How Happy Are the Germans Twenty Years After the Fall of the Wall?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM
Levinthal Hall Stanford Humanities Center
  • Peter Schneider

Born in 1940 and raised in southern Germany, Peter Schneider has greatly contributed to the literary and cultural life of Germany over the last four decades. After finishing his studies in German, History, and Philosophy in 1964, Schneider became a central figure in the 1968 Student Protest Movements in Berlin and Turin, Italy. After completing his Staatsexamen in higher education, Schneider began his career as a writer with his novel Lenz. After the success of Lenz in Germany, over twenty other novels, screenplays, and volumes of journalistic essays followed, including the English translated works Der Mauerspringer (The Wall Jumper, 1984), Extreme Mittelage (The German Comedy, 1990), Paarungen (Couplings, 1996), and Eduards Heimkehr (Edward's Homecoming, 2000). Schneider's screenplays were filmed by Reinhard Hauff - Messer im Kopf (Knife in the Head) and Margarethe von Trotta - Das Versprechen (The Promise). His essays can be found in Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The New York Times, Time Magazine, and Le Monde.

Since 1985, Peter Schneider has served as a guest professor at Stanford, Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard, Washington University St. Louis, and Georgetown University. During the 1996-97 academic year, Schneider was awarded a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Peter Schneider returned to Georgetown as the Parker Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the fall of 2000 and took up his role as Roth Distinguished-Writer-in-Residence with the spring semester 2001. During the spring of 2002 he taught at the Emory College's Halle Institute as a Distinguished Fellow.

This event is jointly sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe, Center for European Studies, Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities, Department of History, and Stanford Humanities Cener.


Audio Synopsis:

Peter Schneider recounts his experience and impression of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the changes he has observed over the past twenty years. Schneider was in Dartmouth, NH when the wall fell, having recently written that more than a wall divided Germans, and that it could only come down if the idea of reunification were abandoned. He felt disbelief when the wall fell, an event he describes as a "miracle that did not appear in any political calculus." Schneider credits the fall of the wall to pressure from the East German people, and cooperation between German and American politicians. Britain and France, in contrast, resisted the idea of a unified Germany, as did intellectuals and many Germans.

Schneider is struck by the city's transformation over twenty years, including new Western style housing and beautified storefronts. He relates how he observed a new generation of young Germans "taking charge" of the national flag as a symbol of joy rather than sorrow during Germany's hosting of the 2006 World Cup. However, he warns that it would be wrong to assume this progress signifies a new, shared culture. Germany illustrates the adage that a happy marriage is the product of long-term hard work, and much work remains to be done. Schneider describes that "a wall in the heads" of Germans persists, along with a clear generational gap. There is also significant economic disparity between East and West, including in unemployment rates and wages. He predicts that East Germany may rely on financial transfers from the West for another two decades or more.

Schneider observes that reunification has changed both sides and predicts an "Easternization of West Germany". He cites multiple surprising political developments of recent years including the election of the first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the rise of the PDS leftist party in the West.

In conclusion, Schneider provides a ready answer to the question of how happy Germans are twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "as far as Germans can be happy, and warm up to the pursuit of happiness, we are almost happy." A discussion session follows Schneider’s presentation.