Remembering the lessons of the Berlin Wall

AXEL Hartmann understands that the story of the Berlin Wall, its fall, and the removal of armed borders from the heart of Europe needs to be regularly told to the younger generation which may take for granted the freedom of movement they now enjoy across Europe. Hartmann, Germany’s ambassador to Slovakia, also served as his country’s consul in Budapest in the mid 1980s, and explained that reunification of his nation, after a long and deep separation, takes time and patience.

German Ambassador to Slovakia Axel HartmannGerman Ambassador to Slovakia Axel Hartmann (Source: Jana Liptáková)

AXEL Hartmann understands that the story of the Berlin Wall, its fall, and the removal of armed borders from the heart of Europe needs to be regularly told to the younger generation which may take for granted the freedom of movement they now enjoy across Europe. Hartmann, Germany’s ambassador to Slovakia, also served as his country’s consul in Budapest in the mid 1980s, and explained that reunification of his nation, after a long and deep separation, takes time and patience.

Hartmann finds Slovaks to be very friendly with Germans and Germany, with a continuing strong interest in mastering the German language and openness to German culture. He shared his views about his country’s recent history, German as an important international language, the path of economic recovery, energy security and many other issues in a recent interview with The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Norbert Lammert, the Speaker of Germany’s Bundestag, earlier this year opened an exhibition at Bratislava Castle called the “Wall is Gone” which presented life on both sides of the Berlin Wall and how East and West Germany approached unification. Has full unification, 20 years after the fall of the Wall, now been achieved?

Axel Hartmann (AH): The Berlin Wall fell 21 years ago and this year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany. For many of us, it still seems a miracle. I was West German and I was involved in the field of east-west relations. I also served as German consul in Budapest, Hungary, and we had a lot of refugees coming to the embassy already in the mid 1980s. I witnessed the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the east bloc while I was working at the federal chancellor’s office next to Helmut Kohl. I often recall those times when I share my memories with students here. Those times need to be remembered and regularly repeated for the young generation since it is already history to them and sometimes they tend to think that things have always been this way. It is the middle and older generations who still clearly remember having a military border right in the heart of Europe.

Reunification of Germany has been a long process. Before the reunification, the south of Germany was more prosperous than the northern part: Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have been the richest parts of the country for a long time.

Today, we face problems with disparities between the east and west of the country while some regions in western Germany are still not as developed as the southern parts. After 1989, not a single one of the eastern German regions was competitive enough: the industry there was 40 to 50 years behind the industries in western Germany. Some facilities came from before World War II and resembled technical museums rather than production plants. We did not know this at the beginning of reunification. Traditional economic relations between the GDR and the COMECON countries broke abruptly in July 1990 when the Deutsche mark came to the GDR. The whole GDR economy collapsed in just a few weeks. It was an earthquake of sorts and then we realised what a laborious path we were facing.

Reunification has been a long process – the separation was so very deep that it has taken decades to achieve reunification. Today, the country is normalised – with Germans from the west going to the east and vice versa. Some industrial islands of the former GDR now have more modern and up-to-date technology than some of the companies in the western parts since everything in the east had to be modernised. All in all, the story of the unification is a long one and it is still continuing.

TSS: Fighting inflation and keeping stable public finances is a top economic priority in Germany in contrast to some other countries which favour giving additional stimulus to their crisis-hit economies. Why is Germany so conscious of inflation? What steps have been taken to ensure healthier public finances?

AH: We are on the path of recovery from the economic crisis and we are recovering faster than we had anticipated one year ago. It comes as a surprise for us.

But the German recovery also has had a positive impact on Slovakia since you have a lot of companies here producing parts for cars and whole vehicles for the German market. This segment of Slovak industry is highly developed and this is how our industries are intertwined.

As for inflation, it was a very damaging experience in Germany in the 1920s and after World War II. For example, my father experienced high inflation twice in his lifetime, which resulted in his family losing everything. So Germans have a deep-rooted concern about inflation and there was also the shared feeling that if we were to give up our Deutsche mark it had to be replaced by a currency that is very strong. This is why we advocated for and fought so heavily for the Maastricht conditions to set limits for inflation and public finance deficits.

Well, I do not need to explain the current situation, but we want to have a very strong currency, a strong euro, and low inflation, while easing the fears of the population. This is why we are supportive of strong regulation to prevent a reccurrence of those bad inflationary periods from the last century.

TSS: Climate protection and renewable resources were among the main foci of Germany during its EU presidency in 2007 and the German government has adopted a climate protection programme that should lead to savings of €5 billion by private households and industry by 2020. Is there wide public support in Germany for this programme?

AH: Climate protection is a shared feeling of the German population: people do want to use renewable energy and they want to do things to protect the environment. A lot of Germans are now opposed to nuclear energy; this also is a shared feeling. Since we had realised that there was this opposition to nuclear energy, then we had to figure out, early on, how to replace it with something else. We started using renewable energies already in the 1970s and today more than 500,000 Germans are working in the renewable energy sector. This sector is still not as strong as the auto industry, but it is growing.

We have promised a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 but thanks to our renewable energy programme the reduction will be as much as 40 percent. The population is accepting this philosophy and they are building their houses in line with the concept. The share of our renewable energies already stands at around 15 percent.

TSS: Energy security has been a very intensively discussed issue, especially since the 2009 natural gas crisis caused by the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. What is Germany’s position on energy security and how can small countries like Slovakia contribute to this within the EU?

