectly understandable.”
This interest in the human side of East Germany, in the end, may have been the feeling that must have instructed filmmaker Wolfgang Becker, who made Germany’s best film for 2003 — Goodbye, Lenin. Mr. Becker rejected accusations that his film glorified the old East German regime. Instead, he said, he simply focused on the people who lived during that time, “It was like a part of their memories, a part of their life. Because, of course, (also) in a dictatorship, you have your first kiss, your first sex, or you become parents, or you have good parents, or you get kids, and so on and so forth. There are so many positive memories.”
This recent part of Germany’s past still haunts present day endeavors — including Leipzig’s bid to host the 2012 summer Olympics. While we were there, it was reported that one member on the Olympic bid team had worked as a security guard for the Stasi. Leipzig Mayor Wolfgang Tiefensee acknowledged the problem, but did not say how the person in question would be dealt with: ”…now, debate is going on whether a young man, of that age, is allowed to accept a position like this, or not. Mind you, he was not a member of the Stasi. He was not an informer, collaborator, or informer of the State Security Service. But he was a conscript of that guard regiment. We will have to settle that question, as we will have to settle questions such as doping or other issues.”
The second topic I found fascinating was the US-German relationship. Ties between Washington and Berlin have been buffeted over the past year because of disagreements over the Iraq war. An article published in the Wall Street Journal while we were in Berlin discussed the rift: “’Somewhere between Kabul and Baghdad, we (the United States and Germany) lost each other,’ said Ron Asmus, a senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund. ‘At the end of the day, we didn’t just disagree on the policy but on the facts of what happened, and from that there was a jump to conspiracy theories.’” One relevant fact mentioned in the article was: “A recent public opinion poll, by Forsa, one of Germany’s leading polling organizations, found that one in five Germans believes ‘the U.S. government ordered the attacks itself.”
Mary Fiedler, the dean of the University of Maryland University College’s Mannheim campus told me the difficulties her 18 and 19-year-old American students faced during protests against the U.S.-led war on Iraq earlier this year: “Here, there were 150 (American) students who loved their country, but didn’t necessarily agree with the President’s decision to go into Iraq, but also couldn’t agree with the Germans protesting against them. It was very confusing to know where were our emotions, where were our thoughts, where were our loyalties. And to try to be an American in the midst of that was very difficult. It was very confusing for me and it was even more confusing for the students.”
At the same time, though, I learned that a deep friendship between Germans and Americans stretches back decades. American UMUC-Mannheim students make friends with local Germans off campus. Dean Fiedler talked about the lasting effect of the Marshall Plan, which helped Germany recover economically following World War Two: “We (the United States) came in and we invested heavily in the country (Germany). They came to know and love American ideals and vice-versa.”
Meanwhile, American soldiers and their dependents lived in the local German communities that hosted U.S. military bases. I spoke with Klaus Rodens, the mayor of Spangdahlem, which has hosted a huge U.S. air base for decades: “It is the friendship we would like to keep, that we would like to keep the American people over here to live with us. That is very important.” Mr. Rodens was part of a delegation of German mayors who came to Washington in June to lobby for the U.S. bases to stay put.
Meanwhile, though, the deputy U.S. European Command Commander, General Charles Wald, said big changes have already taken place: “There have been military changes in Europe — significant ones over the past decade or more, since the Berlin Wall fell, which was a significant event — changed all of Europe in fact, in a lot of ways. The United States military, in 1989, had 315,000 active duty members in Europe, in European Command. Today, we have 114,000 assigned active duty.”
One issue that didn’t fit into my areas of interest, but still hangs heavy over present-day Germany, is the Holocaust. I can’t say whether all the self-flagellation is justified or not. But I can say that one 79-year-old Holocaust survivor I spoke with in Washington, who had spent two years in the Auschwitz death camp and lost more than 100 of her family members, said she would never forgive or forget. Another survivor I spoke with said he was separated from his family during the war. He said he only recently found out that his father had been sent to Sachensenhausen, which, eerily enough, was the prison camp we visited.
