Oberburgermeister Jurgen Linden: TRANSATLANTIC EUROPEAN
WHEN: 3 July 2014
WHERE: Aachen, Germany
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us when you were born and where you grew up and how you experienced your early years.
JL: I am an Aachener, born in 1947. I have been married 41 years and am the father of three children, grandfather of two. Thank God, I am still active in professional and social life. I have retired from politics, though sometimes I am called upon to provide advice. Nowadays I am first and foremost a practicing lawyer and Spokesman for the International Charlemagne Prize, Vorsitzender—chairman of the board. I also play a role in some organizations, a local hospital, for example, and a more significant role in Euro-region affairs vis-à-vis our Dutch and Belgian neighbors. I am a convinced European and as a committed European I know that Europe needs cooperation with the United States. This is the context for Aachen’s relationship with Arlington beginning in 1992-1993.
Q: Thanks for that broad introductory statement, Herr Oberbürgermeister. Let’s now return to your early years. What was it like growing up in Aachen in the 1950s?
JL: I grew up on the ruins of the Second World War. My family was involved in the war. There were some committed Nationalsozialisten [Nazis]. There were sacrifices; several family members were lost. I was born in the center of the city, which had been nearly totally destroyed. The degree of Aachen’s destruction has been estimated at 75%, a catastrophe that occurred especially starting in February, 1943 and culminating in October, 1944. I was born in a city hemmed in by closed borders. These circumstances impacted the formation of my identity growing up. I was a member of a Catholic family, but with a broader Christian orientation. We tried to live an ethical, moral life, open to influences that would facilitate and express it. We were open to new ideas presenting themselves in the 1950s and 1960s and associated with the gradual opening of the frontiers. We came into sustained contact increasingly to Dutch and Belgian neighbors. My family was animated by a Nie wieder Krieg—no wars anymore—sensibility. We experienced this as a covenant with the future.
I became involved in a Catholic youth movement. In the early 1960s the movement was preoccupied with political subjects such as German rearmament and later the war in Vietnam, among others. Above all, there was the issue of the democratization of the Federal Republic of Germany itself. In this sense, I was politically engaged. After I finished Gymnasium and passed the Abitur, I went to France for a year. That was the tumultuous academic year 1967-1968. Students mounted the barricades demanding democratization of the universities and beyond that greater participation for citizens in the political system.
Q: Where were you based?
JL: I was in Paris and for a short time in Lyons. The developments affected me, touching my sense of personal responsibility. So, step by step, I assumed greater responsibility for this European youth movement, the Jeunes Etudiants Catholiques, headquartered in Paris, becoming the general secretary for Europe in 1969. When my term was over and I returned to Aachen, I immediately joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Q: Was it usual for someone who came up through the Catholic side to join the SPD?
JL: At that time it was unusual, yes. My family tried to stay aloof from politics. They feared political involvement. No one had been a Nazi official during the Third Reich, but they went along with it, and so they were fearful of any new involvement. I felt I had to do it and became the first in my family to take that step. I wanted to engage at the local level. I wanted to make a visible difference, tackle concrete issues like improving schools. Indeed, the school curriculum was my favorite issue at that time. Social housing was another early focal point. A third was advocacy of more participation in communal institutions. I joined the Social Democrats in January 1970.
Q: You attended university?
JL: I attended the universities of Cologne and Bonn. Technically, I was matriculated in Paris, but I was not concentrating on studies there. The work I did there was for my life, so to speak—an essential stage of personal development.
Q: You received you law degree in Bonn?
JL: No, it was in Cologne, as the law degree is conferred via a state examination. My first law degree was awarded in 1972, the second in 1974. I became a lawyer—Referendar—at that point.
Q: Did you then join a law firm?
JL: No, instead, I went my own way, I was a legal entrepreneur. I hung my shingle above the door and started my own practice.
Q: What kind of work did you do?
JL: Every kind of work requiring a lawyer. I started as a general practitioner, as it were, and then later gradually began to specialize. At first, I had to earn money. I was already married in 1974 and my first son was born that same year. Later on I focused on employment law (Arbeitsrecht) and social law (Gesellschaftsrecht).
Q: How did you meet your wife?
JL: It was in 1972, at a meeting of the Social Democrats. I remember it well. I had to run the meeting that night. She was attending for the first time. After the meeting I invited her for a beer. After an intermezzo of nearly a year, we met again and married very soon thereafter in 1973.
