Germany: Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger

On finding Germany's soul in the heart of Europe

By Hugh S. Galford

Newly-appointed German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger is still settling into his residence in Washington, not without some culture shock. The shock, however, comes from Germany, not America. Describing the Bauhaus-style building, designed by well-know German architect Oswald Mathias Uengers, as 'different', the ambassador sees one of his first challenges as making the building 'more welcoming'. A striking yet severe building based on a square grid, the residence yet has great potential. The entrance hall has a high vaulted ceiling with recessed lighting panels. Off the hall to the right are a library and two small intimate sitting rooms; to the left is the formal dining hall, a spacious area capable of handling the largest crowds. The grounds of the residence face south and east, with a striking view of Rosslyn, VA, Georgetown, and the Washington Monument.

While the building may be formal, the ambassador is most welcoming, beginning our interview with a tour of the residence and a description of the modern art that fills the building. The ambassador, who presented his credentials July 31, is on his second tour of duty in Washington, having served as First Secretary from 1979 to 1982. Born in 1946 in Nuertingen, Mr. Ischinger studied law at the Universities of Bonn and Geneva from 1966-72, and undertook postgraduate studies in international law, international relations and economics at Harvard and the Fletcher School in 1972-73. His experience includes Special Assistant to the Cabinet of the UN Secretary-General, Minister Counselor at the German Embassy in Paris, and various positions in the German Foreign Office, culminating in his appointment as State Secretary from 1998-2001.

Ambassador Ischinger is interested in strengthening US-German relations, not only on the diplomatic and commercial levels, but more importantly on the personal and cultural levels. The German tourist industry, he notes, is the single fastest-growing branch of German industry, assuming a larger place in the German service industry. He and the German Tourist Board are working with American tour operators to develop themed package tours to Germany. Tours based on the themes of culture and music are easily developed, with Leipzig home to Bach, the Bayreuth Festival showcasing Wagner’s music and the Salzburg Festival in Austria drawing over half of its attendees from Germany. For Protestants, Luther’s homeland could hold special interest–whether academic or religious.

The ambassador also notes that there are 'many Americans interested in tracing their roots–German-Americans and, more interestingly, Jewish-Americans interested in what happens with Jewish life and heritage today in Germany–including the dark side of the first half of the twentieth century.'

Berlin, the ambassador says, 'has developed into a special tourism magnet.' A 'huge city with a huge history', Berlin does not only attract the casual visitor. Ambassador Ischinger recounts how, when the Foreign Ministry was located in Bonn, visiting officials would come mid-week, for one day, and then move on. When the government transferred to Berlin, he says, 'Everything changed. I would get calls saying, ‘Would it be alright if I arrived on Thursday, or Friday morning? And by the way, I’m bringing my wife for a long weekend in Berlin.’' The city is once again thriving, with an active art gallery district which attracts artists of the younger generation. Germany, the ambassador says, 'has an increasingly attractive offer to make to American tourists, beyond the Disney castles, lederhosen and beer drinking in Munich–which is the traditional, but outdated, image of Germany.'

The former East Germany holds a special draw for tourists, the ambassador says. Beyond Berlin, there is also Dresden. Dresden, Ischinger says, 'is the remains of what was one of the two or three most beautiful cities in Europe north of Venice.' While the scars of WWII are still visible, the city 'is a vibrant place–it is amazing how quickly it has recovered economically and culturally in the last ten years.'

Dresden was the capital of Saxony and had played a key role in business and culture in the pre-war period. Perhaps the most challenging restoration in Dresden has been that of the Frauenkirche, the city’s cathedral destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of World War II. Rebuilding the cathedral has progressed quickly; in 1991, the Frauenkirche was nothing more than a ruined shell. Work on the cathedral is now scheduled for completion in 2004.

Yet even this reconstruction work was subject to lively debate. Germans, the ambassador says, are asking themselves, 'To what extent should we rebuild pre-twentieth century buildings? Should we recreate old buildings or build new ones?' Dresden, Ischinger says, 'decided–fortunately–to rebuild.' The debate still runs strong concerning other ruined or destroyed buildings in the eastern states. In Berlin, debate rages whether or not to rebuild the Stadtschloss, the downtown palace of the Kaiser, which was destroyed by the GDR in the early 1950s. Even the new home of the Foreign Ministry aroused passions, as it had served as the headquarters of the Reichsbank during WWII.

The central concern about rebuilding, Ambassador Ischinger says, is that 'you will recreate not only the architecture, but maybe also the spirit of an age you don’t necessarily want to recreate.' The Foreign Ministry took one approach to their new building’s history: they put it on display. 'Throughout the building are large posters that explain the building’s use under both the Nazis and the Communists. We don’t hide anything; we want to make the building and its history transparent.' A second approach has been used in Berlin’s Potsdamerplatz. In 1991, the Wall and barbed wire occupied the square. Now, it is an open-air laboratory and gallery of modern and post-modern architecture, a 'controversial agglomeration of high-rises,' in the ambassador’s words. Architects from around the world vie for the chance to build on the square.

These public debates over history and building use are an indication of Germany’s confidence in itself and in its future. They are also an indication of the country’s coming to terms with its past and of defining what 'German-ness' means. Whereas Germany, from its initial founding in 1871 through WWII, acted independently, since the war it has undertaken actions as part of multinational organizations–the UN, NATO and now the EU.

