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Passau and Dresden: Vibrant debates on German and European identity

Phil Bednarczyk, political advisor on Europe for the US Congress, has spent the last months as Robert Bosch Fellow in Passau and Dresden. His impressions. By Phil Bednarczyk

The Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Passau headed by Professor Daniel Göler researches all aspects of European integration. Central to this work is international knowledge exchange. From November 2018 to January 2019, Phil Bednarczyk from the United States visited the chair as part of the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program. The 34-year-old used to work in Washington as a political advisor on Europe for the Democrats in the US House of Representatives. The EU expert Bednarzcyk has, as one would say in Germany, Polish migration background and speaks five European languages ​​(including English).

In Washington, when I advised and prepared Members of Congress and their office’s policy position towards Europe, I used an understanding of Germany that followed the understood line. It went like this: Germany is the economic and political driving force, a reluctant leader perhaps, in European integration and politics, and one that plays into American interests of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Germany fell into my comfortable view of Europe and the idealistic way I viewed the European project.

I could tell you about political parties and recent public surveys, economic reports, but couldn’t really begin to talk about what they reflected, who the people were. I lacked nuance. My understanding of Germany was mostly based on experiences I collected from people in the urban, cosmopolitan environment, namely in Berlin.

This is also the reason why I decided to leave Berlin and chose other places for my fellowship at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. During the Trump era it had become fashionable for journalists to investigate the identity of my home country in other places than Washington and New York. I did the same in Germany: I decided to jump into Dunkel Deutschland as some of my German friends (from Berlin) put it: Dresden. I laugh at that now.

"Indeed, my first impression of palimpsest Dresden, was that after a quick scratch, it will tell an interesting history."

Dresden: buildings of political art

Indeed, my first impression of palimpsest Dresden, was that after a quick scratch, it will tell an interesting history. Socialist realism at the Kulturpalast, the grandeur of the Old Town as walking accross the Albert Bridge, Johannstadt, a suburb to the south-east, that suffered some of the worst bomb damage in World War II. These buildings are political art.

The other place, I chose to collect new experiences at, was Passau, a  picturesque little town situated in a border region, next to Austria and close to the Czech Republic. The small town revealed its extraordinary geographical position in 2015 as the end of the western Balkan route: It became a key entry point to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants. Passau’s mayor and the citizens delt with a down-to-earth approach with the refugees – they stood together and helped without making a big fuss about it.

Passau: Welcoming spirit of the locals

I have been based in Passau since late November, 2019, home to just the similar percolating skepticism of Berlin as my Berlin friends showed towards the rural areas. I felt lucky to call the Old Town of Passau and the University of Passau my home for a few months. I enjoyed the welcoming spirit of the locals, the dynamism of the many students I had the pleasure to interact with, the debates with academics, curators of knowledge and culture.

"I felt lucky to call the Old Town of Passau and the University of Passau my home for a few months."

However, recent election results also draw a different picture of the place and its adjacent regions: The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) scored higher results here than elsewhere in Bavaria – reasons for me to speculate as to whether the people living here, a proud people tied to the region, Bavaria, might feel left behind.

Introducing yourself as coming to Saxony or Bavaria from a job in the US Congress has gotten people talking. I will be the first to admit that my sample size, in time spent here and people that I have met, do not suffice, but with that being said, here are my takeaways:

Vibrant debates on the future of Germany in both places. The conversations in both places focus on the same topics: sovereignty, social cohesion, and identity. They are close to the surface whether it be spontaneous amongst friends at cafes, at organised marches such as of PEGIDA on Mondays or of the counter rally ‘Herz Statt Hetze’, or the multiple daily discussions and planning sessions amongst civil society. I was pleasantly surprised by and learned from the numerous lively and informed conversations I had.

Opfer Mentalitat or the Politics of Victimhood. It was striking to me to hear the similar conversation from people getting the short end of the stick, of the system being rigged against them. I heard this in surprisingly different places: whether it be from my barking neighbor at the Dynamo Dresden game or even when speaking to a small group of local musicians in Passau about politics. I believe that the conclusion that this mindset leads to is apathy – it’s not worth getting involved because the game is rigged. Of course, that is a strategic goal of some cynical politicians. Keeping political participation to a minimum has its benefits for anti-democratic forces. I am thinking about today’s Russia and aspects of our American democracy, as well.

Lack of a coherent story. After looking for a coherent story here in Germany, one that would allow me to better do my job, I am left with more questions. Also, leaning on my Polish background and after a week with the good people of Polish Bielsko-Biala situated at the Silesian Foothills, it is obvious that there is no such thing as a commonly understood European history. At least as understood by its citizens. There are nation states telling their own histories. And there are national memories, not histories, such as told by some populist politicians in Germany and in Poland, and I think disregard any common European history or goals.

The latter insight makes me feel worried especially referring to the upcoming European elections this year. The US administration seems to be taking a sceptical approach to the EU institutional actors and favours the member states as the primary actors. This is what President Trump announced in Poland: 'Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.'

The European Union as a threat to the culture of its own nations and traditions. This has an Orwellian twist to it, reminding me of the famous quote: ‘Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

To make things clear: the contrary is true. The European Union protects the freedoms and the identities especially of smaller nations by offering a framework in which these nations can cooperate and push their interests in the world. Without that, they would be a lot more susceptible to pressure from the outside.

Europe, as viewed from the US: Visiting fellow Phil Bednarczyk, advisor for the US-Congress during his lecture at the University of Passau

There are other elections in Germany ahead this year, one of them in Saxony. In Dresden, it was during a conversation with a young journalist and author that I posed the question, so what if the AfD wins in Saxony? What would they look to do that worries you? My contact paused and bluntly stated, 'through school books, pressure on history curricula, public institutions and museums, they would look to politicise and re-define Saxon identity.'

And there it was again, that malleable term, national identity, that can be used to unite people, define the other, or create intangible fear.

Debates can help shape and redefine existing attitudes. The vibrant discussion about the future that I experienced in those German places and elsewhere give me hope that people in Europe will seize the chance to test their ideas at the polls soon. This is how the European project will continue to evolve and better serve the demands of the citizens. It is in our common interest that it do so!