TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2010
Summer and Fall
RIAS Germany Program – Summer
June 13–27, 2010
13 U.S. journalists participated in the 2-week Germany program. After their first week in Berlin, they attended the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum “Climate Change and the Media” in Bonn from June 21 – 23 and visited the EU and NATO in Brussels on June 24 and 25. Eight U.S. journalists stayed on for a third week for research and reporting purposes.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Theresa Anzur, KFI-AM, West Covina, CA
It was an unforgettable day in Germany. Tasting fresh, white asparagus in a riverfront restaurant near Dessau, my RIAS group of American journalists drank in the warm weather and the cold beer. We would return to the U.S. with more than memories. We had seen the newly minted euros that would soon unite major European economies in a single currency. We had listened to bankers, politicians and military strategists predict a bright future for the new European Union, even as we confronted the dark shadows of Germany’s past in concentration camps, Stasi filing cabinets, and the remains of the Berlin Wall. It was June 2001, and as I drifted into sleep I dared to hope that I would someday qualify for another RIAS visit…
I decided to focus on what else was new in 2010. The U.S. Embassy had reclaimed its traditional space neighboring the Brandenburg Gate. Next to the new building, children played hide and seek among the faceless concrete slabs in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Queen Nefertiti held court in the restored Neues Museum. All of this was impressive, yet something was missing. The confidence and optimism I had experienced nine years ago in the newly united Germany had given way to economic doubts and the political burden of leading an entire continent. Academics pontificated about “The End of the Euro.” Much to my surprise, I dreamed that the German chancellor was a woman and the American president was a black man. They disagreed on whether governments should increase or cut spending to rescue the world economy from a banking crisis.
The dream was getting scary now. Terrorists apparently had destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, and many Germans had become convinced that the resulting U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was unwinnable. When asked about German-U.S. intelligence cooperation, an anti-terrorism official oddly answered with a stormy weather report. The European Union had expanded, with new members including former Communist states such as Bulgaria and Romania. Thrifty Germans weren’t happy to see their hard-earned euros being used to bail out Greece. A growing population of Turkish immigrants and their children was challenging the assumption that all newcomers would, of course, learn German. Even the chancellor had expressed shock that a Turkish-language radio station was broadcasting “on German soil.”
I needed to escape and headed for a low-cost Germanwings flight to Bonn. The RIAS bus passed by Tempelhof Airport, where Hitler’s massive stone terminal was now closed. The runways that once welcomed the Berlin Airlift were now a park filled with sports enthusiasts and picnicking families. Leaving from Schoenefeld Airport in the former East Berlin, we landed in the former West German capital city. The former Parliament building was now a conference center hosting a Deutsche Welle media forum on a problem called “climate change.” Besides boosting Germany’s energy-saving green industries, the conference provided a nifty excuse for a party, complete with a dance floor and credits to offset the carbon impact of cruising the Rhine on a whale-sized yacht.
My dream of 2010 was filled with many more pleasant images: the gardens at Sans Souci in Potsdam, the Grand Place in Brussels, the cathedral of Cologne and the canals of Bruges. But I could not escape the haunting cells of the Stasi prison where a former inmate described the de-humanizing torture once employed by the GDR against its own people. I took some comfort in the fact that this courageous woman was now a successful politician in the new Germany, but then she pointed out that her tormentors still live in the neat, middle-class houses adjoining the prison site. My 2010 dream had revealed the living legacy of the Berlin Wall.
But I also found the makeshift urban beach bars where people from all over the world could cheer for their favorite teams in the World Cup. I found thoughtful colleagues, both German and American, who reflected on how journalists have portrayed our two countries. While Americans may limit coverage of Germany to beer, lederhosen and neo-Nazis, the Germans seemed fixed on an image of the United States as a cowboy nation, insufficiently concerned about global warming treaties and peace through diplomacy. The German broadcasters in my dream seemed relatively unaffected by the challenges of new media that had wiped out so many journalism jobs in the US. From the editors at publicly-funded ARD to the leading anchorman of private channel RTL, they faced little pressure to reduce their stories to 140-word postings on something called “Twitter.” My dream ended as I returned to the studio at KFI-AM in Los Angeles, better informed and looking for ways to include this new knowledge in my newscasts back home…
Fortunately, it was still 2001 when I woke up. The reassuring presence of Rainer Hasters let me know that everything would be OK. The world would survive a terrorist attack and economic turmoil. The RIAS program would continue to symbolize the deep bond between Germany and the United States, despite the occasional tensions in our transatlantic friendship. And I would be back as a repeat participant with the RIAS program in 2010 to report on whatever the future may hold.
Christina Cone, MSNBC, New York, NY
The e-mail arrived in my inbox on the very last day of the trip. My anchor was going to Afghanistan. And thanks to RIAS, I had just been at the NATO headquarters learning all about the coalition efforts there, not to mention the willingness of coalition members to actually stay there. I immediately sent my anchor all my notes (on background of course), so she could travel to Kabul carrying the very latest knowledge about NATO’s position on the war. It was fantastic and timely information that I was able to use for the benefit of my news program, and it was information that I would never have known, were it not for RIAS.
While that may have been the timeliest benefit of the program, it was only one of many fascinating things I learned during my time in Germany and Brussels. It was an auspicious time to be visiting those two countries, given that the euro was potentially in trouble thanks to the recent financial meltdown in Greece (and Germany’s initial refusal to bail them out). I found it particularly illuminating in that context, to learn about the expansion efforts of the E.U. and the criteria by which they judge a country’s financial viability. Who is eligible to be part of the European Union? How big, is too big? Where do you draw the line at what constitutes “Europe?” The answer seemed to be — you don’t.
Brussels and Bonn were fascinating, but it was Berlin that provided me with the most profound experience of the trip. “The banality of evil” is a cliché for a reason, and nowhere on the program was that reason more clear than at the Stasi prison we visited in the former East Berlin. The rooms where first the Soviets, then the GDR tortured prisoners were horrifying; but it was the main Stasi prison that was truly chilling to me. The beds looked like beds in any hostel in the world, until you learned that prisoners had to sleep on their backs with their hands above the sheets and if they shifted position in their sleep, guards would wake them up immediately with bright lights and banging on the metal doors. The corridors looked like a public school, until you learned about the “traffic signals” on the ceiling, so guards could coordinate to make sure no prisoner even caught a glimpse of a fellow inmate. The offices looked like studies, until you learned that this is where they would interrogate prisoners for hours using information gathered from the inmates’ own friends, neighbors and family. And the guide seemed like an ordinary tour guide, until she nonchalantly informed us half way through the tour that she had been a prisoner in that very prison.
Elsewhere, I found meeting German journalists to be particularly interesting, not least because of the utopian descriptions of the working environment in Germany. Working only two weeks out of the month? Eight-hour days? Six weeks vacation? I’ve seen paradise, and its name is Germany! I work in the competitive and commercial arena of cable news, so it was illuminating to learn how popular public television is in Germany. The Tagesschau features a rotation of newsreaders, no anchors, and a graphics package that looked straight out of local American news circa 1998. And yet it is the number one news program in Germany. It begged the question of whether anything similar could ever work in the U.S., or whether the way we consume news over here is too culturally different. I was also particularly grateful to have the opportunity to meet Peter Kloeppel, anchor of the most popular private television channel in Germany. He was very gracious, spending over an hour with us, and answering our many questions about the differences between American and German commercial television.
Those are just the highlights: I would have to write a thesis to describe everything I personally and professionally got from my experience with RIAS. It was made all the more wonderful by my fellow “fellows,” an extremely talented, not to mention entertaining group of journalists. And I could not have asked for three more splendid hosts than Rainer, Lisa and Isabell, who went out of their way to make the RIAS fellowship truly memorable. I cannot thank them, and RIAS, enough.
Jo Dondis, KCET-TV, Studio City, CA
It’s funny what you worry about when embarking on an adventure. As I was getting ready to leave for Berlin I kept thinking about two things: I don’t like beer and I don’t like wurst. (Also, soccer isn’t my sport but fortunately I had little idea of how the World Cup would dominate the street scene where I was headed.) How was I to survive in Germany?
Those worries dissipated when I saw a photograph in Berlin. On June 13, 1936 a man thought to be one August Landmesser was frozen for all time in black and white at the Blohm & Voss shipyards in Hamburg. Herr Landmesser found himself standing next to a prim-looking woman wearing a hat bedecked with flowers. The occasion was the launching of a Navy training ship and Adolf Hitler had just spoken. During the singing of the Horst Wessel song, the crowd packed around Landmesser had saluted the Führer. Everyone had their arms raised — everyone except for August Landmesser who stood looking on with his arms folded. This photograph hangs in the Topography of Terror Museum, the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS. Who was this man who refused (or forgot?) to salute that day and what happened to him and his descendants? All of a sudden Germany seemed infinitely more complicated than food and drink.
Many of the Germans we met with during the RIAS program referred to the “dark shadow” dogging German history. That shadow is not only dark but also broad, encompassing as it does World War II, the Third Reich and 44 years of a divided Germany and the GDR. Perhaps the most vivid impression I took away with me has to do with history. Germans co-exist with their history in ways that Americans don’t — they treat it as something sentient and fresh — and they are conversant with their past in ways that Americans simply aren’t.
History in Germany colors not only the past but also the future: a counterterrorism expert in the Federal Ministry of the Interior responds to a question about Internet surveillance by observing that Germany must be very sensitive to invasion of privacy issues because of the Nazi experience; others refer to Angela Merkel’s current policy of fiscal austerity in the context of the “nasty experience” of hyper-inflation in 1923 and the rise of Hitler; a tour guide explains that the modern glass and steel Bundestag building along the River Spree is designed for physical and metaphorical transparency; a former Stasi prisoner and East German dissident gives tours of the notorious prison where she was detained presumably because what happened there should be remembered by future generations.
Institutional memory spills over into another issue that is front and center in German consciousness these days: immigration. The large number of Turks who made their way to Germany and now call it home have produced a second and third generation born and reared in Germany. There are tensions between Germans and those whom Germans call people “with an immigration background.” I was fascinated with this terminology because to my American melting pot ears it sounded rather politically incorrect. I asked several Germans to explain what this phrase meant thinking something had been lost in translation. The best explanation I heard came from Ariane, a RIAS German fellow and my “blind date” for dinner one night. We talked about it over drinks and then she later followed up in an email because she wanted me to clearly understand our conversation.
As she put it, “It is actually a real PC-administrative-kind-of-expression to make everybody understand that they are Germans.” Her email continued and elaborated that before this term was used people who didn’t look German or who didn’t speak German were referred to as second generation Turks or Kurds etc. There didn’t seem to be a word to express their status so officialdom coined this specific terminology and now a person with an immigration background is someone who is in fact German, was born in Germany but may have parents or grandparents who weren’t. All this of is hard for an American to understand because the gnawing underlying issue from an American perspective is what difference should it make? But in a country without a melting pot tradition and with a “dark shadow” in play apparently it does.
There were other things I found fascinating: Germany’s determination to go its own way on the economic front despite the pressures of the Obama administration, its multi-party parliamentary system and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin consisting of 2,711 plain gray stone slabs which according to a RIAS board member haven’t attracted a single instance of graffiti in a city filled with the stuff.
Overall, for me, the RIAS program was like being in a candy store with a huge stash of pocket money. We met with politicians, economists and journalists across the political and cultural spectrum. We could ask them anything — and did. I think in the end Germany reminded me of the United States in one very important way. The two countries are grappling with some similar issues. Both Germany and the U.S. face economic challenges, a diversity divide, a debate over an unpopular war in Afghanistan and a coming demographic storm as people live longer and pension and social security plans are strained to the breaking point. In an odd way I felt at home in Germany because of all this and before I knew it was cheering for Deutschland on the soccer field.
As for the beer and wurst — I tried German beer but I still don’t like beer. I skipped the sausage entirely and felt vindicated when Ariane and I met at an excellent Asian restaurant of her choosing and she whispered to me that most Germans don’t eat German food. August Landmesserr is still a mystery but I hope to return to Berlin someday to figure out who he is and why he publically refused to lift his arm 74 years ago — a period of time which by American standards may be ancient history but in Germany seems to constitute a mere blip on the timeline.
Robert Jamieson, ABC News, New York, NY
What I learned on my summer RIAS adventure
Looking at the Brandenburg Gate that first day in Berlin, glowing gold in the late afternoon sun, it struck me that in that scene was Germany’s past and present. And only one block north was the Reichstag, restored to be a symbol of the country’s future.
As a by-product of reunification, the Brandenburg Gate was scrubbed clean — probably cleaner than it has been since the beginning of the 20th century. But the marks of war would not go away. Lord Norman Foster’s design for the Reichstag emphasized openness and transparency, without ignoring the past in governing Germany’s future.
Three days later, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, amid images of World Cup play on big television sets installed on Pariser Platz, there was another view of the future. It came during lunch at restaurant Tucher with Peter Altmaier of the Christian Democratic Union. During a discussion of domestic and European political and economic issues there was a clear subtext. Germany no longer feels constrained by its past. It will now be more assertive internationally and more aggressive in is leadership of Europe. A mark of that maturity — for lack of a better word — is Germany’s willingness to criticize Israeli policy. Altmaier was an impressive and articulate spokesman for the Merkel government. His sophisticated English puts to shame many Americans who still see no need to learn, let alone master, a second language.
But there were two other issues that combine Germany’s past, present and future, which were absolutely compelling: Turkish residents, Germanys largest group of immigrants and the remaining stain of Stasi spying and repression.
Meetings with Tamer Ergün at Radyo Metropol, Özcan Mutlu, a member of the Berlin House of Representatives and Undersecretary for Integration and Migration Robin Schneider were both surprising and familiar to an American.
Radyo Metropol’s stunning 20% annual growth in listeners would seem to underscore Ergun’s statement that mainstream German media “Hardly addresses” the Turkish minority. That should argue against the strict regulation of Radyo Metropol that is making its expansion impossible. That sort of regulation is unknown today in the United States. Equally surprising is that even third generation Turks have only fair to poor German language skills.
What is familiar is Mutlu’s litany of high Turkish unemployment, crowded schools with poor test results and minority neighborhoods with high crime rates. Undersecretary Schneider’s belief that policy makers recognize the problems and are working to find solutions but that they are difficult to implement is also familiar. But it is not clear that politics and prejudice have prevented the enactment of more aggressive policies to help assimilate the three Turkish generations.
Time alone, however, will likely play an important part in lifting the Stasi shadow. Vera Lengsfeld stands outside the cell she once occupied at the former secret Stasi prison. She believes the abuses of the Ministry for State Security need to be remembered and studied. That is the main reason Ms. Lengsfeld takes time from her seat in the Bundestag to conduct tours of what is now the Hohenschönhausen Prison Memorial. Even though the tours revive memories of her own jailing and abuse “People have to learn, particularly the young,” she says. It was fascinating to watch this trim, determined woman who was one of those responsible for the end of the East German regime.