Insight comes from the strangest of places. For me, the kitschy refrigerator magnets of the old East German crosswalk symbols on sale at the Berlin airport gift shop seemed to speak about the country as a whole. The walking green man could be a unified Germany moving forward, as the largest country in Europe and an economic powerhouse. Meanwhile the standing red man, gesturing everyone to halt, could represent a Germany frozen in time, petrified by its weighty history. Which one is it? I do not have the depth of understanding needed to answer this question adequately, but from my scant few weeks immersion in the country, it’s easy to say I suspect it’s a little of both.
Brent Hurd, Voice of America, Washington D.C.
Traveling to Germany is a bit like returning to the homeland. My great grandfather Scheuerlein (I was Brent Scheuerlein until age 10 when I was adopted by my second father) came from the Franconian town of Würzburg located in northern Bavaria. In 1911 he traveled by ship across the Atlantic and settled in New York. He had a large family of his own and remained active into his 90s. On his 100th birthday we had a huge bash and four months later he passed away in his sleep.
Though I had been to Germany before, the RIAS fellowship offered an unparalleled glimpse into the inner workings of Germany and direct access to politicians, community leaders and fellow journalists.
Berlin’s transformation is extraordinary. Today’s capital is a striking contrast to the city I visited in 1995. Back then I found it stark, gloomy and a bit depressing. Modern Berlin is vibrant, bold and fascinating. Sprinkled with colorful embassies, hundreds of new buildings and people on the move, it is the kind of city you just don’t want to leave.
My first night I met Stephen, an intense yet good-humored German reporter for the public television station ARD. He cooked a zesty vegetarian dinner in his plush apartment located in the heart or “mitte” of Berlin. We shared journalism stories and life experiences. He faced similar challenges that American journalists face — crazy hours, taxing deadlines yet exhilarating work that can sometimes take a toll on personal lives. His grace was a sign of the incredible hospitality we were all about to experience during this two-week intellectual and cultural odyssey.
While in Berlin, our group visited Kreuzberg — an ethnic mélange of Turks and other immigrants (locals call it little Istanbul). We visited a state-supported learning center that trains disadvantaged young people and unemployed adults. We spoke with a local Turkish government leader about how his community — the largest immigrant population in Europe — is faring in Germany. We learned that the guest worker concept of the 1960’s and 70’s just didn’t work as planned. Many of these ‘Gastarbeiters’ didn’t go back to Turkey but brought their families to Germany instead. Yet no efforts were made by the government or immigrants to integrate into society. As a result, today many Turkish communities function completely separate from mainstream German society.
Nihat Sorgec is an entrepreneurial dynamo who arrived 30 years ago as a guest worker and overcame cultural barriers to learn German and integrate successfully. A model for others, he helped get the learning center off the ground. He coaches young Turkish immigrants and always tells them they must begin with learning the language. His look captured both cultures — a megawatt smile punctuated his dark eyes and brows, framed by small, refined German eyeglasses.
My relatives in Würzburg, whom I visited during my extension, brought the challenge of assimilation into focus. My distant cousin Gabi Scheuerlein-Ozan and her family live near the castle fortress known as Marienburg, perched on a nearby hill with grapevines cascading down its slopes. Gabi fell in love with a Turk who came to teach young immigrants in the late 1970s. I sat down with Gabi’s daughter, Sevil, to talk about having a German mother and Turkish father. Like many young people in Germany, she plans to study at a university, travels often and speaks impeccable English. But her name and olive-colored skin prompt questions from others who are at times surprised when they learn her father is Turkish.
The state of Bavaria is quite conservative and many people were shocked when her parents married in 1979. The family received a few threatening phone calls and Gabi felt, at times, ostracized by her community. Sevil said things have changed for the better. Most Germans — particularly the younger generation — are more accepting of mixed couples. A sign of the times is a popular television talk show dedicated to finding ways to help Turkish-German couples deal with problems they face in Germany today. Sevil believes successful integration can only happen if both immigrants and Germans really make the necessary efforts. She said that integration does not mean immigrants will lose their identity or culture — as some fear — but provides them the chance to experience everyday German life.
War in Iraq
Our trip came at a troubled time in history. Transatlantic ties have been under considerable strain this year because of vast differences over the war in Iraq. The German government stood resolutely against the U.S. decision to go to war. Germans live with the knowledge of their recent history in nearly everything they do. At a young age, they are taught at length about the atrocities committed by the Nazis. This awareness combined with the fact that so many German cities were devastated in the Second World War, helped me understand first hand why so many Germans consider military action an absolute last resort. And without the support of the United Nations, many people I spoke with considered the Iraq war to be illegal. And this greatly concerned them.
