How an activist who helped transform postwar Germany views its newest challenges

Gesine Schwan ran for president of Germany, led the German-Polish Viadrina University, and  is one of the few remaining political activists of the generation whose lifespan parallels that of democratic Germany. Now, she keeps a keen eye on the crises that have blown up in both the European Union and Germany.

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters/FILE
Gesine Schwan, Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) candidate for the ceremonial office of president, makes a point as she addresses news conference in Berlin, April 17, 2009.

In American terms, you might best think of Gesine Schwan as a German Eleanor Roosevelt.

To be sure, Professor Schwan was never a president’s first lady. Nor was she ever a president herself, though she did run as a rare woman nominee for German head of state a decade ago. Nor has she ever held a senior United Nations post, as Roosevelt did when she coaxed diplomats from a kaleidoscope of cultures, religions, and histories to agree on the astounding Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a mere three years after the world‘s most destructive war.

Yet what unites these kindred spirits is their zeal for human rights and for reforms to benefit left-behinds. During the great depression of the 1930s, Roosevelt famously lent her voice to workers who lost their jobs, to second-class women, and to African-Americans. In post-World War II Europe Schwan joined her young cohort in vowing “Never again,” and building a new Germany and a new German mindset after the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Power means for me bringing people and their interests together in order to achieve a common goal,” she promised voters in her agenda-setting campaign for the presidency in 2004. And when she received the International Bruecke Prize for promoting understanding among Europeans a few years later, the presenter lauded her consistent exercise of such power in pursuit of “nothing less than a world of worth that offers every individual the opportunity to determine his own life wisely. She demands justice, solidarity, and equal right to freedom that all men are entitled to.”

This pursuit of justice was Schwan's leitmotif as her career morphed from professor of political science to president of the German-Polish Viadrina University that sprang up when the cold war thawed to Berlin’s envoy for Polish-German relations.

Along the way, in a stunning transformation of national character, Schwan and her peers turned Germany into a model democracy. They acted on the 1949 constitutional precept that dignity is the core individual right from which all other rights flow. The conscripts among them took to heart the mandate in the new post-war army that they were “citizens in uniform” and had the duty to resist any inhumane commands from their officers.

In the 1990s, their systematic efforts to turn the centuries-old Polish-German hostility into friendship finally added reconciliation between Berlin and Warsaw to post-war German rapprochement with France and Israel and the Netherlands. At the time, the Polish foreign minister (and eminent medieval historian), Bronisław Geremek, hailed this as a triumph of “unliving the past” and “joining the Euro-Atlantic family of democratic nations.”

As a child, Schwan first imbibed the concept of social justice from her parents, Social Democrats who opposed Hitler‘s rise and even managed, with friends, to hide one Jewish girl from the Nazi dragnet. As a young woman, she honed her rhetorical skills as a vivacious ethical gadfly in public debates on such burning issues as moral responsibility, good capitalism, and the bold attempt to ban war in Europe’s bloody heartland by “pooling” national sovereignties in integration.

Today, Schwan is one of the few remaining political activists of the generation whose lifespan parallels that of democratic Germany. From her latest perch as president of the NGO Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform, she keeps a keen eye on the crises that have blown up in both the European Union and Germany in this era of technological and geopolitical disruption.

Inequality and discontent

In Europe, as in the United States, robots are displacing blue-collar jobs faster than the digital age is generating new ones. Both inequality and discontent with inequality are growing. Resentment of non-European immigrants has brought nativist populist surges in recent elections. New Central European democracies are backsliding toward strongman rule. Social trust, once taken for granted, is being challenged by political polarization. The British referendum to quit the EU and, most recently, the demolition of Italy’s centrist parties by anti-EU and anti-establishment extremists in last month’s election are exerting centrifugal pulls on the EU and its institutionalization of Europe’s peace.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Ahmad Hosseini, 18-year-old trainee and former refugee from Afghanistan is pictured through a plain vice at the training workshop of Knipex, a 130 year-old family-owned pliers and tools maker company in Wuppertal, western Germany, October 25, 2016.

