Foreign embassies in Washington are often adorned with statues, monuments and memorials honoring their countries’ most important heroes, and now the German Embassy has one too: a three-ton, original concrete remnant of the Berlin Wall, covered in colorful graffiti and encased in plexiglass to protect against the elements.
This concrete monolith, complete with rebar poking out the sides, towers nearly 12 feet high and its smooth, rounded top is exactly 15.75 inches thick — which the East German communists who built the hated wall determined was the ideal diameter to stop would-be freedom seekers from grabbing on and hoisting themselves over the top.
A quarter-century after its destruction, similar segments of the Berlin Wall have been donated to at least 100 institutions around the world, including three in the District of Columbia: Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the Newseum and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
But the slab that now graces the German Embassy on Reservoir Road is unique, because it bears the autographs of many famous people, including the three heads of state without whom the Berlin Wall would have never fallen: President George H.W. Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
This hulking symbol of oppression was unveiled at a Nov. 13 ceremony, during which Brent Scowcroft, who was Bush’s national security advisor at the time, proudly added his signature to the dozens already there. At the top of the gray monument, in large red letters, is the slogan “Wir sind das Volk (We Are the People),” a tribute to those who made the toppling of the Berlin Wall possible 25 years ago.
“It was a moment nobody will ever forget,” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “I was in New York at the time, and I sat glued to my TV watching Tom Brokaw reporting live from Berlin. He had the great fortune to arrive on Nov. 9, 1989, and basically saw the events unfolding before his very eyes.”
Recalling that dramatic night as if it were yesterday, Wittig remembered how a member of the East German Politburo clumsily announced that people who had assembled on the communist side of the border were now free to leave — a premature declaration blurted out at the end of an otherwise monotonous, scripted press conference.
“It was a farcical end to East Germany, because that guy, in bureaucratic fashion, read out a text that nobody really understood,” Wittig said. “People asked, ‘Does that mean immediately?’ He said, ‘Yeah, immediately.’ That was the trigger. People stormed out of their apartments and crossed the wall. Brokaw interviewed that guy in English, and it was his scoop of a lifetime.”
In October, Brokaw joined Wittig at the German Residence for the annual Unity Day reception; this year’s festivities featured clunky Trabant cars on the gardens to offer a glimpse into East German life. While today, the fall of the Berlin Wall may seem like an inevitable consequence of history, at the time, the happiness of the moment was mixed with plenty of foreboding.
“My heart was filled with joy, but as a professional diplomat, I was thinking about the future,” Wittig said. “The Soviet Union still had hundreds of thousands of soldiers on German soil. One couldn’t predict what they would do. I was worried that this could get out of hand.”
Wittig’s vague fears of a Soviet backlash never materialized. The wall fell, East and West Germany officially reunified a year later, Moscow’s client states all got rid of their communist dictatorships and the Soviet Union itself soon disintegrated into 15 separate republics.
“Rather quickly, Eastern European states that used to belong to the Warsaw Pact became democracies, eventually joining the European Union,” Wittig said. “For my country, it meant that we were surrounded only by friends. All of a sudden, we found ourselves part of the same political family, and we entered into a very cooperative relationship with Russia.”
But it now appears the Moscow-Berlin honeymoon is over.
It’s been nearly a year since widespread protests in Kiev led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych — splitting the country apart and turning the Kremlin’s relationship with the West upside-down.
Following Yanukovych’s ouster last February, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved quickly to occupy strategic positions throughout Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, while separatists — egged on by Russian-speaking locals long distrustful of the central government in Kiev — began attacking official targets in eastern Ukraine.
As 2014 dragged on, tensions worsened. Putin officially annexed Crimea, Moscow-backed rebels took over parts of Ukraine’s industrial east, and in July, a Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over rebel-controlled territory, killing all 298 people on board. Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service — relying on satellite images and diverse photo evidence — eventually concluded that pro-Russian separatists near Donetsk had blasted Flight MH17 out of the sky, using a captured Ukrainian Buk air defense missile system.
In September, the two sides negotiated a ceasefire in Belarus, but the so-called Minsk Protocol failed to take hold and hopes for a dialogue have been tenuous at best, though a more recent ceasefire has gained some traction. Ukraine’s civil war has now killed an estimated 4,700 people (1,000 of them since the truce went into effect) and forced more than a million people to flee their homes. Meanwhile, relations between the West and Russia have plunged to lows reminiscent of the Cold War. The United States and European Union slapped sanctions on Moscow, criticizing it for trying to create a new “frozen conflict” in the region, while Putin accuses NATO of reneging on its pledge not to encircle Russia.
Somewhat in the middle of this geostrategic tug of war is Germany, which has been a key interlocutor with Russia, a major trading partner and energy supplier (Germany gets about a third of its oil and gas from Russia). But even Berlin’s patience may be wearing thin.