Q: 1972 was a great year for the SPD, inaugurating the second Brandt government, riding the crest of the highest vote percentage ever obtained by the party in a national election.
JL: Brandt’s Ostpolitik appealed to the voters. But he also ran on the slogan “dare more democracy.” And his biography was also greatly esteemed by many younger Germans. He fought the Nazi regime and was forced into exile.
Q: That said, the European idea seems to have been central to your orientation well before you joined the Social Democrats.
JL: That is true. Europe antedates my SPD membership. For one, I had the special experience here of the Dreiländereck, the point at which three countries touch. I had spent time in other European countries—a longer period in France, but also trips to many others. I was able to speak some of their languages, surely an advantage in engaging people, not only as a tourist, but as a partner in dialogue. I perceived it as a huge privilege to do this and have so many friends, above all in the European youth movement. We met in France, Italy, Spain—it was the heady period on the Iberian Peninsula when the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal were broken. We were participants in the midst of these changes. We went to Madrid and the Barcelona and other places—even prior to the deaths of Franco and Salazar. The Catholic youth movement has to be seen as an oppositional force vis-à-vis their regimes. My role in the Jeunes Etudiants Catholiques placed me in the role of an active participant in shaping the democratic transition.
Q: Analysts claim that Catholicity served as an important factor in binding the new German Federal Republic to the West
JL: And it happened a second time in the 1980s in Poland. Without Solidarnosc and without the Polish Pope John-Paul II, it is doubtful that the Iron Curtain would have fallen.
Q: I take it that the Catholic connection was important because it established a network across borders. Still, I imagine that hard feelings vis-à-vis the Germans persisted through the 1950s. How did it feel being German in such close proximity to the other countries?
JL: We learned by discussions in our family. (20:10) We learned in school. We also had personal encounters to draw upon from holidays or business meetings that there were ressentiments about Germans. I was one of those who understood that. From an early stage, I was conscious that there was nothing that could be done by way of compensation. At best, you could open doors for the future. Above all, I was guided by the notion that one had to be patient; the other had to initiate the reconciling moment. I could only take the hand extended to me. To reach out to the other, to embrace him, required time to develop a certain level of trust. You need understanding and tolerance of other cultures, other mentalities, other psychologies, other ideologies. People are different. We learned that people in their variety are different and that the differences can offer opportunities get closer to the other. It is difficult to express. I understood the reservations of others about us Germans.
Maybe I can best express what I mean by sharing the memory of a specific encounter. In 1972 I had to be in southern France for an extended period. I got to know a girl there. We liked each other. It was nice. We smoozed a bit and at one point she invited me to visit her family the next Sunday for coffee. (23:25) It was in Marseilles at 4:00 p.m. With a bouquet of flowers in my hand, I rang the doorbell. The girl’s mother appeared at the door. I introduced myself using my best French. She answered: “un Allemand? Ça va pas.” She closed the door. I was devastated, because I had done nothing personally to offend. But I was a German. I didn’t know it was a Jewish family. I simply had to accept it. That was a key experience for me. It was 27 years after the end of the war. I was 25 years old. So, my generation grew up in circumstances that convinced us that we had to work on winning trust. To achieve something together we had to demonstrate personal credibility, respect, tolerance. Later in life I often experienced the great display of heart. There was Bronislaw Geremek, for example, a man who had once had been a Communist, but allowed himself to be transformed by Solidarnosc, abandoning his former orientation for a new departure, one that led to imprisonment and suffering in the short run, and subsequently to whom important tasks were entrusted. I am privileged to have come into contact with many striking figures of his calibre. They were and are an inspiration to me. I have tried to be guided by their example.
Q: You have achieved an enormous amount in that respect. Thank you for sharing that key experience. How did experiences like that affect your transition to a life devoted to politics?