But in Berlin, Bonn, Cologne and elsewhere it is the tempo of life that seemed compelling this summer. The understandable obsession with the World Cup that spread across squares and pedestrian areas, especially the outdoor cafes would be an unlikely sight in most American cities. The optimism, particularly among young adults, even in the face of economic austerity, was a sharp contrast with the United States. And watching the Merkel government act to defend the Euro Zone despite voter opposition to joining the Greece rescue package was the kind of political courage almost unknown these days in the United States.
Attendance was impressive at both the Deutsche Welle Media Forum on global warming and the conference on the economic crisis and the Euro. More impressive, however, was the audience’s grasp of issues and the eagerness to discuss them, not the politics.
One reason for all of this may be the German media. It does not follow, but leads the internet unlike U.S. media. It has not embraced gossip, celebrity life, or “breathless blondes talking about missing blondes” as mainstream news. The shouting and political bent of 24 hour cable news seems an amusing oddity to German journalists. And surprise, surprise, the Germans cover foreign news.
Of great importance is the competitiveness and quality of Germany’s public networks and the continued dedication of both public and private networks to air news in prime time. What came first, this commitment or the corps of talented and committed journalists? Peter Kloeppel of private network RTL is symbolic. Germany’s most popular anchor, he is also President of the news division. He will not permit commercial breaks to interrupt RTL’s evening news. They come before and after.
The result is a more serious, informative — but still lively — television news product that may keep the public discourse on a higher plain than the United States.
During the 40th anniversary of D-Day in France, the private networks from a variety of countries operated out of a school in Bayeux. Touring the individual technical facilities several days before the anniversary a producer said she thought she saw national character in the way each country organized its own space. The Americans had much more space and equipment than they needed, the Japanese kept their doors closed at all times, the Germans carefully color coded and labeled hundreds of cables and stapled them neatly to plywood walls they erected especially for the purpose. Every cable on the floor was carefully covered and marked by warning signs so no one would trip. And the French? They threw everything on the floor under a haze of cigarette smoke and the din of constant disagreement.
Is all of what Germany’s broadcast media represents and accomplishes a reflection of national character, of Germany’s history, of shifting roles in the world? That I will leave to someone else to answer. But I know that after the RIAS Fellowship I have a deeper knowledge and understanding of Germany — as well as the loss of some common misperceptions — that will serve well what I write and broadcast in the future.
Mathew Katz, KDNK Radio, Carbondale, CO
Off-the-record was never something I expected. When pitching the RIAS Berlin Fellowship to my news director, I told him that I’d be able to bring our station interviews with high-profile officials and experts from across Europe. Turns out, not so much. Most of the people that we met ended up giving us conversations that were either completely off-the-record or on background. The first time that happened, I forlornly put away my microphone and was a bit upset.
That was until the end of our first session. I had never had a conversation with a public official that had been so candid, and that’s when I understood how much we had to gain by being in these off-the-record conversations. Speaking candidly with an official in charge of E.U. expansion gave me a much better understanding of how the union works, and where it’s going. Discussions with German politicians gave us an interestingly accurate, if politically incorrect, look at how Turks and other immigrants were accepting, and being accepting into, German culture and society. RIAS was able to set up these conversations, and if I had been shoving a microphone into everyone’s face, I’m sure we would have gotten a far less intriguing look at Germany and the E.U. as a whole.
But RIAS gave us more than the chance to have conversations with officials. Every night, we’d head out and meet dozens of Germans who were happy to talk about their lives, culture, and jobs over a few beers. I’ll never forget my ‘blind date’ with a German RIAS Fellow, who took me out to a German-food restaurant, then several bars, all while having a continuous, streaming, hours-long conversation comparing the life of a journalist in Berlin to one in Colorado. I know that I made a lifelong friend in him, and that night will forever linger in my head as one that was both enlightening and a ton of fun.
A big part of the payoff of RIAS was also in the journalists that I met along the trip. Coming from all different backgrounds, age groups, and parts of the country, we bonded in two weeks to form a tight-knit family. It was also a chance to see how other broadcast journalists works, since I’m mainly familiar with the dynamics of public radio — getting a glimpse into the world of cable news, for example, made me want to give it a try. In the months since the trip, I’ve stayed in regular contact with many of my fellow journalists, knowing that they’re not only great professional connections — they’re also amazing friends.
The RIAS Berlin fellowship was a life-changing experience that deserves the highest of recommendations. I’ve already encouraged many of my friends to apply, and my news director is about to head out on his RIAS trip in a couple of weeks. I can’t thank RIAS enough for everything that it’s given me, and cannot wait to be given the chance to host a German fellow — and also to return to Germany itself.
Gabriel Kinder, Fox News Channel, New York, NY
The downside to my job as a TV News Writer, is spending too much of my career inside a newsroom. I frequently have just minutes to find the heart of a story, and get it to air. That’s why I was so quick to jump at the opportunity to take part in the RIAS Program.
We were barely on the ground for a day before being ushered inside the Ministry of the Interior. It’s a place most Germans don’t get to see, and it was our first question and answer session. We expected the German government’s take on issues like the debt crisis, terrorism, and immigration… and that’s exactly what we got.
But we got plenty of other perspectives too. We spent days discussing policy with lawmakers, labor’s future with a union director, immigration with people at the center of the issue, and learned about German media from true broadcast professionals.
Our group came together quickly, and it showed in the Q&A sessions. We all came armed with sharp questions and expected honest answers. We often got them. Speakers like the CDU’s Peter Altmaier surprised us by not only offering his own personal views, but also breaking from his party’s official line.
But the RIAS trip was not just about politics. Germany is a country that can’t escape its history and is still coming to terms with it. It’s hard to travel through Berlin without passing a Holocaust memorial or monument. I have to admit, a highlight of the trip for me was dancing near the spot where Hitler died in his bunker.
I found it a little difficult to reconcile the divided city I grew up knowing from TV and movies, with modern day Berlin. 20 years after the Wall fell, you have to look hard to find signs of anything but a vibrant, unified Berlin with a style like no where else in the world.
I don’t want to make it sound like my fellowship took place entirely in conference rooms and museums. Berlin kept us busy with plenty to do outside of our itinerary. It seemed like every night we were finding new spots to watch World Cup matches. The tournament started the day I arrived, and the city literally exploded with Germany’s first goal. The excitement stretched all the way into the final round.
Without sounding sentimental, it was really the people who made this an amazing experience. Rainer, Isabell, and Lisa put together and amazing program and I was so glad to get to know them. I would travel anywhere in the world with the amazing group of journalists selected for this fellowship.
Anthony Knopps, WTVG, Toledo, OH
There are times in everyone’s life when reality exceeds your dreams, and that was certainly the case with me during the 2010 RIAS Summer program. As someone who comes from both a journalistic and a political background, the melding of these two fields during my two weeks in Europe was more than I could have asked for. To be at the Bundestag for the opening session, to meeting with top political leaders in Germany as well as those at the EU and NATO in Belgium, my two weeks in Europe were memorable.
As someone who had not yet had the pleasure of traveling to Europe, I was unsure of what to expect. Those concerns were quickly quieted upon meeting our group host, Rainer Hasters at the airport in Berlin. Rainer has a child-like pleasure when it comes to introducing foreign journalists to his culture and his people. I knew immediately we were in good hands for the next two weeks. His ability to shepherd our group of journalists from all over the United States and turn these individuals into a team was impressive to watch. It’s always a challenge to put 13 journalists who know each other into a group, let alone 13 journalists who had never met and brought such different life experiences to the journey. However, it worked and Rainer, Lisa and others deserve a great deal of that credit.
In addition to our exposure to the political world, we met the “Peter Jennings” of Germany, Peter Kloeppel. His insights into the German media world, including the challenges faced by public and private broadcasters were illuminating. It was a discussion that could have gone on for hours, and probably would have done so, had it not been for a looming broadcast.
Additionally, to have the opportunity to meet with and share a discussion with the Director General of Deutsche Welle, Erik Bettermann while aboard a boat on the Rhine was a highlight not to be overlooked. To get his opinions on the state of German culture, politics and the media was a special point of the trip.
Of course, a recap of my journey wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the underlying current of the entire visit, the World Cup. To be able to share the greatest spectacle in the world with others, both from the United States and from Germany, was priceless. Experiencing the cup at a “Beach Bar” just steps from Checkpoint Charlie was unforgettable, but celebrating a German win in the streets of Brussels was even more so.
For me, I feel like I’ve made a connection, not just with Rainer, but with my colleagues from the summer “Class of 2010.” Even more than two months removed from the program, I’m still in touch with several members of my group and I believe these will be friendships that will last a lifetime. There can be no greater praise for a program than this. I will, and I already have, heartily recommend this program to anyone in my circle of professional colleagues. I feel closer to Europe and its people than I ever thought possible and if a main goal of this program is to bridge the gap between Germany and the United States, it has succeeded beyond all expectations. I thank you for letting me be a part of this wonderful fraternity and I look forward to hosting my own RIAS fellows in the months ahead!
Michael Lipin, Voice of America, Washington, D.C.
The 2010 World Cup was a dominant theme of my RIAS experience from the outset. On the day I flew out of Washington to start the program, I managed a World Cup fan festival and public viewing event that drew thousands of people to Dupont Circle, a popular DC park. It was the first event of its kind in the U.S. capital and grew out of an idea that I created in March 2010. I pursued the project relentlessly in my spare time and recruited volunteers who overcome numerous obstacles to make it happen. After seeing the event come off smoothly, savoring the energy of the crowds, and enjoying the U.S. national team’s 1-1 draw with England, I rushed to Dulles airport to catch my flight to Europe.
The very next day, I found myself in the German capital, Berlin, for the first time. I had been to Germany twice before, but a long time ago, as a teenager in the mid-1990s, when I made brief visits to Munich and Trier. Also, in those earlier trips, I entered Germany as a foreigner. This time, I was arriving as a German citizen, with a passport to prove it. How was that possible? I was born in the United States to an Israeli mother and an American father whose own father was German. My father spent several years applying for German nationality under a German law that allows descendents of German Jews to reclaim the nationality that the Nazis took from them. In 2005, the application succeeded, and I became a German along with my father and three siblings.
Shortly after unpacking my bags at the Relexa Hotel in Berlin, my thoughts turned to what I could do with my Sunday evening. It was the night before the fellowship program was due to begin. I knew that Germany’s football team was scheduled to play its first match of the World Cup, and I wondered what would be a good venue to watch it. I soon remembered that Berlin was one of the few cities in the world hosting an official FIFA Fan Fest during the World Cup, and it became obvious to me where I should go. I hadn’t met the other RIAS fellows yet, but I called up as many as I could in their hotel rooms, and persuaded some to join me for the train journey to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium Plaza. There, we watched Germany thrash Australia 4-0 on huge outdoor screens with tens of thousands of German fans roaring their approval. I had just been at my own fan festival in Washington the previous day cheering for America, and here I was in Berlin a day later rooting for my newly-adopted country at an even bigger fan festival. I bought my first German flag at the plaza and wrapped myself in it. It seemed to be the perfect way to begin my adventure as a RIAS fellow in Europe.
In the following two weeks, I seemed to develop a reputation among the fellows and our RIAS hosts for being a cheerleader for the U.S. football team. I even got some friendly flak from several fellows who felt I was going too far by wearing and waving around my Uncle Sam hat, American bandana and flag on the days when the United States played its remaining first-round matches. But others shared my excitement and joined me at a Berlin beach bar to watch the U.S. team earn a dramatic come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Slovenia. We later gathered around a TV in the lobby of the Brussels Sofitel to see the United States get a last-minute winner against Algeria and earn a spot in the World Cup’s second round. Celebrating these results with other RIAS fellows was one of many highlights of my trip.
Other highlights included exploring the major sites of Berlin, Bonn, Cologne and Brussels with 12 other U.S.-based journalists whom I really enjoyed getting to know over the course of the fellowship. I am full of admiration also for our three RIAS hosts, Rainer, Lisa and Isabell. Their impeccable planning ensured that we got through our busy schedule of briefings, conferences and tours without a hitch. We also enjoyed their company as we sampled local cuisines and visited historic landmarks.
One of the most interesting landmarks for me was the Berlin Wall. I was fascinated by how the wall’s former route has been marked by a line of cobblestones that runs throughout the city, crossing streets at odd angles and running into buildings that were constructed after the barrier’s demise. It reinforced to me the injustice and impracticality of dividing a city in such a way.
Another landmark that made a lasting impression on me is the Stasi prison museum in east Berlin’s Hohenschönhausen neighborhood. I had never before been inside a prison facility in which inmates had been kept in such terrible conditions. At one point, our guide and former inmate Vera Lengsfeld asked me to step inside a tiny cell built into a wall in which a prisoner would have to stand for long periods. Its ceiling was low for someone as tall as me, and I had to bend my head down just to fit inside. It was even more chilling to see a Chinese water torture device and hear how it worked. I also entered a room in which a prisoner would be kept in the dark surrounded by circular walls that would leave the inmate disoriented. It was sobering to see the cruelty of the prison with my own eyes.
On a brighter note, I was dazzled by the grandeur of Cologne’s historic Cathedral and fascinated by the story of its seemingly never-ending construction, which lasted more than 600 years. I also was thrilled to make my first visit to Belgium, where I had the opportunity to visit two powerful institutions about which I write frequently for VOA: the European Commission and the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
I had hoped the RIAS program would provide me with enough interesting material to do some rare overseas reporting for VOA, and I was not disappointed. In the former West German capital, Bonn, I attended a climate change media forum whose organizers published a survey about global attitudes toward the phenomenon. As I looked for people to interview for a report on the topic, I came across an unusual but colorful expert: Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard. Just weeks after I spoke to him, he led a team that staged the world’s first manned solar-powered flight that lasted more than 24 hours. Piccard showed me a miniature version of the plane that he would use in the flight, and I was impressed.
Another interesting topic that came up frequently in my briefings with officials in Berlin was Germany’s challenge in integrating its 15 million immigrants and their descendents into German society. After returning to Washington, I filed a five-minute investigative report on the topic using sound bites and quotes from lawmakers and government officials at the federal and state level. In my report, I explained how Germany’s government was highlighting the multi-ethnic composition of Germany’s World Cup team as an example of how its integration program is working. But I also examined how many social gaps and tensions remain between immigrant communities and the country’s ethnic German majority.
My focus returned to the World Cup as I prepared to fly back to Washington from Brussels on the same day that the USA would battle Ghana for a place in the quarterfinals. As luck had it, the match would be taking place while I was flying over the Atlantic, and I couldn’t find a way to change my flight or follow the match while in the air. I resigned myself to waiting until I was back in the United States to find out what happened. As the plane began its descent into Dulles airport, the pilot switched on the public address system and said he wanted to tell people the final score. I braced myself. I heard him say “Ghana – 2,” and then after what seemed like an eternity, he continued with the words, “USA – 1.” I raised my hands to my head in shock, while the Ghanaian lady who, ironically, was sitting right next to me, cheered. As I walked off the plane and picked up my luggage, I felt pride for the U.S. team’s achievements, despite my disappointment with how its World Cup ended. Later, I remembered that I still had one team left in the tournament – Germany! Over the next two weeks, I cheered for the German team at a soccer bar in DC as it made an exciting run to third-place, and made some German friends in the process. And I have RIAS to thank for inspiring me to embrace my new German identity.