“It’s not easy for Germans to realize that the era of cooperation with Russia is gone,” said Wittig, criticizing the “illegality of land grabs” being perpetrated by the Putin government. “We have to salvage a dialogue with Russia, but at the same time we have to be very firm. Talking to each other doesn’t mean giving up on our principles. And one of the core principles we stand for is territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders.”
Putin’s actions have reportedly infuriated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who firmly supports European Union sanctions against Russia (although the bloc has ruled out further sanctions for now). In 2013, Germany — Russia’s leading EU trade partner — exported €36 billion worth of goods to Russia. In the first half of last year, those exports fell by more than 15 percent, and that was before Moscow imposed a ban on EU farm imports, in retaliation for Western sanctions.
Some 58 percent of Germans now support those sanctions even if they damage the German economy, up from 52 percent a month earlier, according to a poll released Nov. 28. The Politbarometer survey for ZDF television also found that 76 percent backed Merkel’s sharper tone; on Nov. 17, she accused Putin of “old thinking” and trampling on “the peaceful order in Europe.”
While this doesn’t mean a new Cold War is breaking out, Wittig said the EU and the United States must be on guard against further Russian aggression.
“We have to contain Russia’s possible advances, not only vis-à-vis Ukraine but also a push forward toward Europe and NATO countries. We must reassure the countries of NATO on the Eastern rim, and must be resilient in our posture,” said the ambassador.
“We know there are threats out there. We need reconnaissance and information, but at the same time, we realize that we need close German-American cooperation,” he continued. “Chancellor Merkel is in total sync with what the Obama administration has been doing. The sanctions that the West decided on were crafted in close coordination on all levels between two governments vis-à-vis Russia and the Ukraine crisis. I think the most valuable asset of that crisis and our rift with Russia has been Western unity.
“But on the other hand, we have to engage Russia about Ukraine in a meaningful dialogue that produces results. So it’s about containment, but that’s not sufficient. We don’t have an interest in an isolated Russia.”
Wittig said Merkel and Putin have spoken to each other at least 40 times. “She’s probably the Western leader of his choice, and that doesn’t mean they’re schmoozing when they’re talking,” the ambassador said of his chancellor. “There’s a lot of straight talk going on. But it’s important that we continue talking.”
Maureen Orth, writing in the January 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, said she was told that Merkel spent more than 110 hours on the phone with Putin last year.
“Merkel’s Russian is as good as Putin’s German,” wrote Orth, noting that Putin was stationed in Dresden as a KGB agent. “Growing up in East Germany, Merkel won a prize as a teenager for being the third-best student Russian speaker in the GDR [German Democratic Republic]. The award included a trip to Moscow, where she took the opportunity to buy her first Beatles record.”
The no-nonsense former physics researcher, in power since 2005, is now the longest-serving national leader in the European Union and remains unchallenged within her conservative Christian Democratic Union party.
Orth says 2014 “brought the crisis in Ukraine, which saw Merkel — not Barack Obama — become the point person in the transatlantic alliance for dealing with Putin [and] the continued diplomatic fallout from the National Security Agency’s infamous tapping of Merkel’s cell phone, followed by the revelation that the CIA was attempting to recruit spies in the German government.”
Last year, Germany’s federal prosecutor opened an investigation to determine whether the NSA monitored Merkel’s mobile phone by default, as part of a much larger surveillance program or whether individual agents specifically listened in on her calls, as at least one German tabloid has claimed.
Either way, Wittig said he cannot deny that the revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have caused “a large segment of the German population” to distrust Washington.
“The scandal has not affected my job or impeded my work here in any way. I have always had the feeling of being a representative of a country that is respected in U.S. policy circles,” he said. “I just want to remind you how popular President Obama was and still is in my country, but — and there’s a big but — we notice that many of our concerns are also shared by many Americans. There’s a lively debate here in civil society and on the Hill about the right balance between legitimate security interests on one hand, and the right to privacy on the other.”
Wittig, 60, was born Aug. 11, 1954, which makes him three weeks younger than Merkel. He’s a native of Bonn, former capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, where his father worked in a government ministry and his mother was a teacher. A graduate of Bonn, Freiburg, Canterbury and Oxford universities, Wittig joined the German Foreign Service in 1982; his early assignments were to Madrid, the United Nations in New York, as private secretary to the foreign minister and as a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. In 1997, Wittig was named ambassador to Lebanon; he served in Beirut for two years before moving to nearby Cyprus, where he remained ambassador until 2002.
Following a series of Foreign Ministry positions in Berlin, he returned to New York in 2009 as Berlin’s ambassador to the United Nations, successfully campaigning to win Germany a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council. In March 2011, that council voted 10-0 to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya in an effort to force the Qaddafi regime from power. Five countries abstained: Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia. At the time, Wittig justified Germany’s refusal to support the no-fly zone due to “the likelihood of large-scale loss of life” during the humanitarian operation.
