1. You have visited the United States on countless occasions, the first being your fellowship at Harvard University. What were your first impressions on your first trip here?
The German Kennedy Fellowship at Harvard University in 1983/84 was my first academic experience in the US. In 1967/68, I had already spent a year as a high school student in California. I came to Harvard as a very young post-doc, and I was very impressed with the vibrant academic discourse, the intellectual rigor of the debates, and the diversity of people in academic institutions. Based at the Center for European Studies, I learned so much about comparative political economy, history and remembrance, and European politics working with excellent scholars in the field. The stay also laid the groundwork for my interest in American politics and I audited several classes on U.S. politics.
2. How much did the United States differ from Germany when you first arrived? How has the United States changed over the years?
Given that I have spent many years of my academic life in the U.S., I have always been intrigued by the incredible regional differences in the U.S., both culturally and politically. Having lived in New England and the South, the North-South divide is striking. The West Coast, which I also know well, is yet another story and so is the Heartland of the Midwest. Even though Germany also features regional cultures, experiences socio-economic differences, and practices various dialects, this occurs on a much smaller scale. The same applies to political attitudes and preferences in different regions.
When I first arrived in the U.S. in August of 1967, race tensions were high and it was deeply disturbing to watch the violence in society. During my year as an exchange student, I experienced the turmoil that followed the murder of Martin Luther King and a few months later, Robert Kennedy was shot during the election campaign of 1968. Even though the legal and social situation has changed significantly since then, race still seems to be a very divisive issue in U.S. politics today.
On a personal level, I find the people I meet in the U.S. friendly, welcoming, and mostly open-minded. This has not changed over the years.
3. Your early work was focused mostly on the former German Democratic Republic. What prompted you to pursue this subject?
I studied political science, sociology, and education science at the Freie Universität Berlin in the 1970s. Berlin was a divided city. The Cold War had shaped Germany and the division of the country; the Wall was omnipresent in the city of Berlin. At the same time, the GDR was as exotic as Bangkok. That is to say, we did not know much about that part of Germany, since travel was restricted and it seemed to be so far away. Field research was impossible for West Germans. Later in the 1980s, I came to know East German critical thinkers, peace activists, feminists, dissidents, and this spurred my interest to study the deeply divided political culture of the GDR – here, the official rhetoric of building a perfect socialist society and there, “inofficial” political activity leading up to the formation of the civic movement in the GDR. This rift and the activities of civic groups fueled the mass demonstrations in 1989 and, subsequently, led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most of my work was centered around this tension in the 1980s and the civic groups even though predicting the fall of the Wall was, I think, impossible. The window of opportunity to take down the deadly border was historically unique due to a large extent to changes in East European political realities and international relations. For example, had the Soviet Union decided to intervene militarily, like the country did in 1953 during the Berlin uprising, or in 1968 during the Prague Spring, the East German civic opposition would have been crushed. Moreover, the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in the summer of 1989, which triggered the mass exodus from the GDR, had far-reaching implications for the loss of legitimacy and the implosion of the East German communist regime.
4. From 2006 to 2007, you took a leave from university to assume the position of Director of State Parliament in Lower Saxony – in fact, becoming the first woman in Germany to hold this position. In what ways, if any, did your previous experience in academia help you serve this role? How has your experience in this position influenced your subsequent career and research?
Yes, I was invited to serve as the director of state parliament, which is the head administrative position in parliament and, at least in Lower Saxony, a bipartisan, non-party-based position. During this time, I was on leave from my home university. Being in leadership for the various services – from supporting the drafting of legislation to managing the IT-services of the elected representatives in parliament – was quite challenging, but I believe that we are trained as university professors to function under pressure and keep calm, even when surrounded by uncertainty. I also learned that the great German sociologist Max Weber in his description of “politics as vocation” has some important lessons to share even today.
Most importantly, I could apply some of my knowledge about European integration and the EU, since it was part of my assignment during this year to “Europeanize” the administration. Whenever the European Union prepares and passes legislation that affects the Länder, or states, states have to deliberate and give an opinion on these matters. Therefore, it is important that representatives as well as the legal service, which advises lawmakers, know about European legislation and the functioning of the EU. All states in Germany have representatives in Brussels and state parliaments wish to be included in the transnational law-making as well. I greatly appreciated the beauty of working with the well-endowed and highly-qualified team in the state parliament during that time.
