TWO-WEEK GERMANY PROGRAMS 2007
Summer and Fall
RIAS Germany Program – Summer
June 9–24, 2007
Thirteen American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Erfurt, Cologne, and also Brussels. Individual extension program for 5 participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
LaDonna Acker, WTEN-TV, Albany, NY
A Changing Perspective. How Two Weeks in Europe Changed my Way of Seeing the World
Working in the news business it is very easy to fall into a rut. Although the stories change every day, at my station we tend to cover the same types of issues over and over again. Sometimes I find myself writing on autopilot. But now, after my first trip to Europe I feel like I have a broader perspective not just on news, but on life in general. My experiences in Germany and Belgium have made me reflect on the types of news stories we cover and what they mean to the viewers. And on a personal level, seeing another part of the world and a similar, yet different culture has helped me grow as a journalist and as a person.
From the moment I stepped out into the city of Berlin I began to notice the subtle differences between Germans and Americans. In general, Germans seem more concerned about the environment. Those tiny smart cars were everywhere and people were riding bikes to get around. They’re saving gas and staying physically fit. I saw energy saving escalators that don’t move when people aren’t on them. And many of the hotels we stayed in are more environmentally friendly than the ones in the US, using low water toilets and requiring the room key card to be plugged in for the lights and TV to work. I noticed that recycling bottles also is important in Germany. There were recycling bins out on the streets and vendors that sold drinks would even take bottles back and return your deposit. I think these measures make it a lot easier to recycle and they probably help to keep down the amount of litter. I wish this environmentally conscious attitude would become more prevalent in the US. Just seeing these small Earth-conscious steps in action has made me even more aware of things I can do to cut down on energy and do my part to recycle.
One of the most powerful experiences of my trip was seeing the Berlin Wall. As an American, freedom is something I have always known and maybe even taken for granted. It was so moving for me to bump into the wall’s path while walking around the city. It really brought home to me how divided the city really was at one time. It is easy now to cross over its path but it is very humbling to know that so many people were killed just for trying to get over the Berlin Wall. Now I realize that knowing the history of the Berlin Wall is not the same as seeing it. It makes all the history I learned in school more real to me, especially knowing that the wall existed in my lifetime.
Seeing the Stasi prison was also a moving and powerful experience. I had read the book Stasiland before my trip and I think it really brought home the reality of what happened to people behind those prison walls and how their families felt, some of them never knowing what happened to their loved ones. I feel really fortunate that I walked through the prison with someone that actually was a prisoner there. Hearing his story firsthand was amazing. It helped me fully understand what the conditions were like for the people who were forced to stay there. My whole experience in Berlin was so enlightening. It was such a contrast to see the old and the new together. I will never forget the breathtaking view of the bombed out church sitting next to a modern building in the middle of a busy city street. It’s truly a reminder of the devastating impact that World War II had on Berlin and on Germany.
Our trips to the House of the Wannsee Conference, and then later to Buchenwald Memorial in Weimar, both had a powerful impact on me as a journalist and as a person. It is so thought-provoking to actually see and stand in the places where so much suffering was planned and then acted out. At both places all I could think about was how the surrounding scenery was so beautiful, but they were the sites of such horrible acts. It’s hard to believe that it is all fairly recent history.
As an American journalist it is interesting to note that many of Germany’s modern day issues are the same ones we face in the United States. Both countries have problems with unemployment, immigration and a lack of childcare for working families. Before my trip I had read that the former East continues to struggle economically, so it was interesting to learn that much of our modern day technology is being developed in Erfurt. Things we use every day in the US, like MP3 players, computer screens and cell phones were all developed in a city that looks like a postcard from the past.
There are so many things I learned on my trip to Germany and Belgium that I will never forget. I feel like I got a true sense of what the country is like from the inner workings of the government, including the European Commission and NATO, to the historical sites that tell its turbulent history, to the modern day issues, like immigration and economic recovery. RIAS really helped me see the heart and soul of Germany and it has truly opened my eyes to a broader perspective on news and world issues, and it has already given me fresh insight as a journalist and as an American. Now I push for the stories that matter and I think about how I can make an impact, through the news and through my own personal actions.
Stella Chan, CNN, Los Angeles, CA
Three weeks after my return and I still think about my RIAS trip to Germany and Belgium: “this time 4 weeks ago, we were walking to Checkpoint Charlie.” How do you sum up the trip of a lifetime? It was the perfect diet of education, information, and fun. I almost felt like I was on a reality show: “This is the story of 11 strangers, picked to travel Europe together.” Strangers no more, friends for life.
I told friends at home that I was traveling to Berlin and was pleasantly surprised when they’d squeal “That’s my favorite city in the whole world!” Now I know why. When I landed in Berlin, I had no idea what to expect. I suppose the stereotypes of a drab and somber post war country came to mind. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I found a great cultural center where the citizens are proud of their heritage and are eager to share their history and future.
The first week in Berlin allowed us to understand why it is the center of the country. I learned to navigate the U-Bahn and S-Bahn system, get out of the way of bikers, and tasted my way through the culture — beer, döners, schnitzel. Beyond that, the city and country has so much incredible and tragic history. A tour through Checkpoint Charlie, past the tourist traps and curious souvenir shops, was an incredible illustration of the division between East and West during the Cold War. Equally as sobering is the Topography of Terror just a few minutes from our Relexa Hotel.
In addition to the blind date night, a fantastic look inside a German journalist’s world, two appointments really stick with me. Day 3 in Berlin brought us to the gates of a former German Democratic Republic prison. It was a beautiful hot day — baby blue skies and white puffy clouds provided a stark contrast to the cold prison, a place built for the imprisonment and torture of the guilty, innocent, and suspected guilty. Former prisoner Mr. Eberhard Zahn sat us down for his story of survival. One word sums up this man: inspirational. He wryly told us that he’s still spry and to not walk slowly, keep up with him, and to stand close so he can preserve his voice. Easy. He was riveting. He took us up and down dark dank halls where prisoners were interrogated, processed, housed, tortured. We visited his cell where he heard neighbors lose their minds and he struggled to keep his.
This man was thrown in prison on shoestring charges, recited Shakespeare to keep his mind alert, endured various forms of torture. This man’s resilience and ability to talk about his experience is indicative of his strength — to endure, retell, forgive. In his story, I see an icon of the German people — suffering for the transgressions of a few, carrying the burden of those atrocities, yet found the ability to rebound and grow and show the world that although the horrible times are a part of their past, it does not define them.
Another great illustration of German live was Turkish politician Ms. Bilkay Öney. We ate a sumptuous Turkish lunch provided by the original Mercan Restaurant. The restaurant is family run and everything is made fresh — the cooks prepare all the food in the morning and when they run out of food, they close the doors. Sometimes they aren’t open beyond lunch because of its popularity. Now that is what I call a mom and pop shop!
After we tasted a bit of Turkey, Ms. Öney talked to us about the Turkish conundrum in Germany. During the Cold War, Turks were carted in as part of a guest worker program. A few decades later, the Turks are immigrants in a country that does not consider itself an immigrant nation. How do you reconcile two very disparate cultures? Do you meet in the middle or require full assimilation? Ms. Öney provided an insider’s view to another palpable divide in Germany. She is a great example of someone who is double — she is ethnically Turkish but considers herself equally German. All of this is reflective of the American culture as well — what to do with the illegal immigrants under the umbrella of homeland security? How to consider yourself American if you look and sound otherwise?
Thank you RIAS for the preparation for this amazing experience. Every so often I will find myself daydreaming about the rich and almost surreal trip. My brain hasn’t felt so stimulated in a long time — educationally and personally. If I went into how much I enjoyed my RIAS cohorts, this 2 pager would turn into a gushing novella. You can’t spell RIAS with out Rainer, Isabell and Sandra. In the middle of conversations or events, I’ll give a non sequiter; a simple “I miss Germany.”
Kevin Grieves, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Germany “On The Edge”
This was not my first trip to Germany, but my experience with the RIAS journalist exchange this summer opened my eyes to new facets of German society, and to how Germans, especially broadcast journalists are engaging with that society. The most revealing aspect of my interaction with Germans was hearing different regional perspectives, especially from those on the periphery of the German nation. I came away with a richer understanding of how these individuals conceive of their identity as journalists and as Germans.
While I had spent time in Berlin many years ago, I never cease to be amazed by the rapid transformations of the city. Our first week in Berlin gave me an opportunity to rediscover some familiar places and newly discover some more recent additions to the landscape. Berlin’s regained status as capital of all of Germany has brought many physical changes, as has the growing together of the two parts of the formerly divided city. Our hotel was located in an area once on the fringes of West Berlin, close to where the Wall stood. Yet this area now finds itself in the center of the reunified city, with a new vibrancy brought about by shopping centers, hotels, office buildings and government quarters. While this atmosphere is very different from the days of Checkpoint Charlie, much of what makes Berliners who they are — both East and West — remains unchanged.
From Berlin we traveled to the eastern state of Thuringia… a few hours from Berlin, but people here speak with an accent distinctly different from Berlin. We were received by state government officials, who went to great lengths to describe to us what makes Thuringia unique. They emphasized that while their state lies in the center of Germany, they were often overlooked by western Germans as a vacation destination, something they sought to change. And they presented an image of Thuringian identity — inventiveness, industriousness — as a selling point to attract business to their state.
My extension time with the RIAS exchange took me away from the center of Germany to its periphery, to areas less frequently visited by international travelers yet with very strong regional identities. My first stop was the northern Hanseatic port of Bremen, a historic city (and smallest German state) with a strong tradition of overseas trade. An inscription on the façade of the historic Chamber of Commerce building reads “Buten un binnen, wagen un winnen,” a Bremen dialect phrase which translates as “far away and locally, gamble and win”…a slogan summing up the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hanseatic traders.