Cultural Gem — The German Bookcase
I was amazed by the ubiquitous German bookcases. I don’t just mean the actual bookcase — but the kind of books in them. Nearly every private home I visited had a library that would bring a smile to any cultural geographer’s face. Travelogues and guidebooks to nearly every part of the world are found on these shelves. Germans truly know the world and with at least six weeks of vacation, have the opportunity to see it. This is quite different from the two or three weeks of vacation of the average American worker. The conundrum that many Germans face at the end of the year is where to travel for those last two or three weeks of vacation. Of all the state benefits that unfortunately must be cut to keep the government from going broke, I hope the six weeks of vacation remains sacrosanct. I am a big believer in sabbaticals, no matter how much one enjoys his job. Time away brings a new perspective and makes one fresher on returning to the office. The Germans seem to really understand this.
The beauty of our RIAS experience was the chance to have a real people-to-people exchange. As with all great travel experiences — I find the people I meet along the way make the real difference — forever changing me and my perspective. In Leipzig we met journalists who had participated in RIAS on the other side of the Atlantic. At our first dinner in town I met Christian, a television producer. When I told him I spent three years in Bulgaria before coming to Washington, his eyes lit up … and he said ‘Taca li!….seriosno?’ I said ‘Da, az zhaveah tri godini v’ Plovdiv — kracif grad!’ For the rest of the night and well into the morning we discussed our Bulgarian connection — adventures in the mountains, good friends and the passionate and colorful Bulgarians. He spent months there for his university thesis. Christian’s parents came from former East Germany and slipped into West Berlin just a couple of years before the wall was built. They wanted Christian to stay in touch with his roots and often sent him back for visits. A few years ago, he returned permanently to Leipzig where he works for MDR, the East German regional public television station. The next day he took me to the set of an afternoon television show that featured a German Olympic athlete. That night we joined other RIAS fellows for the mayor’s city party and talked about East-West differences. We felt personally welcomed by Leipzig’s mayor — a man with quiet charisma and high hopes for the Olympic Games in 2012. I hope Leipzig gets the nomination!
I find Germans kind, earnest and incredibly conscientious—particularly about the environment. Our experience would not have been nearly as wonderful without the grace, stunning patience and good-humor of the RIAS staff. Rainer, Heidi and Sandra — thank YOU for an experience of a lifetime.
Doug Luzader, FOX News, Washington D.C.
Wallstrasse 70-73. Give that address to a cab driver at Tegel Airport and he won’t think twice. Just another hotel run. But the very notion that we would be going here was, in some ways, one of the most eye-opening aspects of the RIAS Program. The former East. The idea that this street, part of a society that had once seemed so cloistered from the outside, would be our home for several days was the sort of thing that took time to sink in. This street, this building, many of these people had been behind the wall. For those who grew up in the height of the cold war, the very concept of being there was surreal. Germans have had a decade to grapple with, if not accept, the same idea on a much larger scale, each society reintroducing itself to the other. But for a visitor, there is a certain awe.
It is said that the former East has a ghost lingering in the buildings of the old regime. It is, quite literally, a smell. Probably the old disinfectant, said one of the Germans with whom we met. But one soon learns that Germans can hone in on a wealth of unseen markers and signs in their newly fused country. They sense failure, rebirth, regret, nostalgia and hope, mixed in a nuanced way that foreigners find difficult to understand. Many Germans also feel terrible shame about aspects of their history, and they want you to know this is so.
What we saw were institutions that are still struggling for identity and renewed purpose. Architects and craftsmen came forth with a redesigned Bundestag, but buildings, it turns out, are the easy part. The challenge comes in the activities they shelter. During our time in Belgium, we found that NATO faces a similar challenge. Military planners must come to terms with a Europe forever altered. A continent once seen as the battleground for a Cold War showdown is now a minefield of political rulemaking and shifting alliances. Organizations such as the European Union seem to bristle with both confidence and trepidation, seeking to muster majority sentiment from countries that now pride themselves as independents. These are institutions built in the sandy soil of history, created in a time when shifts seemed conceptual and distant. Now they struggle for footing.
