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International impulses in Berlin

The American philosopher Susan Neiman talks about Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall, and about the Einstein Forum she runs in Potsdam.

Interview: Johannes Göbel, 08.11.2019
Susan Neiman: “Berlin has become much more international”
Susan Neiman: “Berlin has become much more international” © dpa

Susan Neiman first came to West Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship in 1982. She stayed for six years, studied philosophy at the Freie Universität, taught, and worked as an author. Neiman left the city in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down. She became a professor of philosophy at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. She returned to Berlin in 2000, since which time she has run the Einstein Forum in Potsdam just outside Berlin. The Foundation of the State of Brandenburg makes an international and multidisciplinary scientific program of events available to the general public.

Professor Neiman, you have known Berlin for close to 40 years now, and also experienced the city before the fall of the Wall. How has Berlin changed since the 1980s, in your opinion?
The city has changed in every respect, mainly for the better. Berlin has become much more international. For example, foreigners would stand out in Berlin in the 1980s if they didn’t speak German. These days my children find it annoying that it’s only possible to order in English in some cafés. Just like Berlin, Germany has also undergone a considerable transformation in the past decades. For me, the key turning point came in 1998 when a coalition of the SPD and the Greens was elected as the new federal government. From that point on, a different, more cosmopolitan attitude to life could be sensed. When the citizenship laws were reformed in the year 2000, children born in Germany to foreign parents could also become German citizens. That same year, the foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” was established to provide compensation for the victims of the Nazi regime, especially former forced laborers. All of these were good reasons for me to return permanently to Germany in the year 2000.

In your new book “Learning from the Germans”, you write that the progress Germany has made with critically reappraising its history encouraged you to bring your children up in Germany.
As Jews who had previously spent five years living in Tel Aviv, this was still a big step for us in the year 2000. However, the way Germans have engaged and critically analyzed their past is unique. This is something that one notices time and time again nowadays. Following an anti-Semitic attack in 2018, around 2,500 Berliners took part in a solidarity demonstration entitled “Berlin wears the kippah”. 5,000 right-wing radicals demonstrated in the Saxon city of Chemnitz in 2018, but a week later 65,000 people came to Chemnitz to attend a rock concert opposing right-wing extremism. I am very happy to see how many Germans clearly display their indignation following radical right-wing and anti-Semitic acts.

You returned to Germany in the year 2000 to take over as head of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. How would you describe the character of this institution?
The establishment of the Einstein Forum in 1993 was intended to send out a clear signal of cosmopolitanism. One shouldn’t forget that other countries were viewing German reunification with concern. There were fears that there could be a resurgence of German nationalism. The commemoration of Albert Einstein is synonymous with both internationalization and scientific achievement.

What is your link to Albert Einstein?
I am not a natural scientist and first had to engage with Einstein on a deeper level. In the process, I was particularly impressed by the way he presented himself as a public intellectual. For example, he was one of the few German intellectuals to oppose Germany’s decision to enter the First World War. Although he was against communism, he was always a strong advocate of socialism. During the Second World War he devoted his time to helping refugees, and in the USA of the 1950s he opposed Senator McCarthy’s persecution of communists. It is this spirit of public intellectual engagement that the Einstein Forum is dedicated to upholding.

You mentioned the concerns about a new German nationalism in view of reunification. These concerns came about partly because Berlin superseded Bonn as the country‘s capital. Did you share these concerns?
No, but I was already pretty familiar with Berlin. I was more worried that Berlin could perhaps become too narrow-minded if it were the capital. As we now know, there was no reason to worry on that account either. I know of no other capital in the world that has invited so many foreigners to help shape its cultural life. For instance, Neil MacGregor from the UK worked for a long time to design the Humboldt Forum; the director of the HAU theater collective is Annemie Vanackere, who is originally from Belgium; and my position at the head of the Einstein Forum is another example. There is great appreciation in Berlin of international impulses. And that is wonderful.

2020 marks the 30th anniversary of German reunification. What is your view about the way West and East Germany have grown back together?
The West German view of the GDR is still far too negative. People often complain that everything in the GDR was so terribly gray. But where did the color come from in the cities of the West? From bright neon advertisements and posters. Advertising is also a form of propaganda, though one that has a more subtle effect than a quote from Marx or Lenin – and it promotes envy. Economic equality was far more pronounced in the GDR than it was in West Germany. The GDR was also much further advanced as regards the issue of gender equality.

So you see positive things about the GDR?
Yes, absolutely. For example, there was a commitment to international solidarity in GDR politics, and this was also shared by large parts of the population. At the start of his lecture at the Einstein Forum in 2018, the Korean academic Heonik Kwon recalled how East German engineers helped rebuild the war-torn North Korea after the Korean war ended in 1953. In a lecture at the Einstein Forum back in 2012, Inga Markovits, a law expert at the University of Texas in Austin, made it clear that there was in fact a fully functional legal system in the GDR. If we regard the GDR merely as an “illegitimate state”, we will be unable to see any of its positive sides.

In your opinion, what did the East Germans whose demonstrations in 1989 helped bring about the collapse of the GDR hope to achieve?
These courageous individuals took to the streets to demonstrate for a third path – something in between the socialism of the GDR and the capitalism of the West – rather than merely to join the global neoliberalism. I wish they had been able to achieve a more democratic form of socialism for themselves, and indeed for us all. But advantage was taken of the opportunity for reunification, and who knows how long this historical chance would have remained in place. However, sufficient tribute has not been paid to the achievements of the people in the GDR.