Buten un binnen is also the name chosen by Radio Bremen for a regional television news program. One of the program’s producers told me that the name reflects both the spirit of the people of Bremen and the aims of the program… to connect Bremen to the world while maintaining a distinct local perspective. Radio Bremen was started after World War II by occupying U.S. troops (Bremen was part of the American zone of occupation). Radio Bremen is currently the smallest of the regional public broadcasters in Germany, and while it faces challenges financially, I heard a strong desire to maintain an independent voice for Bremen and its regional identity.
This sentiment was echoed at my next stop, Saarbrücken, where I spoke with journalists working at the second-smallest regional public broadcaster in Germany. The Saarländischer Rundfunk serves the small state of the Saarland, located in southwestern Germany on the border to France and Luxemburg. I spoke with a number of journalists involved in the station’s ’transborder’ efforts — including both programs that reach audiences on either side of the border as well as programs that include coverage from each side of the border. What I heard from these journalists was a deep passion about their work. Many saw their work as a sort of pedagogical role, teaching the people of Germany about French or Luxemburgian culture and vice-versa. They held this mutual understanding up as the best hope for the future of Europe, and they argued that the broadcast media are a key force in broadening this understanding.
Speaking to fellow broadcast journalists in the Saarland was intriguing because there were simultaneously very familiar and very different elements. When these journalists spoke of working under tight deadline pressures, of combing the newspapers for leads on stories, and the satisfaction of knowing their reports helped make a difference in the community, I nodded in complete understanding. But I had never experienced other things, such as a radio program (a joint production between SR and a French station) anchored by one German and one French host. Without translation, the two conversed on air in German and French respectively, each responding to the other in his/her own language.
I feel fortunate to have experienced Germany “from the center” as well as “from the edge” this summer. When I mentioned to people in Berlin that I wanted to go to Bremen and Saarbrücken, I’m sure it struck them as a bit unusual (like a German telling New Yorkers he wants to go to Indiana or Montana). Yet the people I met in these smaller peripheral regions have a distinct sense of what it means to be German, and they also have a connection with their neighbors in other countries that’s different. This helps give me a more complete, nuanced picture of Germany and Germans… far from a monolithic entity.
Myrna Jensen, KTUU-TV, Anchorage, AK
As the plane touched down in Berlin, excitement overcame my exhaustion. It took about 24 hours to make the journey from Alaska to Germany, but I had finally arrived and was about to fulfill a dream that had taken nine years to become reality.
I heard about the RIAS program in 1998, but when life intervened and I found myself moving to Minneapolis, I filed the idea away. Then early this year something sparked the memory and I researched the program on the internet. A quick glance at the deadline on the web page and I was off and running. Needless to say, when I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I was beyond excited.
As we left the airport in Berlin, I could barely take it all in. I was eager to absorb everything about this two week program. On the way to the hotel Rainer pointed out places of interest including the weekend garden homes, the giant tv antenna in Alexanderplatz, places where the wall once stood and Sony Center, just one sign of the revitalization of this formerly divided city.
Even though I have spent time in other European cities, I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect in Berlin. What struck me when I arrived was the youth of this old city. Having been destroyed by World War Two and then rebuilt by groups with two different views, Berlin is now deciding what it wants to look like. As we strolled through many parts of town, I saw architecture from the 1800’s mingled with the architecture of Communism and then right next door, a brand new building constructed since the fall of the wall. It was unlike any city I had seen before, but in a way it could be compared to Anchorage, my current home. In Anchorage you can find log homes, next to ugly, short office buildings dating to the 1960’s, next to tall, glass multi-corporation towers.
There are several issues in Germany that I find fascinating. The first has to do with the differences that still exist between East and West. I must admit that before I went on the RIAS trip my knowledge on the subject was extremely limited. I’m probably not the only American who thought “Everyone wanted the wall down and now they’re all getting along.” Those ideas flew right out the window as soon as I started preparing for the program. Since the wall came down 17 years ago, the former west has been subsidizing the former east and those in the west are feeling a lot of resentment. On the other hand, many of those who lived in the former east, miss the days when life was predictable and everyone had a job. Perhaps the person who put it best was Dr. Thomas Habicht, a senior political editor at Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg. He said that since the east and west were divided for 45 years, it would take 45 years for them to be fully reunited.
A hot topic in the US is the need for a national healthcare system. I must admit that I’m not a big fan of the idea. In theory it works, but its drawbacks are becoming increasingly prominent in Germany. What I discovered was that the birth rate decline in Germany along with the increasing number of immigrants is forcing a decrease in health benefits. There are not enough working people putting money into the system and there are too many non-working people using the benefits.
The low birth rate in Germany is also forcing a decline in pensioner benefits. Currently four people support one retiree, but that will soon change to two people to support one retiree. The US faces a similar dilemma as the baby boomer population continues to retire and live longer.
Working in television news in the US is very different from working in television news in Germany. I was surprised to learn that news programming did not contain any commercials and that it was a much more condensed version than what we see in the US. Spending time with Germans confirmed a fact that I already knew, Germans know far more about world affairs than their counterparts in the US. There is also a lot more news in news programming. By that I mean German news programs are less likely to run stories on Paris Hilton’s latest DUI than some US news programs. However there is more news programming in the US than in Germany. While visiting RTL I was surprised to hear that they only have one block of news in the evening.
Another thing that left quite an impression on me was the difficulty Germans have in being proud of their country. They have become an industry leader in many fields, they’ve won countless sporting awards and some of the best minds in the world call Germany home, but because of their past they seem to feel uncomfortable promoting themselves. It will be interesting to watch the country evolve as the generation that knew the horrors of war first hand, passes on and the grandchildren of that generation become leaders of their country.
Since returning to the US I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned and compare this European visit with my other two. I think most of all, this trip underscored the need for me to ensure that my daughter is exposed to other countries and their cultures. She also needs to learn another language. As a parent I know that one day soon it will be my daughter’s turn to tackle the world head on. She needs to be prepared for a world that’s much different than the world I’ve been living in. Her world will have more of a global focus but other than that what the future holds is anybody’s guess.
Jeannette Jordan, WGCLTV, Atlanta, GA
My mother took her first cruise when she was 75. That was four years ago and she’s booked on her third cruise now. I can still remember when she came home after cruise number one. She couldn’t stop talking about that ship. She still says at night when she closes her eyes she can still see that ship. For a long time I had no idea what she meant. But, I do now.
Several weeks back into my routine; I went to bed, closed my eyes and saw red roof-tops. I was remembering landing in Berlin and the beginning of one of the best times of my life.
When I left for the RIAS German-American Exchange program, my boss told me that I would not be the same person when I returned… he was right and I am different. He told me that the world is bigger than our newsroom… and so it is.
I can’t begin to tell you how important this exchange was for me. I not only grew as a journalist; I grew as a person. I learned the need for us to talk and not speculate about places and events that we write about but don’t experience. A little knowledge goes a long way.
There is no way I can repay the time, energy and effort that RIAS and its supporters put into this program except to tell accurate stories… tell them well and be open to correction and change.
As part of my regular faith practice… in prayer I thank God for the friends and experiences of the Summer of ’07. I am a more rounded person now and a better and more effective journalist.
Jennifer Keiper, WLS AM, Chicago, IL
Where do I start? The learning experience began the very first day, which was simply a day to get unpacked and prepare for the upcoming two weeks. However, I took the opportunity to do my own walking tour of Berlin visiting Checkpoint Charlie, the Communication Museum, Potsdamer Platz, and the facade of what was once Berlin’s largest train terminal.
I found the trip extremely informative and consider it the trip of a lifetime. I gathered an incredible amount of notes, books, pictures and audio tape. I have already started using that material to relay my two week experience to my newsroom staff, family, friends and — beginning this fall — my college students. I have created a general internet slide show which every member of the trip and our RIAS hosts have received. I am also in the process of creating a slide show of our visit to the Stasi prison. I embarked on this trip knowing that information gathering would be key to a successful experience and as a result packed a camera, computer and audio equipment. I used all three, a lot!
I’d like to break down my trip in various parts. First, I found Germans very welcoming and felt quite comfortable in Berlin. The language barrier in no way hindered my experience. I was also pleased that RIAS provided a translator for a couple of appointments. They were wonderful. The German journalists who hosted me for dinner were not only willing to talk about German politics but also their way of life and their professions. My female host works for ARD and allowed me to visit her office. She also allowed me to use her ISDN line so that I could do a live report for my station in Chicago. My male host, who works for Focus magazine, which is similar to America’s Time Magazine talked about his work, his trips to America and gave me a copy of his latest article which was also featured on German television. Coincidentally, it focused on reparations for former Stasi prisoners. We visited a Stasi prison the next day. Both hosts talked about how they do their jobs and I got to see my female host interview a Member of Parliament. We visited the Reichstag the next day!
An interesting discovery is that no matter how far I travel the political parties may be different but politicians are still the same. One example is Mr. Ulrich Kasparick, Parliamentary State Secretary. He only joked when asked his opinion on various U.S. policy and was sure to have his assistant and a friend/ bodyguard on either side of him. Both listened carefully to the translator to ensure that he was conveying the correct information. Mr. Peter Altmaier, Parliamentary State Secretary of Federal Ministry of Interior was interesting but quite vague. I understand why because his U.S. counterparts act the same way.
The trip to the concentration camp was compelling and our host offered a unique presentation. He found gripping ways to convey the horrors that occurred at Buchenwald. I comment on his delivery because, physically, very little is left of the concentration camp. Our trip to Erfurt offered a much different take on German life as compared to our previous stay in Berlin. We encountered life in a smaller city. One of our African-American group members reports running into a group of “skinheads” and found our two day stay unnerving. She told me that she was very happy to leave Erfurt. I did not witness such a group.
I enjoyed Cologne, however, would have liked to spend at least one more night there. The Roman ruins and cathedral were breathtaking but I had very little time to explore anything else in that city.
Belgium was, well, interesting. I found the people not as friendly and easily irritated by the fact that I did not speak French. However, I was always polite to them. I enjoyed the ‘Grand-Place’, or ‘de grote Markt’. While it was obviously a tourist attraction it did not take on a tacky air and was rich with history.
