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Video to mark the 30th anniversary of German reunification: 'I hope that reunification finally brings the people together’.


How do Europeans see the Germans, 30 years after reunification? Four foreign correspondents share their views

The Frenchman Pascal Thibaut experienced German reunification first hand in Berlin. Then, as now, he worked as foreign correspondent, conveying his views of the Federal Republic of Germany to his countrymen and women. In this interview he explains how he sees German reunification, and tells us what he wishes the Germans as they celebrate this important anniversary.

Pascal Thibaut is Radio France Internationale's man in Berlin, where he has lived since 1990 © Screenshot/Bundesregierung
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Mr Thibaut, what is the first thing that occurs to you when you think of Germany? Do you have a personal anecdote involving our country?

Pascal Thibaut: On 22 December 1989 I was standing right here at the Brandenburg Gate when it was re-opened. It was very crowded and it was a historic event that took me back to my early childhood. There is an old family photo that shows me as a baby in the arms of an elderly German gentleman. A family from our twin town, Gundersheim in Rhineland-Palatinate, was visiting us in Selongey, near Dijon. Behind this man, who served as a soldier during the war, stands my great uncle, who was a German prisoner of war. That is reconciliation in miniature.

What do you think of the reunified Germany, thirty years on?

Thibaut: Seen from the outside, 30 years after reunification Germany appears to be a nation like many others. But thirty years on, there are still many differences between East and West Germany – cultural, social and political differences. Investigating these is extremely interesting for a foreign correspondent.

What impact do you think German reunification has had on Europe?

Thibaut: German reunification accelerated the process of European unification, with, for instance, the Treaty of Maastricht, the introduction of the euro under Mitterand and Kohl, and the EU enlargement to incorporate Eastern European states.

German reunification, however, has also shifted the balance within the continent. Many countries, including my own country, France, feared that their special position was threatened at the end of the Cold War. Suddenly, France had to work out how to deal with this larger, stronger neighbour. That has left its mark on Franco-German relations.

What does Germany mean for your home country – do you know what France wishes Germany for the future?

Thibaut: For France, my home country, Germany is the most important partner. There are no two countries anywhere else in the world that maintain so many contacts at every level – with political, civil society, cultural and sporting links. Yet there are still many gaps in our knowledge of one another, especially on the French side, This spawns misunderstandings and fans old prejudices. Just as Germany still needs to work on achieving complete reunification at the level of individuals, Germany and France still need to work on their relationship.

What do you see as Germany’s greatest weakness and its greatest strength?

Thibaut: Germany’s greatest weakness must surely be its tendency to see the German model as the best. That is not always helpful for reforms and some people outside Germany see it as arrogant. One of Germany’s strengths is its ability to address problems, and get a large number of actors to come together and hammer out compromises, which are then accepted and move the country forward. 

What would you wish the Germans for the next 30 years of reunification?

Thibaut: For the next 30 years of reunification, we can only hope that the people of Germany are reunited at individual level, and that everything that divides East and West takes a back seat. Or at least that the differences become as insignificant as any other regional differences within the Federal Republic of Germany, such as the differences between the North and the South or between Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia. Diversity is one of Germany’s strengths, although the country also has weaknesses.

Pascal Thibaut has been Radio France Internationale’s foreign correspondent in Germany since 1997. Before that he worked as a freelance journalist. From 2009 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2020 he was chair of the Verein der Ausländischen Presse in Deutschland (the association of the foreign press in Germany). Thibaut, who has lived and worked in Berlin since 1990, studied at the renowned Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and then studied journalism at the Centre de formation des journalistes (CFJ), also in Paris.

'Discover Eastern Europe' - Rosalia Romaniec, Deutsche Welle

More East German points of view in the overall German narrative - this is the wish of Rosalia Romaniec for the Germans on the 30th anniversary of reunification. In addition, the Polish-born journalist hopes that more Germans discover Eastern Europe and engage with it. Because culturally, Poles and Germans are more similar than they think.

The journalist with Polish roots, Rosalia Romaniec, is the head of Deutsche Welle’s Berlin Studio. © Screenshot/Bundesregierung
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Ms Romaniec, what is the first thing that you think of when you think of Germany - is there a personal anecdote you associate with our country? 

Rosalia Romaniec: Openness, tolerance, liberal thinking - this is what occurs to me immediately when thinking of Germany today. And since a few years ago, it is a country that can also surprise, for example with a phrase such as “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it). Germany surprised the whole world with this phrase. It suddenly showed a completely new side to Germany, not strict, but very human. 

In the 1980s, I still grew up with an image of Germany that was significantly influenced by the Second World War. In my school books, Germany was primarily the “country of the perpetrators”.  