JL: When I joined the SPD in 1970 I contemplated what sort of position I might have been suited for. Any aspiration to become Bürgermeister seemed out of the questions. But then, in 1972, I was entrusted with the leadership of the SPD youth organization, Die Jungsozialisten, Jusos. It is a position I had for four years, directed mainly at influencing the SPD itself as well as undertaking actions in the city. Broadly speaking, we were seeking to implement Willy Brandt’s injunction to advance the democratic life of our society. My responsibilities representing two to three hundred Juso activists drew me ineluctably into the public sphere. We were a force to be reckoned with. In this way I was asked to run for a seat on the city council and was elected in May, 1977 and remained one until my retirement in 2009. As a representative, I was asked to take the lead in issues connected to citizen participation, but I also had responsibilities in the areas of economic development and sports. I was surprised by a phone call one Sunday evening in 1983. The local SPD board met and decided to ask me to be the Spitzenkandidat (leading candidate) for the 1984 city elections. I already had a full plate of responsibilities then: I was fully engaged in my legal practice, needed to support three children, and so my wife and I discussed the matter and came quickly to the decision that I ought to do it. So my engagement grew to encompass the election campaign, which generated many more contacts and publicity. The result was that we successfully lost the election. It was a close election, but we came in second. (30:23) Despite our narrow loss, I was appointed Bürgermeister and the Oberbürgermeister’s first deputy and in that function I had an opportunity to generate even more of a public profile.
Q: Was the SPD in coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU)?
JL: No, the CDU governed alone. Our communal constitution mandates the nomination of a respresentative of the minority party of the city council as first deputy to the Lord Mayor. That was me. Already then, the SPD decided that I would run for Oberbürgermeister in the next communal elections in 1989. Therefore, I used the five year term beginning in 1984 to establish a record in a number of issue areas. I became better known; my contact network expanded further. We went on the offensive for political leadership in Aachen and in 1989 we won. Thus began my 20-year tenure as Lord Mayor (Oberbürgermeister).
Q: And a very successful 20 years it was. In the five years 1984-1989 as Bürgermeister, did you already have a role in the Charlemagne Peace Prize of Aachen (Karlpreis)?
JL: Yes. The Karlpreis is an institution unique to Aachen. Although an initiative of citizens, the city of Aachen also plays a role in it. The city nominates members of the Karlpreis governing board and the city is also the organizer of the event, more or less. So I already had a close connection to the Karlpreis before my election as OB, though it was only in 1989 that I actually took a seat as member of the governing board.
Q: Why was it important for you to engage in the work of the Karlpreis from an early period?
JL: Aachen is a very European city—in this sense, at the same level as Rome, Paris, Brussels, and Strasbourg. We are a small city, but we are imbued with the historical spirit of Charlemagne and we have always enjoyed close contact to our neighbors. At different stages, we have been a French city, we have been a Prussian city, and we are a German city nowadays. At the time of Charlemagne and his successors, we were the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the seat of German kings. So there is this spirit. Second, there is the experience of the triangle Maastricht-Liege-Aachen. For my generation, the first postwar generation, Europe has meant peace—peace, peace, peace. And freedom and democracy. Aachen’s communal spirit also encompasses the notion of social welfare, that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy a good life. In today’s circumstances we recognize that we have lost sight of these values somewhat. The crisis in Ukraine unfolding before our eyes reminds us what Europe means. It is still peace, freedom, understanding and democracy. So I think this very old idea is still alive and has a future. We also recognize that in this era of globalization, Europe’s future lies in its solidarity and cohesiveness in facing new challenges.
Q: Perhaps now is an opportune moment to take up the second aspect of our conversation, namely Aachen’s sister cities and your role in them. Before the link was established with Arlington you inherited relationships with other cities, right?
JL: As Bürgermeister 1984-1989, I was involved in two sister city relationships—Toledo in Spain and Naumburg in Saxon-Anhalt, which was part of the territory of the German Democratic Republic (Communist East Germany) until 1990. We also had a sister city relationship with Halifax in the UK. In 1987 we established relations with Ningbo in the People’s Republic of China. For me, the relationship with Naumburg was most important, as the question of European values was on display in an exceedingly distressing way. The Lord Mayor, a Christian Democrat, did not even want to go there. So he sent me with a delegation to negotiate a relationship, if we could. We had taken care to prepare ourselves thoroughly, briefed with papers from the first West German-East German city twinning relationship. We had papers from the German Foreign Office as well. Central questions animating the negotiations were whether we were part of the same nation, shared the same historical roots, and what role citizens of the two cities could play within the proposed partnership. We had clearly defined positions on these matters. Naumburg’s negotiating team did not want to accept our positions—for them we were not one Volk. They did not recognize any common roots either. And they were only willing to allow seven persons per year to participate in exchanges between the cities. I told them that I could not accept that and that I was prepared to return to Aachen without a partnership agreement. The atmosphere became very tense, but at the very last moment, they accommodated us. At the next meeting, they presented a draft agreement without our points and I felt compelled to threaten once again to walk away empty-handed. At the very last moment, they accepted that partnership could be a partnership of citizens. In this sense, our European partnerships are very similar. It is not a partnership between town halls or mayors—it had to be a partnership between citizens. And they must run the partnership, not the town halls. The town hall might play a supporting role. We insisted on a living partnership directly expressing the community. I know cities in Germany that have 20 or more sister city agreements. I steered clear of that. So, in the late 1980s after Lingbo and the others, we said let us stop adding sister cities; we need to run the ones we already have. With this in mind, when my term as OB began in 1989, I began to found associations—Vereine—to run the sister city projects.
