A Conversation with German Statesman Hans-Ulrich Klose

An article by Greta Gietz

Hans-Ulrich Klose is a respected German statesman. He became a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1964 and acted as Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg from 1974-81. Over the last 30 years, Klose served various roles in the German parliament. He was Chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, Vice-President of the Bundestag, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Chairman of the German-American parliamentary group. Currently Klose is an advisor to the Robert Bosch Foundation.

Although Hans-Ulrich Klose arrived in Davidson, North Carolina, late Sunday evening, he was nothing but energetic and engaging when I met him at the Carolina Inn early the next morning. Charlotte was Klose’s first stop on his weeklong trip across the United States visiting various chapters of the American Council on Germany. A few students and faculty members participated in a conversation with Klose eager to learn about his vast experiences and views on transatlantic relations and current issues like the Ukraine crisis, Syria, and ISIS. After this conversation, the Davidson International had the opportunity to interview Klose. Read the full interview below.

The overall tone of the conversation was rather pessimistic. Klose spoke of the unclear future of the European Union, threatened by economic troubles and concerns over the influx of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Besides Germany, the major European economies are weakened by the Euro crisis and deindustrialization. Klose also sees the United Kingdom Independence Party as a big problem. The EU as well as the UK will take big hits if the UKIP continues to grow and achieves its goal: the UK leaving the union. The third big issue in Europe, according to Klose, is the return of the “German Question.” Once again, like in the late 19th century, Germany is booming economically and politically powerful. In Klose’s words, Germany is too small for the world and too big for Europe.

Further pessimism was palpable in response to the recent developments in Russia and the Ukraine. Klose believes Crimea to be lost and is expecting a Ukrainian secession, a state of West Ukraine. Furthermore, Klose stressed that Russia will continue to be a problem for as long as Putin is in power. Putin is fundamentally opposed to Western culture and will not change his position to the West in the foreseeable future.

Klose’s tone was most positive when Angela Merkel was raised. He spoke very highly of the German chancellor from his opposition party, the CDU, and described Merkel as the best leader Germany could have had over the past nine years. This respect and collaboration across party lines may seem incredible to an American, but Klose emphasized the efficiency and fluidity of Germany’s multi-party system. Furthermore, Merkel is unique in that she is able to influence other world leaders, a power few world leaders have today. Even Putin, who has isolated himself, still speaks to her. Furthermore, Merkel also has a lot of influence in China. The Chinese government has a lot of respect for her and Germany’s success in recovering from two dictatorships in the 20th century.

TDI: Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Could you tell us about where you were when the wall fell in 1989? What were your first thoughts or actions?

Klose: I was in Bonn. Parliament was in session and I was on my way into the plenary when I heard people singing. I was kind of astonished – why are people singing? A colleague came and told me: “Didn’t you hear? The wall is open! The wall is open!” This was the reason they stood up and sang the national anthem. The next day, I went back to my constituency in Hamburg, which was about 25 miles away from the inner German border. When I got there, the whole traffic was stuck. There were Trabbis (the infamous East German car) everywhere. They were parked along the streets and the police just let them because they didn’t stand a chance against the crowd. You saw these people coming from the East, looking at what they considered to be the West with big eyes. This was something you could laugh about but you could also cry about it. It was probably one of the greatest moments in our history.

TDI: In this moment, did you expect the successful reintegration we have seen between East and West Germany?

Klose: I was pretty sure that this would mean reunification. I actually made a bet with a journalist over six bottles of French Champagne. I bet that we would be unified within a year. And I won.

TDI: Did you and the other politicians of the former Federal Republic really believe in the reunification that you always implored and demanded in your speeches?

Klose: Yes, there was a sweeping optimism at that time. This optimism was a force that helped. At the same time, it was the readiness of the population of the GDR to take risks and go on the streets in an orderly manner. Then you had events like the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary, which happened before. Later, those people who went into the German embassy in Prague and were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. It was the decision of the leadership of the GDR to let the demonstrations happen, to not intervene. All the signals were in favor of a solution. Finally, I believe there were two reasons the wall fell. The GDR was close to bankruptcy. Second, the courage and the optimism of the masses that demonstrated on the street made the difference.

TDI: You spent one year at a high school in Clinton, Iowa, only a few years after the end of the Second World War. What were your first impressions of the United States back then? Of German-American relations?

Klose: I was 17 when I came over by boat. The American Field Service in New York trained us for a few days and then they put me on a Greyhound that took me to Clinton, Iowa. After sleeping for about twenty hours, I looked at this new world and it was great. Germany did not look like it does today. In Clinton, I lived with a family in a white house set on a hill and of course they had a car and a television and a boat on the Mississippi River. The school had a swimming pool and you could play tennis if you wanted to. I said, Gee I made it! The whole year was great. In a very personal aspect, I was 1,60m and one year later I was 1,80m. I grew 20cm in one year! I had a great year and it had a major influence on my life because all the experiences I made were positive. Nobody would talk to me about the war and Jewish students at my high school didn’t point at me because of the Holocaust. They just accepted me as one of them. However, there was one thing unusual for me. I went to an all-boys school in Germany and in Clinton, suddenly, there were girls sitting next to me. It was strange at first but I got used to it.