Our day-long visits to the European Union and NATO proved informative. Before the trip, I did not have a true grasp of how the EU operates but that is not the case now. I was familiar with NATO’s mission and our trip provided an opportunity to network with NATO staff. As a result, I handed out a lot of business cards and discussed possible live interview opportunities with a NATO staff member. I also spoke with a person who is currently stationed at NATO but is traveling back to the United States to undergo more training and work, once again, at the State Department.
- Some general observations:
I found graffiti to be a problem across Germany and Belgium. In Chicago, we have a ‘Graffiti busters’ program. They get rid of ‘tagging’ as soon as it occurs. It is a program that some joke about but seeing what I did in Europe I now understand how much it detracts from a city. I found Gypsies quite prevalent in Brussels, much as they are in Italy. However, I did not see any in Germany. The transit system in Berlin and throughout Germany was clean, convenient and very easy to understand. The lack of air conditioning was a problem since the first week of our stay was extremely hot! I was very happy to see the heavy use of bicycles by Berliners. I wish we in the U.S. would do the same.
Overall, this was an opportunity that was valuable beyond words. I thank RIAS for choosing me. The journalists I traveled with were professional, inquisitive and pleasant. Those who spoke to us provided great insight into Germany, U.S. -German relations and their personal experiences. I also want to thank Rainer, Sandra and Isabell who generously gave of their time and knowledge. We had many questions and they were happy to answer every last one! Thank you!
Cameo King, WLNS TV, Lansing, MI
Heaven only knows, Heaven only knows — that’s a song by John Legend and the only way I think I can describe this experience. That song that filled my ears as myself and 10 other American journalists sped over 250 kilometers per hour from Frankfurt to Cologne. Heaven only knows, that’s the only way I can give this experience justice. Heaven only knows what a blessing this program has been.
Germany is just what I imagined, cobblestone streets, easy going people, and a mix of American culture. And it’s in that perfect mix of American culture were I gained more appreciation for Germany as well as being an American. Close to every street and nearly every other building has its own story, embedded with the rich history of Germany. Very few things can compare to the feeling you get when you’re standing on a piece of history that has completely changed an entire world and millions of lives. I mean think about it, pieces of a wall that divided a city politically, physically, and socially for decades are still standing. It was almost like stories full of emotions were still attached to pieces of the Iron Curtain; and that was only the beginning.
Living history was another part of the marvel of Germany. We had a chance to visit the Hohenschönhausen Memorial (former Stasi prison), and the moment I stepped foot on the memorial the things I read and heard about came to life. Our host, Mr. Zahn was a former prisoner; he was also a part of the history that came to life when he told about his experiences in the Stasi prison. He also showed us how he lived and how he was treated while being imprisoned. Even though so much history is captured throughout this country, I learned there’s a particular piece of history that’s affected many Germans to the point they want to disconnect with the country. It’s the history of Nazi Germany.
From the discussions at Humboldt University, to discussions with American/ German Journalists, there was always a common theme of a lack of pride coupled with sense of jealousy of American patriotism. Some Humboldt University students said the lack of pride stems from their racist and fascist Nazi history. I heard many times that there was simply — nothing to be proud of. I sometimes sensed a feeling of shame when the Nazi history was mentioned. It was almost as if all Germans had a role in advocating the Holocaust, and their souls cringed of responsibility, even though many know that was not the case. It made me think of US history and the civil rights movement. I thought about how both Americans and Germans experienced a racist past but there is a totally different present-day feeling in either country — one shameful and one proud.
Lastly Germany taught me to become worldlier. The country is surrounded by nearly ten other countries. Many people I spoke with were fluent in three languages. Many were well versed on not only American History and current events, but also up-to-date on their neighboring countries’ current events. I know that has a lot to do with location, but its becoming more and more important to know what the problems of countries across the globe are experiencing. The knowledge of world events that the everyday German has soars in comparison to what many Americans in my generation know about current world events.
This program was an eye-opening experience. Germany was only the first step in building bridges between European and American journalists. This program has opened up doors, created ideas and platforms that can change the world.
Art Land, Pacific Lutheran University, Seattle, WA
“Go to foreign countries and you will know the good things one possesses at home.”
I thought I would start with a quote from Rainer Haster’s favorite philosopher. It is not my favorite Goethe quote (as I will try to end with that), but it suits me well for a start…
Being in a foreign country does give one a greater appreciation of home. But it is not an appreciation rooted in avarice or prejudice, it is not a desire to cling only to the familiar or to reject all that is not home.
One chord struck from the very beginning and carried throughout this symphony of an experience is the eager openness of all the splendid people who played a part by sharing their time, insights and experiences with us. I must admit at the start of the journey I was wary of what discord there might have been due to all the anti-Americanism I have read so much about.
Fortunately I found the ocean of history and self-interested policy that often divides our countries is easily spanned by persons of good will, good nature and open mind. Just like at home, we quickly find we share so much more when we are face to face than the politics and headlines of the day would seem to acknowledge. Perhaps it is because I work within readily-opinionated cultures with ready opinionslike a university and the media, but I dare say I encounter more virulent anti-Americanism at home than as a guest in Germany.
In appreciation, I can honestly say there was not a day or stop or person I did not thoroughly enjoy. The experience is so rich and enlightening that I only wish there was more time to bask in the experience and meditate on its impact. By going to a foreign country I came to know the good at home is of the same material as the good in Germany. There is great hope and much promise in knowing what the U.S. and Germany have in common is their good people.
There are several things in the way of specifics I would like to pass on, so I will try to keep these short and to the point, which is not my strong suit:
1) Whereas RIAS once stood for Radio in the American Sector, it NOW stands for Rainer’s Innercity Ambulatory Society. Fellows should know they will be walking four to five miles every day, and are expected to arrive in good cheer (and breathing steady). Coming from a culture where we get in our car to go to the end of the driveway to check the mail… this will come as a surprise. It is not unenjoyable, but fellows take heed so it is not a surprise! Bring a change of socks.
I recommend bringing in Armin (“I tell you vat you do…”) for the very first day’s “march.” After Armin, every other day’s walk will seem like a stroll through the park. Those who can not make it with Armin will realize on their own that they need to make other plans like pooling their money for a taxi now and then. This experience also makes clear you will often want to change your shirt over the course of a hot day.
2) Giving Fellows the “day off” when they arrive is brilliant. It allows for any stragglers to be gathered and for most of us to get a bit comfortable in our own way with the new culture before the whirlwind starts.
3) Take the train/plane trip early in the stay. The object is to leave half our luggage at the hotel or upon return have a designated appointment at the local laundry so initially we only pack half as much. I am still embarrassed by how much RIAS paid to get my luggage on the flight back from Brussels.
4) The informal dinners with a German journalist and pizza with the Humboldt University students was very rewarding and enriching. I would have liked to have more shared dinners with the students especially (and pizza is relatively cheap event). Perhaps a few of the fellows could speak to students as a formal part of class. Everybody loves talking with college students, and it is a chance to “decompress” since the fellows are getting the questions for a change.
5) The Axel Springer Akadamie is well worth a stop. U.S. fellows have little to no idea how different the process for training journalists is in Germany compared to the typical education/career path in the U.S. At the same time, getting acquainted with the personality, enterprise, and media force that is Axel Springer would certainly illuminate much about media and the practice of journalism in Germany.
My own “Best of RIAS” list
- Best Tour:
Hans-Eberhard Zahn at the Stasi prison. His story is the first one I told friends about when I returned. Dr. Zahn really lets you know how far Germany has come, and how real was the specter of the police state.
- Best Stop not on the Tour (that I visited on my own):
Checkpoint Charlie should be a stop early in the trip. The role of RIAS in bringing down the wall is prominent in the story presented here. This gave me a new respect for RIAS, and I was proud to be associated if only as a fellow.
- Best Food:
The Döner stand across from Checkpoint Charlie. A close second: the döner shop down the winding backstreets of Weimar. Often the farther you walk, the better it tastes. Top it off with some boutique-shop gelato. You can’t go wrong with lemon.
- Best Beer:
Leffe Blonde. I found a shop that sells it here… down to my last one.
- Worst Food:
Donuts. Dunkin Donuts is fine for America, but this bit of globalization should have exported the other way. I spent nearly two weeks in Berlin and never found a decent Berliner to match the memories I had of them 20 years ago, before coating everything in sugar put an end to the simple pleasures of sweet bread and jam.
- Best Breakfast Food for Thought:
Thomas Habicht. I was hungry after that breakfast because I forgot to eat. I was even more hungry to hear more from Herr Habicht.
- Best Music for I-Pod in Berlin:
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, especially the second movement.
- Best Place to Spend More Time:
Cologne. We saw an awful lot in a short time under Armin’s steely gaze and sprinters pace. Still, many remarked how we would have enjoyed seeing more — and that includes the hotel, which was the also the best for just one night.
- Biggest Fact I Wish I Had Known:
No air conditioning at the Relexa! I should have asked for a fan the first day (not the next to last). Not sure what else I would have done about it, luckily I packed a lot of cotton clothes.
- Best Goethe Quote:
“A person hears only what they understand”
Thanks to the RIAS Fellowship, I hear much more than I used to.
G. Brent Martin, MissouriNet, Jefferson City, MO
My visit to Germany through the RIAS Commission will have ramifications for years to come. It has been a few weeks since my return and the lessons learned still haven’t fully sunk in. I expect them to reverberate throughout my life.
I cannot pretend to truly know Germany after only two weeks in the country (with a few days shared with Belgium). It would be foolish to project a superior knowledge of the country and its people; its way of life. It would be proper to project a better understanding and a desire to know more, to understand more, to be open to more reading and listening in the future. The RIAS visit merely stokes a desire to better understand the world and America’s place in it.