AH: Yes, there is a strong energy security lesson to be learned from 2009, which suggests that countries like Slovakia need to diversify their energy resources. Fortunately, Slovakia at that time could be helped by arranging the so-called reverse flow of gas. But in the long term, you have to look for a secure energy flow and you have to reduce the kind of dependency which always emerges when you have only one supplier; you certainly need more than one. Slovakia needs to do its homework and develop renewable energy.

TSS: More than half of industrial production in Germany comes from areas with significant research and innovation capacity. What makes Germany so successful in research and innovation?

AH: Germany has invested huge amounts of money into innovation so that the country can produce even better products than its competitors, which also allows us to sell our products more expensively. Perhaps our Mercedes, Porsche and BMWs might be better than other cars and thus Germany can sell them at higher prices. Yet the country is export-driven. Slovakia, too, could invest more into research and innovation because it already has the qualified labour for making that progress. When I visit universities in Slovakia I get the impression that most potential is reserved for teaching and much less for research and innovation. There are, of course, some more positive examples: Volkswagen is involved in research projects with the Technical University in Košice and another German company in Žilina, Scheidt&Bachman, is closely cooperating with the university in Žilina, with the company financially supporting the research. Here both sides gain advantages.

TSS: There are concerns in Slovakia that some countries to the east offer cheaper labour and more attractive tax incentives, which might lure German investments further east. Are these realistic concerns?

AH: Yes, it is cheaper if you go to Romania or Kazakhstan or so on; if you are walking east, the labour will get cheaper. But the question nevertheless remains: will you get the same skilled labour to produce these goods? Businessmen also watch the security of their investment. The further you get to the east, the more difficult it is to protect your investment. In this sense Slovakia is a wonderful partner. We have over 400 firms operating here, which is a good sign for both economies. The problem which we might foresee is that in a couple of years there might be a lack of skilled workers here. We see a tendency for the younger generation to go directly from [secondary] school to earn money. We are very much promoting programmes that bring young people first to higher levels of education and then to start taking up jobs.

In Germany we have a dual system of educating the workforce: a young person starts learning a job while attending fulltime schooling where the young worker learns the theory but also works practically. After four years the young person becomes a “Facharbeiter”. When there is a crisis, first the unskilled workers are laid off. Also, it is a huge disadvantage for a country in the long term if highly-skilled workers are missing.

TSS: Has Slovak-German business potential been fully activated? In your opinion, what makes the Slovak business environment attractive for German investors?

AH: Our business links are at a very high level. I often visit German companies here and they are happy with their investment choices. Yet often the problem they face is that they might need even more skilled workers. It is now a question that [Slovak] politicians have to answer with changes in the education system. Today it is more difficult to inspire German companies to invest abroad. It was a strong tendency in the late 1990s but today companies are more careful. There are companies that moved further east following cheaper labour, but a lot of those companies are coming back.

TSS: German is the mother tongue of almost 100 million Europeans. Has the status of German changed in the central European region because so many young people are learning English? Have Slovaks maintained their interest in learning German?

AH: English is the most important language, but Slovaks have maintained their interest in learning German, which remains a very important language in the business field. About 19,000 Slovaks choose German as the foreign language for their final exam and, for example, only 1,700 choose French. Speaking German is an important qualification for young Slovaks since German enterprises offer a lot of jobs here in Slovakia. In countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and even Romania or Bulgaria there are communities with German roots, even significant minorities. For example in Slovakia, we have the Carpathian German minority here.

Almost 15 million people speak and learn German as a foreign language – but this number has been decreasing over the last decade. In order to reverse this development, the German government has started a worldwide programme called German, the Language of Ideas. It is actually easy to implement it in Slovakia: I am going from school to school and I have had a lot of contacts with Slovak students and I do not need to convince them because they understand that German is an important language in the centre of Europe. For some of them it is perfectly clear that if they want to get a good job they have to speak German. English is number one, no one doubts it, but German is number two.

We have a lot of German teachers working here in Slovakia. They were sent by German authorities and their job is to support Slovak teachers in teaching the German language. I also deliver lectures at schools and meet young people to hear what they think about my country, about the German economy, and the German language. It is a great experience for me because everybody is very friendly-minded towards Germany. The young generation understands that with the borders being erased within the EU they will have a possibility to work everywhere in Europe. Besides, the German language is shared between three countries: Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Sometimes, we three colleagues are promoting German together.

TSS: The German former mining city of Essen is a European Capital of Culture for 2010. What challenges does such a title bring to a city? Can Košice, which will hold this title in 2013, learn lessons from Essen?

AH: Germany has a lot to offer in the field of culture. Košice has a good chance to present itself as a cultural centre as opposed to being only an industrial centre. Košice is not that well known in Germany but this is a great chance for the Slovak city, which has a long partnership with Wuppertal, which is next to Essen. I think that the city of Wuppertal is supporting Košice’s plans as a capital of culture. It is a big chance for Košice to become more visible on the European scene and the city might gain a lot of advantages from that. This designation might also help to reduce some of the regional disparities and bring Košice some advantages even in the economic field.

TSS: The Carpathian German minority in Slovakia has been culturally active. What is the quality of relations between the Carpathian Germans and Germany? What kind of support does this minority receive?

AH: The Carpathian Germans have a very long tradition here. They came first in the 11th century. Most of them worked in the mining, printing or agricultural areas. They contributed a great deal to the development of many cities and their wealth, for example in Levoča or Kežmarok. We give support to this minority, but it has become a very small number as a result of the war and forced resettlements.

But this minority is also well-supported by the Slovak government and the German minority is a significant cultural factor. Because of their small numbers they are no longer a large economic factor, but the tradition of supporting this minority remains.

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