Anna Rhett Miller, CNN, Atlanta, GA
From the minute I arrived in Berlin and was greeted by Rainer smiling and holding up his RIAS Berlin sign, to the minute I left Tegel airport to head home, the trip was amazing. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be in Germany than during the World Cup. Driving through the streets of Berlin and passing all the historical monuments, one thing was constant and that was a German flag flying everywhere you looked. Regardless of where we traveled, excited German soccer fans surrounded us. Rainer explained to us that Germany’s outward display of national pride was a relatively new phenomenon that started with the World Cup in 2006. German society as a whole seemed to focus less on the past and more on the future and was not afraid to cheer for their country representing them on the international stage in South Africa.
As we ended our afternoon sessions everyday we had one thing on our minds — dinner and soccer games. Our RIAS group of journalists and soccer enthusiasts met in the lobby every night next to the hotel’s homemade World Cup scoreboard and decided on a restaurant based partly on the size of the TV inside. The energy in Berlin was contagious. One of our first nights in the city, we walked around, trying to stay safely off the bike path, and found a great outdoor restaurant with a giant TV screen playing that night’s matches. We followed the lead of our fellow German diners and cheered for our team of choice while eating schnitzel, warm potato salad, blutwurst and drinking a Pilsner. This was definitely a part of German culture I could get used to. On our commute home, it was fascinating to hop on the U-Bahn or nearest train station and talk to people of all ages who could tell you exactly what games were just played and how each team fared. It was fun to meet women the age of my grandmother who could tell you the final score of the match and who made the wining shot without blinking an eye. Using the public transportation system in Berlin was surprisingly easy to navigate and a great quick way to get around the city made better only by the fresh salami broetchen and pretzels sold in the food stands on the train platforms.
Our favorite spot to watch soccer was the beach bar down the street from the famous American and Western Allies checkpoint, Checkpoint Charlie. A short walk from the Relexa Hotel, our home away from home, the beach bar had a big screen for the soccer games, a lot filled with soft beach sand and comfy beach chairs and great food and drink booths. I followed the example of my fellow German soccer fans and enjoyed every game at the beach bar with a big helping of curry wurst mit pommes frites and a cold beer, sometimes followed by a crepe with Nutella. Eating and cheering with our fellow soccer fans, I really learned what a great culture Germany has. The German fans were friendly, enthusiastic and always ready to answer the frequent questions our group of American journalists had in English or in German.
Working in the news business, we are constantly inundated with various streams of information whether TV, online or radio so I was truly intrigued at the tradition that is the Tagesschau. The Tagesschau is a 15-minute newscast that airs at 8pm every night and according to all the politicians, TV personalities and speakers we met, it is a German family tradition that is as strong today as it was decades ago. When the program came on at the beach bar, promptly at 8pm, the whole place focused their attention on the TV screen and listened to the newscaster read off his stories. It was really interesting to hear the unchanged theme music and watch an anchor read the news using only hard copies of the script. I loved that while we Americans get caught up in the world of social media and cable television; the flagship nightly German newscast has remained unchanged for decades, yet is still a staple in German society.
Our trip to Brussels, Belgium also included the World Cup and our cheering for Germany. After throwing our suitcases in our rooms, we all packed into the lobby of the Sofitel and cheered on Germany with an excited Rainer and a very nervous Lisa all the while waving our Germany flags and banners. After Germany’s victory, Lisa took us on a victory walk through the Grand Plaza to get Belgium waffles with Nutella and strawberries and celebrate the win with the fans racing their cars down the street with German flags hanging out the side. We walked by the famous Manneken Pis and rubbed the statue of Everard’t Serclaes for good luck. Our trip to Brussels wasn’t complete without a night of mussels and frites and Belgian beer.
Leaving Berlin to fly back to Atlanta, I was truly sad about leaving such a great city but excited about everything I experienced on this trip. Rainer, Lisa and Isabell did a wonderful job of putting together our program, planning our schedule and truly making us feel at home while also ensuring we brought back a wealth of new knowledge about German culture, history and society. I can’t wait until I get the chance to go back and eat an authentic schnitzel with spaetzle and drink a Pilsner while trying not to get run over by Germans speeding down the bike path that we silly Americans seem to walk in. I already miss Berlin.
Lygia Navarro, Freelancer, Cincinnati, OH
Spending time in Berlin on the RIAS exchange, I found the city to be, like Germany itself, marked by contrasts: split between its complex relationship to the traumatic events of the past, and the bright present and future of which it is so proud.
Over a week of sightseeing and meetings with Bundestag members, city and national government officials, community leaders, and German journalists, our group saw and learned of aspects of Berlin’s history that German friends later told me they did not even know about. Much of the time, history is so omnipresent in Berlin that it finds you, but on the RIAS tour, we had the opportunity to see parts of the city’s, and country’s past which require more searching.
For many of us in the group, the highlight of our series of meetings in Berlin was the tour of the museum at the former Hohenschönhausen Prison, the main political prison of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Stasi. At the same time, I was reading a stunning post-Wall history of the Stasi, “Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall” (by Australian journalist Anna Funder). But reading about the cold, dark cells where prisoners were kept underground during the years of Soviet control of the prison, or about the drab interrogation rooms where prisoners were perched on wooden stools for hours upon end simply could not compare to seeing these chilling locations with my own eyes. Later, as a Berliner friend showed me around her neighborhood in the former East Berlin, I told her about the museum, which she had never heard of, and the most visceral sight of the tour: the dark padded cells where prisoners had been kept in solitary confinement, and where they had scratched into the thick foam walls notes and tallies of the days they were isolated from humanity.
The museum tour — which many Berliners do not know about because the museum is only open to tour groups — was all the more piercing because most tour guides were, in fact, former political prisoners of the Stasi regime. On the afternoon we visited, our tour guide was Vera Lengsfeld, a well-known democracy advocate in the GDR who served as a Bundestag member after the unification of the two Germanys. She had told the story of her capture, imprisonment and legal battle against the Stasi to many tour groups before. Yet, in telling our group about her experiences, all of us gathered in one of the interrogation rooms, there was a palpable anxiety in the air as she narrated her story and we waited tensely to hear how she had managed to get out of that horrendous place.
This human-to-human connection was what I found to be most engaging about the RIAS fellowship program. To switch from the past to the present, the opportunities to meet with journalists in Berlin, both in organized meetings at television stations and in one-on-one dinners with former German RIAS fellows, provided us American RIAS fellows with an enjoyable way to learn about contemporary issues in Berlin and Germany as a whole.
I found it particularly fascinating to hear about life as a journalist in Germany: the familiar anxieties around the future of the profession, but also about the availability of state-subsidized childcare and longer parental leaves which make working in a struggling, yet satisfying industry more feasible for journalists with families. As a freelancer too accustomed to the hassle of dealing with buying health insurance on the open market, I was pleasantly shocked at how easy, and relatively inexpensive, it was to go to the doctor in Berlin when I came down with bronchitis—and at how affordable health insurance is for Germans, both those who are employees and those who are self-employed.
Because our group was in Berlin during the World Cup finals this year, we saw the melding of Germany’s uneasy relationship with its past and the pride at its successful present. Although many Berliners expressed discomfort at seeing so many German soccer fans waving German flags in the street, the flags flew everywhere anyway: from cars, houses, and in the occasional mohawk wig in red, yellow and black.
Joseph Nugent, WTVG, Toledo, OH
First and foremost the fellowship was an unforgettable experience, each day a new topic, new people and new adventures. It was certainly more expansive and global than I expected. Plus it helped that many of the speakers were familiar with the states and could communicate with that perspective.
I found the German politicians, public servants and tour guides to be very professional and friendly. Peter Altmaier stands out with his charisma and ability to inhale a meal in just the few seconds between questions. He didn’t miss a beat either. I was very impressed with his description of Germany’s move to a greener environment, an area of business growth in Toledo. We are close to the forefront of solar power but after hearing Mr. Altmaier, it’s clear the United States has a long way to go, and that hopefully will benefit local business here in Northwest Ohio.
The second week in Bonn expanded on those ideas at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum. Minimizing our carbon foot print is important, and even if you live in the states where the only common green practice is recycling, you can still easily help out by planting trees and using less electricity. It’s very simple and easy. If everyone does just a little bit, the United States might be able to compete with Germany’s ability to produce 20% of its electricity from green sources.
On that front, Deutschland has clearly done a good job redefining itself following the 30’s and 40’s. You can tell the past still lingers but not in a bad way. I think it’s impressive there are original pieces that still stand 21 years after the Berlin Wall fell. The Topography of Terror is by far the best lesson on the Holocaust I’ve ever seen. Learning about it in a classroom doesn’t compare with the descriptions and photos that now sit on the former Gestapo Headquarters. The Stasi Prison was shocking, but the stories and torture that happened inside the Hohenschoenhausen Memorial haven’t led to embarrassment that ultimately could have closed the place down. It’s impressive that you can see and hear from a former prisoner, Vera Lengsfeld, and understand just how bad it was for the people that had the unfortunate fate of being at the guards’ mercy. Yes it’s ugly, it’s sad and wrong, but I feel like today’s Germans are willing to show what happened and at the same time essentially separate themselves from those terrible days.
And boy things have changed since the Cold War ended. Up until 1989 Hitler’s collapse had a direct influence on society. But now just 21 years removed from that, the German government is on its toes like Americans trying to fight terrorism. Germany has transitioned into a powerful country, which also makes it a target. We could sense the severity of the situation during our meeting with Mr. Dr. Hans-Georg Maassen, Director of the Counter Terrorism Department. He said there have been seven failed or prevented terrorists attacks in Germany since 2001 and he believes there are 125 people inside the borders who are willing to become active terrorists. Unfortunately, only a minority are under arrest.
Germany’s immigration policy isn’t making the fight on terrorism any easier but it’s clear the government stands by its position. Germany needs immigrants. The aging population does not bode well for the social programs. Therefore, the best possible solution is immigration integration. Radyo Metropol plays a role in that challenge. The radio station not only serves Turkish immigrants, but it’s also working with the government to educate the Turks about their new home and help bring them into a community of more than 80 million people. It’s also important to note Turkish immigrants aren’t a large threat like a few bad apples in the Islamic society. There’s still plenty to do on the integration side. Dr. Robin Schneider, from the city of Berlin, explained foreign unemployment is double that of the native Germans.
From American eyes, Germany in some ways is more advanced than the United States. I’m thinking of green energy and sleek domestic cars. In other ways it seems to be stuck in the 80’s. I’m referring to the television industry, which does a wonderful job of serving its viewers, although Germans and Americans have different tastes when it comes to national newscasts. An American watches a German show and probably sees 10 ways they can make it more interesting. On the flip side a German watches an American show and probably sees 10 ways to deliver a more intellectual message. The styles are different and the preparation is different. It almost seems ridiculous to cut video before writing a script to your video. But that’s the way it’s done at stations like ARD and RTL. Those two stations also represent two different backgrounds that naturally are far different than United States network television. RTL is a lot like abc. The majority of their revenue comes from advertising. ARD is a lot like PBS in the States. But the difference is ARD is a ratings monster in Germany, PBS is not. So not only is ARD playing ball at the top and making a lot of money, they’re also receiving a check from their viewers (Germans have to pay a monthly radio license fee of 18 euros) and that helps them buy big events like the World Cup. RTL could only afford a small portion of the games. RTL is also much younger but is building a formidable audience.
The Greek euro story has been on the news quite a bit. The AICGS conference in Berlin brought out some very interesting points. Barry Anderson, an American consultant, brought up the key point in my opinion. Germany is not in a situation where it can simply write a check and take care of this problem. Barry thinks the tough social system is preventing employers from firing under productive workers and that in turn is hurting Germany’s economic power. Germans, however, say it’s a fear of inflation and simply handing money over that concerns the voters. In Brussels we visited the European Union. They point out how the union helps trade within Europe and trade is another reason why it’s in Germany’s best interest to come to the aid of Greece. But it’s how that do it, that creates a strong debate.
Transparency is an important idea now among the German government. This of course refers back to a not so transparent time when Hitler was the Führer. The Paul Lobe House symbolize this with it’s see thru glass walls and transparent architecture. The government wants it citizens to know it is transparent.
And transparency is what this fellowship was all about. I come back with a vast new perspective on life in Europe. Even though we are thousands of miles apart it’s just one large see thru transparent body of water that separates the two continents. It doesn’t seem like all that much…
Faryl Ury, The Associated Press, Washington, D.C.
After Germany had just scored a winning goal during the World Cup, cheers erupted throughout the whole city. I was decked out in red, yellow, and black and waving my German flag with such gusto, I almost knocked out a fellow RIAS participant. I walked home on my own, still waving the flag as cars passed and honked. Suddenly, I was hit with shock and confusion. Was I, a person who had lost most of my family in the Holocaust, now cheering for Germany’s soccer team? After confusion, I felt pride. Pride that because of the RIAS Berlin Commission, I had been able to learn more about my past — to understand it, honor it, and to use the lessons I learned to move forward. My grandparents were born in Germany. My dad was born in England. I was born in South Florida. As a Jewish-American, I have a complicated relationship with Germany. Growing up, I heard stories of how my grandmother used her pretty blue eyes and blonde hair to flirt with German guards to help her family escape to England. I heard recounts of the concentration camps from relatives who still have numbers on their arms. Most importantly, I heard about Germany’s greatness — its rise as an economic power, the beauty of its rivers and mountains, and the country’s rich cultural achievements. I am grateful to RIAS for allowing me the opportunity to establish my own strong personal connections to Germany. I got to see firsthand where the Berlin Wall stood, to explore the cities my grandparents inhabited, and to speak directly to German people to understand the issues they care most about — everything from the declining birth rate to Turkish immigration issues. I also was able to research my family history during my extension time in Berlin. I shot a video story about my relative Else Ury, a famous German children’s book author who wrote the Nesthäkchen series. I took photos with the German street named after her and visited a library with her namesake, where the librarians told me how much her books had influenced their childhoods. I had a chance to see where she was deported to Auschwitz and also visited the graves of Ury family members who are buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. I now understand so much more about my German heritage and am proud that I am named with the initials, FWU in honor of my grandfather, Frederick William Ury, who was named after Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm. Thank you RIAS; I wish Rainer Hasters, Lisa Ziss, and Isabell Hoffmann could accompany me on every trip I go on!
Jack Zahora, NPR, Washington, D.C.
In 1999, Potsdamer Platz, an area in Berlin located in the district of Tiergarten, was home to the largest construction zone in Europe. For years, innumerable cranes suspended across the horizon over a mess of trucks and steel beams. The only glimpse of what the future held for this war-torn area, pounded heavily by the Allies in World War II, was in a nearby tourist center displaying models of the future landscape in glass cases. They looked liked crystal balls.