This program provides an intense study of Germany’s government, its culture and its people. It provides it in an atmosphere conducive to study and one that is friendly, relaxing and easy. I had never traveled to Europe before. Anxiety accompanied me on the trip to Berlin. It left once the great team at RIAS took over. All needs are taken care of so the participant can concentrate on his/her studies. Each member of the team goes beyond that. Their friendly nature and accommodating style win you over the first day and carry you through the entire two weeks. They are hosts eager for you to get to know their country and anxious to ensure you have a good time.
Those we met with shared many different aspects of Germany with many different perspectives. Germany remains a complex country, struggling to deal with its past as it moves, united, toward an uncertain future. As someone interested in history, I couldn’t help but be touched in a deep and profound way when visiting sites that spoke of such a horrible past, both repressive and violent. Tours of such places as the Stasi Prison, Buchenwald, Checkpoint Charlie, the remaining portions of the wall and the “Topography of Terror” make an incredibly sobering impression. It speaks of the intersection of two of the worst regimes of the 20th Century right in the heart of Berlin. To me, it speaks of the horrors men can do to their fellow man, even in the light of a modern, progressive and industrialized society. It doesn’t just speak of Germany; it speaks of the evil that lurks in human nature.
How Germany deals with such a burdened past provides lessons for us all. We in America see the victory of World War II, but give little thought to the vanquished. We in America see the fall of the Wall as such a great triumph, which it was. But we fail to see the difficulties reunification brought. Germany wrestles with those burdens to this day. Nearly every speaker provided us an insight into those struggles and a glimpse of how they are working out. They also spoke of Germany’s future and what they envision Germany can now provide the world.
Visits to the European Union and NATO also gave insight. The EU is a creature Americans have trouble grasping. I have a better understanding now, better, but far from complete. Again, my curiosity has been stoked and I even found myself reading an EU story in the newspaper the other day, something I would have never done before the trip! NATO became much more than an acronym to me after the visit, a visit that I enjoyed more than I expected.
Much more can be said about this trip, but something must be stated before I conclude this essay. This visit would not have been nearly as educational or enjoyable without the people in my group. I was privileged to be with an educated, engaging and enjoyable group of people. We learned so much and we had so much fun together. Whether questioning a government official, a fellow journalist or a professor or whether attending the opera, eating at a restaurant or seeing incredible sites we benefited greatly from the perspectives each person brought and the camaraderie we all shared. We truly bonded and with those bonds, made this two-week venture an adventure I will remember for the rest of my life.
Sean Neumann, Freelancer, New York, NY
I had never left the North American continent, much less visited Europe, so I went to Germany with very few expectations and a lot of questions. Any knowledge I have of Germany comes from stories told to me by my grandparents who were in Germany until shortly after WWII or what I have read in history books, magazine articles, press reports, and movies, so basically I came in blind. Prior to my arrival, I tried very hard to put myself in the shoes of people there, but every time I did, it came off as false and somewhat condescending. As if someone who grew up in the relative comfort of Los Angeles would really be able to comprehend what it was like to grow up in a city like Berlin that had been divided by barbed wire, guns, and concrete while I had spent my childhood surfing, ditching classes, drinking beer, and avoiding gang territory.
I figured I would be in for quite an experience, if not an education.
The first difference I noticed was on the flight into Berlin. As soon as we were in the air, the stewardesses began peddling crap from the duty-free catalog while they served booze that seemed to flow freely. Never seen that on my countless domestic flights. Nine hours, a couple beers, and two sleeping pills later, I awoke somewhere over the western edge of the German border and within an hour I was on the ground in Berlin collecting my luggage. One of the first things I noticed was the baggage handlers’ body language. They quickly and efficiently moved the bags, cleared out the plane, began refueling the beast and moved onto the next task. By the time I got into the terminal, bags were already spilling out onto the carousel. In the states, most of the guys on the tarmac look like they are about ready to break into your luggage and start looking for things to steal. A friend of mine worked for United Airlines back in the 90’s and he used to tell stories about how guys on the tarmac would go through people’s luggage and pilfer stereo’s, computer equipment, jewelry, or anything that was of value because at 10-bucks-an-hour with no benefits, no one felt they were being paid enough to care about the customer, much less the company. While I was standing at the baggage carousel, I commented to a German man about how quickly things moved at the airport and, without a hint of irony, he said, “uf course, they are paid vell.” How novel, I thought, giving people an economic incentive to work hard by offering a working wage and full benefits.
While the entire trip was amazing, my first two weeks were esepcially a joy. I got to meet my American colleagues in the lobby and we began to kibitz and shoot the breeze. The general feeling was that we had all come on some form of a working vacation. Everyone seemed relieved that they had left hardcore deadlines behind for the next few weeks, but we all carried about as if we had some story to capture, no matter when it was due because we are, after all, working journalists, and thus beholden to finding one story or another. Mine revolved around asking former East German athletes very uncomfortable questions about their steroid use in the 70’s and doping officials how they felt about operating their offices on budgets more suited for a janitorial department than a lab charged with catching drug cheats. Well, that and finding mass quantities of some of the finest beer on the planet. Luckily, I succeeded on both fronts.
One of the first things we did was go on a bus tour of Berlin. In luxurious air-conditioned style we tooled around the heart of Berlin and saw the sights. Over here is an empty concrete slab overgrown with weeds which was the former home of the Gestapo. Over there is the main drag down the heart of East Berlin which is lined with gray Soviet-era block-style apartment buildings. On this side is a Turkish neighborhood covered in poorly rendered graffiti. On this side of town is the airfield where the Berlin airdrop was staged. Look, there’s Checkpoint Charlie which has been turned into a low rent version of Times Square for the Cold War fetishists. And over here is the star of the show; a section of the Berlin Wall with a caricature of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locked in a French kiss. However, I was a bit disheartened. All I saw was 70’s-era architecture in the part of the city that had been completely obliterated during WWII. There was a part of me that desperately wanted to see old German architecture, eat sausages, and drink schooners of beer that I could dive into. Thankfully, I would not have to wait long.
By day, we were ferried from one end of Berlin to the other meeting labor union officials, German journalists, visiting the opera, talking with university students, domestic security officials, and local leaders from the Jewish and Turkish communities. By night, I ventured out into the city and met as many people as I could so. We visited the Reichstag, NATO, spoke with folks at the EU headquarters, and had the opportunity to be immersed in the country and the people.
However, besides the trips and the beer and the fun, I had work to do and the people at RIAS facilitated more than I could have ever done had I been left to my own devices. For me, it was not about just having the opportunity to travel to Germany, it was about finding a way to fulfill the mission of the program and build a foundation to get my project off the ground.
I applied for the RIAS program with the intent of getting a documentary jump started because some of my primary subjects were in Germany. While RIAS could not provide me with camera crews, they provided me with every single thing I needed to get my project moving including full travel logistics, coordinating interviews, providing me with interpreters, and footing the bill for the entire thing. Because of their help I was able to put together nine shoots in 14 days in six cities, an ambitious schedule by any measure, and it all went off without a hitch.
From the first day I arrived in Berlin, the legitimacy of RIAS and the planning and hard work they devoted to me and my project gave me the added credibility I needed to start a dialogue with film makers in Germany. I arrived in Germany with one phone number and partially because of what RIAS gave me, I was able to parlay that one contact and my idea into digging up production partners, shooters willing to work on a deferred basis, a foreign distributor for my film once it’s completed, which in turn has helped me generate a bit of interest in the states.
While the project is far from completed or even finished, RIAS gave me chance to get my boots on the ground in Berlin and begin principal filming on a project that has direct ties between the United States and America. Now, because of the groundwork RIAS faciliated and the support they provided, my newfound friends and production partners in Germany and myself have caught the ear of German public television. Our project goes before the board of directors of public film funding this November as we hope to secure funding for the completion of my project.
Whether it happens or not is immaterial at this point. What’s salient is that without RIAS, I never would have gotten the chance to push my project this far. For that, I owe them my sincere gratitude and thanks.
Brian Trauring, WTVG-TV, Toledo, OH
There’s one thing more thrilling than going on the RIAS trip and that is going twice. I am fortunate to have made the trip in 2001 and again in June 2007.
Visiting Germany and Belgium six years apart invites comparison on many levels. For example, my last visit to Germany in 2001 took place prior to the 9/11 attacks. The switch to the Euro had not taken place. Of course, today’s Iraq war also changed the way America is viewed in Germany and across the globe. Six years after my first RIAS trip, the German view of America has changed but the relationship with Americans has not.
Humboldt University students reinforced this concept during our meeting on the Berlin campus. While students mostly disagree with the U.S. presence in Iraq, they continue to hold Americans in high esteem. They told us that the Berlin air lift still leaves many in Berlin with favorable feelings about Americans.
The Humboldt students made another observation that left quite an impression. They told our RIAS group that they “admired” the United States for its sense of patriotism. They explained that the Germans have not shared a sense of patriotism because of their historical events. They added that a shift in national unity is beginning to take place. It began with Germany hosting the World Cup games. German flags began to appear and pride in their country has taken shape.
Germany’s new generations try and come to grips with historical events. The “Topography of Terror” is a somber reminder of the horrible mistreatment of millions under the Nazi regime. Not far away, 2,711 symbolic caskets eerily form a memorial to the Jews of Europe killed during the Holocaust. Checkpoint Charlie remains a curious tourist attraction and reminder of the sad division of Berlin in 1961. Our prison tour with former political prisoner Eberhard Zahn was a stark reminder that life in Germany could be both unfair and extremely unpleasant.
But there are many reasons to be optimistic about Germany’s future. More than three million Berliners may now freely cross where the Berlin wall once stood. The wall has been replaced by bricks in the streets with marked reminders of the past.
Berlin is surprising in many ways. You sense the conflict still exists in attitude between East and West, new and old. The city’s gleaming Potsdamer Platz is a monument to modern capitalism as is the enormous “Kadewe” department store. The opera “Elektra” provided us with a musical example of German culture.
