Denk ich an Deutschland Berlin, March 15, 2019

"Who do we think we are?"

The 10th anniversary of Denk ich an Deutschland reviews Germany’s self-perception in a changing Europe

In 2019, Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was this his-torical event that enabled the Federal Republic to become ‘independent’ one year later in the sense of attaining full national sovereignty, thus marking the end of a postwar era characterized by a foreign and defense policy of great restraint and close coordination with the victorious al-lies. Now, one generation later, voices calling for a redefinition of Germany’s role in the world are becoming louder, both at home and abroad. The question implied by this demand – how should German interests be asserted on the international stage? – is bound up with the question of the Federal Republic’s Selbstbewusstsein, its self-consciousness and self-confidence.

The 10th Denk ich an Deutschland Conference, hosted by Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, discussed the current state of German self-perception three decades after reunification and its role in a tumultuous Europe. Around 400 guests, among them politicians, academics, entrepreneurs, policy makers, journalists and NGO members, attended the conference. Paul Achleitner, Chairman of the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft’s Board of Trustees stated in his opening speech: “we live in a time in which our economy and our society are facing fundamental change. We must answer the question: what is expected of Germany, what is our role?”

In her keynote speech, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said she felt ‘electrified’ by Germany’s potential to change the world. As “a nation of thinkers and inventors”, Germany should take a greater role in digitalisation - which she believes is the solution to combating issues such as climate change - and must focus on developing technologies that benefit all of Europe.

The event was held for the first time in the historic European School of Management Technolo-gy, the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) state council building - a fitting setting to discuss German development since the fall of the Berlin Wall and its responsibilities to the rest of Europe. Since Germany’s foreign and domestic politics cannot be talked about with-out a close look at its inner state of mind, the first thematic session of the conference focused on national identity and self-perception after the reunification. More than one participant believed that Germany, the largest and economically strongest member state, has been too con-tent to rest on its laurels. The discourse on stage as well as with the audience showed that Ger-man reunification was – at best – an ongoing process and would need more commitment in the future. Jana Hensel, author and journalist, said that German reunification was not a success story from the perspective of many East Germans, who are still experiencing social imbalances. She said a lack of industry in the East leads to too much migration to the West. “This is not the promise of reunification that East Germans believed in and supported,” she said.

Fellow panelist Naika Foroutan, Director of the Berlin Institute on Integration and Migration Research, believes that more needs to be done for migrants to create a more unified sense of German identity. We need structural integration and recognition of the challenges they face to make migrants feel they are part of the cultural narrative, she said.

The second thematic session of the day turned the perspectives outwards, asking “Germany in the EU – in the eye of the storm?” Germany’s central location in Europe, its economic strength and political importance raise high expectations among its European partners and allies, but at the same time, they awake suspiciousness. The numerous crises of the EU – from the rise of populism to the Brexit chaos – are just some reasons why the question of the European part-ners’ expectancies towards Germany is so complex. On the panel entitled “Can Germany keep the EU together”, Ivan Krastev, Head of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, said there is a fear in Eastern Europe that Germany does not understand how much the world has changed and is too keen on maintaining the status quo. “We’re not afraid of Germany leading,” he said, “we are afraid of Germany not leading.”

But Norbert Roettgen, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, believes that Germany should take action by forging a consensus on security and foreign policy with other member states that share its values. He believes that security issues across Europe are creating an environment of fear among its people, which in turn is driving a rise in nationalism. Germany cannot afford to wait on the slowest member states: “Europe is paralysed, and a paralysed EU is a weak EU,” he said. With regard to the upcoming elections, he pointed to the importance of placing more emphasis on the European advantages: “We have to prove that Europe has an added value.”

The French ambassador to Germany, Anne-Marie Descôtes, pointed at an area where this added value can be found: “Europe is not only about defense and security, but also about social protection. Strength does not only show itself in outward relations, but also in acting according to common rules within the space that we have built together.”

Michael Roth, Member of the German Parliament and Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, stresses the importance of a change of consciousness when it comes to a unified Europe: “There is a striking lack of interest for Central and Eastern Europe. We stay where we are and where we were raised; we lack curiosity about what is developing there. And that is incredibly fascinating!”

The final session of the conference day looked forwards into an uncertain future, greatly affected by digitalization processes and their numerous consequences for our daily way of life and our societies. Since for the time being, the US and China set the technical course, the question arises if Europe and Germany are prepared for a future economy. Only in a common effort with the other members of the EU does Germany have the option to regain sovereignty over the societal and economic effects of technological development and can thus gain the self-confidence to help shape the new order.

Her fellow panelist Janina Muetze, Founder and CEO of Civey, said that Germany must do more to prepare young people to live in a more digital world, including better equipping teachers to help kids understand technologies from early on. “Digital business models are often seen as something bad or mysterious, but it’s because of a lack of knowledge: most people just don’t know what being digital means,” she said. She believes that, in addition to implementing digital education, Germany should be making a bigger investment in innovation and that Europe “shouldn’t be afraid to think big.”

Julia Reda, Member of the European Parliament, The Greens/ European Free Alliance, stressed for more European self-confidence: “In policy making, there is a lack of courage when it comes to believing in the potential of European IT companies. In the discussion, Chairwoman of the Young Liberals, Ria Schroeder, said “digital transformation is only in Europe’s best interest if we use it to promote freedom and democracy.

The Denk ich an Deutschland Conference invites participants and panelists to contemplate the issues facing Germany and Europe. Previous speakers in the series have included Francis Fukuyama, Joachim Gauck, Daniel Kehlmann, Angela Merkel, Peter Sloterdijk, Frans Timmermans, and Ursula von der Leyen.

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Contact: Dr. Claudia Huber, head of project area Europe

Media Gallery


Paul Achleitner, Chairman of the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft’s Board of Trustees, opens the 10th Denk ich an Deutschland Conference


Keynote by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, chairwoman of the CDU


Naika Foroutan, Director of the Berlin Institute on Integration and Migration Research


Audience discussion: Who Do You Think We Are?


Norbert Roettgen, Member of the German parliament and Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, with the French Ambassador to Germany, Anne-Marie Descôtes.


Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, SPD


Janina Muetze, Founder and CEO of Civey: Germany must do more to prepare young people to live in a more digital world.


Anna Herrhausen, Executive Director of the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft, is closing the conference: An open approach in dialogue and cooperation is a good exercise for re-defining and implementing Germany’s role in Europe.