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A life in two worlds

Stephan Steinlein, State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office, speaks about his life before and after the fall of the Wall


Mr Steinlein, the years 1989 and 1990 brought a fundamental change in your life – as they did for many citizens of the 
former GDR at that time. What are your feelings when you look back on that period?

Still a feeling of great joy. When I see pictures of the opening 
of the Wall, I get misty eyes even today. And over the years 
this has also been joined by a feeling of enormous gratitude. 
We should certainly not take it for granted that the dark 20th century ended so wonderfully for Germany.

Is the role of the GDR civil rights campaigners who brought about the peaceful revolution being honoured enough today when we commemorate the fall of the Wall and reunification? What remains of the commitment of these women and men?

There are not only many events at which the leaders of that period are appearing as contemporary witnesses, but there is also an almost infinite number of articles and books. The culture of remembrance is therefore very much alive. However, we must not overlook the fact that the peaceful revolution 
was not the achievement of a few. The peaceful revolution 
was also a kind of refoundation of German democracy, the feat of the tens of thousands who went onto the streets and in the end literally brought down the Wall with their own bodies. After 1945, democracy was initially a generous gift of the Western powers. It took the critical questioning of the 1968 generation to really anchor it in people’s minds. The second time, people won democracy through their own courage, 
civil disobedience and public spirit. For me that is the decisive legacy of 1989, and it will remain!

Did it immediately become clear to you that you wanted 
to play an active part in the diplomatic service of united Germany? You had originally intended to become a professor of ecclesiastical history.

I suffered most in the GDR from its narrow-mindedness. Ecclesiastical history covers the whole world! My great teacher and doctoral supervisor at that time, Wolfgang Ullmann, was one of the GDR’s leading civil rights campaigners. In spring 1990 he asked me whether I would like to manage his office in parliament. At the same time, I received the request to go to Paris as the ambassador of the transitional government. I chose the foreign policy option, because I already considered reunification a pan-European, not a purely German matter. I had already begun establishing links with the Polish opposition in the mid-1980s. I experienced the fall of the Wall itself as a doctoral student in Strasbourg. I therefore already had a predisposition for relations with our neighbouring European countries. To that extent, my application to join the Federal Foreign Office was a logical step for me to take.

In your current working environment, does it still play 
any role whether someone comes from eastern or western Germany?

No. But I’m always pleased to meet people somewhere else in the world who come, for example, from Saxony, Brandenburg or Mecklenburg. Many of them are very successful, even with the experience and knowledge they gained in the former GDR.

Is Germany in 2015 a different country from the old Federal Republic before reunification?

The post-war era finally came to an end in 1990. The foreign policy DNA of the Federal Republic may not have changed at that time: its anchoring in the transatlantic system, the European imperative, the support for Israel’s right to exist, the policy of detente and the multilateral reflex continue to be defining elements. Nevertheless, today Germany is viewed differently and faces different expectations from those in earlier decades. Some say Germany has grown up. I find that too biologistic. Countries do not age like human beings, and even if they did, Germany would be a fairly old nation. Germany did not grow up in 1989, but it undoubtedly has a more visible and more 
exposed position. We can no longer hide behind others when 
it comes to taking responsibility for a more peaceful world. 
We bear much stronger responsibility: not only for what we do, but also for what we don’t do.

How do Germans from east and west today treat their different experiences, their different history?

I hope they approach them with curiosity and openness. Shared diversity constitutes the richness of a country. That was true in the past, even in the heyday of the nation-state, and it is even more true today in a globalised world. People’s experiences 
in east and west are certainly different, but the experiences of all those who have come to Germany from other countries are even more different. I almost say this in the past tense: reunification was a success story – period. Today’s great challenge is continuing this process of growing together with regard to the people who come to us from other countries. That will decide the future of our society and our democracy!

In your experience as a diplomat, how is united Germany perceived abroad today? Does the experience of division play a role in your discussions with partners?

Referring your initial question: who would have thought 
70 years ago that Germany would be given a second chance? Well, we have had a second chance. Today we are one of the world’s most respected and most successful countries. And I hope we 
will respond intelligently to this fortunate turn in our history. Incidentally, instead of referring to the experience of division I would rather speak of the experience of successfully overcoming division. And that represents a glimmer of hope on the horizon in a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented. ▪

Interview: Janet Schayan