There is no way to separate the social joys of the RIAS trip from the intellectual learning that takes place. They were intertwined and enhanced by the diverse backgrounds and interests of my fellow American journalists. From Anchorage to Albany (NY), our band of news brethren met and vanquished all challenges including the S-Bahn, obtaining ice in our drinks and fans in our rooms, and escaping automated pay toilets without injury. We became fast friends who shared laughter and debated ideas because we were stimulated by the many experts who graciously shared their time and opinions.
Among the challenges faced by native Germans is the issue of immigration. Just as policy questions are debated in the United States, Germans are trying to determine how to deal with visitors from Turkey who move to Germany and do not leave. This is a phenomenon that was noted during my first visit in 2001 and remains unresolved.
The Potsdam tour was another example of grim reality at one moment offset by breathtaking beauty the next. The outstanding architectural design of Sanssouci is something to celebrate! The unfeeling horror of the “final solution” discussion at the nearby “House of the Wannsee Conference” stands in stark contrast to the beautiful settings of and around Potsdam.
Germans are determined to compete effectively with the U.S. and other countries as a visit to the state of Thuringia made clear. The marketing of products manufactured near Erfurt such as wind turbines is a top priority. Nor will I forget the beautiful stone face of a church in Erfurt that turned out to be an optical illusion. Walking around to the rear of the church I was stunned to see that the front wall was the only wall. The rest of the building had been bombed away in WWII. But again from ruins rises inspiration. The courtyard where the church sanctuary once stood is today a community gathering place for theatre, concerts and other civic performances!
Two things are memorable about Köln and both were enormous: the centuries-old cathedral and the walking tour! “Wear comfortable shoes” indeed!
Our high-speed train trip to Brussels resulted in “travel envy” for most of us. It is simply a far superior way to get from point “A” to point “B,” which in this case meant Belgium.
Brussels is just the way I remembered it! Colorful and spectacular! Our NATO hosts provided us with a detailed evaluation of the missions to Afghanistan and elsewhere. The European Union experts demonstrated why the EU is a formidable organization.
Our 14-day adventure ended in Bruges, Belgium. Out of all the places we visited, this was my favorite! From cobblestone streets to the towering churches, and the shops that called for us to spend every last Euro, this city was like a trip into a time machine. All senses were alive viewing the spectacular scenery including the viewing of a sculpture crafted by Michelangelo.
I want to thank the RIAS staff and especially my friend, Rainer Hasters, for another exceptional experience. As a member of the RTNDA Board of Directors, I am proud of our partnership that produces so many special experiences that remain with the RIAS fellows forever.
RIAS Germany Program – Fall
September 29 – October 14, 2007
Twelve American journalists in Germany: Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt/Main and also Brussels. Individual extension program for two participants.
REPORTS OF PARTICIPANTS
Cheryl Bacon, KTTV, Los Angeles, CA
My time in Germany as a RIAS Fellow was one of the best experiences I’ve had. The organization, the appointments, and the companionship were excellent. The meetings were intense. Thomas Habicht’s insightful overview of the past two decades provided a framework for what followed. From national issues of security and terrorism to local issues like minority neighborhoods, all the appointments were engaging.
Rainer, Isabell, and Sandra’s hard work and planning made the program a success, but their kindness, generosity, and friendship made it exceptional. My fellow journalists were smart, funny and spirited. Every day was full of learning, discovery, and true fellowship. Though we had free time some of the best moments were the group outings and dinners. Whether it was in a traditional German restaurant or frites and waffles on the streets of Belgium, we ate our way through Europe with dedication and gusto.
Perhaps the most moving experience was the realization that it is possible to overcome a terrible history, not by forgetting it, but by embracing it. The Jewish Museum, so close to the heart of Berlin, graphically details all that was lost in that dark time. The turmoil of those years is unimaginable.
When I grew up the Cold War was a fact of life. It was always there and always would be. Like most people I watched the Wall crumble on television. It was glorious and shocking. It felt like the world was coming unmoored. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be German that day. I got my chance to find out thanks to Wolfgang and Claudia Holler, my “blind date”. Claudia grew up in West Berlin and though she believes reunification a good thing, she cannot embrace the former East. She acknowledged the ‘wall of the mind’, an artifact of her generation.
I first visited Germany in 1978. I stayed in Dresden and both sides of Berlin. This trip was more than the chance to see how things have changed. The new and restored buildings are beautiful but the changes I observed were more profound. I saw that a society can bring itself back from the ashes to become free and democratic. I see my own country making terrible mistakes, losing its way. It doesn’t compare with the disastrous route of 20th Century Germany, but the United States, on its present course, can do tremendous damage. Modern Germany, with all its problems, is a confirmation of the absolute necessity of democratic government. And the story of men like Dr. Zahn affirms the importance of the individual, the power and duty to affect change.
My most lasting impressions of Germany are of hope and the ability to repair the ruins of the past. I thank RIAS for the opportunity to see this for myself.
Doris Bergman, NY1 News, New York, NY
I returned to New York with hundreds of images and thoughts about the remarkable trip the RIAS Berlin Kommission had arranged and the wonderful group who truly enjoyed each other. I’m sure we will be in touch regularly.
I was especially struck by the extraordinary thoughtfulness and reflection by the German people of their heritage and recent history. I felt it most keenly in Dresden, which had the double onus of being obliterated by the Allied troops and then were oppressed by the Russians after World War 2. I was moved by the testimony of the middle aged guide at the Church of our Lady who said, “who were we to complain about the bombing after all we did and the millions of people who died at our hands.”
As Germany deals and addresses the problems of immigrants, rising unemployment and antipathy to newcomers, along with the real concerns of fanatics fueled by hate, they never seem to lose sight of their past. Memorials to the fallen, the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum, plaques on the sidewalks, the use of the original stones in the rebuilding in Dresden and in Berlin, all keep memories fresh and for some, raw.
What can I say about Berlin that hasn’t been said countless times? Vibrant, hip, contemporary, reflective, tough, refined, cultured, cultivated, elegant… it’s been ten years since I’d been here and in many ways, it’s as if it’s my first visit.
Some highlights for me: in Berlin, visiting the Bundestag at the Reichstag, rebuilt by Norman Foster, an architect whose work usually doesn’t impress me, but this was so mindful of history and with such soaring spaces, I was overwhelmed; the visit to the Stasi prison, hearing the testimony of a man who was imprisoned for seven years for the crime of knowing a fellow student who was an East-Berliner; our breakfast with Thomas Habicht was most enlightening because of his frank appraisal of problems of both the east and the west; our lunch with Özcan Mutlu, a member of the State Parliament, also was a refreshing change from boiler plate politicians. He talked openly about some reasons for the problems Turkish immigrants have in gaining acceptance; dinner at a Turkish restaurant in Berlin where the owner was thrilled to have Americans at his place and lavished us with an extraordinary, endless meal! Notice how so many of my highlights include food!
Unification Day gave us a chance to take in the sights in a different way… the boat ride was wonderful, and the fact that the weather was glorious made it especially memorable. The day was capped by a contemporary concert in a most beautiful concert hall (even if the concert did not garner raves from the group!) and then a dinner of epic proportions.
The visit to the Ministry of the Interior was also remarkably open. Again, ever mindful of the past, the deputy spoke of wariness of imposing wiretaps, etc., and talked frankly about the recent arrests of an Ulm native.
Dresden was a revelation: the Platz, the museum, the river, the views — all glorious. The Transparent Factory was thrilling, the design of the building itself, the craftsmanship and cleanliness, watching that woman mopping the floor, disposing of the cleaning pad every few feet, I’m sure surgery could have been performed there. But the message behind the factory itself was even more important. It was clear that the east (certainly Saxony) is eager to embrace capitalism, and industry is catching up by incorporating western marketing techniques.
I loved Brussels too. What a beautiful city. Of all the meetings there, I thought the one at NATO was the most interesting, especially the talk by Daniele Viggio about his work in and for Afghanistan. He clarified our role in that country with an infectious passion.
In short, or in semi-short, the most interesting meetings were with people who were unafraid to speak their minds and who were committed to their work.
All our lunches and dinners, whether planned or impromptu, were great fun, and we learned so much from each other as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my gratitude to David Louie for capturing each meal with his camera, so we can remember and savor each morsel and presentation!
All in all, it was a fascinating, enlightening, fattening experience and I am so grateful for the opportunity the RIAS Berlin Kommission has afforded us.
Deborah Brunswick, CNN, New York, NY
My experience as a RIAS fellow changed the way I look at Europe and journalism abroad in a way that I cannot explain. Talking to political leaders, community leaders, journalists, and seeing sights deeply connected with Germany’s history gave me the opportunity to get a one-of-a-kind inside look at a country and its culture, and to find out what makes it tick, a chance that few people ever get to experience. Upon returning I feel as though the experience has not only given me a fresh perspective on the field of journalism, one that will help me in my career and set me apart from co-workers, but more importantly I feel that I came back a more intelligent, worldly, and open-minded person.
The activities included in our program gave us a well-rounded look into many important issues and problems that plague Germany, and having had this experience I feel that I now know the workings of another country almost as well as I know my own. Many of the issues facing Germany today are similar to those in the United States: a weak economy, an immigration problem, and environmental concerns, and from the activities included in our program, we were able to gain a new perspective and insight on how other countries deal with similar issues.
One of the many things we did that particularly stands out in my mind was the tour of the Stasi prison of Hohenschönhausen. To be given the tour by Mr. Zahn, a former prisoner, and to be able to listen to him describe his experiences of his time there in such a vivid and intimate way really brought the prison as well as a piece of German history back to life. I found the experience captivating yet haunting at the same time.
Given the chance there are few things I would change about this program as I feel it provided us with the perfect mixture of sightseeing, educational meetings and conferences, and free-time. The only disappointment, and I know it could not have been avoided, was the sleep-inducing, arrogant man who lectured us at the European Council….or was it the European Union, I’m still not quite sure of the difference . Oh, and of course the avant-garde concert of noise in Berlin!
