Unless you stalk me on Facebook, you may not be aware that most of my October was spent running around Germany. The RIAS Berlin Kommission sends about 12 US journalists overseas twice a year to talk to folks familiar with German history, government and culture.
We started in Berlin with about a week of breakfast talks, tours and high security meetings that would have been impossible to get without the program’s assistance. Every day gave me something new to consider or some piece of information on Germany’s story of which I used to be incredibly ignorant. The best part about spending extra time in Berlin though, was the opportunity to experience all the things I didn’t get to do when I was there in 2011. The Bundestag, for example, holds more historical relevance on German government in one building than many of the theaters and museums I visited on my last trip. We climbed to the glass dome and saw a spectacular view of the city and enjoyed a first class tour of the German senate.
Most folks explored Checkpoint Charlie and sections of the Berlin wall, but the most striking moment in Berlin was our visit to the East Side Gallery. For the last several years, artist Kali Alven has been working with the German government to secure portionsof the Berlin wall for artists to translate something negative into a positive new identity. It’s difficult as an American to describe what the wall means to someone who lived within its borders, but walking through the exhibit, it is hard to deny the power behind it.
Many of our conversations throughout our time in Berlin centered on getting a better understanding of just how recent the mistakes of World War II and the Cold War are to Germans now. For us, it is a somewhat distant memory, a moment in history that came, shocked, and faded away again. To them, these memories are very fresh and still have a direct impact on political and cultural decisions. My friend, Hannah, for example, explained to me that many young Germans have chosen to delay marriage until much later than their parents and grandparents, who raised them to enjoy a better life than what they experienced behind the wall. This, by the way, is why I think the country’s birth rate remains so dangerously low. Politically, although Germany maintains the best economy in the European Union, the country steadfastly refuses to utilize its military defense system as a general practice as a result of the disastrous outcomes of its last two major military campaigns. This, I admit, surprised me. Although I know Germany’s history well enough to understand, as an American, I found the lack of military strength and prowess unusual.
Germany also displays a certain lack of national pride. Up until her success at the World Cup in 2006, Germany never wore the flag, never bragged about her accomplishments and no one ever said he was proud to be a German. While this attitude is slowly changing, the reformation is very slow in coming. Football jerseys are rising in popularity, young people are turning out in drives for matches, but there seems to be a temperance to it that never fully reaches patriotic pride.
In Leipzig, however, I did discover two triumphs of which Germany can certainly be proud: that is the churches and the food. Despite a fee on church members throughout the country that seems to be discouraging a whole generation against Christianity, Germany seems to take a certain pride in religious architecture. Every church I visited in Leipzig had significant historical impact. St. Thomaskirke housed an organ designed by Johann Sebastian Bach, while St. Nikolaikirke marked the gathering place for countless peaceful protests that changed the city’s history. We spent most of the first day touring the churches and walking Leipzig’s beautiful campus before joining RIAS alumni for dinner.
Dinner in Leipzig was its own unique experience. Since the menu was completely in German and my translation skills are minimal at best, I was forced to rely on the culinary expertise of the journalist seated next to me. When the food arrived, I was as shocked as everyone else to discovered that I had ordered a Bavarian delicacy known as a pig’s knuckle. The massive plate of food was surprisingly fantastic, once I sliced my way through two inches of crispy pork fat to discover the deliciously tender meat beneath it. This, my friends, is something everyone must try once.
The next day, we took a two hour train ride over to Cologne, home to one of the largest cathedrals I have ever seen. It took my breath away from the outside, but the majesty and detail inside truly impressed me. We weren’t able to stay long as a train strike forced us to leave early, but we did manage to tour the local state television station, RTL.
This is where I began to understand the distinct differences in American and German programming. What impressed me was that, despite state sponsorship, very little of the actual content is directly influenced by politics or the government. These stations also moved beyond hard news into areas like entertainment, educational programming, and youth shows. This level of thought and creativity was displayed at every city state station we saw as well as the two federal stations. I don’t personally think this system would work in the United States, but I enjoyed seeing it play in a country where most people seem to appreciate the content, despite being compelled to pay monthly dues for the programs.
Our last stop on the tour was Brusells. While technically a Belgian city, it has a great deal of direct influence on the German political and military sphere. The first full day was spent meeting with members of the European Union, touring the facility, sitting in on press conferences and discussing the latest issues facing the EU. Much of the first half of the day was old information from my days at VOR, but once we got the press conference, things started to look interesting. I discovered that not only does the EU offer free technical broadcast services to members of the press, the organization is also open to direct questions on any topic during daily press briefings.
Our last official meeting of the program was with NATO. This was really a special opportunity for most of us since a briefing on this level would be almost impossible without RIAS. After a rather intense security screening, we were met by the press liaisons and escorted to some fascinating briefings on NATO’s inner workings and updates on the organization’s international relations with Russia.
For me though, the real highlight of the trip was Bruges. The group spent our last evening there, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The place really felt like Disneyland for adults. We all took a boat tour of thecity before walking towards the city square and listening to the bells play an evening concert. RIAS made sure to send us off in style with a glorious farewell dinner, which of course, included vast quantities of beer. It was one of those nights that stays special even when the food and friends disappear.
It was a long trip, and I was naturally exhausted before arriving home, but RIAS has certainly earned my respect for the professionalism displayed during this fellowship. I think we all learned to truly appreciate Germany as a country, but also gained a much better understanding of her history and approach to the news. It’s an opportunity that, as a journalist, you really hope comes along at least once.