At a time when a rift had developed between the United States and Germany over the war in Iraq, many Germans wanted to know what people in the US thought about them. They are preoccupied with their new place in the world, wary of each step, tentative or bold.
While we were in Brussels, a movie theater marquis advertised the film “Good Bye Lenin.” A son goes to great lengths to recreate in microcosm the former East, fearing his ailing mother will fall dead from a heart attack if she learns the truth of reunification. It is said to be the first movie that reached across the old East-West divide, filling theaters with laughter. What differed was perception. The former halves of Germany in the audience would laugh at different times, recognizing the cultural differences that once divided them — and in some cases still, still do.
Joe Merone, Vermont Public Television, Colchester, VT
It is usually the people met along the way that leave you with the greatest impression of the places that you visit. And in the case of the 2003 RIAS fall program those people are the administrators of the program, the star-studded list of guests and presenters we met, the German journalists we worked with, and most importantly — the German people themselves whom we drew so much insight and experience from.
In 1905 poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I find this quote rather ironic when I consider all the horrors committed during the century that followed its being written. Ironic also because in Berlin it seems that forgetting the past can’t come fast enough for most Germans. You are hard pressed to find any historical mention or physical symbols that remain from either World War. The tearing down of The Wall led to an immediate grab for land just lying ripe for development. Construction is everywhere and seems underway just for the sake of building something — most of it steel and glass eyesores. And was there nothing from the old communist bloc worth saving except for those cute street-crossing lights?
Then there’s Sachsenhausen, a place that calls out to be left just like it was. While walking through the grounds on the day of our visit a colleague said to me “You know it wasn’t like those old black and white movies we’re used to seeing, it could have been a nice autumn day like this one. And behind those colorful trees over there, all that horror was going on.”
If all opera was presented like our performance of Turandot was, then opera may just have a future after all.
The Germans make the best beer. The Belgians make the best beer. And if I ever eat another food that ends in “wurst” it’ll be much too soon.
Although Germany was the success story of the late 20th century, the REUNIFIED Germany will continue to experience growing pains like any new country. Taking on the problems and debt load of the antiquated East Germany and its 16 million citizens seems similar to a snake that’s swallowed a rabbit whole. It will take some time to devour. But the recent government reforms and the slow shedding of the old social welfare state looks like a step in the right direction.
Although it was disheartening to discover that most celebratory events scheduled to be held on German reunification day had been cancelled because of lack of funds available.
Is Schroeder so confident in his position as chancellor as that he can keep threatening to quit if he doesn’t get his way? But it does seem that Americans might learn a thing or two about disassociating a politician’s personal life from their public one.
To know Heidi… is to know Heidi.
The weirdest moment of the week? A late night visit to one of Berlin’s all too cool and crowded techno-clubs and seeing the young clientele entranced with watching a 25-year old Johnny Cash documentary on the big screen.
Biggest “WOW” moment of the week? Walking around the corner and seeing the central plaza of Brussels for the first time. Sorry Germany.
And how could members of the EU not agree on everything on their agendas when a lunch like that is waiting for them at the end?
A statement from a German I came to know that will stick with me for a while: “I still get nervous when I see 100,000 Germans at a soccer match all cheering and chanting together.”
There is no more interesting group of professionals anywhere than journalists with which to spend time and swap stories with. The “blind date” with our German journalist host and his family in Berlin was a true delight. I still need to send them the pictures I took. The dinner with previous RIAS fellows in Leipzig was quite the education on how foreign journalists who have studied in the U.S view us Americans. That is if spending a week in Washington D.C. and then a week in someplace like Athens Georgia can be called “studying the U.S.” And then there was the many times spent with my fellow American RIAS fellows not noted on the official itinerary. Debating international affairs in an airport departure gate, wandering the streets hopelessly lost, sharing drinks late into the night while people watching from a street-side cafe, acting like the tourists that we sometimes were, trying to speak German, posing for pictures, etc. Moments like these were among the highlights of the trip and some of the memories I’ll most remember.
Like I’ve said, it’s the people met along the way who leave you with the greatest impression of places traveled. I whole-heartedly recommend to any U.S. journalist that they consider applying for a fellowship to the RIAS BERLIN COMMISSION.
Bill Prasad, FOX News Channel, WTTG-TV, CNN, Washington D.C.