I am deeply grateful to have had this experience in parliament since I got a much better grasp of political decision-making, the functioning of parliament, and party pluralism. This proved to be extremely helpful for teaching political science students and advising them in their career choices. As the director of the Jean Monnet European Center of Excellence at Leibniz University Hannover, I was also able to develop closer forms of cooperation between the university, the state parliament, and the city of Hannover. This has benefitted the state parliament and the university as well.
5. On November 9, Germany will be commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How would you say Germany has changed, both in the west and the former east? Do you believe that Germany still faces repercussions from the reunification? What might be productive ways of addressing these repercussions?
The fall of the Berlin Wall was only the beginning of a grand transformation. Though highly celebrated at that time, unification has not benefitted everyone. It was most enthusiatically embraced by the younger generation appreciating the new freedom to travel, explore unknown ways of life, and take advantage of new opportunities in training and education. But for many people of the middle-aged generation, changes were often abrupt, including unemployment, and some felt like their previous lives had been devalued. Nobody had a masterplan for unification so politics mostly muddled through the first difficult decade, when unemployment rose sharply in the East and many factories were closed permanently.
West Germany invested heavily in modernizing the East; a tax surcharge, called solidarity surcharge, was introduced and many institutions, including universities, received large transfer payments. However, repercussions from unification were not only in the economic realm; more challenging was and still is the political and societal transformation. We still see the repercussions today, for example in the rise of the extremist right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is particularly stong in the East.
But there is new research about regional differences in Germany today, showing that economic, social, and political differences do not simply follow an East-West divide. Some of the most affluent regions in Germany are, in fact, in the East, for example in Saxony around Dresden and Leipzig, and some of the strongest showing of the far-right is not in the East but includes states in the West, such as wealthy Baden-Würtemberg. Generally, big cities in the East are doing well, whereas smaller towns and the countryside are increasingly deprived. To improve cultural and political life in these deprived areas (including the providing of good Internet access) should be a major task for states and local governments in the future. You need good governance for these deprived areas.
6. Your fields of research include European, American, and comparative politics. In your opinion, how does politics in the U.S. differ from Europe? For example, what would you say are the differences in attitudes towards politics between the U.S. and Europe among the public?
We share many issues and challenges, such as climate change, integrating migrants, the importance of social media, social inequalities. But we differ in strategies, policy priorities, and resources. In Germany, there is a lot of emphasis on civic education and the culture of remembrance in schools and in public discourse. One of the major topics today, especially among the younger generations, is climate change. Several new initiatives, such as “Fridays for Future,” spread from schools to universities to the broader society, and there is a new urgency in this policy field that all political parties (except for the far right) have responded to. Germany has joined and supported the Paris Climate Agreement as have all other EU member countries. In the field of climate change policies, I would say that attitudes differ from the U.S. In the U.S., the stunning beauty of the National Parks stands in stark contrast to the sprawling cities, the intensity of traffic and the luxurious ways of consuming energy and other resources. Germany is not a model country for environmental protection, but there is more awareness in general about the limited resources we share on this earth and the need to actively engage in new ways to fight climate change.
7. What project(s) are you currently working on? What do you hope to achieve as a visiting DAAD scholar at Deutsches Haus at NYU?
The DAAD fellowship offers the unique opportunity to take time off to write. Currently, I am working on a book about transatlantic relations after the end of the Cold War, and I am also planning to conduct some interviews with experts here in New York and in Washington DC. The book focuses on the challenges to the “liberal world order,” arguing that both Europe and the United States, are facing increasing challenges due to tensions of conflicting norms around nationalism, populism, and the new politics of protectionism. In my work, I also explore questions on the future of the liberal order, such as a) Is the shift toward nationalism recasting post-Cold War postulates, b) What are the ideas and norms that shape the surging populist policies and political relations, and c) Can transatlantic norm conflicts be resolved through deliberation?
Aside from this book project, we are also planning a conference at Deutsches Haus at NYU on the topic of thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall which will take place on November 7 and 8. I am very much looking forward to engaging in debates with my American colleagues.