More than a decade later, I returned to Berlin on the RIAS fellowship, and I was desperately lost. I walked around for an hour searching for my hotel near Potsdamer Platz. I couldn’t be in the right place, I thought. The cranes were nowhere in sight. I approached a teenager on a skateboard. “Wo ist Potsdamer Platz?” I inquired. He shouted back in English, “You’re standing on it!”
After checking in at the hotel, I went straight away to my old student pub, the Rabu, in the district of Wilhelmshagen. There sat the same bartender, the same décor, even the same menu. But there were some differences: Everyone was so much younger — at least I thought so—and the relic of a telephone which cost me many Pfennige was now gone. It seems that everyone has a Handy.
I pulled up a seat, and sat down next to a reunion of my old classmates. We watched Germany decimate Australia in the World Cup—or rather, the WM for “Welt Meisterschaft.” Following the game we were greeted outside by a euphoric parade of automobiles wailing their horns, and people hanging out of their car windows wearing all sorts of black, red, and gold attire, singing German Futbol songs, and waving German flags.
The scene struck me as odd. When I lived in Germany, my classmates often commented to me about all the American flags they saw on their visits to the United States. You would never see that kind of display of nationalism in Germany, they said — save the flags flying over the unfinished Reichstag.
Much had changed in 10 years, apparently. As I looked over the post-game hoopla, one of my former classmates laughed at my confused expression and gently told me in a matter-of-fact way that “it was good to be German.” I shot back that maybe it was too good to be German with all these people dangling out of their car windows; the Polizei would surely arrest someone. Just then a police car whizzed by with sirens blaring; the officers popped out of their open windows, waving their flags proudly.
If it’s good to be German, the next impression I got was that it’s not great to be Turkish. Roughly 3.5 million people of Turkish ancestry live in Germany today, stemming from a large influx of Turkish immigrants in the 1960s.
I spoke with several German-Turk vendors selling Ditsch, a flat-bread pizza, in Berlin’s Alexander Platz. In addition to stories of discrimination and alienation, I heard them speak of lost identity. They told me how they felt stuck between two countries, belonging to neither. They said Germans didn’t accept them because they didn’t speak German perfectly and their dark skin color set them apart. At the same time, Turks back in Ankara and Istanbul would not accept them either, feeling that German-Turks don’t fit with Turkish culture. As a result, tight-knit ethnic groups have emerged among German-Turks, giving them a sense of belonging. But as German officials told me in the Bundestag, concentrations of German-Turks prevent people in those groups from assimilating into German society, making it difficult for them to get jobs and become fluent in German. The officials also told me that many Germans feel resentment toward the German-Turk population, causing German-Turk communities to close off even more, which has then created even more resentment.
This struggle in Germany today echoes America’s on-going struggle to accommodate and adapt to new populations and ethnic groups. As a journalist, it is fascinating to learn about the similarities between German and American cultures in this respect.
In fact, Germany is ripe with stories that Americans should know about. In Hamburg alone, energy giant Vattenfall is battling with the local Green Party over the building of Europe’s largest hydroelectric plant. And next door, a multi-billion euro symphony hall, the Elbe Philharmonic, is over budget and years past its construction deadline. Yet while Hamburg residents’ rhetoric is decidedly against the architects and politicians behind the project, they still speak with pride about the cultural icon being built in their own backyard.
And during the week I spent investigating these stories, I considered the description of life in Germany that an American reporter, now employed in Germany, told our RIAS group. He spoke of the joys of the country’s benefits package, pay and job security. And I left Europe thinking that I shouldn’t wait another ten years to come back.
RIAS Germany Program – Fall
September 25 — October 10, 2010
13 U.S. radio and TV producers and reporters participated in the RIAS fall program from September 25 to October 10, 2010. The program featured briefings with top-level German political business and media figures in Berlin, visiting Dresden, a visit to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Prague, Czech Republic, and meetings at EU and NATO in Brussels, Belgium. One highlight of the program were the festivities on the 20th anniversary day of German Unification on Sunday, October 3, 2010 which the participants witnessed in Berlin.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Jim Armstrong, WTXF, Fox 29, Philadelphia, PA
One of my favorite thoughts from the autumn of 2010:
“Am I really standing here, 12 feet away from German Chancellor Angela Merkel…who herself is seated right next to former Chancellor Helmut Kohl? Really? I’m here?”
“I’m glad the anti-stalking laws seem to be lax in Germany.” As if I needed any more proof about the incredible access and unparalleled learning opportunities offered by RIAS, there it was: I was an invited guest at the Reichstag party following Berlin’s official commemoration of the 20th anniversary of German reunification — a ceremony the RIAS Fellows got to see, by the way, from VIP seats two rows behind the American ambassador and his contingent. Just incredible.
My 2010 Fellowship was remarkably different than my visit seven years earlier. Part of the difference was simply due to the passage of time; the world has certainly changed in seven years. But much of the difference was thanks to the efforts of the always superb RIAS staff.
First: history. Seven years brought about quite a few changes in Germany and the world. During the summer of 2003, the topic that defined my RIAS experience was the U.S.-led war in Iraq which had begun just three months earlier. Relations between the Bush administration and the Gerhard Schröder-led German government were strained at best. I was pleased to discover that the attitude of average German citizens towards visiting Americans were not negatively affected; the people with whom I spoke readily acknowledged their displeasure of American foreign policy didn’t let that interfere with their feelings towards Americans themselves.
This time around the dominant topic was the state of the global economy, though concerns about domestic and international terrorism still played into our discussions. I was also grateful for the goodwill generated by the Obama administration (or at least the popularity of the president himself) that made me feel even more welcome than I did in 2003. Hearing how the German economy’s continued focus on industry helped insulate it from some of the catastrophic financial circumstances experienced by their European neighbors gave me pause as I considered the United States’ ongoing shift *away from* industry.
The issue of Turkish immigration (NOT assimilation, as we were reminded) is still on the front-burner. German Jews are still figuring out their roles in a 21st Century Germany. Relations between the former East Germany and West Germany seem to have improved with the passage of a few more years — thanks; it seems, to a rebirth of industry in the former GDR brought about by a heavily-subsidized green energy initiative.
Physically, Berlin was a renewed city. The billion-dollar train station speaks to the city’s eye on its future, while the brand new “Topography of Terror” and Holocaust Memorials remind a visitor that Germans are in no rush to forget their recent, terrible past. Even the Berlin Wall’s “East Side Gallery” had been refurbished — and now faces the monstrously large O2 World.
During my first visit to Germany, my attempt to visit the Volkswagen “transparent factory” in Dresden was foiled; the factory’s workers were on strike. All we could do was drive past the factory and smile — the striking employees had set up a ping-pong table along with grills and coolers, and seemed to be enjoying their protest just fine. This time around I had the chance to get inside the facility. I’ll be saving up for the rest of my career if I ever hope to buy one of the Phaetons that were being built.
In 2003, the Fellows had the chance to spend time at the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The few hours I spent there still generate the most vivid memories of that entire experience. In place of the camp during this trip was a no less emotional visit to a former Stasi prison camp. Both powerful encounters with the past will always be in my mind.
Next: the RIAS effort. While the list of topics covered remained recognizable from 2003 to 2010, the approach was fresh and invigorating. When the same issues were on the table, new speakers were introduced, we met at creative locations, or the format of discussion was shifted to take advantage of new opportunities. This speaks not just to changes in current events, but also to the incredible and ongoing efforts of RIAS staff to reinvent this program at every opportunity. (This is also probably to the benefit of Rainer and Lisa and Isabell so they don’t have to sit through the exact same briefings over and over again!)
We did more “official” exploration on foot and via the subways this time around, which I appreciated. And RIAS does such a great job allowing us private time to explore on our own, as well as sponsored cultural events like the opera. (I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the story of the striking musicians who protested their lack of a contract by delaying the show’s start by 30 minutes — and by handing out cookies before the show, personally apologizing to audience members for the inconvenience.) This time around, we ate at different restaurants, took new tours, stayed at different hotels, and took different day-trips; you can see why in some ways it feels like I took two distinct Fellowships to the same place.
The details differed, but my takeaway was no less impressive. I ended the Fellowship with a renewed interest in international affairs and more courage to pitch such stories to my producers. I would advise anyone who is able to maintain your relationship with RIAS and one day reapply to this Fellowship. It genuinely got better with time
Kevin Benz, News 8 Austin, Austin, TX
September 25, 2010 — 10 a.m. (5 p.m. Berlin)
Guten Morgen from Austin, Texas. This one is on my bucket list. My bags are packed and weighed… under 50 lbs. I’m sitting in the Austin airport waiting. Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, Prague, Brussels, and Brugge in 16 days with 12 colleagues. For my money (and in this case it’s not my money) this is the way a journalist needs to see and learn about Europe.
RTDNF and RIAS (it’s their money) have partnered on this U.S./ German journalist exchange program for over a decade, now it’s my turn to go. I’ll be blogging daily from Berlin as we meet with the German counter-terrorism director, visit a Stasi prison survivor, hear from the Turkish community about immigrant rights in Germany, see Dresden, Prague and finally visit NATO HQ and the E.U. in Brussels.
This is a real treat as we also get to celebrate the 20th anniversary of German reunification and, my favorite, the 200th celebration of the wedding of Prince Ludwig and Saxon Princess Therese, better known as Oktoberfest.
You see I’m from Milwaukee originally, and I like beer, so Oktoberfest is kind of a religious experience for me (I make no promises about the quality of late night blog posts) and we’re still researching if it’s also the anniversary of the “chicken dance” (that’s a Texas joke). Anyway, my wife Olga Campos (she’s an anchor at the ABC affiliate in Austin) and I will share this journey with anyone who cares to follow along (thanks Mom). Over the next two weeks I hope to bring you photos, videos, and musings about the trip. I hope it will be as interesting and educational for you as it will be for me.
A day at the Museum… September 26, 9:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m. Austin)
Does anybody really sleep on a plane? After 18 hours of flying we landed at a cool and rainy Berlin. Of course no one cares what the weather is like here except for us. You see rainy and cool weather calls for indoor activity… no biergarten today. Instead, a look at some of the most spectacular museums I’ve ever seen. On October 3rd Germany will officially commemorate German reunification, surprisingly it is not a well-promoted event. Instead, today you could not miss the Berlin Marathon! 20,000+ people running in the cold and the rain for over 26 miles. I don’t get it, but I respect it. They tell me it’s the largest world marathon outside of New York and London, a Kenyan won of course.
Anyway, the German History Museum is not to be missed. We were interested in how they would handle reporting WWI and the Holocaust and frankly they delivered on what I had hoped… a fair and self-critical look at what they called “mass-murder” and genocide. My reading in preparing for this trip suggests that Europeans, and frankly Germans themselves, are still distrusting of “Germany” and unwilling to take any chances by increasing their military capabilities. That’s fine except that they truly rely on U.S. military strength to keep Europe safe. That contrast is causing issues with social welfare and the larger European Union, more on that another day. After German History we saw the Ishtar Gate… the whole thing, the real thing, in the Pergamon Museum. Spectacular, that’s all I can say. The museum features several monstrously huge exhibits of the entrances of antiquity. Then on to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the key crossing between Soviet Communist East and American West Berlin. It was excellent context on the deeper meaning of what that place means to world history.
Speaking of reunification, it’s amazing to me how this country has moved on. Yes, there are pieces of “the wall” everywhere, and some very nice exhibits around the city, but traveling from former east to former west has no meaning any longer. I don’t get the impression your average German even thinks about it. Checkpoint Charlie is just another tourist attraction. The city has grown, east looks like west, the wall is down, all is right with the Germans. I wonder about it because that event, the wall, so defined three generations of Americans. The Wall was the very definition of the Cold War… now it’s a museum exhibit… let’s hope no one ever forgets what happened there.
Tomorrow we begin our formal program visiting Hans-Ulrich Klose, the coordinator for German-U.S. relations at the German Foreign Ministry… and maybe time for a Bier.
September 27, 2010. 11 p.m. Berlin (4 p.m. Austin)
Our day began in much the same place as modern Germany began. The site of Hitler’s bunker, the place he committed suicide, is now a parking lot marked by nothing more than a clothing donation box and a small sign put up just a few years ago. The Germans have no desire to turn Hitler, or WWII for that matter into a tourist attraction… memorial’s to victims however are everywhere. The most stunning being the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, coincidentally situated right next to the U.S. Embassy. It is a quiet and at once beautiful and somewhat uncomfortable place by design. Thousands of stella lined up along a rolling path.
And then there’s the Wall. The reminders in Berlin are everywhere and the city’s growth since November, 1989 has been stunning. Since 1990 over 5 billion euros have been spent by private investors along the “death strip” that marked the Wall. The largest investors being Daimler and Sony. Today the path of the wall is marked by a double cobblestone line along the street while new hotels and shopping centers tower over where it once stood. The old gray East Germany is now alive in color. In my mind, modern Germany began when it closed those chapters.
Dr. Hans-Ulrich Klose serves as the coordinator for German — U.S. relations. He strikes me as an extraordinarily adept politician and an honest straightforward advocate for his country. We spoke a great deal about the redistribution of power in the world since reunification in 1989. Germany chose to cash in on the “peace dividend’ at that time, moving strategically into a social welfare state while reducing spending on the military. That meant the United States became the default peace-keeper in Europe. Mr. Klose added that Germany had little choice in the matter. With reunification, the west took on a very poor, nearly bankrupt East Germany. Today, 20 years after reunification, Germany transfers 85 billion euros each year to the east in order to help keep that part of the country on its feet.
Mr. Klose spoke eloquently on many subjects. Regarding terrorism, he described the need for Islamic leaders to take some level of responsibility for reform of their religion in order to stop the radicalization of some of their young members. The country has established a joint German — Islamic Conference to develop a working base from which the organizations can work to affect change. Islam is the third leading religion in Germany and there is a great lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides, and he says, with current immigration trends leading more Muslims into Germany, knowledge will be the key to understanding. In an interesting aside, we spoke briefly about the U.S. coverage of possible Quran burning last month. Mr. Klose was quick to point out that German law would have shut that conversation down quickly. “When the exercise of one’s rights infringe on another, German law will not allow it”, a very interesting perspective.
Finally, we spoke about the chances of success for the European Union which faces significant economic challenges today. He pointed out that Winston Churchill first predicted the establishment of “the United States of Europe” in 1946 following the Second World War. Germany has 9 neighboring countries (the second most of any country in the world) and they all have different languages and different cultures. That makes for a difficult transition even on a small scale. However, he said he is optimistic. “If we can overcome in 100 years, what has gone on for one thousand years in Europe, that’s OK” he said. In other words, Europe’s history of intra-cultural conflict and ultra-nationalism cannot be changed in a short time. He has the patience to wait it out.
Tomorrow we speak to German counter-terrorism. While much of that conversation is agreed to be on background, I believe there will be pieces I can share. We will also meet with members of the Jewish community in Berlin.