“Do they really hate us over there (Germany)?” The question came from my date as she peered at me over a mug of what I once believed was beer. We were sitting in one of those pose bars in Washington. It was a typical district hangout where everyone wears black, smokes and fills the air with salaries, titles and the names of the powerful. It was Hollywood for the ugly in all its grandeur. I had just returned from my fellowship.
Saying it was an interesting time to be in Europe (post September 11th) would be like saying the Janet Jackson fiasco was just a tempest in a “C” cup. With some supporters of Bush policies in Iraq deriding Europeans as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and some Europeans countering with cries of “erratic unilateralism,” Germany and Belgium were surely the places to hang.
But some expectations soon gave way to surprise. The stoic philosopher Epictetus in the first century AD said “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them” In the U.S. many people demanded that Europeans get in line and back the White House and its policies on Iraq.
After speaking to lecturers, members of the European Union and Parliament, it seemed that Europe had underestimated the American reaction to the terrorist attacks. Many officials in Germany and Belgium (NATO) said they never expected the fear, anger and astonishment felt by Americans to run so deep and run so long. The history of Europe has been plagued by wars that destroyed countless towns and hundreds of thousand of lives. But the last time someone attacked the continental United States, it was a group of men who spoke English, drank tea, and burned the Capital. After September 11th, these two “outlooks” collided, leaving the relationship between Germany and America looking like another battlefield casualty.
European officials I spoke are profoundly troubled by the course taken by this White House. Some said the only voice of reason comes from the Secretary of State. They fear that Colin Powell will not retain his position if Mr. Bush wins reelection. If you thought the relationship described by news accounts was horrid, think again. It’s worse.
But while Americans were busy pouring French wine into drains, the residents of Germany and Belgium poured beer into mugs the size of Nebraska, fed us rich, dark chocolate and a daily dose of friendship and warmth. As we opened our mouths to some of the best suds on earth, we opened our minds to a look at our home through the eyes of the people we visited. I now have a greater understanding of what it is like to live in countries ravaged by war and now shaken by the stances taken by an ally. There is a base of knowledge that will be drawn from a “once in a lifetime” experience that probably won’t be equaled.
The Germans have learned to separate politics from people. The thought rolled through my head as I fielded that question at that Washington bar. “No, they don’t hate us,” I answered. “If you get a chance to go, seize the opportunity, because you’ll love them.”
Susan Rucci, CBS News, Washington D.C.
I applied and participated in the RIAS Journalist Exchange program because of two questions I had: Why did transatlantic relations between two solid allies for sixty years break down so dramatically over the last two? And, what does it mean to be a German today sixty years after the concentration camps were liberated and 14 years after the Monday protests in Leipzig led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. The RIAS program, I’m happy to say, provided me with ample opportunity to explore and seek answers to these two important questions.
In many ways, Germany and the United States face similar dilemmas today. They are countries in the midst of redefining themselves after horrific events occurred in their homelands. It is in this period of transition that the relationship between the two is undergoing some dramatic growing pains. The United States assumed after 9-11 that Germany would support a U-S led “War on Terrorism.” But, for Germans, the sense of being taken for granted by the current White House made for an opportunity to move beyond the shadows of its benefactor and re-establish itself as a country with its own opinions and decision making abilities.
During the many background briefings our group had, I had a sense that Germany, like many European allies, had underestimated the impact 9-11 had on the American psyche. Even among the German journalists we had dinner with in Berlin and Leipzig, there was a sense by them, during our informal discussions, that 9-11 was considered a horrific event…an attack…but that Americans would grieve and then move on. There was even hope that the tragic event would actually bring the allies closer. Instead, I learned first hand just how angry Germans are with President Bush, and how confused they are about the America they once idealized. It was interesting to me how cautious Germans were in addressing their concerns about President Bush and U-S foreign policy to me. It was as though they were confused and felt betrayed…like they thought they knew Americans… understood the people and the country…and then found out they didn’t know America at all. The Bush administration policy in Guantanamo Bay is a perfect example of this. Germans couldn’t understand how the U-S, which wrote a Bill of Rights as its foundation of existence, could completely disregard civil rights today and allow a GITMO to exist. I often responded to that by simply stating that Europe vastly underestimated the impact 9-11 had on Americans.