Then I came to Germany at the beginning of the 1990s, and got to know a very multicultural and diverse country. It was by far not as tolerant and open as today. But even then I was very pleasantly surprised. The city of Heidelberg, in which I ended up as a student, was like a melting pot of nations, and yet still a very German town. There, I found both. I felt immediately at home, and this is still the case today. I live in Berlin, but when I come to Heidelberg, it is my small, German home town. 

How do you experience united Germany after 30 years of reunification? 

Romaniec: Seen from the outside, Germany today is of course a united, liberal and open country. But viewed from the inside, you can still perceive a split. Sometimes I wonder why so little of the East German narrative can be found in the overall German narrative. For example, where are the directors of large companies, the Constitutional Court judges, the editors-in-chief and the university presidents with East German biographies? I am amazed that no progress has been made after 30 years. I believe that the task for the next 30 years is to change this drastically. This would be good for the country. 

In your opinion, what effect did the reunification of Germany have on Europe? 

Romaniec: As someone born in Poland, I would say: In Poland, the peaceful revolution started in Europe, and reached its conclusion in Germany. German unity was also a gift by several countries to the Germans. They agreed to the unity, although many feared the ultra-large, united Germany. 

At the same time, German unity was also a gift to Europe. Without it, Europe would never have grown together so much. Thanks to German reunification, we now all sit in the same boat. And Germany has now become my second home country. 

What does Germany specifically mean to your home country – do you know what is desired from Germany in the future?

Romaniec: Germany and Poland particularly share a very difficult history. Even many decades later, this influenced the relationship – between the countries, as well as the people. For many Polish families, even in 2020, Germany remains a country which brought disaster to their country and to Europe. 

At the same time, Germany is Poland's most important partner in Europe – economically and politically. And culturally, Poles and Germans are more similar than they think. They just don’t see this as such, because the Second World War caused alienation which persisted for a very long time.  

I find it interesting that 30 years ago, Poland felt much closer to the West Germans. East Germany was on the doorstep, but was foreign. Today it's different. The cooperation along the border has led to many positive changes. 

What does Poland desire from Germany? For Germany to remain economically strong – a lot depends on German prosperity. From a personal perspective, I can say: when I speak with my mother about Germany, who lives in Poland and doesn’t speak a word of German, she says: “I hope that Germany remains such a people-friendly country”. For her, the “Willkommenskultur” (welcoming culture) was a pivotal moment in her perception of the Germans. Since then, she sees the country primarily as very liberal and people friendly. And she wishes it to remain that way. Me too. 

What do you think is the biggest weakness and the greatest strength of the Germans?  

Romaniec: The biggest weakness is the tendency to over-regulate: there is a rule for everything. There are situations in which common sense would be much better and achieve the desired goal faster.  

German strengths are the economy, the diversity and the pragmatism. This mixture creates positive momentum. I like the German passion for technology and precision - this is particularly pronounced here. Also with the German language! I speak several languages - but something like a “Lebens-Abschnitts-Gefährte” (life phase partner) and similar constructions are unbeatable in their exactness. Fascinating! Just a single word describes half a life story. What’s more, many things work in Germany. One should make better use of this in future, for example for the environment. 

Finally, what do you wish for the Germans for the next 30 years of unity?  

Romaniec: I wish that Germany retains its strong civil society. That is our foundation. This country is also developing so well because so many people get involved and stand up for something. 

I wish that the west of the country realises that the east has brought along its own identity, which is an enrichment for all. This is the only way for what belongs together to grow together. 

I wish that the Germans would learn from their neighbours: for example, that “la dolce vita” does not stop at the Italian border, that you must pay a bit extra for a good steak, that more lightness of being does no harm. 

In addition, I wish that more Germans discover Eastern Europe and engage with it. It has a lot more to do with them than they think. And it is on the doorstep! But for some, the Seychelles are still closer than Warsaw.

Rosalia Romaniec has been the head of Deutsche Welle's Berlin Studio since February 2020. There, she was previously responsible for the areas of politics and Eastern Central Europe. Before that, she worked for 20 years as a freelance writer for various German and Polish media, among others for the Polish programme of Deutsche Welle, several ARD broadcasters and the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. From 2006 to 2008, she was chairperson of the Verein der Ausländischen Presse in Deutschland (foreign press association in Germany).

“Globally unique” is how the Slovenian TV correspondent Polona Fijavž describes the united Germany. Then, as now, she sees solidarity as the key: only through solidarity can Europe cope with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and also continue to grow together. In an interview, she calls on Germany to continue defending the values on which Europe has been built.

Since 2015, Polona Fijavž has been the Berlin correspondent of RTV Slovenia, the Slovenian public television and radio broadcaster © Screenshot/Bundesregierung
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What is the first thing that you think of when you think of Germany – is there a personal anecdote you associate with our country? 