September 28, 2010
Germany is no less concerned about terrorism than we are in the U.S. After all, Muhammad Atta, one of the 9/11 conspirators, lived in Germany for a time, and several high profile plots have been foiled there.
My group met with high ranking officials in German Counter-terrorism and while we were asked to keep the conversation off the record, there are some public issues worth mentioning.
We were specifically interested in the level of international cooperation going on. Our hosts were clear on this issue, international cooperation, they said, is the key to identifying terror suspects and foiling plots. They described a number of regular joint efforts and formal meetings that have helped keep the international community working toward the same goals.
There is one specific area of difference between the U.S. and Germany. The Germans see terrorism as a matter of public security and crime, dealt with by the Federal and local police… not as a military matter. Consequently, they do not use words like “War on terror” or “Cyber-war”. They talk about “crime”. Further, they say they have not seen any increase in anti-Islamic discrimination and in fact are working to develop better relationships with Islamic leaders. The Germans just completed and released a study meant to discover the reasons for the radicalization of Muslim young people. “De-radicalization” came up a number of times and German research suggests the focus should remain on young people, specifically young men, and efforts must be made to interact with them in schools and in their communities.
A discussion of terrorism in Germany naturally leads to a discussion of immigration and discrimination. Jews are one culture you might not connect to the modern Germany… my own ignorance assumed even a post-holocaust Germany would not be high on the list of great places to live as a Jew. I was wrong. The Jewish community in Berlin has nearly tripled since reunification in 1989 and while they are still a small group, they feel quite comfortable. In fact, they say they feel more comfortable in Germany than in most other European countries even though anti-semitism still exists.
Walking into the Berlin Jewish community center was as difficult as going through an airport. German Police are stationed permanently outside, you pass through an x-ray and magnetometer, and security is evident inside and out.
Jewish immigrants are mainly coming from Russia. While they may identify themselves culturally as Jews, they do not connect religiously. The atheism of Soviet Russia did a good job removing many of the Russian Jewish traditions. Further, while the German government is helping to fund a return to the traditional Jewish neighborhoods of the past, they are not making it easy for professionals… doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. to come to this country and practice their craft. Consequently, many immigrants are poor, and remain so.
Immigration has become a theme on this trip. What at one time was a pretty homogeneous German society has become a country and economy not just taking in immigrants, but needing them. This is a government with significant decisions to make, and Parliament begins meeting tomorrow. We were able to see the preparations in the Reichstag, lots of committee meetings happening now, and the set is being built for Berlin’s 20th Anniversary of Reunification celebration. More on these topics coming up!
September 29, 2010
Walking through Berlin, you cannot miss the pock-marks on every old building… bullet holes. This city was virtually destroyed in 1945 when Russian allied forces attacked Hitler’s Capital. Bullets and bombs rained down on this city and the scars exist on every building erected before 1945… those that are left anyway. It is not hard to imagine the block by block battle waged to end Hitler’s reign of terror. A reign the reaches deep into the German psyche today.
Since the Reunification, Germany now has the largest population in Europe, the largest economy, and the worst history… crimes against humanity that rocked the world. That history left a scar on every German citizen and to this day makes their European neighbors very uneasy.
Every person we’ve met formally has repeated this point. German history brings a pacifism which is healthy, but cannot continue if Germany is to grow. Its citizens are having the same trouble as its neighbors in accepting the German role once again as a world leader.
Still, like the rest of the world, Germany has economic issues, and Parliament, starting their legislative session today, must make some decisions. Reunification added an East German “economic wasteland” to the West German economy. Over $2 trillion has been spent since 1990 to help the East recover. Still 20 years later, more than $85 billion euros will be transferred from West to East this year.
We spent a couple of hours speaking with Mr. Peter Altmaier, the “Majority whip” for the ruling majority of Christian Democrats. He is one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closest advisors and he gave us some insight into this year’s parliamentary session. The themes are familiar to Americans:
- Reduce debt; Germany has not enjoyed a balanced budget since 1967, their budget debt is now 75% of their GNP.
- Social Welfare must be rebalanced in order to be sustainable. The Germans are quite proud of the care they provide for the citizens. They are having trouble affording it with an aging population. One quote from Mr. Altmaier struck me regarding their social welfare challenges. “Germany has many jobs available with no applicants AND an enormous number of unemployed.” The social welfare state makes it more desirable to live off the state than to go work. No country can afford that.
- Cope with Immigration and the integration of migrants. This is another theme we have heard repeated, and I’ll spend more time on it later.
- Answer the international challenges dealing with terrorism, political instability, illegal immigration, and the strength of European cooperation. European cooperation is still hit and miss and the European union is still described as “emerging” even 50 years later. Europeans agree they must bring their 27 countries together to speak with one voice, so far they are not part of the international conversation.
Our visit ended with this statement from Mr. Altmaier… “the United States enjoys unmatched political power due to its military superpower status. Being the last superpower on earth brings enormous responsibility.” That includes the responsibility to protect its friends and help them “show and defend our western values.” That strikes me as an important statement to keep in mind.
October 1 — German Immigration
Under the blanket of Reunification lies a growing challenge in Germany that in many ways is shared by the United States… immigration. A few decades ago the German government invited Turks to come live on a guest worker program; Turkey had workers, Germany needed them. The German plan was to have the workers for awhile and then allow them to return to Turkey. Except they stayed, despite a 20 year moratorium on Turkish immigration in the 1970’s and 80’s. 50 years later, with Germany’s population aging and shrinking, they need the workers again. But there is growing discontent in this country and the government is trying to figure out how to better integrate the Turks into the German population.
There are now 2.8 million Turks in Germany, a country of 85 million people. The problem is magnified when you consider the Turks are Muslims. While no Turk has ever been connected to terrorism, they are quick to point that out, Muslims do not enjoy any less discrimination in Germany than they face in the United States.
To understand the German point of view, an American must also remember the differing backgrounds of Germans and Americans. There is no such thing as an “ethnic American” (besides perhaps the native tribes). The German people on the other hand do identify with a common ethnic culture and it bears no resemblance to the Turks. The United States began as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic stew of people with common beliefs, as opposed to a common ethnic culture. Americans may identify themselves as “Mexican-American”, “African-American”, “Italian-American” and so on… there is no “Turkish-German”.
When you talk to Germans about immigration, the word you hear most often is “integration”. Germans would like the Turks to be, well… more German. They talk about the Turks needing to speak German and get their children educated; as many as 25% of Turkish children never complete high school.
The Turks on the other hand speak of avoiding “assimilation”. They say they are indeed learning the language and the number of high school drop-outs is falling. They fear assimilation would mean losing their culture and their religion and watching their children get lost into mainstream German society.
There is a strong Turkish community in Berlin, it’s called Little Istanbul. There are several Mosques around town and many outstanding restaurants. What the Turks want is to be considered equals, and they are not right now. They are working within their Mosques to keep any hate speech… anti-western radicalization, out. But they would like the German government to officially recognize the Islamic faith. So far the German government has not, leaving 4 million German Muslims without the financial benefits received by Catholic and Protestant churches.
The one marked contrast I see between the German and American immigration discussion is the tone. The German government seems to understand that good immigration policy involves integrating immigrants onto society. Turks simply want to make sure they are able to remain Turks as well as be Germans.
October 3 — Reichstag Fireworks
Today marked the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany. October 3rd, 1990… the Wall was down, and Germany became a single sovereign state again. The date marked the end of the horror going as far back to 1933, a chance to begin anew. One journalist described Germans now as having a “peace gene”. A genetic need to maintain peace and avoid the terrible costs of war. Few in the world know the price of war as accutely as the Germans. Unfortunately, reunification was, and still is, not all that easy.
Still, today was a day of celebration. I had the privilege of attending the official Anniversary event at the Reichstag, the parliamentary headquarters of Germany. It featured songs and fireworks, yet the most moving moment came when Helmut Kohl was introduced. He served as German Chancellor in 1990 and was one of the architects of reunification. On this night, the emotion showed on his face, and the crowd’s standing ovation when introduced lasted for several minutes.
The Germans are still working their way through the challenges of rebuilding one country from two. In 1990 the West arrogantly assumed they knew best. Communism of course was bad, and the West was good. Today, unemployment is at 13% in former East Germany, double that in the West and 20% of East Germans are on full welfare, also double that in the West. The West is paying for the East still, to the tune of 85 billion Euros this year alone. But that Western arrogance ignored some basic facts about life in the East. The East German de-industrialization not only destroyed the remnants of communist industry, it also ripped apart the fabric of East German society which was built around the state and around the company one worked for.
Today, 20 years later, there is some nostalgia from East Germans for the old ways. They had a better child care system, the educational system worked well, and they enjoyed a different social structure. Make no mistake, no one wishes for the old communist regime, but there were some things that worked, and the West is now beginning to consider them.
Today’s celebration focused on courage. Remembering a week in which 16 million people took history into their own hands. Germany is a country which has done a good job facing its own failure and coming to terms with it. Germany is a country ready to use its own “peace gene’ while taking a larger place at the international table.
October 4 — Prague, Czech Republic, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
If you want to become motivated to craft great journalism, if you want to see how dedicated journalists put their lives on the line to tell the truth to their listeners and readers, a visit to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty will do it. I am in awe of the hard dedicated work these journalists do.
I had heard of RFERL and thought I knew their purpose of course… to sell the world on American values right? They were probably run by the CIA and they are probably no longer around since the fall of European communism… wrong, wrong, and wrong. My visit to the new Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty building in Prague taught me some lessons.
Yes, RFE was started by the CIA back in 1950, mostly to send American information into the Soviet bloc. Radio Liberty started 3 years later broadcasting into the U.S.SR. This year they celebrate their 60th Anniversary.
RFERL is NOT run by the CIA any longer, rather, they are funded and run by a U.S. Board of Governors that by design cannot dictate editorial policy. Jay Tolson is News Director for RFERL, he says the journalists pride themselves in their independence and easily state their goal simply as “to provide uncensored news to those living in countries without a free press.” At a time when news organizations are pulling out of foreign bureaus, and as central Asia’s media become even les free, RFERL provides a model for how a free press can function in a country that is not free. That function does advance western and American values, primarily the right to a free press.
Today RFERL employs 2000 journalists in 21 countries and 28 languages throughout Central Asia. The work is clearly dangerous, for example 17 journalists have been killed in Russia since Putin took office. These journalists put their lives on the line in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. They use contacts in-country, via snail mail, social media, e-mail, even a 1-800 number allowing citizens to contact RFERL journalists without the danger of being tracked down by secret police.
I could go on and on, but I cannot express the admiration I hold for these journalists. They work in the worst conditions, with secret police constantly on their trail. They do it because they know their readers and listeners have the right to know what is happening in their part of the world, and in so doing, they make the world a better place, one story at a time.
October 7 — Brussels, Belgium , The European Union
Brussels is an amazing city. Once again, some unbelievably old buildings, yes Europe is full of those. I can personally vouch for the greatness of the Belgian waffle and Belgian chocolate. Brussels is the seat of government for Belgium of course, but also for the E.U.
The European Union is a riddle to me and while I think I understand it better today than yesterday, I’m not sure I could adequately explain it. It is not the United States of Europe that’s for sure. The E.U. nations agreed to use the Euro as their currency, (except for those that don’t), and they decided to open their borders (except for those that didn’t), and they provide some common defense (except for those who have no military to contribute). Isn’t that easy?
A skeptic might suggest the E.U. is one of the great bureaucracies ever conceived. The government fills huge buildings in Brussels employing tens of thousands of people. But it’s not that. It’s really best described as an extraordinary effort to integrate Europe economically in order to integrate Europe politically… a huge “peace project”.
Keep in mind, these are 28 countries, most of which speak different languages, had different currencies, and warred with each other for over 1000 years. Anything that gets these folks sitting at the same table talking is probably a good thing.
Today, Europe represents 20% of all global trade, and they are the world’s largest aid donor around the world. They give out more than 3 times the amount of development aid given by the U.S. (which comes in second).
The E.U. turns Europe into a global player, with 500 million people giving out aid, trading around the world, and yet they remain a virtual political dwarf. I suppose there are many reasons for this but I believe a significant one is their lack of a common military. Frankly, E.U. people get pretty defensive when you ask them about why there is no E.U. military. Here’s the answer I got when I asked… the member states are responsible for their own military. The total amount of defense spending by member E.U. states is about $370 billon. The U.S. spends $400 billion alone. It’s easy to not worry about military spending when you are the friend of the biggest, baddest kid on the block.
To this the Europeans react in a thought-provoking way. Remember, the Germans do not think of terrorism as a military issue, but as an internal criminal issue, and they say, “terrorism will not end with a military solution, rather it will only end with a political solution.” There’s an old saying “Europeans talk but never act, Americans act but never talk.” It’s criticism worth considering I think.
October 8 — NATO and journalism in Afghanistan
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when driving up to NATO headquarters in Brussels. We were met with barbed wire and armed security in black fatigues and body armor. The place is pretty locked down particularly now in the midst of the European terror threats.
Getting in is pretty much like going through an airport security line, except they keep your stuff until you leave. Anything with a camera stays with security. No pictures here.
Once we got in though, the conversation picked up. Again, much of the conversation was agreed to be on background and not for attribution. We agree to this because the conversation and the context become so much richer.
NATO, that age-old relic of the cold war is changing, because the world has changed. While NATO’s article 5 — “an attack on one is an attack on all” — remains the core of the NATO alliance, there are no troops lined up at the European border ready to march in. The threats are different now… global terrorism, cyber-attacks, piracy, and the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and people.
Next week in Lisbon, the NATO countries will hold a summit and I expect to hear of news being made. The agenda includes:
- Afghanistan (gee, there’s a surprise).
- Discussions on improving crisis management by anticipating global crises better.
- Dealing with the new threats listed above by improving political partnerships. I quote, “you can apply enormous muscle to a problem, but problems are only permanently solved using politics.”
- And there may be an announcement regarding the missile defense shield. There is apparently some discussion about making it a NATO mission rather than an American defense project.
Afghanistan obviously continues to be the main issue for NATO. It’s easy for us in the U.S. to forget that the war in Afghanistan is a NATO war, not an American war. The troops there are NATO troops, sent by individual countries but under the common command of General Petreaus, working for NATO.
While that may sound like a semantic issue to us on the west side of the Atlantic considering we have 90% of the troops in country, it is a very important differentiation for the European countries; they have skin in the game so to speak. We know many countries have soldiers there, and most countries have lost soldiers there, but I was surprised to learn for instance that Japan pays for all of the Afghan police being trained. I didn’t know that. So Japan cares a lot about the transitional plan too.
Chris Riley works in the Public Diplomacy division at NATO and he knows Afghanistan. He’s former U.K. military, and he’s spent a lot of time in Central Asia. He can rattle off the names of regions and villages in Afghanistan with more confidence than I can name state capitals in the U.S. There are not many people who understand Afghanistan like Chris does.