But, I also felt my German experience helped me understand why Americans oversimplified the rift between President Bush and Chancellor Schroeder. After two world wars, Germans were understandably uneasy about a march into Baghdad. During my week in Berlin, I was dramatically and often reminded of the painful and long-term repercussions from war through big, bold images like the remaining section of the Berlin Wall, the former Stasi prison or the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It also came in subtler images like the day we were walking to our meeting with Marie-Luise Beck on immigration and I looked up to see old bullet holes in the building’s stone.
It is those images that seem to haunt many Germans today. Many of us on the RIAS program talked about what we came to coin “German guilt.” I sensed a people remorseful, humbled and shamed by their past. Germany has such a complicated history and there seems to be a national debate over every symbol, physical or otherwise, that is tied to the past. The example that comes to mind is the Palace of Republic of the former GDR. It is an ugly structure with no personality.
Yet, at my dinner with journalists in Berlin and other subsequent conversations, I learned that there was a huge debate over whether the structure should be kept to remember the past, destroyed to forget the past or eliminated and the old palace reconstructed to take its place. I heard many passionate, emotional views from all sides. It reminded me a bit about the debate here in the U-S over the site of the former World Trade Center buildings in New York. In the end, a building cannot erase the past nor does it define a people for past sins or heartache.
I think to be a German today you have to make peace over the past. Germany is more than Hitler or the Stasi. It is the participants of the Monday protests in Leipzig…it was the home to Bach and a people who have created and contributed so much to the world. It is a democracy inching its way towards a better model. The United States has a checkered past as well. Some would argue we are in a questionable period of decision-making right now. U-S history documents slavery and many other inequalities. Germany, I think, is moving in the right direction. The Jewish Museum and other memorials honor and respect those who lost their lives from hate. I am very optimistic about Germany’s future. I found Germans to be warm and friendly and very willing to practice their English on this American whose German was not so good.
The RIAS experience was quite well-rounded. Looking over my notes, it was a two week crash course on significant portions of German history as well as NATO and the EU. The program was well structured, especially in Berlin. We had various meetings in the morning and the afternoon to ourselves. Each day I conquered another point of interest from Checkpoint Charlie Museum to the remains of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish Museum or the Brandenburg Gate. It was ironic to see how capitalism could creep into such solemn historical events like the Wall or the Cold War. (The United States, by the way, is just as guilty of CAPITALIZING on historical places of interest.) I resisted an impulse to buy a “piece of the wall.” As well, only a few hundred feet from the Gate, there was a Starbucks. My moment of debate over whether it would be wrong to purchase a venti skim latte so near to the Brandenburg Gate quickly became irrelevant when I realized what was happening on the other side of the gate. There, I watched as Germans lit candles in memorial for Reunification Day. It was quite moving to witness people hugging and wiping away tears as they remembered those who died in pursuit of freedom. That image will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Thank you for such an amazing opportunity.
Sarah Williams, Voice of America, Washington D.C.
The RIAS program is a wonderful way to learn about Germany. The first day, our group went on a guided bus tour of Berlin, which proved to be a very good introduction to the city, particularly for first-time visitors. Our guide was highly knowledgeable, and did an excellent job of informing us about the city, both pre- and post- World War Two. He showed us where one city was divided, and then became unified.
Following the bus tour, I went with a few other people to the Topography of Terror, close to a remnant of the Berlin Wall. It is located on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, and describes some of the many horrors committed during the Nazi era. We then proceeded to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which depicts the years of the Cold War. I found this place to be one of the most memorable sites I visited in Berlin, and some of the events described, including President Kennedy’s speech, President Reagan’s speech, and the efforts of so many people to escape from East Berlin, highly moving. In fact, I think I had to sit down somewhere afterwards just to compose myself after viewing so much, first about World War Two, then the Cold War. I think it is very hard for Americans to fully understand what life could be like under such circumstances. But exhibits like these make me appreciate just how fortunate we have been in the United States. That evening I had dinner with the chief editor for German Radio in Berlin and his wife, who had been in the crowd when President Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. She described how his words meant so much to the city, and on the day Kennedy was assassinated several months later, she went back to the same square along with many others to mourn his death.
