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Wolfgang Schäuble: “We need better cooperation with Russia”

  • October 01, 2020

DW: Mr Schäuble, you had a major role in negotiating — indeed, in writing — the Treaty on German Unity.When you look at Germany now, three decades later, is this what you imagined then? 

Wolfgang Schäuble: No, but where in the world has anyone ever been able to imagine what is going to happen in thirty years’ time? In these past thirty years, too, Germany, like the whole world, has totally transformed. There is no longer a leading world power keeping order.

For some time the United States appeared to be almost the only remaining superpower. But the world has become more diverse. We could never have imagined, back then, how the East-West conflict would come to an end. But then it did end, miraculously, without war, almost without deaths. And yet that didn’t make the world a safer place. Instead, wars were possible once again. Only a few years later, in the middle of Europe. 

Read more: German reunification: What still divides East and West?

Wolfgang Schäuble (l) and his East German counterpart Günther Krause did much of the negotiation of the reunification treaty

Germany’s reunification would not have been possible without the United States’ role as an ordering power. Now the US is stepping back from world affairs. Are you concerned that America could become a force for disorder? 

No, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, we Europeans, all of us, owe the fortunate developments of the postwar era — fortunate at least for western and central Europeans, less so for eastern Europeans, who had a tougher time — to the fact that the Americans learned a lesson from the First World War and the period between the wars, namely that they must stabilize Europe to prevent a repetition. 

And now the world has totally changed, which is why the chancellor was correct in 2017 when she said, “We will need to take on a greater share of responsibility for our own security.” But I hope that in the future we can continue along that path because we share common values, the basic principles of human dignity, democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and also ecological sustainability and social justice. They distinguish us fundamentally, for example, from the very successful Chinese model, which today does hold great attraction, but at the price of total control of the whole of economic, social, and political life. And that’s not our vision of how to live.  

That’s why we must try to demonstrate the superiority of a peaceful, balanced order based on ecological sustainability, geopolitical stability, and the principles of western values. We Europeans cannot do that alone. But we need to take a greater share. And the more we take on responsibility and relevance — economic, political, also military — the more we will influence the debate, also in America. Because if we’re relevant, we play a larger role than if we’re not.  

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Brandenburg Gate

    Built in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate is arguably Berlin’s most famous landmark. It marked the border between East and West while the city was divided. Located in the eastern sector, it was inaccessible to the Western public. But everything changed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the barriers no longer held. Now millions come from around Germany and abroad to see the symbolic structure.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Hohenschönhausen prison

    Until 1989, Hohenschönhausen was the main prison of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Political prisoners were locked up and subjected to psychological and physical torture there. The location of the building was top secret and not listed on any city map. It was closed after reunification and opened a few years later as a memorial where visitors can learn about the Stasi’s dark past.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Berlin Wall

    For 28 years, the Berlin Wall divided the city into East and West. Many people died trying to escape the 155 kilometer-long (96-mile), highly guarded fortifications — the exact number of casualties is unknown. The East Side Gallery, the longest remaining piece of the Wall, was painted by artists from Germany and abroad the year the country was reunified.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Lenin in Berlin-Friedrichshain

    From 1970 to 1991, a 19-meter-high (62 foot) colossus of red granite stood in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of East Berlin. It was the crown jewel of a square dedicated to the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the regime had run its course and the statue was dismantled. Today, Lenin Square as it was once called, is now United Nations Square.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    From Palace of the Republic to Berlin Palace

    In former East Germany, The Palace of the Republic was a showroom of power. After opening its doors in 1976, it was the seat of the People’s Chamber and hosted a variety of political conferences. In 2006 it was demolished as an asbestos-contaminated edifice ready for the bulldozer. The Berlin Palace is currently under construction at the same location.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Intershops of the GDR

    “Intershop” was a prominent GDR retail chain, a store where it was not possible to pay with GDR money, but only with foreign currency. As a result, the goods were largely out of reach for many people living in the East. The first Intershop was located at the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin (picture). Today that square is a busy retail hub with cafes and clothing stores.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall


    Nothing represents a carefree childhood more than a playground. These climbable metal structures (left) could be found on nearly every playground in the former East. Today, they are typically made of rope — so it doesn’t hurt as much when young (and old) run into them into them while playing. More pictures of Berlin then and now can be found on Facebook: #GermanyThenNow and #BerlinThenNow.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Interhotel Metropol

    The 13-storey Interhotel Metropol in Friedrichstrasse opened in 1977. It was a luxury hotel, popular with business people, diplomats and celebrities. Yet, for GDR citizens without foreign currency to spend, it could only be admired from the outside. Today, a Maritim chain hotel stands on this site and accessible to all visitors – for a price, of course.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    KaDeWe department store

    The Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, is the best-known department store in Germany. It’s second largest in Europe after Harrods in London. The luxury store opened in 1907, survived destruction during the Second World War and stayed standing in West Berlin during the years when the capital was divided. Today it’s popular with tourists and locals alike.