Lastly, I thought Isabell, Sandra, and Rainer were great leaders. They are extremely nice people to be around, they were very patient with us clueless foreigners, and they did an excellent job with the daunting task of having to get 12 Americans to meetings on time at ungodly hours in the morning. Thank you RIAS for a wonderful, fun, and educational two weeks that I will never forget!
Noel Cisneros, KGO-TV, San Francisco, CA
I begin with a confession. Growing up in the 1960s my view of Germany was colored by images of Nazis and athletes, chubby beer drinkers in Lederhosen and magnificent scenery, dotted with castles, often built by despotic men in curly wigs, usually named Frederich. A regular feature of my Saturdays was watching “Wide World of Sports”, which routinely profiled East German athletes. Gaunt and serious, honing their skills in grimy black and white gyms, their perseverance and talent vaulted them into the highest echelons of international athletic competition. Those were the pictures and stories that formed my perception of Germany. My RIAS fellowship utterly dismantled my antique images of Germany. RIAS replaced them with artful bears, courteous and efficient people, clean cosmopolitan cities awash in bicycle riders and architecture that blended the old and new in such clever and uplifting ways. My lingering impression of Germany now is of a deeply self-reflective culture with lively streetscapes and superb mass transit. The architecture of Germany knocked me out.
I’ve noticed in my travels that different countries have different points of reference for their cultures. In Hong Kong, the references and points of interest are very often in the context of business — who is most prosperous, which bank does the most international trade, which wealthy, powerful person lived where. In America, our context is often seen through the geography of change — Westward Movement, the Trail of Tears, The Civil War, The Gold Rush, California Dreaming. In Italy, it is historical pride and visual aesthetics. It is my observation that Germany’s context too is deeply historical, and architectural. Everywhere I went, I heard a variation of the expression.”well, considering our history…”, or “you see, with our history…” There is a shared understanding that the listener knows of Germany’s horrendous past. Implicit in, “considering our history…”, is the acknowledgement that Germany must never repeat the sins of its past, and must continuously foster a climate of self examination and transparency. That transparency and historical context was evident in the architecture of Berlin. Everywhere I looked, there was an old, solid, opaque building, back dropped and surrounded by transparent ones, often with whimsical touches. And the styles were compatible. I like to think of the melting of those styles as representative of present day Germany. Beautiful to the eye, self-reflective, transparent, historic, efficient and committed to a better future.
The whole fellowship was extremely well thought out. It provided an excellent prism into many different aspects of German and European life. For me, the highlights included the tour of the Stasi Prison, with our gracious host Mr. Zahn. He called the prison “an information factory” and said his presence there now was “a testimony to the survival of the human spirit.” Indeed it was. I enjoyed our boat rides through Berlin and Brugge very much. (I was completely unaware of Brugge!) Potsdam was an excellent day trip. Wannsee broke my heart, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen it. I am haunted by a picture there that I saw of an SS officer stripping bread from the hands of starving children. The notion that those evil men could meet there and plan’the final solution” is unthinkable. But of course they did. It helped me to understand a bit better why Germans must be so resolute in their determination to craft a transparent, non militarized future. But at the same time, I will never understand what happened. I grieve it. I fear it. I am so sorry.
Dresden was an unexpected and charming part of the fellowship. Again, the architecture. The lovely “Our Lady” church. Rebuilt with the burned blocks from the war, black with the patina of time, singed from a terrible episode in history, and now a thoughtful monument to peace and reconciliation. The Transparent Factory was simply amazing. My inner Scandinavian leaps with joy at the virtuosity of its organization. Professionally, I found Mr. Thomas Habicht’s breakfast briefing time very well spent. His talk, combined with the perspective provided by RIAS fellow Markus Preiss at the WDR office in Brussels gave me a good overview of the opportunities and challenges in German journalism. And finally, I would like to express a deeply felt thank you to our German hosts, Isabell, Sandra and Rainer. Their professionalism and hospitality made our experience one I will remember for a lifetime. They are now my colleagues and friends. Thank you to the members of the RIAS commission, whom I have never met. Your program has blown the dust off my outdated perceptions of Germany and provided a window into a modern country searching for a peaceful and productive future. It was a pleasure.
Kathy-Ann Gobin, WTNH TV, New Haven, CT
I felt like I was in a movie. As the cab driver pulled away, leaving me at Potsdamer Platz, armed with only vague hand gestures and a few nods hinting to the direction of my hotel, I was on my way. And so my first journey overseas began. Lugging my suitcase behind me, I thought, “Wow, look at all these people in the plaza on a Sunday afternoon, what a happening place.” I later realized the Berlin Marathon was underway and I was unwittingly walking through part of the route! Moving quickly, I learned, cobblestone pathways aren’t friendly to suitcases on wheels. (I was happy I listened to the advice to pack light!) A gentleman along the way confirmed my cabbie’s directions and meeting up with my fellow RIAS members, I instantly felt like I was among family.
The marathon was a fitting way to start the trip. The next two weeks were a whirlwind of informative and insightful meetings and sight-seeing opportunities. And we hit the ground running. Our first stop. The Reichstag building. It’s an awesome symbol of an integrated past and present, with the restoration of the old and the creation of new and modern buildings that reflect the past but look toward the future. Using glass that is both transparent and reflective was a thoughtful way of symbolically unifying the east and west. To be able to stand with one foot on the west and one on the east was mind-boggling, especially knowing the sacrifice and suffering that went on because of it. It took years to bring down that wall that still stands in the minds of many.
Living history is how I would describe the next stop. Getting a tour of a former Stasi prison from a prisoner himself was a very moving experience. Mr. Eberhard Zahn’s spirit of triumph over adversity is astounding. To be able to revisit the cell in which he was imprisoned and speak of virtue and righteousness speaks well of the resilient human spirit as does the rebuilding of Germany.
The reunified Germany is wrestling with how best to assimilate several groups with distinctive cultural differences. Discussions with members of the Central Council of Jews, a Turkish member of State Parliament and a walking tour of a neighborhood with a member of the Committee for the Interior highlighted the delicate balance of Democracy.
But examples of collaborative efforts to rebuilding a community are evident, especially in the town of Dresden. Scarred by the fire bombing of 1945. A guided tour of a city renewed can be seen especially with the Church of Our Lady. Time being so valuable (and our scheduled so packed!) I sprinted to the top of the building, like a runner determined to get to the finish line. I was gasping for breath as I got to the top not only from the physical exertion but from being awestruck from the breathtakingly beautiful view.
A meeting with members of Radio Free Europe in Prague underscored the importance of efforts such as RIAS. I was impressed by the many people in prominent positions, that said they or other people they knew grew up gleaning information about the world they live in from out an outside source. The last leg of our trip landed us in Brussels. I ate my way through. It was a marathon of a different sort. (There’s no such thing as too much chocolate!).
Seriously, every place we went was more beautiful than the next. It has given me a new appreciation of the history of America. Although young compared to Europe, New England has architectural treasures unique to our country’s beginnings, and efforts should be made to preserve them for generations to come.
Our visit to NATO really opened my eyes to new possibilities on the international level. I would like to work at NATO to further the discussions on world relations. And I have to thank the RIAS sponsored journalist exchange program for introducing me to exploring that new chapter in my life.
I never thought my first trip abroad could have been so enlightening, educational and inspiring. It has truly changed the way I see the world.
Deanne Goodman, KTVZ-TV, Bend, OR
Not to sound like an 800 pound person, but desserts are the first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on my amazing journey through Europe as a RIAS fellow. At some point in the trip I decided I would not eat regular meals but instead let all my calories come from sweets. My sweet tooth even impressed the guy that ran the Belgium waffle stand. After joyfully watching me down several waffles covered in nutella and whipped cream he offered me a free one. I took a diet coke instead. His genuine generosity was a characteristic I saw in almost everyone we interacted with during the fellowship… starting with our fabulous hosts. Rainer, Isabell and Sandra truly made this trip a once in a lifetime experience.
Going out with a camera crew to shoot a news story in Berlin was another highlight of the trip. I loved coming back to the States with something to share with our viewers. Before coming to Berlin I had no idea about issues German-Turkish immigrants face, and now our viewers have a better understanding. It’s written on the web with the news video. You can go to my station’s website if you want to see or read a more serious in depth report on the divisions that I saw still present in Berlin.
After Berlin we went to Dresden which is a beautiful city with a whole crew of beautiful guys working in the VW glass factory. Those in my tour group know what I’m talking about. I also loved going to Radio Free Europe. I had no idea there was such an operation in existence. Also eye opening, the counter terrorism methods used in Germany. It was an honor to hear what could be considered classified information in America. NATO and our trip to Brugge were also highlights. Basically there was not a single thing I did not enjoy or a single person. It may sound too good to be true but honestly that’s my feeling towards this fellowship. I went into it with few expectations and left with nothing but positive memories and the desire to do more international reporting.
I’m happy to report I didn’t have a single cavity despite eating a ridiculous amount of sweets and I’ve already dropped the few pounds I’m pretty sure the waffles packed on. I did bring back boxes of Belgian chocolate for family and friends to enjoy that unfortunately my dog decided to enjoy. After pulling three small boxes out of my suitcase and somehow pulling the ribbons off them he ate around 15 pieces of chocolate while I was at work. Fortunately, I have the vet on speed dial and I found out about his indulgence quickly after binge. Let’s just say the money I spent on those chocolates was less than the vet bill to purge them from his body, and some still don’t believe my dog ate their gifts. I guess I’m not the only one with an outrageous sweet tooth.
David Louie, KGO-TV, San Francisco, CA
I had great expectations returning to Berlin after my first visit 20 years ago. I never realized that the RIAS program could pack so much into a two-week program, covering a wide range of social, economic, political and historic issues. Digesting it all was helped by extensive note taking and by writing a short summary of my impressions each night.