The next day we toured the Reichstag and had informative meetings with representatives from a number of political parties. After that, I took a cab for my first interview for a story in Germany. On the way, the cab driver pointed out streetlights designed by Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s architect, and the stadium that hosted the 1936 Olympics. The previous day I had driven past Tempelhof Airport, where the 1948 Berlin Airlift took place, and was reminded (by Rainer) how history is everywhere in this city. The next day we met with members of Germany’s Turkish immigrant community, and visited Berlin’s Jewish Community Center. The following day we visited the news channel N-TV, and the Sachsenhausen Memorial, which was very moving. Later that evening, some of us went to a cabaret, which was a lot of fun.
We next saw a former Stasi prison, and our guide was a man who had been imprisoned there. His first-hand knowledge of the place was invaluable. That night, we had a great treat by attending a performance of Puccini’s opera “Turandot,” at the beautifully restored Deutsche Staatsoper, the German State Opera. The following day was Unification Day, a national holiday in Germany, and I spent most of it walking along the Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare in the eastern part of the city. I visited the Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned books in 1933, the Room of Silence in the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Dome, and the Neue Wache, the memorial to the victims of war.
That weekend, we departed for Brussels and briefings at NATO and the European Union. Following Brussels, we went on to Munich for a quick visit. The highlight was dinner at the Hofbrauhaus, a renowned beer hall, where we enjoyed Bavarian food, music, and, of course, beer.
Next, we traveled to Leipzig in the former East Germany. I especially enjoyed the dinner with former German fellows in the RIAS program. We also met with the city’s mayor, and attended a citizen’s party in the city hall. We visited Johann Sebastian Bach’s lovely church, and toured a Leipzig radio station. The last day of the Core program, we had a splendid boat ride on the Saale and Unstrut Rivers, before attending our farewell dinner.
The Core program ended, and most fellows departed for the U.S. But my extension program was just beginning, and I looked forward to it. The Core program is excellent, but I think it was during the extension that I felt I got to know the country. I went to Halle, near Leipzig, to meet with a teenaged tennis player and his mother to interview them about his dreams of playing tennis for Germany. Even on such a short visit, I could see that Halle is quite economically depressed. Following the interview, the young tennis player asked me (in English) if it was true that American newspapers carry little news about Germany and Russia. I said to him that, unfortunately, he was right.
The following day I headed for Koblenz on the Rhine. I had a wonderful, scenic train trip, and will be forever grateful to the anonymous young men who, unasked, generously helped me with my heavy suitcase. The Rhineland is beautiful, and I could not help but feeling somewhat sorry for the members of my Core group that they did not see it. Late that afternoon, I interviewed a terrorism expert, who advised me to eat dinner in a nearby wine bar along the river. I did, and I met a wonderful couple from Manchester, England who regaled me with stories.
While staying in Koblenz, I visited Cologne and its beautiful cathedral. I also went to Bonn for an interview. My interpreter advised me to visit the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven. It was fascinating, and contains a number of mementos, including some of Beethoven’s musical instruments, as well as primitive hearing aids used to try to help his deafness. Then, I headed north by train again to Hannover, to stay at a tennis center that trains some of the best young players in the country. The following morning I had breakfast with several of the players, most of whom knew some English. I interviewed their coach, who took me on a tour of the facility, and I watched the young players do warm-up exercises and participate in some very strenuous drills. I was exhausted just watching them.
Later that day, I took a train to Hamburg. Among the most memorable moments there — doing my laundry at a German laundromat (trying to figure out the directions, the money and soap was an experience!), and taking a bus tour of the city. I also talked with a young German man, who has been unemployed for 18 months, about his country and compatriots. And yes, I did two interviews while in Hamburg.
Back in Berlin, I had three more interviews to do. One of them involved touring the site of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe under construction near the Brandenburg Gate. I interviewed one of the founders of this initiative, who afterwards drove me to the RIAS office. Along the way, we passed Rathaus Schöneberg, where President Kennedy delivered his famous speech. Also in Berlin, Sandra joined me for a performance at the Friedrichstadt Palast, where we saw a variety show.
I watched some television while in Germany. I would say their political coverage is far more in depth than what you see in the United States, and they do have more international coverage. But because I don’t speak German, my ability to really judge their media, both broadcast and print, is rather limited.
Speaking of RIAS, many thanks to Rainer, Heidi and Sandra. This is a wonderful program, and I wish you every success in the future!