When he speaks of the conflict, there is a confidence in his voice that comes from his understanding of the region. He, like so many smart folks I spoke to, repeated the line we too often miss… “success in Afghanistan must be measured politically, not by the military.” We will not fight our way to victory by removing all of the Taliban. Rather, Riley suggests our goal is to stabilize the political environment in Afghanistan, and that means creating ways for vastly different tribes of people in far away places to work together.
Journalism in Afghanistan
As a public diplomat, Riley also has unique perspective on the journalism being produced in Afghanistan. He is quite supportive of the journalistic mission there and I had to push him for some critical thoughts about how the world press is doing on that very complicated story.
It is worth reflecting on the summary he gave me. Riley understands the unique financial pressures journalism is under today and he sees the American press working hard to overcome those pressures. He says U.S. coverage has improved over the last 6 months with the return of some veteran journalists and after the transition in Iraq.
His advice to us goes like this… he understands our need for drama in our story-telling, and our need to get pictures of “things that go BANG”. Personal stories of soldiers in the field are compelling and need to be told. That’s the “security story” everyone wants to tell. But, the political story is the harder story and, he says, an under-told and probably more important story if we are to help our community understand the context of the transition coming in July, 2011.
He used this example… how often do we see a story showing some open market place in some city or village? The open market he says is just the start of the story. Journalists must also look at the quality of the products being sold and how they are being purchased. The story is not “the market is open”, the story is “look at the high quality and richness of the products being offered.” The market is rich with products and people are shopping again because the roads are open and safe. That story tells a security story, wrapped inside a political story.
I think there are lessons for local journalism here too. We should take the time to analyze our war coverage, even if it’s taken just off the wires and national feeds. Are we simply reporting the “things that go BANG” or are we trying to add context through research, the “richness of the market”, to our stories on Afghanistan? Over the next transitional year it will be important to tell the story well, with as much context as we can.
October 10 — What Europe does right
- Belgian waffles. OMG: As famous as they are, they are still under-rated. Wow is all I can say
- German soft pretzels. OMG: Great warm or cold… just use care, they look down on you if you eat them with mustard.
- History: There is a lot of very old stuff in Europe… you can really reflect while looking at a building put up before anyone even knew there was a “New World” out there. In particular, the Germans have some pretty dark history to say the least. They deserve credit for facing it, acknowledging it, and memorializing it to make sure it never happens again. The Germans now have what they describe as a “peace gene”, and they are very much for anything that brings people or nations together.
- The Environment: Europe is running laps around the U.S. on this issue. Over the course of 2 weeks there I never saw an incandescent light bulb. They are all fluorescent. Nearly every small room has an auto-shut off device which senses movement in the room to turn lights on and off automatically… this can be dicey in a bathroom (I know TMI). Some hotels have a switch into which you must insert your room key in order to turn on the lights. It forces you to turn off the lights when you leave the room (if of course you need to take your key).Germany is a leader in renewable energy, particularly solar. Most of the buildings we saw, even homes, have solar panels. This is made easier due to the generous rebates given by the government and the payments made by energy companies which will buy the solar power produced… and Germany is a cloudy country! And Europe recycles. There are recycling containers everywhere, in the parks, on street corners, everywhere.
- ) Their view of America: I wondered what to expect from Europeans, Germans specifically, on this topic. You’ve read as I have the stories about how the Europeans disliked George W. Bush, how they love Obama, how they feel America is an “act first talk later” bully. It’s true, they say all of those things, but Europeans are very different from Americans in one important way, they can easily distinguish the difference between the people in government and the government’s actions, from what the country stands for.
There were several examples of this attitude but one really stays top of mind for me and taught me so much. We were speaking to Valentin Gescher, the E.U.’s United States and Canada specialist in the “External Relations” unit. We were critically discussing U.S. military spending and the Iraq war in the context of budget deficits as compared to Europe. He said this, “Never forget, America is a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. Your government structure is a model for others to emulate, your promise of human freedom is a promise to all the world. Europeans understand and remember what the U.S. did for us in the 20th century, and we know the difference between that and whoever is in charge at the moment.”
It seems to me there are many Americans who need to hear that statement. Even in a polarized political atmosphere, America stands for freedom in the world. Being the world’s last great superpower brings with it enormous responsibility. I’ll choose to be a “beacon of hope” any day and I hope my journalism will reflect it.
Olga Campos Benz, KVUE-TV, Austin, TX
A Witness to world History
My recent RIAS sponsored Fellowship went far beyond showing me the sights of Germany. Instead it provided me with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to WITNESS WORLD HISTORY and to become a better, more informed and interactive WORLD CITIZEN!
It’s one thing to lung around bags and cameras, stop to snap photos and snatch-up souvenirs at every tourist attraction listed in a handy Guide Book. It’s quite another thing to walk locations where history unfolded over centuries; meet key leaders who are helping to formulate the world’s future; and to take part in the conversations that bring into focus the world’s shared issues.
The RIAS staff members are experts at putting together an interesting itinerary that included a week stay in Berlin, trips to Potsdam and Dresden, Prague and Brussels. Yes, there were castles, monuments, town squares, shopping and great restaurants, but this was NOT a typical tourist trip. Instead we had busy days filled with meetings with key Media, Government, Cultural and Historical experts.
The highlights of my recent RIAS sponsored Fellowship included:
- Meeting with the Director of Germany’s Department of Counterterrorism (this during the week that the U.S. issued an alert for Americans traveling in Europe!);
- A tour of the Reichstag where the German Parliament convenes;
- A tour of a former Stasi prison now known as the Hohenschönhausen Memorial where our tour guide was a former prisoner who spent 10 months in grueling conditions;
- A tour of the 2nd Public German TV station (later my husband and I had dinner in the home of one of the political reporter and her husband, who is also a photojournalist);
- A daylong briefing by staff members of the European Commission in Brussels;
- A tour and briefing with reps of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) also in Brussels;
- A tour of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Prague;
- And a tour of the German Embassy in Prague.
Most memorable was walking the streets of Berlin and experiencing the remnants of “The Wall” that once separated East and West Germany. I am honored to have met with and spoken to Berliners who are facing the challenges of a still divided nation as it celebrates 20-years of reunification.
Much progress has been made toward the shared goal of unity and healing. However, some resentment, feelings of unfairness and guilt remain and must be overcome if the healing, unifying process is to succeed. I believe sharing the process in open dialogue with American journalists helps push the goal forward.
The United States is credited with boosting reunification efforts and so it is fitting to have been invited to witness a Reunification Celebration staged outside the Reichstag. It was complete with music, dance performances, fireworks and a private reception afterward. Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl were both in attendance.
Each of my highlights mentioned was an incredible experience because it provided an excellent glimpse into the rich history of Germany and insight into how much has changed and how much still remains to change since the Reunification of East and West Germany 20 years ago.
But just as exciting as it was to meet dignitaries — it was also meaningful to talk to citizens who represent the minority Turkish and Jewish communities. These individuals provided me with insight into how Germany is handling growing anti-minority sentiment — not much different than what many Muslims and Hispanics are experiencing here in the U.S.. And while Germany is celebrating the 20 anniversary of the Berlin Wall being torn down; some in the U.S. are calling for barriers to be erected and divisions to be upheld. I learned tolerance is a fragile and sometimes fleeting concept, even in a country once terrorized by the Nazis.
Reminders of Nazi and former Soviet Union domination are everywhere including at the Holocaust Memorial, various sites where there are remnants of the Wall and even a popular tourist attraction known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. The old military guard shack still marks the site of the last safe Allied Forces crossing. The nearby “Checkpoint Charlie” Museum pays tribute to the men and women who risked their lives attempting to cross from East into West Berlin. Some, of course, died trying.
The goal of the RIAS Fellowship Program is to establish a true exchange between the United States and Germany. Each year a group of German journalists are also chosen to visit America. It’s hoped each participant will come away with a better understanding of the host nation: its people, and history.
All in all, it was a remarkable experience that makes me proud to be an American and thankful to have chosen a career as a journalist.
It is humbling to tour the international media headquarters of Radio Free Europe with its 35 million listeners in 21 countries and in 28 languages. Their daily news broadcasts on TV, radio and the web are presented despite crackdowns and opposition by governments in some areas of the world including North Korea, Pakistan and Iraq.
In conclusion, I returned from my participation in this Fellowship program with a greater respect for my colleagues in Germany and in Prague. It also provided me with a renewed sense of dedication and appreciation for my job and career here at KVUE in Austin, Texas, U.S.A.
Now, I am anxious to host German journalists who will someday travel to the U.S. It will be fun to show off the rich history and culture of the Lone Star State; to outfit them in cowboy boots and a hat, and to teach them how to say, “Howdy ya’ll!.”
After all, I am a WORLD CITIZEN who has WITNESSED WORLD HISTORY and I am eager to do my part to share that experience with others!
Walter Dean, University of Missouri, Washington, DC
In the best tradition of journalism, the two-week RIAS program was both broad and deep. While far from the definitive story of reunification and redemption from the horrors of Hitler and the Holocaust, the program consciously provided a wide variety of experiences and expertise from which one can begin to form a picture. In my mind, that image is still unclear because, as I discovered, Germany is a very complex place.
I’m pleased to say that I came away with far more questions than answers — issues, events, or people now the subject of further “reporting.” Among those topics are:
The history and impact of RIAS
I did not know and certainly did not appreciate the role RIAS, “Radio in the American Sector,” played in the 50 years following the collapse of Berlin and the partitioning of Germany at the end of World War Two. While not the “free press” we might reflexively hope for, RIAS is perhaps an appropriate model of an “interim” journalistic entity to provide information people need to make decisions about their daily lives, government, and future while a more independent commercial media is being grown.
The role of Germany’s mainstream media in the Nazi’s rise and rule
We take it for granted that a strong, independent “press” will be part of the checks and balances that deter authoritarianism. Yet that did not happen as Hitler consolidated and then exercised power. How and why was the German press co-op-ed? Was it because the Nazis were so skillful in manipulating public opinion or because of the culture or other foundations common to German journalism at the time? Or was it something else? I suspect there are important lessons here.
The role of the Stasi, the East German Ministry of State Security
Employing as many as 200,000 citizen informants and perhaps many more, the Stasi reached into the lives of virtually everyone in the former German Democratic Republic. It’s estimated that 1 of every 166 GDR citizens was a paid informer. How was this possible that neighbors, and even relatives, could be compelled to report on each other? How was the information used and what effects — both good and bad — did this blanket of distrust have on the national consciousness of the East? The first book I opened after returning from the RIAS trip was Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. It’s a good read.
The Allied bombing of Dresden
The urban area, as we saw, has grown anew following the destruction of Allied bombing. Much of the city center, meantime, has more recently been rebuilt using what could be salvaged from a huge amount of rubble that remained untouched for the almost 50 years after the war. A great deal of the old city’s Baroque architecture has been rebuilt and is marked by the dark and lighter (old original and new) stone that form checker-board like patterns on the building facades. In February, 1945, near the end of the war, 1,300 U.S. and British bombers dropped almost 4-thousand tons of munitions and incendiary devices on the city, causing a firestorm that destroyed 15 square miles and killed an estimated 25,000 people. Though Dresden was not insignificant, neither was it typical of a strategic military target. Why did we do it?
The Holocaust and never forgetting
I have twice before visited Germany but only during this, my first trip to Berlin, did I see the concerted effort to institutionalize through memorials and exhibits the shared national guilt and deep remorse that is Germany’s great national burden. There was so much of it, so prominent, in so many public places I was struck most by the relative absence of this memory in other parts of the country I’ve seen. This is interesting and the answer I got, that “Berlin was the capitol and the seat of power,” is unsatisfying.
The new NATO
I remember when NATO was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and existed to protect free Europe from the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Wall, the name is the same but the organization has morphed into something altogether different. No doubt for the convenience of the United States, NATO is now “fronting” the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This is an organization to keep an eye on, if for no other reason that its use by the U.S. as a tool to engage our allies and friends in a war that is primarily of our making.
The new Germany
The challenges of reunification are fascinating. I simply had no idea. Though I reveled in walking Karl Marx Boulevard, the former showplace of GDR strength and progress, not all that followed the end of Communism has been good for former East Germans, at least as they see it. Despite Germany’s economic and commercial success, the country is far from monolithic and is in many ways more like the United States in that regard than many other places.
Germans and journalists
This trip was proof, once again, that journalists and Germans are among the most interesting people in the world. They take their work seriously, are usually friendly folks with a well-developed sense of irony-informed humor, and are intensely interested in other people and events. Plus, they ask good questions and enjoy drinking good beer. No question about it.
Marie Doezema, Freelancer, San Francisco, CA
Two months after the RIAS Fellowship, I’m still digesting the trip, realizing the impact of the multitude of places, people and experiences. Looking back, the trip seems one of many contrasts; not just of places — Berlin, Prague and Brussels — but of impressions, both dark and light, heavy and inspiring.
One of the most powerful parts of our Berlin time was a visit to the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the former Stasi prison. The morning we visited was cold, one of the first days of autumn when breath was visible. The weather made the basement cells of the prison harsher. Our guide, Hans-Eberhard Zahn, was a former prisoner, a psychology student arrested in his twenties and imprisoned, put away like “an object in a cupboard.” He took us to his former cell, small and dank, and described how he had recited anything he could remember to keep his mind sharp, sane, during hours of solitary confinement. Differential equations and Shakespeare helped save his life, he told us.
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet XLIII
After the prison, lunch at Mercan, a Turkish restaurant in Kreuzberg. A contrast to the prison in every way: instead of gray and cold, vibrance and warmth. Savory stews spooned from communal dishes, bread broken together in shafts of sunlight coming through colored glass.
Another day, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference. Walking through the grandiose palace, reading about the horrific plotting that had taken place, acknowledging the capacity for humankind do horrific things with great precision and efficiency.
That evening, a dance performance at the Chamäleon Theater, another contrast. This time, a lesson in what humans can do with great strength, calculation and creativity for the sake of beauty. It is possible to walk upside down and fly through the sky, dancers in Versus proved, accompanied by the haunting music of Antony and the Johnsons.
Forgive me, Let live me
Set my spirit free
Losing, it comes in a cold wave
Of guilt and shame all over me
Child has arrived in the darkness
The hollow triumph of a tree
— Antony and the Johnsons, “Man is the Baby”
One rainy afternoon, a visit to the New Synagogue. The golden elegance of the building, the heavy security upon entering. On the top floor, an exhibit by Aliza Auerbach. Family portraits of holocaust survivors. An 87-year-old woman, Shulamit Catane, encircled by her 140 great-grandchildren, 81 grandchildren, and 11 children. Another testament to human survival, the tenacity of the spirit.
Walking through modern-day Berlin, signs of the past are everywhere, from segments of the wall still standing to crosses along the river commemorating those who died trying to flee from East to West. The city is heavy, saturated with history and memory, tragedy and perseverance. There is the Topography of Terror, an exhibit along a stretch of the old wall chronicling a century of two catastrophes, one genocide. There is Hitler’s bunker, now a parking lot. There is the stark, discombobulating beauty of the Holocaust Memorial. Another memorial, the Memorial for Victims of Terror and War: a sculpture of a mother with her son, a fallen soldier. His collapsed posture, her grieving embrace, their clasped hands. Hers strong and clutching, his empty and lifeless. This, underneath a domed skylight, a slate gray witness to tragedy. Not far from here, the memorial to the burning of books in 1933. Empty white bookshelves seen from above.
