“Not in my Lifetime!” Remembering Germany Before 1989
In the summer of 1980, I arrived in Bonn to establish the first full time office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Germany. It was a few months before a federal election that was contested between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democratic Party and Franz Josef Strauss, head of the Christian Social Union. These two political giants faced off in a bitterly fought battle that Schmidt managed to win in October. The campaign issues were forged around economic policies, the fear of terrorism, which had dramatically cast a shadow over the country during the previous few years, and several foreign policy challenges, including dealing with rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two Germanys—the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic—constituted the frontline of the Cold War and relations across that divide were always subject to the temperatures in Washington and Moscow. Even though there had been some progress made in the previous decade to establish relations across the Berlin Wall, allowing some political bridges to be built, there was little doubt that the country’s division was not going to change. Any discussion about reunification usually ended with someone saying “Well, it might happen someday, but not in my lifetime.”
In those years, the work of GMF was shaped around that division. Efforts were made to explore shared transatlantic problems in dealing with economic, social, and political challenges such as immigration, environmental concerns, juvenile justice issues, or geopolitical challenges.
During my five years in Bonn, there emerged serious concerns that transatlantic relations were being severely strained, particularly in light of the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons.
During my five years in Bonn, there emerged serious concerns that transatlantic relations were being severely strained, particularly in light of the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons, which was causing frictions between Bonn and Washington. German domestic battles heated up over relations with the United States with arguments over policies and also a more general criticism of aspects of American society. Antagonism toward the newly elected President Ronald Reagan was part of that atmosphere as he was portrayed by some as a Cold Warrior enhancing the confrontation with the Soviet Union, endangering the possibilities of détente, and limiting the potential of eased relations across the Berlin Wall.
In 1983, Helmut Kohl was elected chancellor amid much volatility and anxiety about the escalation of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Steering through that storm was a serious challenge for German domestic politics and for German-American relations. That included trying to sustain relations between the two German states. Yet by the time the decade was to end, the entire framework of the Cold War was being transformed. Very few saw that coming.
The concerns about German-American relations were focused on what was to be labeled the “successor generations.” The assumption was that those born after the end of the Second World War would be less impacted by the events surrounding the rebuilding of West Germany and the cooperation and support provided by the United States in those early years. The need was to renew the importance of German-American ties in a changing environment.
The deliberations at GMF about these challenges led to the creation the Marshall Memorial Fellowship program, which offered an opportunity for young German professionals in the Federal Republic to spend several weeks in the United States. The program would eventually be expanded to other European countries with the same purpose.
In those years before reunification, such programs were markedly delineated by the divisions of the Cold War. It was impossible to offer these opportunities to individuals in the German Democratic Republic or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The reality of Germany’s division was always visible in the form of the wall in Berlin or the boundaries between the two states, guarded by East German soldiers. In most circles of discussions and debates, that reality seemed to be a permanent fixture in confronting questions about how to deal with it. Despite the fact that the possibility of reunification was enshrined in the first few lines of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law, the combination of the larger East-West conflict and structures set—literally—in stone around the two German states appeared to make the stakes in keeping the division unchangeable. During those years, efforts made to build bridges over the wall—primarily by the Federal Republic—eased ease person-to-person contact as well as enhancing relations between non-governmental organizations and through sports channels and religious institutions. But very little credence was given to the notion that reunification was going to be a viable option anytime soon.
Indeed in 1987 the leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, made what amounted to a state visit to Bonn, during which Kohl publicly underlined the goal of unity. But few believed it was more than an aspiration to be realized.
The GMF programs in the years before 1989 were designed to sustain the transatlantic partnership in multiple ways on multiple levels. They were part of a larger network of connections between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States. Concerns about the state of German-American relations were continuous in this environment, but there was never a deficit in efforts to address them in light of the many types of encounters, exchanges, and dialogues going on across the Atlantic. What did change was the content of those encounters as the world around them changed. While few on either side of the Atlantic could anticipate what was to occur at the end of that decade with the speed and drama it did, there was a wide and deep infrastructure of connections on which responding to the new environment could be built. GMF has played an important role throughout its existence beginning in 1972. Its importance remains as the German-American relationship and the world in which it sits continue to change.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.