The U.S. and Germany are on parallel courses historically and socially. That point was clear to me as I realized that those who fought in, lived during and survived World War II are thinning in numbers in both countries. However, I was impressed by the effort to preserve and reconstruct historic sites in Berlin, Potsdam, Wannsee and Dresden. In that way, the past is not forgotten. The extensive renovation of the Reichstag, along with construction of a new dome, is one of the most visible and impressive examples.
I have been to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in Poland, a sobering and extremely emotional experience. Visiting the Wannsee Conference Center on this trip closed the circle because that was where in 1942 the decision was made about extermination of the Jewish people.
The Story of a Stasi Prisoner: Another significant experience was hearing first-hand about detention in a Stasi prison from former prisoner Eberhard Zahn. Now close to 80, he was 25 and a college student when he was captured and sentenced to seven years for “endangering world peace.” To hear his story inside the very tiny cell where he had to sit upright at all times was both absorbing and illuminating about the climate of fear created by the East German state police during the 50’s and 60’s.
I still have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall from my 1987 trip, and I wondered then if reunification would ever happen. I recall the tight security measures as we passed through Checkpoint Charlie to visit the East. Remnants of the wall remain in Berlin at Potsdamer Platz and in a few other places as a reminder of how families were separated for so many years and how the economy of the two parts developed so differently. It was such a liberating feeling to walk outdoors one morning — the morning of the Berlin Marathon — and see tens of thousands of runners racing along Unter den Linden and heading straight toward and through Brandenburg Gate. Where once a wall divided Berlin at the gate, people that day were free to walk, run, or jog across a finish line in triumph … a kind of symbolism that the human spirit cannot be constrained.
Looking Down to Remember the Past: As we walked near our hotel, we were reminded of the wall as we stepped over a distinctive, wandering brick line that marks its former path across the city. In other neighborhoods, we would look down and see what appeared to be brass markers, memorializing the names of Jews who once lived in Berlin but were later “missing” and presumed to be holocaust victims.
We learned that 17 years after reunification, Germany still has a formidable task ahead to bolster the economy of the former East. While there are gleaming new facilities, such as Volkswagen’s transparent Factory” in Dresden making luxury cars in an advanced state-of-the-art setting, there is disparity in income and opportunity between the former East and West. Regional and federal officials we met remain optimistic that supplemental aid to help the former East can end as scheduled in 2019.
Like the U.S., Germany has a long-simmering issue with immigrant workers. The U.S. has long depended on migrant workers from Mexico, and Germany has done the same with workers from Turkey. The time we spent with two elected officials in Berlin — one of Turkish heritage and the other not — gave us a good sense of the magnitude of the problems facing this minority group in Germany. Religious, cultural, educational and language differences have made integration challenging at best.
An Evening with Professional Colleagues: Perhaps one of my greatest experiences as a fellow was spending an evening at the home of a fellow TV journalist and her family. Birgit Keller and her husband Georg both work at Deutsche Welle, a satellite-based news service. They prepared a wonderful meal, and we (Sandy Rathbun of KVOA-TV Tucson and I) also enjoyed the company of two of their daughters, Josefina and Paulina. They live in a delightful top-story flat in Charlottenburg. Birgit was a RIAS fellow several years ago and spent a month in the U.S. We had a spirited discussion about political and social issues and about our work as journalists.
I haven’t begun to cite the many other briefings and meetings and experiences arranged for our group of 12 fellows. We had off-the-record discussions with Germany’s homeland security agency, briefings at NATO headquarters in Belgium, and exposure to an avant-garde concert performance. The RIAS staff — executive director Rainer Hasters and staff members Isabell Hoffmann and Sandra Fettke — did a superb job of creating and organizing a fast-paced, informative program that gave us a comprehensive look at a country undergoing rapid change and facing formidable issues. Isabell compared our group to fleas that were impossible to herd. Her description was accurate, yet she and Sandra managed to keep us on schedule.
Conclusion: The RIAS program has expanded my perspective on the global economy and on the political realities of unsettling times. In recent years, I have focused primarily on the Asia Pacific region and its interlocking relationship with the California economy. I have been reminded, and rightfully so, that the European Union, along with Germany as a major U.S. trading partner, are just as vital to the future of economic development and political stability. I understand why Silicon Valley companies are staking their future in Europe as well as in Asia. I look forward to reporting those stories, enhanced by insight from the fellowship.
Paul Martella, KTTV Fox11, Los Angeles, CA
It’s not an easy time to be an American overseas. The falling dollar doesn’t help, but what concerned me most as I prepared for the RIAS fellowship was diminishing respect for the U.S. in the world, particularly in Europe.
The last time I was in Berlin was over a decade ago, when then U.S. President Bill Clinton looked on the German Republic as an old friend, not as “Old Europe.” A lot has changed since then. The U.S. is entangled in an unpopular war in Iraq, sharply criticized at the onset by our traditional allies across the Atlantic. The Bush administration’s decision to essentially go it alone set off a firestorm of protests in Europe in 2003. I covered many of those demonstrations. I remember an estimated half million people gathered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in February of that year to condemn the impending invasion. Now, as I prepared to leave for Berlin, I wondered if I, as an American, would face a firestorm of my own. I wondered if the Germans could separate American politics from the American people.
Once I arrived, the German capital appeared on the surface not to have changed much. Construction cranes still hung in the skies above eastern Berlin. The gate of Ishtar at the Pergamon Museum remained colorfully preserved. The lions still held guard at the steps of the Reichstag. But on closer examination, change is visible. The city is reinventing itself. The windowed high-rises of Potsdamer Platz gleam with economic revitalization. Norman Foster’s glass dome sitting atop the renovated Reichstag promises a new transparency in government. The rising and falling angled architecture of the Jewish Museum is an unsettling reminder of Germany’s history coupled with hope for the future.
It’s this balance of past and future that became more apparent in Berlin as the week progressed. The itinerary was daunting. Most days were spent criss-crossing the city to meet with politicos, bureaucrats, reporters, and community leaders. Essentially, it was a crash course in German politics, history, culture, and media. But as we met with Mr. Engelbert Lütke Daldrup of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Affairs to discuss long-term development of federal states in eastern Germany, or Mr. Stephan Kramer of the Central Council of Jews in Germany to hear about the state of Jewish communities, I realized that as German society moves forward, the national psyche is still very connected to the past.
A moment that stays with me is speaking with Mr. Eberhard Zahn, who spent seven years at Hohenschönhausen prison on a conviction for sympathizing with the “West.” As he described the horrific conditions of his confinement and the isolation he endured, I wondered how anyone could survive with their mind intact. When asked if it was difficult to return to the place of his incarceration, he replied no. He said he regarded his life as a’triumph.” He wanted people to know what happened there, and not to forget.
On my last day in Berlin, I noticed graffiti sprawled on a wall. It read: America ja, Bush nein. It was a simple answer to my question. People do separate the political from the personal. It’s that distinction that has allowed Germany to rebuild itself after the destruction of World War II and the devastating divide under years of communism. It’s that distinction that allows the German people to look to the future, with one eye on the past.
Petra Mayer, National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.
It’s more than a little strange being home after our weeks of discovery, adventure, and yes, really good beer. I had gotten used to the rhythm of life in Germany… and I had gotten perilously close to packing in my American job and house and moving to Berlin. For a public radio journalist, Germany is the promised land, or about as near to it as we’re likely to see.
You may think I’m being facetious, but one thing that was brought home to me several times during our week in Berlin was the respect people have for public broadcasting, and the important role it plays in their lives. Public broadcasters in Germany don’t have to hold on-air fundraising marathons, the way we do in the States; they get their money from a license fee levied on radios and television sets. And while most Germans think of public broadcasting as dreadfully boring, it’s not seen as biased in the way NPR and PBS often are.
Cultural programming also seems to have a much more important place in German broadcasting and German society than it does here at home. One memorable evening in Berlin, our group was taken to see a modern music ensemble at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Now, I’m what you’d call a philistine when it comes to modern music, and I must admit that I couldn’t tell the piece had started, because I mistook the noise for a janitor knocking over mops backstage. But the sold out all-ages audience was absolutely rapt. And while the composition wasn’t my cup of tea, I’ve come to think that moment encapsulated something wonderful — the way culture is a part of life in Germany. From scruffy teenagers to prim grandmothers, everyone in that packed concert hall felt comfortable spending an evening investigating challenging modern music. You would have a hard time finding an audience for that music in the States, and an even harder time getting media attention.
I think some of that attitude towards culture must come from Germany’s approach to broadcast media. I got the impression from some of the journalists we spoke to that radio and TV are seen as a way to enlighten and inform the public, not just entertain them. Here in the States we’d probably consider that attitude paternalistic; we prefer to leave things to the market and the vagaries of popular taste. After spending time in Germany, I found myself wishing for a happy medium that would allow space for silly sitcoms alongside high art.
Another difference that struck me, coming from a country aloof between two oceans, was the sense in Germany of connectedness to the rest of the world, and Europe in particular. Germany is part of the European Union and must concern itself with the fortunes of its neighbors in a way that the U.S. never has. And Germany’s painful history means it must take care not to present itself as a superpower the way the U.S. does.
That history is ever present, in people and in places. Our Berlin hotel was a few minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, down a grand boulevard that housed government buildings from the time of the Kaiser to the downfall of the Third Reich. We could wander a few minutes in one direction and find a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a few minutes in another direction and see the weedy open field that had been the SS headquarters. Sometimes the weight of all that history seemed to press down hard on people. Over and over, I heard things like “after what we did, who are we to tell you anything?” But sometimes it seemed liberating, as if Germany had been through the worst, and come out both stronger and more flexible. One morning, our group visited the Interior Ministry for a meeting with counterterrorism officials. The young man who briefed us on Germany’s anti-terror efforts was adamant about the importance of protecting privacy and civil liberties, even when it made his job more difficult. “We’ve already had two dictatorships,” he told us. “We don’t want another one.” It was all the more impressive since Germany is dealing with the prospect of homegrown terrorism among disaffected Muslim immigrants, an issue the U.S. hasn’t yet faced.
