On December 16, the Young Transatlantic Network (YTN) of The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) and the U.S. Mission to the EU hosted a roundtable discussion with John F. Sammis, deputy chief of the U.S. mission to Germany and Irmtraud Richardson, a Europe-focused journalist from Germany living in Brussels for over three decades. The discussion, moderated by Stephanie Vertongen, reflected on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and its surrounding events.
Sammis was stationed in East Germany before the fall and lived through the political transformations leading up to 1989. Both panelists stressed their sincere conviction at the time that the Wall was simply part of the landscape and a prediction of any change to it was unfathomable. There was no organized political opposition and for the few existing as opposed individuals, the ruling regime would simply make them leave the country. One of the most complicated aspects of life in East Germany was that the population only realized the backlash when they were in contact with relatives and friends in West Germany. This did little to change public sentiment, though, as the majority simply did not even think of opposing the regime.
The panellists argued that the fall of the Wall was due to many contingencies, including a downturn in the economy, a sense of the widening gap between West and East Germany, and also just a sense of general frustration. They both highlighted the asset in terms of personalities, leadership and their relation at that time. Next to Mitterrand, Kohl was one of the most important parts of the puzzle in Germany’s reunification which led to the 2+4 talks that resulted in a soft reunification.
Even today, though, some of the biggest challenges for East and West Germany remain—like a huge gap in salaries and costs of living between the two areas. Moreover, West Germans believe that the solidary tax imposed on them after reunification should finally be dropped because the Eastern part of the country has received money for the last 25 years.
After the speakers’ discussion, approximately 25 young professionals posed a number of questions regarding the past, but also the challenges of the future. The YTN participants were curious what lessons can be learned from the events of 1989 and how those should be applied to today’s global challenges. In this spirit, the participants were also eager to discuss current opportunities and obstacles for transatlantic partners in connection to the relationship between the West and Russia, TTIP negotiations and the NSA spying scandals. Ultimately, the entire group concluded that strong leadership is needed to overcome current problems facing the EU and U.S.