Politically, even in Germany, Europe’s richest and most stable country, the moderate consensus is threatened by the steady shrinkage of the center-right and center-left. Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s conservatives are now in a relaunched “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats with only 53 percent (rather than their prior 67 percent) of the total votes, and the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) protest party, with 12.6 percent of the votes, has brought some Nazi admirers into the federal legislature for the first time.

Geopolitically, the West has no leader, with many analysts arguing that Americans have abdicated from maintaining the international post-war peace order they established 70 years ago. For the first time, Pew opinion polls show that Europeans have more confidence in authoritarian Chinese President Xi Jinping than in the American president. The 86 percent of Germans who said they trusted President Obama has plunged to 11 percent who trust President Trump, while French approval has dwindled from 84 to 14 percent and British approval from 79 to 22 percent. What alarms Europeans, and their governments, is Trump’s penchant for trade wars and especially the advocacy of John Bolton, the president's new national security adviser, for high-risk “preemptive” attacks on North Korea and Iran.

Putin's role as spoiler

Europeans especially miss strong security leadership from Washington at a time when President Vladimir Putin is trying to magnify Russia‘s weak economic hand by playing the role of a serial military and political spoiler – from his undeclared war on Ukraine to funding extreme-right European parties and stoking political divisions.

He first violated Europe‘s seven-decade ban on violent seizure of neighbors’ land with his undeclared war on Ukraine, with more than 10,000 deaths so far. Russians have also been funding extreme-right European parties, stoking existing political divisions, manipulating social media, and – Britain charges, with allied support – carrying out poison assassinations abroad in breach even of the old cold-war constraints.

Schwan's outlook

So how does a grande dame who has lived through Germany‘s many crises and ultimate transformation view today‘s intertwined crises in Germany and the EU in a “post-truth,” “post-fact” digital era in which inflammatory fake news easily outruns boring truths?

Gesine Schwan has no panacea. But she contends that the answer to democracy’s ills is always more democracy. She relies on contested democratic politics to bring on-the-ground solutions, step by step.

Addressing the backlash that followed the influx of more than a million refugees into Germany two years ago, she declares, “The best way to overcome right-wing anti-democratic thinking and behaving is to give control back to citizens by local participation.” Specifically, she thinks the Berlin government should offer supplemental grants to local communities that agree to host refugees in amounts equal to the welfare provided to migrants.

She elaborates: “Especially in [the former] East Germany a segment of about a million and a half people have suffered from a variety of blatant injustices – for instance, promises of old-age pensions that have not been paid out by the reunited Germany. They feel like unjustly treated and humiliated victims. Therefore they think they are entitled to take revenge on those who are even poorer refugees, because these people are getting help that they themselves have long been waiting for, like housing.” Such a program could help restore social trust – and it would be good if the EU could offer similar funding to municipalities in Poland and Hungary, where the national governments have been categorically refusing to accept refugees.

Thomas Peter/Reuters/FILE
Political science professor Gesine Schwan leaves the rostrum after speaking in the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, June 17, 2010, during a ceremony marking the anniversary of a 1953 uprising of East German workers. A strike by East Berlin construction workers turned into a full fledged uprising on June 17, 1953, when workers across East Germany took to the streets against their government. The protests were crushed by police and Soviet forces.

Schwan thinks the governing centrist parties in Germany should be able to win back voters from their ranks who defected to the protest Alternative for Germany in the last election. “I have the impression that the greater part of swing voters put up with the big AfD absurdities only because their anger was so great at what [the establishment] was doing,” she says, expressing confidence that sensible policies will lure them back. She expects Chancellor Merkel to retain her authority over the next two or three years and then pass the baton to the heir apparent she has just elevated to head her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), former Saarland Minister-President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

On the European level, Schwan also sees signs of hope. She acknowledges that things now look better than she and most other observers anticipated when they were blindsided by the 2016 British referendum to quit the EU.

“Brexit hasn’t, as many feared, turned out to be contagious,” she says. “According to EU opinion polls, public support for the EU has grown instead in the rest of Europe.” The process of implementing Britain‘s exit “has already exposed the disadvantages of leaving the EU and deterred other member states from following suit.”

These examples are imperfect works in process, of course. But Schwan’s defiant trust in this democratic essence of process, even in turbulent times, displays a conviction that Eleanor Roosevelt surely would have applauded.

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