Diplomacy in the 21st Century Through A German Lens

“Sensibility”, “restraint”, and “cooperation” are words that would likely never get attributed to the Germany of the 1900s after what transpired during World War 1 (WW1) and World War 2 (WW2).  Instead, words that would have been more closely associated with that Germany would likely have been words like “radical”, “war”, and “extermination”.  Some of the feelings that would have been more closely associated with that Germany would likely have been hate, anger, and fear.  These words and feelings would be the result of a time where German leadership embraced an ideological belief of a single superior race, and that the rest of humankind that did not align with this “image” were nothing more than excess waste.

Today’s Germany, however, has leaders who advocate against armed conflict, the importance of having working relationships with adversaries, and how a basic level of respect and decency can go a long way in even the most trying of times.  What none of the world’s people that survived the two world wars might have ever been able to imagine is that there would come a time when Germany would have leaders who would be criticized by others for advocating for a basic level of respect and decency and restraint against armed conflict between different countries.  The magnitude of this change is such that it challenges the notion that national identities and cultures are permanent and suggests that even entire countries are capable of positive and uplifting transformations.

How remarkable is it that a country that established its identity for having leaders that embraced violent genocide would go on to have leaders that would be voices for peace, tolerance, and diplomacy? That would deviate from the idea of a single perfect race to amplifying the voices of individuals who have observable differences, and putting their trust in those individuals? That is the story of behind the transformation that has given us today’s Germany, and it is a story worth knowing.

A tale of two Germanys and a man named Helmut who helped to reunite them.

Not that long ago there was a world that existed with two Germanys, West and East, thatstemmed from the devastation resulting from WW1 and WW2.  Those wars were almost entirely the result of German aggression and desire for world domination.  So, Germany was split up between the Americans, British, French, and Soviets.  Eventually the American, British, and French portion of Germany became West Germany, while the Soviet portion became East Germany.

These two Germanys reflected a clash of ideologies: democracy vs communism.  When the two ideologies grew opposed to one another, and when those living in East Germany no longer wanted to live there, East Germany raised the Berlin Wall to keep East Germans from fleeing into West Germany.

Trying to escape East Germany became a guaranteed death sentence.  A further complication was that it was happening at the height of the Cold War, and many of Europe’s countries had atomic weapons prepared and ready for use if necessary.

The decades after WW2 were challenging for Germans, and the world’s perception of them was low.  Many countries considered Germans as untrustworthy and viewed their culture as incompatible with a globalized world.

During that period, there was almost nothing that the British and French could agree upon to come to mutual understandings with the Soviet Union.  What all three did agree on was that the world was better off with a “weaker Germany” – two separate Germanys.  Both the Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, and the President of France, Francois Mitterrand, were staunchly against any talks of German reunification, and they shunned such suggestions when they were made by the Chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Kohl.

As a last attempt to make something happen, Kohl would turn to the United States of America and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush to share his thoughts on “one Germany”—without the knowledge of other European leaders.  Then, in 1989, the unthinkable happened, an agreement was reached to reunify the two Germanys, and Kohl was even able to get buy-in from the Soviet Union.

Many years later, President Bush would be interviewed and asked about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he recalled the importance of not antagonizing and gloating at the failure of communism, and not sticking fingers into the eyes of the Soviets.  It was a position that was also echoed by Chancellor Kohl, who understood the importance of having a working relationship with the Soviet Union even if he was diametrically opposed to everything about them.

As a result of those diplomatic efforts, many other countries whose people had been living under the oppression of communism were able to break free of their chains without any major wars.  That was the power of the working relationship between stakeholders, and how a basic level of respect and decency can go a long way in even the most trying times.

Ultimately, Kohl’s forward thinking would give rise to one of the most effective forms of global equilibrium seen between countries with the creation of the European Union.  That joint cooperation is likely responsible for helping prevent countless wars from breaking out by creating the conditions for shared opportunities and shared successes and where walls of exclusion are torn down.  That is why so many have described Helmut Kohl as being the gold standard for why global cooperation and diplomacy matter; Kohl’s work showed what happens when people are given what they may have thought was impossible.