I’m so grateful that I got the chance to spend time in Germany and observe all these differences at first hand. Our two countries can learn a lot from each other — from the thorny issues of immigration and terrorism to the proper appreciation of atonal music — and I hope to be a part of that ongoing process.
Sandy Rathbun, KVOA-TV, Tuscon, AZ
Germany 10 years later
The first time I visited Germany was in 1997. The RIAS Commission chose me to be part of its Fall ’97 group. Then I was lucky to return with the Fall 2007 group.
What a difference 10 years make! In 1997, Bonn was the capital of Germany. Now it’s Berlin. In ’97, Berlin’s Reichstag was being reconstructed to house Parliament. In 2007, I got to see it finished. A highlight of my trip was climbing up the new glass dome.
In the past 10 years Berlin built a lot of glass government buildings. During a sightseeing tour on the Spree River, I was struck by the use of glass as a symbol of Germany’s goal to make its government transparent. All over Berlin there are new buildings. In ’97, Germans laughingly told me their national bird was the construction crane. They were everywhere, working 24 hours a day. Back then, Potsdamer Platz was called the largest building site in Europe. This trip, what used to be the symbol of old Berlin, is now compared to New York’s Times Square and is considered the most vibrant, visible symbol of new Berlin.
In ’97, it was easy to see where West Berlin stopped and East Berlin started. Now, so much reconstruction has been done, often the only way I could tell was to look for pavers in the street that mark the location of the former Wall. Walking around, I discovered another way too. The East has kept its distinctive Ampelmännchen, the little traffic light man, at pedestrian crossings.
In 2007, Germany seems to me to be talking more about the Holocaust. The new Jewish Museum Berlin opened in 2001. The Holocaust Memorial opened in 2005. This trip I also noticed brass plaques set into sidewalks outside places where Holocaust victims lived. The artist who makes them calls them stumble stones and says they’re meant to trip memory. I learned not every German city wants them. Munich bans them. And some question whether there is such a thing as too much memory.
When I visited Dresden in 1997, charred remains of the Frauenkirche were still mostly untouched. Then, we toured a “library” of original rocks that would be used to rebuild the church. In 2007, the church is rebuilt and new businesses and homes crowd around it. I learned people in Dresden still debate the church’s reconstruction and whether it was more powerful as “a gaping wound in the heart of Dresden” or rebuilt as a “masterpiece of reconciliation.”
East and West Germany reunified in 1990. When I visited in 1997, I was told it was frowned on to talk about the former East and West. Germany wanted to be recognized as one country. In 2007, our speakers commonly talked about the old East and West. What was different was the description seemed more comfortable. In ’97 and ’07 I heard about how Germans still have a “wall in the mind” about reunification and how many people resent the cost and problems associated with it. But, after my latest trip, I believe this “wall” isn’t nearly as big as I read in the media. Germans I talked to seem satisfied with reunification progress. They told me they accept that it will take longer than then Chancellor Helmut Kohl predicted. One of our speakers said the new target for ending financial subsidies to the East is 2019.
German television news looked a little different this trip. In ’97, I was told TV reporters never did stand ups in news stories, because they were reporters, not stars. This trip I did see stand ups.
What didn’t change in the past decade was the kindness of our RIAS hosts and the German people. This trip I had the joy of reuniting with a German journalist who I hosted in the U.S. I had the pleasure of having dinner at the home of a German news anchor, her director husband and their young daughter.
Frankly, I hesitated to apply for a return trip to Germany because I didn’t want to waste RIAS “ money or my time. I can honestly say I didn’t waste either. In 2007, every day, around every corner I saw and learned something new. Now that I “m home I “m using that to build on my understanding of Germany and the role it plays with the U.S. and in the world.
Marilyn Torres, RCN-TV, Bath, PA
As with almost all large life experiences, I had quite a lot of expectations heading into my fellowship. Saying they were exceeded is an understatement as the knowledge, experience and wisdom gained were incredible. And then there was the wonderful camaraderie, both socially and professionally. I was so struck by how all the participants in the program, both American and German, had a tremendous passion for their craft and a great desire to use this experience to help improve their profession.
As such, I returned to the U.S. with a new and not entirely positive perspective on American media. I am proud of many things our media is responsible for: substantive investigative journalism; creative and sometimes dazzling presentation; and increasing diversity among both journalists and consumers of the news. But never before had I been more struck by how obsessively pre-occupied the American media is with pop culture and celebrity hype and paparazzi journalism and all that goes with those things. In Germany (and elsewhere in Europe for that matter) I was greatly impressed with how much more substantive and serious much of the journalism is. And how consumers of the news use it so much more frequently than Americans do to make informed political and other decisions.
Obviously there is some of the American media preoccupation I described in all nations’ media. But as I traveled and interned and became more and more immersed in European media, I saw a clear difference that, if nothing else, made me want to work from the inside to improve American media work in this regard.
I would also be remiss if I did not finish this essay by adding a few points about cultural differences I saw in addition to the media philosophies. I now understand the so-called European approach to better balancing work and non-work priorities.
The work-work-work American mentality was far less prevalent. I also greatly enjoyed the priority placed upon the arts and culture in media coverage and general conversation. And then there was the beer. My kudos to the brewmasters!
Robert Wilson, KSFY-TV, Sioux Falls, SD
Unlike most of my fellow fellows, this was my first trip to Europe. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with nearly everything I saw. The Brandenburg Gate, the transparent factory, the EU and NATO, all amazing! Most of the speakers we met also did a fantastic job of explaining their areas of expertise. They knew their subjects, and could explain them in a way that made it clear how different areas of concern fit together. But it was our group, both journalists and the RIAS staff that made this a special experience.
Of all the places we visited, there were a few I found especially meaningful. One was the Stasi prison. This was a place, where, in my lifetime, citizens were jailed, interrogated and sentenced to years in prison for what they thought and said. That was hard for me to grasp. At the House of the Wannsee Conference I had a similar, but more chilling experience. There, in January 1942, representatives of all different factions of the Nazi Government met and agreed on the deportation and murder of European Jews. Walking though the building and around the property I could feel the evil in the well manicured lawns and the elegant state rooms.
Thankfully several spots had the opposite effect. One was the Potsdamer Platz section of Berlin, where cobblestones imbedded in the street signify where the Berlin Wall once stood. For me, that’s a powerful image of growth and prosperity where 20 years ago there was nothing but a wall dividing people. I felt the same at the Reichstag. It’s a building with such a long history, now the visually stunning center of a relatively new government and a unified nation.
The speakers we met were, for the most part, top-notch. Meeting with Mr. Thomas Habicht on the second full day of our trip was a wonderful scheduling decision. His descriptions of the challenges Germany faces because of reunification gave us an information base that many of our later experiences built on. I was especially interested in the issues related to the release of the Stasi files. Also, his explanation as to why some former East Germans are not happy about reunification was very helpful.
Our next two speakers that same afternoon, Mr. Stephan Kramer and Mr. Özcan Mutlu, collectively explained a part of the German education system I had a hard time understanding. Mr. Kramer, a Jew, and Mr. Mutlu, a Turk, both told of the challenges immigrants face when trying to assimilate into German culture and become German citizens. Immigrants can’t apply for German citizenship until they know the German language, but there’s no program in the German education system to teach German as a second language to immigrants. This struck me as the ultimate double edged sword for someone trying to start a new life in a new nation.
Our speaker from the Federal Ministry of Interior was fascinating. And our timing could not have been better. He was very willing to talk about the agency’s work to break up a major German terror plot several weeks earlier. I was fascinated to learn that one way German authorities continue to gain intelligence information is positioning agents at airports and asking random people as they get off flights from certain countries if they have any information they’d like to share with authorities. I found it somewhat sad when he said the American intelligence community was at first reluctant to share intelligence they gathered on this plot.
Overall, I was most interested in what the journalist we met told us about reporting in Europe. As an American who has lived and worked in Germany for years, Reuters’ Erik Kirschbaum was a great resource. I enjoyed hearing his impressions of the European practice of reporters allowing an interview subject to okay their quotes after an interview and before they’re published. My first reaction was to question why a reporter would agree to such an arrangement. The more we talked to Mr. Kirschbaum and other speakers, I understood some of the benefits. Virtually all of our guests spoke very freely to us once it was established that the conversations were off the record.
Of all our speakers, the two television journalists, Markus Preiss of ARD and Frank Buchwald of ZDF, were the two I identified with the most. German television is, in many ways, very different than what we know in the U.S. I was surprised to hear that, ratings-wise, public stations in Germany do as well, if not better than their private counterparts. The fact that the public networks, including ZDF, have a council that governs them, (made up of “all relevant members of society”) immediately made me wonder if board members try to influence coverage. I was impressed to hear Dr. Buchwald say while it does happen, it’s not blatant. And there are ways to report improper attempts to influence coverage if it does happen. Because Dr. Buchwald works for a public station, he says he feels he has more access when covering government issues. If we’d had more time with him, I would have enjoyed discussing that in more detail.
As Mr. Preiss talked about working for a public station, that also seemed to present challenges. Based in Brussels, he reports from the headquarters of the European Union for an audience in Germany, as well as Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. I can’t imagine trying to make a single story relevant to four different national audiences. He also described how getting any information beyond official sound bites and superficial information is difficult. For any reporter trying to distinguish his or her work from the rest of a press corps, I think that would be frustrating.
What I’ve described are just a few of the people and places that made the trip interesting. But what made it truly special was the group of fellow journalists I shared this trip with. Our group was a wonderful mix of people with different backgrounds and experience levels. We really enjoyed each other, and I think each of us felt free to talk openly and challenge each other about any topic that came up.
Since returning home, I’ve told colleagues “imagine your favorite college class, your favorite work experience, and a dream vacation all rolled into one.” That was my experience with the RIAS Berlin Kommission exchange program.