Even this road has not been easy. When one looks at today’s German military and its roles, Ambassador Ischinger notes, one is 'talking about an area where enormous misconceptions are harbored by Germans and foreigners alike.' Until the mid-1990s, Ischinger says, it was widely held in German political circles that, given the role of German soldiers in the Balkans in WWII, it would be 'neither wise nor appropriate' to participate in the multinational peace-keeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. There was a fear that German soldiers would 'be part of the problem, not the solution.' But in 1996, German officials spoke with all the political leaders in Bosnia, and were told that they had no problem with German soldiers’ participation in peace-keeping missions.

Concerning German participation in such missions, Ambassador Ischinger brings a different perspective. 'Is there not,' he asks, 'a special responsibility for Germany–on the basis of our own national experience–to make a contribution, even with the military, in a case where fundamental human rights are threatened in a massive way, where genocide is threatened, where hundreds of thousands are faced with execution, or expulsion, or eviction?'

Such a view of the role for Germany’s military is underscored by a clause in Germany’s post-war constitution that 'evokes the responsibility and the possibility to resist the dictator or to resist evil.' German soldiers have the right–and responsibility–to question orders of dubious moral character. Germany’s army is still a conscription force; its rules are important for the young soldier, Ischinger says. The military must explain to its soldiers that service 'is for a good purpose: not only to defend Germany, but also to project stability outside of Germany.'

The governing principle of the German Armed Forces, Ischinger says, is 'to lead with moral principles from the inside. Don’t just provide instructions to the troops; provide moral leadership, conviction and strong principles based on fundamental values.' This principle, Ischinger continues, 'provides the right for the soldier to feel as a citizen, not just as a war machine.' The ambassador notes that a two-star general runs in elections against the government.

The integration of former East and West Germany, the Ambassador notes, 'turned out to be a more long-term effort than was originally believed.' Enormous amounts of money have been poured into the eastern states to modernize infrastructure, social services, water supplies etc. The average income in the east is not quite up to western levels, and unemployment in the east is still three to five percent higher than in the west.

The east also lags in terms of tourist infrastructure, although this is beginning to be addressed. In addition to its cities, Ischinger says that the east has an incredible number of lakes and waterways, most of which are so clean that you can swim in them. Several years ago, he adds, he and his children toured the east with the ambition of swimming in a different lake every day. They were actually able to swim in two different lakes each day. While the natural surroundings are beautiful, eastern Germany doesn’t have the beautiful inns and restaurants found in the west. But the ambassador notes that 'we are in the middle of the process.' People are beginning to buy and renovate old hotels and restaurants, supplying the needed infrastructure to further enhance tourism in the area.

The ambassador concedes that real differences remain, but says that those differences continue to narrow. In a few more years, the ambassador says, 'eastern Germany as a region will benefit from their more modern infrastructure' than that found in the west.

More difficult, Ischinger says, are 'the intangibles–education, political beliefs, how to integrate the society. This is a task for a whole generation.' Declaring that 'we’ve come about half-way,' the ambassador reminds us that the population of eastern Germany has had a very different history than those in the west. The east experienced 12 years of Nazi rule. After the war, there was a short power vacuum, followed by 40 years of communist rule.

East Germans, the ambassador says, 'have no parent, or even grandparent, who had ever known complete freedom. From 1930 to 1990, they were not exposed to what you take for granted. You were being directed, you had no chance to be your own, to take charge of your own life.' Nevertheless, the ambassador is 'quite optimistic'. There are increasingly constructive developments in the east, and he feels that the mindset gap will be closed. This closure will most likely be helped along by the fact that many young west Germans are moving east. While some of this is idealism, there is also a sense of realism: schools in the east, for example, have fewer students per professor than in the west, in addition to having younger professors. The east is therefore quite attractive for young Germans.

On the world front, Ischinger said that he and his government were pleased with the constructive outcome of the Bonn conference on the Kyoto Protocols. He calls Bonn a 'victory for far-sighted international environmental policy,' and was glad to see that a compromise language could be worked out–and that the US kept its word and did not scupper negotiations. The ambassador is also certain that Germany can meet its compliance standard for Kyoto: reducing emissions by 21 percent by 2008. German industry, he says, is actually quite keen on the agreement. Generally seen as being the most advanced in the world, the German environmental technology industry sees the future as being profitable years, with exports continuing to grow.

Ambassador Ischinger also notes that Germany is quite happy with the euro and its standing against the dollar. Primarily created as a means to expedite commerce within the European Union, the euro–though not yet a tangible currency–has worked marvelously, the ambassador says. The current strong dollar/weak euro relationship has benefited German industry, making German products more attractive to foreign buyers. Most of Germany’s export growth in 2000 was due to the weak euro. The ambassador is certain that the dollar-euro exchange rate will rebalance in the near future, and notes that an additional benefit will accrue in January 2002, when the euro becomes available for individual use, doing away with the need for travelers within the Euro-zone to exchange money when they cross borders.

The ambassador is 'thrilled' to be back in Washington. 'This is a dream-come-true for me,' he says enthusiastically. Washington, he says, was good to him on his first tour. This second tour, he notes, is more exacting than his first. Ambassador Ischinger says that he will try to be as active as he possibly can to present Germany’s 'wonderful cultural heritage.'

'It is an enormous privilege to work in this country and in this city; to work with government, cultural and scientific communities in order to strengthen the relations of the past 50 years.