In this city, history is everywhere: around, above, below. But also everywhere, infused in the very air it seems, is creativity and ingenuity, a sense of exploration and openness. One night at the opera, beautiful music and a beautiful drag queen. Another night at an artists’ squat, warming hands together around a giant sculpture, its mouth a fireplace.
Another experience, treasured: several days spent interning at Spiegel magazine, glimpsing firsthand the robustness of German media. An inspiration, and a contrast to the gloomy predictions so often made about the future of media.
Then there was our own group, also a study in contrasts: the different backgrounds and passions, experiences and motivations of each of the other twelve Fellows. And lastly, the RIAS Berlin Commission: Rainer, with his dry wit and deep commitment to journalism; Isabell and her open, warm spirit; Lisa’s mischievous spark and quick laugh. All three, a lesson in graciousness. Thank you, RIAS, for a tremendous experience!
Judy Farah, KFBK Radio, Sacramento, CA
I spent two weeks in September/October in Germany, Prague and Brussels, Belgium; as part of the 2010 RIAS Berlin Fellowship program. I spent the first week with 12 other journalist Fellows from around the United States in Berlin. The first thing that impressed me the most about our study tour of Germany was just how transparent — a word now popular in the U.S. — the German people and German officials were. One of the intentions of the Fellowship was to introduce us to the history, economy and culture of Germany. From the government officials we talked to, or economic experts and the citizens we met, all were forthcoming and open on the state of their country.
The German people and the leaders of our Fellowship never tried to hide their dark history from World War I and II and their Nazi past. I was surprised at how openly they talked about it. Our first full day in Berlin started with a tour of the Holocaust memorial, the location where Adolf Hitler’s bunker stood (it’s actually a parking lot now) and ended up with a visit to Checkpoint Charlie and the history of the wall that separated East and West Germany.
There were several scheduled events during the Fellowship that held special significance to me. The first was our visit to Potsdam. The day started off ordinary enough. Tour guide Rainer asked “Who wants to go with me to visit castles on Saturday?” He took us to Potsdam and a beautiful mansion on the lake — the Wannsee Villa. It looked beautiful until you went inside. There I learned that’s where Nazi leaders enacted their horrific plan “The Final Solution” — the plan to exterminate 11 million Jewish people. As I walked the dining room where these evil leaders hatched the plan, I felt eerie. It was almost as if I physically felt a sense of doom as I took in the history of that fateful plan. That visit to Potsdam will forever haunt me.
On a much lighter side, one of the most magical nights I ever had was being a guest of the state (!) for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To be in the audience of top government officials, including current Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was an honor. To sip Prosecco at the reception afterwards and mingle with Germans was a very elegant and fun experience.
One of the many things I enjoyed about this Fellowship is that RIAS took extra effort to not only teach us how the government and economy works in Germany, but to expose us to the culture as well. From the opera to the cabaret to boat rides, it helped me get a real feel for Germany and its similarities and differences with the United States.
Other highlights were the beautiful, 13th Century city of Prague and getting top level briefings from NATO and the European Union in Brussels. The entire Fellowship gave me an in-depth perspective on world issues that I will share and use in my work as a news editor back in the United States.
I thank RIAS for this opportunity. I did live interviews for my radio station from Germany and Prague, wrote two blogs on my trip for KFBK’s website and did a live interview on KFBK when I returned, talking about RIAS and the Fellowship. I hope to return to Berlin someday as I grew to love the city.
Robert Golombik, Freelance TV Director, Fairfax, VA
Berlin. First stop on a whirlwind two-week European exploration for a baker’s dozen of RIAS Fellows from the U.S.. For this first-time visitor, it seemed that much of Berlin’s history is centered on events from the mid-20th century. This was in stark contrast to so many other European cities, where centuries of history unfold immediately upon arrival. We heard several times during our trip that Germany’s past includes “a dark side,” and we came upon that right from the start. Our first bus ride included a stop at the Holocaust Memorial, whose stark concrete obelisks pay silent homage to European Jews murdered during World War II.
We also came upon the remnants of the Berlin Wall, now covered by more than 100 murals by a compendium of artists. Later visits to the Topography of Terror, (a museum detailing the rise and fall of the Third Reich), as well as a tour of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, on the site of the East German Stasi prison, underscored this “dark side.” Even a lovely boat ride through the center of Berlin revealed bullet holes in buildings and embankments, those holes deliberately left unrepaired as a stark reminder of the Soviet occupation.
But there was also a bright side to this picture. It was inspiring to see the large number of visitors, notably many groups of German high school students, coming to these solemn memorials, and learning from the mistakes of the past. One German official told us that Germans react to something that goes wrong by vowing it will never happen again. Later, a small protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate (and still more protests, for a variety of causes, in Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czech Republic) served to underscore how the times have changed, with freedom of speech now the norm in these former Eastern bloc countries.
Also striking were both the similarities and the contrasts between Germany and the United States. Living green seems to have made greater strides in Germany (and Europe in general). Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars are the norm in Europe, thanks in no small part to gas prices at least double those of the U.S.. But we also saw other efforts at energy conservation big and small. Some of our hotel rooms made it impossible to leave the room without your key card, which then turned off all the lights in the room, and motion-sensor lights in public buildings seemed commonplace.
Germany is a leader in the use of solar energy, although solar as the core energy source is not viable due to insufficient sun. The government even provided a subsidy for the installation of solar panels, which proved so popular that to meet the demand, Chinese companies, rather than German, ended up producing many of the panels— nicht gut!
Immigration, certainly one of the burning issues in U.S. politics, proved to be a recurring theme in many of our discussions. One the one hand, several German government officials indicated that they saw a problem because many immigrants, particularly those from Islamic cultures, don’t try to become a part of German society. We were told that although Germany needed immigrants, there was concern that the Islamic people needed to come into the center of the society and become integrated into that society. The increasing presence in Europe of so many followers of Islam was cited as a concern due to fears of terrorism.
On the other hand, we heard from the president of the Turkish community in Berlin, who felt that the Turkish community in Germany and throughout Europe is discriminated against due to their Islamic faith. He suggested that if Turkey had been a Christian country it would have been admitted to the EU a long time ago. As to the demands for better integration in German society, his rejoinder was that integration with full participation at all levels of society was acceptable, but assimilation was not, as it meant the loss of ethnic identity.
Finally, there are the economic issues. In a time of fiscal crisis for many countries, Germany is the economic powerhouse of the EU. To insure economic strength, it has required a near zero deficit in new budgets, and taken steps to insure an acceptable level of employment, while at the same time moderating wage increases and lowering some social welfare benefits. It has maintained its industrial base, giving it a distinct trade advantage with other EU countries.
However, due to its economic prosperity, financially troubled EU countries such as Greece and Ireland are now looking to Germany as the linchpin in their economic rescue. Despite official reassurance that Germany is committed to its membership in the EU, at this writing the Associated Press reported a poll showing that nearly half of Germans surveyed were growing weary of the euro. So concern rises that the debt crisis could become a crisis of the eurozone itself.
To the enormous credit of the tireless RIAS staff — Rainer, Lisa and Isabell — this exchange program proved to be even more than an immersion into the political, social and economic issues of Germany and the rest of the EU. We had numerous opportunities to meet the people of Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Brussels, and to tour their beautiful cities. Even something as simple as lunch at a Turkish restaurant in Berlin turned into a home-cooked, cross-cultural feast.
Our trip included an extra day in Berlin, allowing us to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration of German reunification. The day started with a massive street fair near the Brandenburg Gate, which looked like a European version of “A Taste of Washington,” but featuring lots of beer and wursts. As a wine lover, I was happy to discover Dornfelder, an intriguing red wine, at a German ministry open house.
The celebration concluded with our group in VIP seating for an hour-long performance of song, dance, fireworks and a light show outside the Reichstag. With the American ambassador to Germany in front of us, and Chancellor Merkel and former Chancellor Kohl in attendance, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Then came the beauty of a night-time tour of Dresden, the magnificence of the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square in Prague, special visits to the EU and NATO…and the stockpiling of Belgian chocolates and macarons from shops in Grand Place in Brussels as gifts for family. The two-week program was capped off by a day-trip to Bruges, a storybook setting with its charming Old World canals and shops.
I’m proud to have been selected as a Fellow for this program, and to have enjoyed the camaraderie of a wonderful group of journalists as we travelled through Europe. Rainer called us “the best group yet,” albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but I don’t think the group or the experience could have been any better. My sincere thanks to RIAS for this incredible opportunity.
Tim Hart, CNN, Los Angeles, CA
Lessons I can pass on to prospective Fellows, gleaned from my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to Berlin as an RIAS Fellow:
In Berlin, beer — and really good beer, too — is cheaper than water. And you are encouraged and expected to have at least one. And it is sold everywhere: at McDonalds, on U-Bahn and S-Bahn platforms, and in every small shop on every block.
The RIAS Law of Narcolepsy: The likelihood of a Fellow falling asleep during any presentation is inversely proportional to the distance from the speaker. You can blame jet lag. You can put the onus on having a Good German Beer with lunch. Or spending too much time staying up late telling journalism war stories with your new RIAS Friends For Life. But you and every one else in the group will fight the nap you so desperately need, and finally succumb to the sandman. And when it happens, you will be sitting right next to the featured speaker, and every one of your Fellow Fellows will be able to see it. And they will laugh at you, as you will laugh when it happens to them. And it will happen.
Everyone in Berlin speaks English, and everyone is friendly. Yeah, I’ve read this before, but I was unprepared for just how true this is. While exploring Berlin on my own one night, a woman stopped me and asked me a question. “Sorry, I’m from the U.S. and I don’t speak much German,” I feebly replied. “Oh, you’re from the States! Where do you live there?” she said in perfect English. And a half hour of conversation later I learned she was originally asking me for fifty cents for S-Bahn fare, which she refused to accept from me. “Keep your money and enjoy your time in Berlin, she said before we went our separate ways. A question about the current time turned into a similar 15-minute conversation. On another night, myself and another Fellow got away from the rest of the group, and wanting a beer (imagine that!) found a small bar near the hotel. “Guten Abend,” I said to the bartender. “Ein Bier, bitteschoen.” “Of course,” he replied in perfect English. “Large or small?” Three hours later our quick Bier turned into three, with lots of Q and A and very civil political debate with the bartender and some of the regulars at the bar.
Germans and Americans have different views as to what passes for “cold”. Get a Coca-Cola Lite (diet Coke) and laugh when the glass comes with two ice cubes. Rejoice at all the room-temperature bottled water you’ll be served with every meal. On my “blind date” my friendly host, after we finished the great German wine, wanted to have a few beers. “It’s chilling on the porch,” he said. At home in Southern California, “Chilling on the porch” means beer on ice. When my gracious host went out to get his cold beer, I could see the bottles just sitting outside, “chilling” to about 48 degrees. I laughed to myself, and still enjoyed the beer (and also had a fantastic time on my “blind date”).
You will be amazed at how close you can become to your Fellow Fellows after just two weeks. I miss them all. The same can be said for your RIAS hosts: Rainer, Lisa and Isabell are hosts, teachers, tour guides, babysitters and more.
You will look at the schedule and wonder how you can make all those meetings. And you will make all those meetings and you will enjoy them and you will learn so much. Your hosts have a lot of practice at this, and are very good at what they do.
You will be sad to leave Berlin. You will be sadder to leave your Fellow Fellows and hosts.
You will have memories and stories that will last a lifetime, but I’m guessing you’ll not be able to top this one. When I’m old and feeble and my head’s hard drive is unable keep any more information, I know one of the last files my brain will delete will be the events of October 3, 2010. 10-3-2010 was the twentieth anniversary of the unification of East and West Germany. We Fellows were invited to the great ceremony marking the occasion, held on the great lawn outside the Bundestag. I was amazed to be sitting among the VIPs, including the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who upon learning of our presence, came to us to shake hands and take photos. And what a ceremony! All in German! I didn’t understand a word of it! And yet, I understood it all! The emotion of unity and freedom is a language that needs no translation. To see people moved to tears even twenty years after unification gave me the chills. But the one thing that gave me the biggest chill came not from a politician nor from one of the entertainers that evening. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to RIAS Kommission board member Hildegard Boucsein. Just after the start of the ceremony, as the emcee was introducing the dignitaries sitting with us — including Chancellor Merkel and former Chancellor Kohl — she told me a story. In 1981 she went to work at the Reichstag when it was just being used for offices, the West German capitol being in Bonn. Her office was in the back of the building, about five feet from the Wall. She had a view of that wall every hour of every day. And every day she and some of her co-workers would take their lunches and walk the 100 or so feet to where the Wall stood in front to the Brandenburg Gate, the famous symbol of Germany that stood on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. There they would eat lunch and “think of what might be.” Clearly, to Hildegard and everyone else, “what might be” was incredible fantasy in 1981. Yet, here we were, celebrating this incredible event, and here I was with all the free Germans, seeing Helmut Kohl with tears in his eyes. The chills I felt had nothing to do with the cool wind. And it made me sad that so few people in our country have the same feeling every July 4. I will never forget the emotion of that night, and typing this now, two months later, still brings a lump to my throat.
Thank you RIAS and Berlin and her wonderful people for a fantastic week that I will never forget.
Susan Lisovicz, CNN, New York, NY
The last event during our stay in Berlin was a joyous ceremony on the 20th anniversary of reunification. It was a fitting conclusion. Much of our journey throughout the capital touched upon tragedy and loss. Buildings destroyed, lives snuffed out, freedom denied. The rubble from the former Gestapo and SS headquarters was a block from our hotel. At Checkpoint Charlie a museum depicted ingenious methods used by Germans desperate to flee to the West. White crosses throughout the city memorialized those who died during the escape. The rebuilt Reichstag was pockmarked with bullet holes, scars deliberately left behind to serve as a graphic reminder of the devastation of war.
But we also saw how Berlin — and Germany — is a study in resilience. Reduced to ashes after World War II, Germany is now the largest and most prosperous economy in Europe. It is one of the top exporters in the world. And it is a leader in new technologies such as solar energy, which is almost amusing when one considers that an essential travel accessory to Germany is an umbrella.
Not to say that Germany doesn’t have issues. It has to share its wealth with European Union members like Greece, an economic basket case. And more financially challenged nations want to join the EU. The German population is basically shrinking, so the economy is increasingly reliant on immigrants to keep the wheels turning. Many of them are from Turkey. Cultural and religious differences sometimes pose problems. Russian Jews are starting to immigrate in larger numbers to Germany. This is being closely watched. Because Germany has baggage like no other nation.