A once-conservative German town put their trust in a former refugee.

A tanned-skin, dark haired, and dark-eyed refugee who worshipped differently and had other observable difference from most Germans is a person whose life would have been devalued in the Germany of the 1900s.  In today’s Germany, such a person was elected to serve as mayor by the residents of a conservative-leaning town. His name was Ryyan Alshebl.

Upon arriving, Alshebl was twenty-nine-years-old, he had to leave his parents behind because he been drafted to fight, but he did not believe in war. The path to Germany had required going through multiple countries, and it even required spending eight hours in the open sea while on a rubber boat.  Alshebl’s educational background was in banking and political science.  He needed to work on his German, but his dreams stretched beyond just obtaining a job in Germany.

Over the next few years, Alshebl joined different community groups and completed an internship at Ostelsheim town hall.  Then he was urged by the town’s former mayor to give mayorship a try, running against a wealthy and recognizable local with deep roots to the rural area.  However, the local residents gave Alshebl a listen, interacting with him at local celebrations and finding he was familiar with their challenges—from day care shortages to retirement homes grievances.  Although there was also some hate directed at Alshebl, it was limited.

One allegation that Alshebl had to deal with was a false rumour that he would attempt to impose Islamic sharia law, disregarding that he was not Muslim.  Many of his friends in the town urged him to advertise that he was not Muslim and that he was a Druze, which was a religious minority in Syria, but he refused.  The reason for the refusal was that he did not want to stigmatize Muslims.  In the end, Alshebl won the mayoral race, with much of his support came the town’s older and more conservative population.

In subsequent interviews, Alshebl and those close to him have discussed how value systems in places abroad, around things like tradition and community, are more similar in rural towns than in big cities.  Alshebl believed that his story was only possible in the once-conservative town of Ostelsheim, and not in the cosmopolitan German cities his friends chose to move to, saying that the only place where a refugee could become mayor was in a conservative rural town.

Stories like that of Ryyan Alshebl in today’s Germany are more prevalent than many might think.  They also include Aminita Toure, whose parents fled war in Mali during the 1990s and arrived in Germany as refugees.  Toure would grow up in the refugee quarters, and her family constantly worried about potentially being sent back to Mali.  Then in 2022, Toure became the first Black, female cabinet minister.  Ultimately, stories like these are the reason why today’s Germany is unrecognizable from the one of the 1900s and proof that national identity and culture are a fluid concept with the power of forward thinking.

Today’s trying times.

In much of today’s world, the various lines of difference that exist between people that had been fading seem to be getting redrawn with broader and thicker strokes.  Even differences that were once thought to be irreconcilable because they were rooted in historical difference were on a path toward hand-in-hand solutions, but are now tumbling downward with the emergence of new wars and global tensions.

It is not uncommon to hear people speak down about places where the people might be held back by the tunnel vision of their national identity and cultural beliefs.  Some might even speak down about places where people walk bare footed on unpaved dirt roads and the environments might prevent them from becoming all they can be.  Or even where they might not have access to a steady flow of clean water or consistent electricity, and where hunger is the norm.  Such words have never contributed to anything worth remembering or being proud of.

Basic phrases with simple understandings like “putting the interests of – insert nationality – first” have morphed into tropes decried by other people who stand on the wrong side of a perceived line of difference.  It is an issue that has emerged across North America and every other continent, with a worldwide resurgence of the “us versus them” mentality.  All the chaos and conflict occurring around the world should be enough to get the world’s nations to revisit the birthplace of the phrase “Never Again”, Germany of the 1900s, and seeing how it became home to people who made the saying a part of their national identity and culture – today’s Germany.  Leaving the place thinking, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, and wanting to follow their example.