That same year, the diplomat also had a front-row seat to the beginning of Syria’s civil war, which has claimed well over 190,000 lives, created millions of refugees, decimated the Syrian economy and destabilized the region (Germany itself is struggling to host tens of thousands of Syrian refugees). On that front, Wittig says the Security Council should’ve stepped in sooner.
“I still believe that had the Security Council acted much earlier — and had Russia and China not wielded their vetoes at a fairly early stage, before it turned into a fully fledged civil war — we could have found a formula for a political transition that could have averted the worst,” he lamented. “This still fills me with sorrow. It’s a tragedy.”
As critical as Germany is to foreign policy challenges ranging from Syria’s civil war to Russian meddling in Ukraine to the nuclear talks with Iran, its heft is felt most in its backyard, where the EU’s economic policy is pretty much dictated by Berlin these days. The bloc’s economic powerhouse, Germany has pushed a prescription of austerity for profligate eurozone members such as Greece and Spain, with mixed results. Germany has put in tens of billions of dollars toward bailouts to rescue debt-stricken nations, but in return it has demanded steep belt-tightening that has aggravated rampant unemployment.
Growth among the 18-nation eurozone has stagnated, with the European Central Bank fighting extremely low inflation and three of the eurozone’s largest economies — Germany, France and Italy — seeing manufacturing activity contract in October. The economic ministers of Germany and France recently released a report warning that Europe risks a “lost decade” if it does not tackle the “multiple ills” that ail it. The report urged, among other things, reforming France’s labor laws and boosting spending in Germany.
Even export-driven Germany has been feeling the pinch. In mid-October, the country’s Economy Ministry slashed its 2014 economic growth forecast to 1.2 percent from 1.8 percent, and its 2015 prediction to 1.3 percent from 2 percent.
Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, has blamed at least part of the slowdown on the Ukraine conflict and the effect of sanctions against Russia. Others, however, cite Germany’s reluctance to raise deficits in order to stimulate the economy, part of “its beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which are in effect exporting deflation to its neighbors,” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
Yet Wittig argues that his country “continues to be an engine of growth” for Europe, with employment at a record high and real wages increasing. He noted that the Merkel government has supported this trend with the introduction of a minimum wage of €8.50 (about $10.60) per hour.
German voters rewarded their chancellor’s handling of the currency and sovereign debt crisis with an unprecedented third term in September 2013, even as a dozen other eurozone governments have been voted out of office for much the same reason.
“[F]rom Greece to Italy to the Netherlands, the testing political times have seen the rise of anti-European mavericks and populists on the hard left and on the extreme right, seeking to usurp mainstream political elites. Again, Germany remains the most notable exception to this pattern,” wrote Ian Traynor, Europe editor for The Guardian. “Merkel has been the dominant figure in drafting Europe’s response to the crisis, the architect of austerity, a word that she privately professes to despise. Her approach has been incremental, cautious, always acting only at the last minute. She has been accused of dithering, lacking resolve and boldness. But her winning a third term, with an increased share of the vote for her Christian Democrats than in 2009 no less, will vindicate her confidence in the way she has dealt with the challenge.”
Her reforms have paid off, argued Wittig. Growth has returned to the troubled EU members, with eurozone economies as a whole expanding by 0.2 percent in the third quarter of 2014, slightly better than expected. Among euro-area member states, Greece saw the highest growth (0.7 percent), followed by Slovakia (0.6 percent), Spain (0.5 percent), Latvia (0.4 percent) and France (0.3 percent). That growth is still measly, however, compared to the endemic joblessness plaguing countries like Greece and Spain.
Indeed, despite Merkel’s own 74 percent popularity rating at home, the chancellor is loathed in parts of Europe, where some protesters have even gone so far as to depict Merkel with a Hitler mustache.
But Wittig told us his government is firmly committed to a balanced budget. With a very low birth rate that implies a dramatic change in Germany’s demographics — the current population of 82 million is projected to fall to around 65 million by 2060 — the debt Germany incurs today will have to be paid back by fewer people in the future. By 2060, according to official statistics, every third German will be at least 65 years old, the number of 70-year-olds will be twice the number of newborn children and the proportion of Germans 80 years or older will hit a record 14 percent.
For now, said Wittig, Germany’s focus is on two objectives: to manage Europe’s debt and to foster competitiveness.
“That’s something we are very eager to see: that in the long run, Europe remains a competitive actor in this globalized economy,” he explained. “To bring that about requires structural reforms in all our countries, and those reforms are difficult to do, because they usually entail measures that meet the resistance of certain interest groups. But they are necessary. Otherwise, Europe will not remain competitive.”
The ambassador solemnly added: “We cannot indebt ourselves limitlessly at the expense of future generations. That would be irresponsible.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the news editor for The Washington Diplomat.