Q: So the Vereine were a new development in 1989…
JL: That’s right, we didn’t have them prior to that. My OB predecessor nominated people to run them. The Vereine were a new departure. They had to be self-governing. They had to have a budget. So the Partnerschaftsvereine have an independent and autonomous status. That was the situation at the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s. Some of the Vereine are still operating today—some better than others.
Q: Thank you. I am glad to have asked the questions, because it leads naturally to the question of how the Arlington-Aachen relationship came about. I have heard that the relationship came about almost accidentally.
JL: One day in 1992, Herbert Santis, the head of Aachen’s Department of Cultural Affairs, came to see me with the news that he had met Dick Carver, a former mayor of Peoria, Illinois (who had since moved to Arlington), who brought up the idea of establishing a sister city relationship between Aachen and Arlington. Carver had been president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1979-1980. I was somewhat taken aback and reminded Santis that we had a city council decision foreswearing additional sister city relationships. Moreover, I continued, Arlington is a county and we are a city. Can we reconcile this asymmetry? Santis conceded my points but argued the importance of a transatlantic link. Young people were already participating in exchanges with partners in the United States. We were already behind the curve. By force of argument, he led me to revise my opinion about taking on another partnership. But first, we had to explore the possibilities with the prospective partner. Who was speaking for Arlington? Did Arlington really desire such a partnership? Could I bring the political groups comprising the city council around to the idea of amending their decision? I could not do this on my own: the whole council had to be involved. Santis then agreed to ask Dick Carver to write a letter describing Arlington and proposing to explore a partnership. Carver’s letter was fulsome in its advocacy of specifically German-American city relationships. We responded and both sides undertook some research into the desire and capacity to commit meaningfully to a city-to-city citizen relationship. Arlington then took the first official step by adopting a resolution supporting the proposed relationship in the Arlington County Council. James Hunter III was County Council Chairman at the time. I can share copies of the correspondence with you.
Q: Oh, wunderbar! Thank you. (50:02)
JL: Writing to Dick Carver and citing from my letter of 21 April 1993, “all groups of the Aachen Council announced their consent to a town-twinning with Arlington.” [The letter goes on to say “One of our “green” counselors took her vacation in the USA last week and was in Arlington several days. She is very delighted.”]
In June 1993, I received a letter from County Council Chairman James Hunter III with the text of the Council’s resolution dated the 5th of June inviting Aachen to twin with Arlington. This was the first official exchange between us. The others had the character of diplomatic soundings.
My response was to take Arlington’s proposal to Aachen’s city council. I was enormously gratified that not only the SPD, but also the CDU and FDP embraced Arlington’s proposal. A large majority was in favor.
Already in September 1993, we had the first visit of the Arlingtonians to Aachen. I remember the list of delegates: James Hunter, Mary Margaret Whipple, Tom Parker, John Melnick… The signing of the agreement was done by James Hunter, Tony Gardner and the two of us, Dr. Berger (Aachen executive at that time) and me.
My main point in all of this is that the citizens should themselves create the partnership.
Q: So what happened next?
JL: We organized a Verein very soon. Heinrich Friedhoff served as the first chairman of the board of the Verein, Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftskomitee e.V.
Our first convocation in Arlington was in May, 1994.
It is running very, very well. It is above all the younger generation that is profiting from the relationship. We put on some cultural events that we do not have with our other sister cities. It is running very well. You can always do better, but I am very content with our decision.
Q: Is it true that some of the opposition to the Arlington connection was because of scepticism about an American connection?
JL: Yes. There has always been some scepticism vis-à-vis the United States on the left of our political spectrum. This continues to be the case. It is a 3-4% phenomenon in Germany generally and Aachen falls in this range as well. It did not have an appreciable effect on the process in this case.