Polona Fijavž: When I think of Germany, the first thought is of responsibility, the awareness of the importance of each individual, and the respect for and from each other. I think of how punctual the Germans are – with the exception of the trains. And how they know what they want, and how they work towards this.

However, I still think it's funny how the Germans plan everything well in advance, months, years, even decades beforehand. But even the Germans couldn’t plan the reunification.

How do you experience united Germany after 30 years of reunification?

Fijavž: Even today, I experience the united Germany as totally globally unique. What belongs together has still not quite grown together. But only those who have deep insight can notice a difference. I believe that the former East Germans, the older generations, still have difficulties fitting in, because West Germany has virtually taken over their country. Nevertheless, it is amazing how they have managed to synchronise themselves with a completely different system.

And the key at that time was solidarity. Germany recognised this, and has transferred it to the European level. This is also apparent, for example, with the current coronavirus crisis: only solidarity can bring Europe closer together. I think this is very important, because Germany plays an important role in Europe. German politicians are in a position to change the tone. Instead of defending national self-interests, they pursue an ambitious policy for Europe. What began on a smaller scale with East Germany – namely, what belongs together, grows together – is now growing together further in Europe.

In your opinion, what effect did the reunification of Germany have on Europe? 

Fijavž: The reunification of Germany has shown us all something important: regardless of the nature or extent of our differences in the past, our future will be shared: East and West Germany, with two diametrically opposed systems, were able to grow together. This example demonstrates that Europe, with its different histories, perspectives and also opinions, can grow together too – with a bit of solidarity.

What does Germany specifically mean to your home country – do you know what is desired from Germany in the future?

Fijavž: I think that Germany stands for stability in Slovenia, and in many areas still serves as a role model. We ask ourselves again and again: how does it work in Germany? How is that actually accomplished in Germany? And of course, we assume that we will prosper, as long as Germany prospers. As long as Germany has a perspective, has a plan, as long as it sees Europe as a single organism. Germany very often provides orientation to other countries. Even if we slip up along the way, we somehow always have Germany on the horizon.

As such a powerful state in Europe, Germany is an important beacon of hope in the world. This applies especially to questions of the welfare state, public health and the school system. In Slovenia and also in other countries in Europe, we want a more courageous Germany, which sometimes assumes more responsibility and leadership.

What do you think is the biggest weakness and the greatest strength of the Germans?

Fijavž: The biggest weakness is the arrogance of the Germans. Sometimes they believe that their way is the only right one. They see themselves as harder workers than others, and look down on Southern Europe. The rest of Europe would be deeply grateful and happy if the Germans would realise that we in Europe are great, precisely due to our diversity. That it is our strength, our happiness and our gain that things work differently elsewhere, and that this is ok.

The greatest strength of the Germans is their good common sense, and their respect towards other people. We need Germany, in order to preserve this respect for and from each other, and to remind the others in Europe if they lose this.

Finally, what do you wish for the Germans for the next 30 years of unity?

Fijavž: I wish that in the next 30 years the Germans defend the human rights, the workers' rights, the democracy, the freedom of the media, the welfare state and public health – in other words, the values on which Europe has been built. As the strongest European nation, Germany shows us that this is possible and feasible every single day. This united Germany remains a protagonist for a united Europe, to remain democratic and responsible, as it is now.

Since 2015, Polona Fijavž has been the Berlin correspondent of RTV Slovenia, the Slovenian public television and radio broadcaster. She not only reports on Germany, but also on Poland, Iceland and the Czech Republic. Previously, she also worked for RTV Slovenia for 15 years as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the eastern Mediterranean region – Turkey, Cyprus and Bulgaria. In addition, Fijavž was editor and presenter of the foreign news broadcast Globus during prime time, and reported regularly for the CNN World Report. She studied philosophy and sociology in Ljubljana.

Tonia Mastrobuoni grew up in Italy. She regularly spent her summer holidays in Germany. She fell in love with Berlin while on a school trip there after the Wall came down. The German-Italian journalist gives a very personal view of German unity in an interview. According to her: “Cohesion is the greatest strength of the Germans.”

The Italian with German roots,Tonia Mastrobuoni, has been working as a Germany correspondent in Berlin since 2014. © Screenshot/Bundesregierung
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What is the first thing that you think of when you think of Germany – is there a personal anecdote you associate with our country?

Tonia Mastrobuoni: The first thing I think of are my grandparents. I had a German mother and travelled to Germany in the summers and winters, specifically to Nordhorn on the Dutch border. I associate this with very happy memories of my childhood. I learned to ride a bicycle there and to speak English. Dutch television was broadcast there with films shown in their original language with subtitles.

But there were a couple of negative memories, too. During this time, for example, I also learned that, even in the 1970s, the derogatory names for Italians and Turks were spaghetti-eaters and wogs. I had a neighbour who thought that Italians stank. Just for being Italians.