    Author: Rayna Breuer

At the time of reunification, many were fearful of a newly strengthened Germany. Now, there are increasing calls for Germany to play a stronger role. Is Germany still too reticent on the world stage? 

About this fear of a stronger Germany — the situation was a bit more complicated. There were of course, understandably, these concerns in Western Europe. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known to have such concerns, the reaction from Francois Mitterrand was similar. In the first few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most reliable support in Europe for Chancellor (Helmut) Kohl actually came from the then Spanish Prime Minister (Felipe) Gonzales. Otherwise, most of them were a bit cautious. They were wondering what it would mean if 40 years after the Second World War, Germany is again the largest, most populous, and economically the strongest country in Europe. 

Read more: No unity 30 years after the end of the Cold War

But that passed relatively quickly, especially because they understood that this unified Germany was more a reliable partner in European integration and that this served their interests.

A Polish foreign minister said in a speech not that long ago: “We used to fear the strength of Germany – today we rather fear the opposite.” You can still feel the enormous resistance to this in the German population and thus also in the political parties in Germany, including in parliament. And yet we have to get used to the fact that others expect us to bear a fair share of the common burden. 

Thirty years after reunification there are still big inequalities between East and West, especially economically. And right-wing populist parties are stronger in the East. 

I would be a little more cautious about Germany. The economic differences have become smaller. But the consequences of 40 years of our social market economy were clear then: Full integration into the European Union and into open world trade on the one hand — and on the other, the socialist, bureaucratic state economy, which was just not competitive. Not least because of this, the Eastern bloc as a whole collapsed. It was not able to create living conditions for its citizens as successfully as the liberal order was. The liberal order, including the social market economy, was just superior. That has left deep differences. You can feel them all over Europe.

Read more: Who can save the liberal world order?

The people in the GDR did not have the opportunity to experience living together with people who came to our country from other parts of the world. So it is not surprising that people who were not used to immigration, perhaps people arriving with different skin color or a different religion, can be more easily mobilized with populist slogans. And this does not only apply to former East Germany. Take a look at the debates in the Czech Republic or in Hungary or in Poland. You can’t blame people for that. 

I also want to emphasize: Although we (Westerners) now have a third generation of immigrants living here since the early 1960s, whose grandparents or maybe even great-grandparents came to Germany from Turkey, we still have considerable problems in many parts of western Germany. And that’s why we West Germans shouldn’t be arrogant towards East Germans.

Wolfgang Schäuble was with Angela Merkel when she was elected as CDU party head in April 2000

Reunification would not have been possible without Russia either. But the current Russian President Vladimir Putin feels cheated by history. Has the West failed in its dealings with Russia? 

When Putin came to power, he pursued a policy in which, to a certain extent, he wanted to repair the humiliation of the Soviet Union he believed people felt — and he tried that in his own way. He’s not right about Crimea, but we do need better, fairer cooperation with Russia. Perhaps not everyone in America understood this or handled it correctly in the important years. We must try to achieve better cooperation with Russia — fully respecting Russia’s claims and history. And, by the way, we must also cooperate with China.

Without reunification, the emergence of Angela Merkel as a politician would not have been possible. At the moment, many people cannot imagine a Germany without Angela Merkel after 2021. Can you imagine that? 

You know, I grew up at a time when one couldn’t imagine the Federal Republic of Germany without Konrad Adenauer. To that extent, yes: Angela Merkel lived in the GDR and would not have become a German chancellor without reunification. But she is a woman of very extraordinary qualities. And that distinguishes her from her predecessors. It seems that she herself will be able to determine when she leaves office. My wife told me a long time ago: “You men never give up voluntarily. Ms. Merkel is different from the men. She will say for herself when it’s enough.” It seems she can do that. 

Read more: Wolfgang Schäuble tells eastern Germans to stop playing the victim

And after that, life will go on. I believe we will still be a strong, free democracy based on the rule of law in ten years’ time. We will find a new chancellor. The voters will decide. She will no longer be available. But Germany will go on. And so will Europe. 

CDU-politician Wolfgang Schäuble is president of the German parliament, the Bundestag, of which he has been a member for 47 years. Thirty years ago, Schäuble played a central role in negotiating the Treaty of Unification. He was a government minister several times. 

Schäuble was speaking to DW’s Michaela Küfner. 


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