Q: Let’s move to the development of the trilateral relationship of Aachen and Arlington to Reims. I have heard that you have a foundational role in connecting Reims to Arlington as well…
JL: Maybe insofar as I made a suggestion in that direction. It was clear that Arlington was looking for a sister city relationship in France. So, I suggested Reims. I consulted with the mayor of Reims at that time about it and demonstrated support in the inaugural meetings. From there the relationship developed on its own.
Q: You are being modest, according to my sources, who tell me that you were quite central in getting the project off the ground.
JL: Yes, I helped, but the decision was for Reims and Arlington to make. The French are still somewhat more sceptical about relations with the United States. What I said was that Reims was liberated by the Americans on 7 May 1945, that this was a great moment, and that Reims should be playing a role in transatlantic relations.
Q: Let’s finally turn our attention to the question of where the relationship is and where it is tending. Before we leave Reims, let me just refer to how striking it is that Aachen, Reims and Arlington should be linked in this triangular fashion. Most students of modern international relations would read this link in terms of anchoring western preferences for world order in Eur-Atlantic institutions. What do the Americans bring to this
JL: Difference. We are all different and that is what we have to respect. In the past, differences were the occasion of misunderstandings, conflicts, wars. The French-German-American triangle has an immense historical impact over the past 100 years. It was necessary to work out what happened—historians today are preoccupied with WWI. The two world wars belong together conceptually. For the French and Germans the Franco-German war of 1870-71 also belongs to the 20th century. We have that history, but you can’t create a future without processing the experiences of the past. You can’t do that without people who are convinced that this togetherness means something. Theory is inadequate to life. Life must be lived. We were lucky and happy and privileged to have found personalities that somehow embraced this togetherness.
I remember on the American side people like Mary Margaret Whipple who impressed me a lot. Similarly Jay Fisette. Or Tom Parker. They got it that there had to be more than the official meetings of governments and diplomats. Consider the photograph of a train. You have an engine with two or three drivers at the front. They are followed by the cars. It is headed towards some destination. But is it worth while to go there without passengers? I think not. So, you need the drivers and the passengers alike. And we found them in this triangle. We are not concerned with grand strategy; we are concerned with the fabric of life. It’s about opportunities for the young generation to meet each other and to try to understand each other. To have associations of culture, sport or whatever to interact with each other. By the way, how long did it take for the Americans to understand [U.S. national FIFA World Cup soccer team coach] Jürgen Klinsmann? So, there are differences and the task is to understand and respect them. That is the foundation of peace, freedom, and understanding. We aim at offering at least some of the community opportunities to experience this.
Q: So how do you think Aachen has changed because of its relationship with Arlington?
JL: In imperceptible ways. In life’s details. When we have visits from the United States, or, for example when we conferred the Charlemagne Prize on President Bill Clinton, people who have already been in the U.S. influence public opinion. In misunderstandings in diplomacy, differences over Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, we can find the respect necessary to understand the standpoint of the other. That is important
Sister city partnerships have a lot of potential for the future. There is the underlying continuity of values that sustain them. There is plenty of room for further cooperation in economic development, science, culture. So, we have a full agenda for the future.
Q: Some think that the heyday of sister cities was the 1950s, when we did not have instantaneous communication and when it was less easy to get around. (1:12:48) That has all changed now and the question therefore arises: has the sister city idea lost some of its relevance? Is it no longer rerquired?
JL: The sister city idea is needed more than ever. If you will allow an example, take the situation in Africa. We see the images on TV and cannot understand what is happening there. Are the conflicts local? How should we interpret the ostensibly religious dimension? We don’t understand what we are seeing, though we are not that far from them. It would be a very good idea to involve Africa and Asia, precisely in their globalized setting, in the sister city partner project. Because they belong to that world, it is not simply a question of triangles; there is a multilateral dimension. Today we have information about events that 20 years ago we never would have heard of. In this sense, our involvement, our moral responsibility demands that we not only see it in mediatized images, but actually to be part of it. Look at the thousands of young Africans risking everything on hazardous attempts to reach Europe over the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands die between the northern coast of Africa and the southern extremities of Italy and Spain. The tragedy cries out for a solution. Governments of the large countries must be involved and sister cities can have an influence on this. If Americans, Europeans, Asians would engage, the perspective on resolving the problem would be greater than it is today. Today it is a disaster. This is widely acknowledged. There are misunderstandings; there are dramatic differences in the quality of life. There are many possibilities.
Q: Is Aachen contemplating an African connection?
JL: We have a friendship agreement with Cape Town ((??)) in South Africa, but no sister city relationship yet.