But in 1990, I went back with school and we went to Berlin, when the Wall had just come down. I stood somewhere on Friedrichstraße and it was a single grey strip. That was somehow a dominant colour in the former East Germany (GDR). Then, in Prenzlauer Berg, under this grey-brown, very often crumbling façade, I discovered a very beautiful architecture: wonderful Wilhelminian style houses. It was there that I fell eternally in love with Berlin.

Today it is completely different, of course. Berlin is a very colourful city. I have lived here for many years and Berlin is the most colourful place you can find in Europe.

How do you experience united Germany after 30 years of reunification?

Mastrobuoni: What is remarkable is how quickly East Germany was integrated. I come from Italy and we have still not managed to really integrate southern Italy after 150 years.

The second thing that comes to mind are the fears that people had at that time. There were fears about the new big Germany. I can remember the words of Giulio Andreotti, our prime minister at that time. He said: “We love Germany so much that we would rather have two of them.” And Margaret Thatcher went even further, she said: “We beat Germany twice, we do not want to beat it a third time.” After 30 years we know these fears were completely unfounded.

In your opinion, what effect did the reunification of Germany have on Europe?

Mastrobuoni: Germany is, after 30 years, one of the soundest democracies in the world. It stands for many of the values on which we have built western democracies. It stands for freedom, democracy, liberalism, tolerance - and lately for solidarity, too.

Secondly, I believe that it is important that, with the reunification, Germany fast-tracked a few processes in Europe. We know that an agreement was reached at that time between French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mitterrand agreed to the reunification and said: “good, this way we also fast-track the united Europe and a common currency”. And now the euro is one of the most successful currencies in the world. A very strong and sound currency.

Thirdly, I believe that coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship is important - something that is somewhat underrated. It happened in the heart of Europe. In reunited Germany. Coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship was very important in understanding the brutality of these illegitimate states behind the Iron Curtain. This process was very important in Germany as a way of creating awareness of these illegitimate states.

What do you think is the biggest weakness and the greatest strength of the Germans?

Mastrobuoni: Cohesion is the greatest strength of the Germans. I come from Italy, a country of individualists. By this, I mean that at times politics, trade unions, the church work together, for example, to overcome a very difficult social situation. One example of this is the historic structural change in the Ruhr area. I find this admirable in the Germans. This cohesion can also be very scheming, however, as shown in the case of Volkswagen.

Germans have a great sense of the public. Italians have that to a much lesser degree. I love that about the Germans. That is a strength but also a weakness. Love of the public sometimes crosses over into social control. I have had problems with my neighbours ever since I first lived in Germany. The moaning neighbour is simply a pest, it really is a German phenomenon. And I find that somewhat sad.

What does Germany specifically mean to your home country – do you know what is desired from Germany in the future?

Mastrobuoni: Germany is the most influential and most important country in Europe. It can do a lot to move the necessary integration forward. This was seen, for example, with the July agreement on the EU recovery fund and the budget. This was mainly thanks to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Germany can achieve a lot when it comes to immigration. Not much has happened in five years since Merkel's “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it). We have no Dublin reform; we still have no mechanism for redistributing refugees. This is not just a social problem in Italy, this is a political problem, as these years have made right-wing populism and eurosceptic parties very strong. This is very dangerous for the European Union, too. Over the next few years, Germany can play a major role here in solving this immigration problem and finally making the populists smaller and weaker.

Finally, what do you wish for the Germans for the next 30 years of unity?

Mastrobuoni: I wish Germany more love for Europe and more trust in Europe. What I do not like – as a journalist, too – is that the argument is always based on this donor complex. I want to remind people that Germany is not the only net contributor in Europe. Italy is also a net contributor. Up until the coronavirus crisis.

We never had a debate on the Greek bailout. We never had a debate on the fact that it is our money too that goes to Hungary or Poland, which are net recipients. And which never showed us any solidarity when it came to issues of immigration. I think this way of talking is very bad for Europe.

What I wish for is simple: I wish for this lecturing to die down a bit over the next few years. I mean, look at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he is just one example of a writer of great cultures, who travelled to Italy in order to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of a country there. Of course, I often get very annoyed with Italian politics. It is abysmal, but I must say that this lecturing is not at all helpful in Europe. It is simply not helpful at all. Europe needs to be trusted more. I say that to my fellow Italians, too.

Tonia Mastrobuoni has been working as a Germany correspondent in Berlin since 2014 - first she worked for “La Stampa”, since February 2016 she has worked for “La Repubblica”. Prior to that she worked for 15 years as a business journalist for, among others, “Il Riformista” and as a freelance journalist for, among others, “Westdeutscher Rundfunk”, “RAI” and “Reuters”. The Italian with German roots studied literature in Rome.