Our visit included a trip to the former Stasi Prison, the notorious facility used by the East German secret police. It is now a museum. Our guide was Hans-Eberhard Zahn, a former prisoner there himself. Mr. Zahn slowly and methodically walked us though the grounds and finally into the bowels of the building, where prisoners were kept in isolated confinement for extended periods. He said the Stasi broke its prisoners by a total lack communication. Nothing to read, nothing to write, no one to talk to, a light bulb burning 24 hours a day. He said he began to yearn for interrogation. And when he was finally interrogated, he said he began to weep. He wept because his interrogator called him by his name, a tiny act of civility that had never been demonstrated during his incarceration. Mr. Zahn, a retired professor of psychology, said, “You are reminded that one of the most essential conditions of human life is freedom.”
Germany is careful to keep these terrible reminders, these almost incomprehensible examples of brutality, of man at his worst. They are testimonials and warnings, especially for the generations to come, who will not have first-hand recollections of the war or the Wall.
But on Sunday, October 3, we saw Germany at its best. The ceremony celebrating reunification featured beautiful music, wonderful dance, a poignant tribute to those who worked to bring down the wall, an awesome aerial display at dusk featuring parachutists bearing the German flag and finally, spectacular fireworks in front of the Reichstag, a building nearly destroyed during the war. I was exhilarated by the proof that it is possible to prevail against insurmountable odds. I was thrilled to be part of such an important milestone. And finally, I was proud that the U.S., a former enemy, had played a pivotal role in convincing Europe that a reunified Germany was in everyone’s best interests.
Anne McGinn, FOX News Channel, Washington, DC
Ah RIAS! How you have changed me!
When I was a girl my grandparents were stationed in Germany, and while I was considered too young to visit, I remember being fascinated by the postcards and presents they would send me. My grandfather wrote of the beauty of both the German landscape and people — and this was coming from a World War II veteran. “Wasn’t Germany our enemy?” my younger self thought, “What could possibly be so great about THAT place?” As the idiom goes, out of the mouths of babes, right?
The RIAS program opened my eyes to the beauty of Germany, the Germany of which my grandfather wrote — the landscape, architecture, art, theater, food, beer, and its people — its incredibly warm, welcoming, helpful, insightful, bright, funny, resilient people. Of all I learned during my time with Rainer, Isabell and Lisa, and from the people to whom they introduced my Fellows, and me, it’s that the German people are all those things, and that is what makes the country so wonderful and the RIAS program such an incredible experience.
During our time in Berlin, I remember Conrad saying that just as he thought his heart couldn’t take any more of the sadness of the German history, he’d physically turn the corner and see something “awesome.” I never asked Conrad to explain what he meant by that, because I too had a similar feeling and I knew what it meant for me — I’d meet another awesome German! And I’m not just talking about the blind date night!
I’m referring to that incredibly bright woman who gave us the tour at the Reichstag, and of the 10 languages she spoke fluently; to the group from the Ministry of the Interior and of their frankness in speaking with us, a group of foreign press, about counterterrorism; to Mr. Habicht and his candor in discussing how the U.S., both in the past and currently, is viewed by Germany, and how relations between our countries are going as viewed by the press; to Ms Zehden of the Jewish Community in Berlin and her raw honesty about her family’s history; to Mr. Grafe, the chief of the Representation of the Free State of Thuringia and of the tour he gave us and of his humor in discussing the differences that remain between the former East and West Germany (and yes, I’m still thrilled Isabell was able to procure some Bambina chocolate so I could have a taste of her “home” as we discussed in that session); to the gentleman we met at Hohenschönhausen Memorial. I’m still at a loss over what to say about him, his experience, or the Stasi prison, but I can say I think it’s somewhere everyone, and I mean every citizen of every country should go; and finally I’m referring to the RIAS Berlin Commission and their generous inclusion of my Fellows and me in the 20th Anniversary of German Unification. I still smile thinking back to the chills I got that night hearing the German national anthem.
All I have described above is just what I took away from RIAS on a personal, emotional level. As a TV journalist covering the White House, the program was incredibly beneficial to me on a practical level as well.
During our time together we discussed Germany’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan, to combating terrorism, as well as its membership in the G20 and its leadership role in dealing with the global financial crisis. And while there are differences — for example in addressing the recession, Berlin comparatively clamped down on spending compared to Washington — there is much our countries, one time adversaries, have in common. We are 2 of the world’s largest economies, democracies with a free press and common morals. And both President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel often express those commonalities, as they did in Seoul, South Korea on the sidelines of the G20.
“Not only do I have great personal admiration for her,” Obama said referring to Merkel, “but obviously the strong alliance between our two countries is one of the cornerstones of prosperity and peace not just in the transatlantic relationship but in the world.”
Again, it was a sentiment shared by the Chancellor. “Only together will we be able to tackle the crucial problems of the world today,” said Merkel.
Just a few weeks ago the Chancellor was named one of the President’s 2010 Medal of Freedom recipients — the U.S.’s highest civilian honor which is presented to individuals who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Thanks to RIAS, I understand why Merkel, on behalf of Germany, has been given such a distinction and I for one am excited to see her at the White House early next year.
I also appreciate RIAS bringing us to Brussels where our visits to the EU and NATO headquarters proved vastly important to my future reporting. I was fortunate enough to travel with President Obama to Lisbon in November for the organizations’ summits. Thanks to the emersion in “EU 101” as I like to call it, and the background talks at NATO — as well at our earlier talks with the president of the Turkish Community in Berlin — I was able to contribute more to my company’s reporting on missile defense, Afghanistan and Turkey, than I would have had it not been for RIAS. In fact, I feel confident in saying I think I was given that assignment because I had just spent time in Brussels as part of the Fellowship. (In addition to that, upon my return to Washington in October, I was asked to fact check a piece Fox News Channel was running on Chancellor Merkel’s new assertion that the multicultural approach — the Turkish population living side by side with Germans, as opposed to integrating fully — in German society has “utterly failed.” Yet another assignment I’m confident I received thanks to my RIAS training!)
I do want to thank the RIAS Berlin Commission for accepting my application. The experience I received as a RIAS Fellow is unrivaled. I not only feel more confident in my international reporting, but I now feel that something has been awakened in me as an American journalist and I’m so excited to see what the next years will bring.
David Mecham, Brigham Young University, Lehi, UT
Although I had had the opportunity to visit Germany previously this was my first visit to Berlin and was easily the most enlightening and enjoyable experience I’ve had in this great country. As RIAS Fellows we were afforded opportunities and access we likely would not have otherwise had.
One of our first activities was a tour of the city to see most of the major points of interest. I found it very interesting to observe and learn how the city and its people have chosen to embrace and learn from their history. We asked the tour guide to show us the site of Adolf Hitler’s bunker where he spent his last days. Anticipating some type of museum or monument we found instead a simple parking lot. The only acknowledgement of this significant site was a recently erected roadside display with a map and some historical background on the site. It was explained to us that the Germans wanted to ensure that the bunker could never become a memorial for neo-Nazis. Although the historian in me was a little disappointed I was very impressed at how important it was to the people of Berlin that this history not be repeated. Emphasizing this point are the numerous thought-provoking memorials in the city to the victims of World War II.
We met with multiple officials and representatives of the German government and discussed some of the major issues facing the German people. They share many of the same challenges as we do in America. We heard presentations on their economy, terrorism, reunification, immigration, energy and climate, and religion. It was interesting to learn how these issues have affected Germany, and how the Germans have chosen to deal with them. One example I found intriguing was how the Germans have aggressively embraced renewable energy. Unlike the United States none of the discussions we had centered on the debate of whether global warming is actually happening, the Germans seem to just accept that as fact. Instead the debate is over how and when to abandon nuclear power in favor cleaner renewable energies such as solar and wind.
Our visit to a former Stasi prison in East Berlin was an event I had eagerly anticipated as it was related to my research, and it was a fascinating experience. We heard the personal experiences of Hans-Eberhard Zahn, a former inmate at the prison. Hearing his personal account of the brutal tactics and methods used by the East German Police as we toured the prison was both shocking and sobering. It is difficult as an American to understand how it would have been to live in a political environment such as East Germany so touring the prison was extremely valuable for me.
We also took a trip to Potsdam where the Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern. The Potsdam Conference was the meeting of Allies where Germany was divided into the sectors and zones that would eventually become East and West Germany, as well as a divided Berlin.
We were fortunate in that the timing of our trip allowed us to be in Berlin for the 20th anniversary of East and West German reunification. We had the opportunity to attend a program at the Reichstag celebrating this great event in German and world history. The show was phenomenal, but what I found to be particularly touching was the gratitude and acknowledgement the attendees gave to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for his role and service in reunifying the divided countries. It was an honor to be in attendance.
We visited Dresden where we were introduced to one of the great success stories of German reunification. A former East German city, Dresden was nearly raised by Allied bombing in February of 1945. Given the devastation of those famous raids the restoration of the city is immensely impressive. Perhaps the most profound and symbolic work of restoration is the Frauenkirche. We toured the Frauenkirche and witnessed a beautiful work of architectural art. We learned that a painstaking effort was made to ensure as much of the original material as possible was reused during the restoration which was completed in 2005.
Having a radio background, our visit to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty studios in Prague was of great interest to me. We learned how the RFE/RL mission has changed since the cold war and how they are now working to inform the people of Central Asia. Though the technology and geography has changed the nature of their mission is much the same today as it was during the cold war. RFE/RL still broadcasts into countries where its signal is often unwelcome and frequently combated, it is still a very dangerous occupation for many of the journalists and staff. As one who understands the challenges of radio I admire these dedicated people who make RFE/RL possible.
In Brussels, Belgium we visited NATO headquarters. Once we made it through the understandably tight security we participated in a discussion on the mission and function of NATO. Like RFE/RL the mission of NATO has changed since the cold war that inspired its establishment and the war in Afghanistan is of course the dominant issue confronting NATO today. Although the war in Afghanistan is often mistakenly viewed by many Americans as an American war it is actually a NATO mission. We spent a great deal of time with former UK soldier Chris Riley. He was incredibly knowledgeable on current events and challenges for NATO in Afghanistan. Like many others I typically view success in Afghanistan in terms of military victories and successes. Mr. Riley convincingly explained his view that permanent success in Afghanistan will not be measured in military terms but political terms. The experiences I had as a RIAS Fellow that I enjoyed most were those that changed my views or understanding of an issue, and our visit to NATO was one of those.
I’ve focused here on our activities and events as a RIAS Fellow, however one of the aspects of the experience I valued most was the interaction with the other Fellows in our group. I learned a great deal from these talented professionals. It was a great honor to associate with them and share this experience with people of such high caliber. Oh, and they’re a lot of fun to be around too!
The RIAS Exchange Program truly is an opportunity that will enlighten and educate that I will continue to reflect upon. It is a powerful tool for fostering cultural understanding between two great countries and peoples. I am grateful for having been allowed to participate. The RIAS staff in Berlin is simply the best. Rainer, Isabell, and Lisa administer a top notch program and truly care about the RIAS Fellows. To them I say “vielen Dank” for all their hard work on our behalf that made this exchange a great experience.
Jason Scanlon, FOX News Channel, Washington, DC
The RIAS Fellowship was a valuable experience for me personally and professionally. For a journalist, the best way to understand new information is to live what you are learning. The meetings, lunches, tours and social events with power players in the German government and society gave me invaluable insight into how and why Germany is moving forward so successfully within the European Union and on a global front.
Although there were many different areas of discovery, two experiences stand out in my mind. The first is the manner in which the German government deals with terrorism. In our meeting with officials at the Department of the Interior, I was surprised and intrigued with how the German government classifies terrorism as a “serious crime” and deals with it as such while leaders in the United States view it as a War on Terror. I have not personally resolved whether the government in the U.S. has taken this approach because it’s the right way to deal with the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent threats of attack or if they have used it as a way to expand their power and influence. Another plausible scenario is that the news providers; television, newspapers, radio and the internet, have exaggerated the level of danger to sell product.
The second experience is an overall impression I left Germany with regarding the reconciliation of East Germany and West Germany. The history regarding the separation of Germany is well known. The reunification has also been well documented but there still appears to be areas of disconnect. For example, local Berlin newspapers are divided into ones which are geared to politics and social issues involving East Berlin while others address the same concerns and interests in West Berlin. Also, during our blind date with previous German Fellows, the banter between our hosts centered on the fact that one host lived in East Berlin and one host lived in West Berlin. It seemed to me that East Berlin was regarded as “hip” and “trendy” while West Berlin was “stable” and “productive”. Although these comments were said jokingly, there appeared to be an underlying sincerity in their sarcasm. When I asked one of our hosts about the jokes he replied “you must understand, the physical wall has been taken down but for many people, the wall in the mind is still as strong as ever.” It was an honest and insightful look into the thoughts of some people who work and live in Germany today. I have no doubt that over time, this wall will fall too.
The people, the sights and the experiences will be with me forever. I have already used what I learned at the United Nations and the European Union to brief colleagues at Fox News regarding the recent NATO summit in Portugal. I have also given guest lectures and lectured to my own students at the University of Maryland regarding Germany’s role in the world and the leadership they have shown in the areas of energy, climate and social welfare.
Finally I want to thank everyone at the RIAS Berlin Kommission, especially Rainer, Isabell and Lisa whose kindness and professionalism made this wonderful experience educational and enjoyable.
Conrad Wilson, KDNK Comminuty Radio, Carbondale, CO
The fall 2010 RIAS trip was an eye-opening experience for me. Both through the Fellows I met as well as the experiences we had. It was powerful seeing how Germany fits into the context of the European Union and how that body relates to and interacts with the rest of the world. This picture wouldn’t have been made possible without the scope of our travel and variety of meetings.
Two themes stuck with me more than most. One is the fact that in many ways, Germany remains very much two separate countries. Attending the 20th Anniversary of German Reunification was a reminder that it wasn’t so long ago Germany and Europe was a very different place. But remnants of a divided country linger to this day. Things you wouldn’t see unless you were looking.
It’s amazing that to this day unemployment is higher in East Germany, while wages continue to remain lower. It was interesting to hear about the dissolving of the East German way of life, and the exportation of West Germany. Various speakers reiterated the idea that it was not a coming together of two countries — not unification — but in many ways an exportation of the West to the East. The problems that created for people and the economy in the East are still felt to this day. Perhaps most interesting of all was the fact that some of the things associated with the East — various consumer goods and day care being a benefit provided by factories and offices — seem to be making a comeback throughout the country.
The other theme that carried throughout the Fellowship was the concept that the United States is falling behind, no longer viewed as the super-power it once was. But that might not be such a bad thing. As many speakers at the European Union pointed out, it’s expensive. It was shocking to hear how German terrorism experts and other European security experts openly acknowledged the fact that the United States pays of much of their security. Not so much in a day-to-day sense, but rather in a global terrorism sense.
All in the entire trip was a reminder as a journalist how the day to day work I do fits into the larger global community. The RIAS Fellowship changed the way I think about the world and the role journalists play. The RIAS Fellowship painted a lasting picture of Germany’s past and its role going forward.