TDI: Did this experience shape your interest and future expertise in German-American relations?

Klose: I never really planned to become a politician. But I have visited the United States very often since, maybe more than a hundred times. Altogether, my experiences with the U.S. are favorable. There were some events sometimes I didn’t like too much, but there was a great hospitality and a big interest in what was going on, a great amount of openness. I have a lot of empathy for this country.

TDI: How do you see the state of German-American relations today? What, in your view, are the main points of interest and disagreement between Germany and the US today? What challenges will transatlantic relations face in the near future?

Klose: Well, the relations have suffered because of the discussion around Snowden and NSA. There was a certain amount of disappointment on the Germany’s side. On the other hand, in the meantime, Germans have also learned that they have secret service gathering information on other countries (Turkey, for example). We also have learned that cooperation of secret services increases security and we are living through insecure times. My personal impression is that we should get together and think about these issues. We should inform each other, cooperate, and encourage parliaments to control secret services.

TDI: The strong transatlantic relations were recently tested with the NSA scandal and conflicting policies on international crises. Do you think these issues fundamentally changed relations at the high political level between the two countries?

 Klose: Yes, Merkel was especially disappointed. You have to keep in mind that she grew up in the GDR. But this is more or less over. A new situation could come up if the constitutional court decides that Mr. Snowden should testify in Germany. The consequences of this on the bilateral relations could be difficult.

TDI: Do you think the rise of right-wing parties across the continent is threatening European integration? How big is the threat?

Klose: These populist or rightist parties are a reaction to real problems that we have. We do have economic problems to different extents in the EU member states. We also have people who are disturbed about immigration. And of course, the European cooperation is not as good as it should be because we are not the United States of Europe. We are a union of independent national states and will continue to be this. Different nations have different interests and different traditions. Sometimes it is difficult to overcome these differences.

TDI: Within Germany do you think the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has a future?

 Klose: I do believe that they have a future. This could be a group on the right side that gains some importance like the Left party has gained importance on the other side. It will be up to the Christian Democrats (CDU) especially to take care of this problem. It will very much depend on the performance of the AfD. If they only pander to right-wing sentiments, they will not be successful. But if they are willing to engage in the debate and be constructive, they will gain influence.

TDI: How do you see Germany’s changing role from the Sick Man of Europe in the 1990s to a type of regional hegemon? How is German society, traditionally cautious and careful and reserved, adjusting to this new position of power and international responsibility?

Klose: It will continue to be difficult because we have to live with a difficult history. I think we have found way s to handle our history and ways to live up to the lessons we have learned from history. We should not use our history as an excuse for avoiding more responsibility, but it does not make any sense to force people to believe this – we have to convince them. Politicians and members of parliament have to explain why Germany should take greater responsibility. The answer is simple: all the big problems we need to handle right now, wherever in the world, have an influence on European countries, including Germany. Take the refugee problem, ecological problems, health problems like Ebola, or piracy. All of these are important to us too and we have to do our fair share in solving these problems. We have done so in the case of piracy off the coast of Somalia. We are trying to be helpful in handling the refugee problems. We should act like a grown-up, helpful country.

TDI: Do you think Merkel is taking this role on?

Klose: She is a very pragmatic woman. Even better, she is never excited even in exciting times. Maybe she was the one chancellor we needed in these last years. I’m not talking about the future, but on our way back to normalcy her chancellorship was important.

TDI: If you look at the various roles you have had in politics, which was the most satisfying? Perhaps that of Mayor of Hamburg because in that position you had the most freedom to get things done directly? 

Klose: Yes, being active on a state and local level gives you a chance to do what you say. As a parliamentarian you are discussing, trying to find or influence solutions. Nevertheless, I would say the most productive years of my political life were those in parliament. Especially in recent years when I was more engaged in foreign policy, which includes the relations across the Atlantic. I very much believe in the following two things. In difficult times the European project should be continued and transatlantic relations should not become weaker but even stronger. You see, if you look at world demographics, the West (including Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) represents 13% of the world’s population. At the end of the century this will be down to 7%. We are approaching an absolute minority position. In light of this, it makes sense to stick together rather than grow apart.

TDI: Compared to the US, Germany has traditionally taken a more conciliatory or understanding stance towards Russia due to history, geography, and economic ties. How do you see this in light of the Ukraine crisis?

Klose: Fortunately, Germany and the US agree on how to deal with Russia today. This is also true for the inner-European and transatlantic discussions. We also agree on two other points. We don’t have a military option in the Ukraine but we do, we must have a military option in case an Eastern European NATO member state undergoes the same fate as the Ukraine. If we are clear on these points, then I think we are doing the best we can to stabilize the situation.

TDI: Looking back on your life and your track record, is there one thing that you are particularly proud of? (President Bush the elder famously answered this question by saying: “My kids still come home.”) 

Klose: Well, I once succeeded in a mission together with a Christian Democrat parliamentarian, Ruprecht Polenz, to free a man from Hamburg sentenced to death in Iran. It’s just one event but it’s one I remember well.

Image Source: www.hans-ulrich-klose.de

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