German ambassador: 'Sweden feels like home'
Published: 23 May 12 15:20 CET
Harald Kindermann, the German ambassador to Sweden, talks to The Local about the importance of the German language, nuclear power, and the legacy of the Stasi.
Kindermann, 62, arrived in Sweden in July 2011 and has connections to the country stretching back to his university days. He chose to serve his final diplomatic assignment in a country he says is “reminiscent” of his native northern Germany.
While most of his time in Sweden is taken up with discussions about the nuclear phase out in Germany, he took some time out to chat to The Local about himself, his country, and the similarities between Germany and its Scandinavian neighbour to the north.
TL: How did you end up in Sweden?
HK: My scientific research days at university meant that I had ties to universities in Stockholm and Uppsala, and a Swedish professor invited me here to do some research back in the eighties. It was a fruitful time and I got a wonderful impression of the country, the climate, the Swedish style of living, and the society here.
Previously, I’d worked as the German ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and Israel, 13 years in a row, and when I discussed with my wife where to go for a last posting, the choice was clear.
Also, northern Germany has a certain similarity with the Nordic culture, so I even have the feeling of being at home here.
TL: How does this post in Sweden compare to your other postings?
HK: There is a big difference. We are in Europe here, and here [in Sweden] we don’t have a past like a lot of other countries do with Germany. Sweden was not occupied as were some of its Nordic neighbours. There are a lot of problems with German relations, but Sweden is free from this historic burden, Though it’s not a burden - it’s a fact.
TL: What are the differences between Sweden and Germany?
HK:There is a popular saying in foreign policy that “neighbours are always important” – just like in your personal life. The challenge is to see what we have in common and where the differences are, which are often underestimated.
I was surprised to see so many differences between German thinking and Swedish thinking. But in Europe it’s productive. Sweden is an interesting model.
TL: What do you want to achieve in Sweden?
HK: I’m convinced that culture is extremely important. Foreign policy is a little bit artificial. Necessary but artificial. In a democracy, you need the okay of all the voters to establish good relationships - culture provides this basis, as does science. The basis is non-political, and therefore it’s important to deal with it.
TL: Is the Stasi Exhibition in Stockholm an example of this culture?
HK: Yes. We wanted to show to our identity and the past and this belongs to a lot of our people in the former East Germany. It’s our identity. It’s in our mind, we’ve experienced it, and we have to stand for it. We need to create a dialogue about it.
TL: What’s the importance of the exhibition.
HK: It shows how the Stasi worked. If you, as a Swedish citizen, believe that a file exists about you in our documents, you can apply to see it. If the answer is yes, you’re allowed to see what’s in the files, but you will not see from whom it came – only what they collected about you.
Every day more than 100 Swedes took the opportunity.
TL: There has been a debate in Sweden about whether the state should protect the identities of Swedes who worked for the Stasi. What is your view?
HK: The issue on the German side is very complex. If you’re under pressure from a terrible system and so much information is collected, you want to know about it. The dangerous fact is that the files became like a bible, but it must be remembered that the files were produced undemocratically by a lot of people. This means people were paid for their job, yet they’re people who often got lazy and falsified stories.
Sometimes there were personal interests, or bad relations. I personally saw a lot of files as I was working in the government of East Berlin in the GDR. These were not the files of a democratic country. They were from a repressive system without rules. It’s biased, politically and personally.
You can’t think the files are the truth. By all means, look at the files, but one must be more than a little careful because looking at the files does not give you the truth. People were paid to have a lot of contacts. Stasi members worked to get the okay of their own people. A simple meeting with a Stasi member could make that person a cooperator.
TL: On another subject, - the German school in Stockholm. Explain the importance of this school?
HK: The German school is celebrating its 400th anniversary very soon. There is a wonderful gallery in Stockholm’s Djurgårdern, the Tyska Gallery, and there’s a portrait of the philosopher Nietzsche, and he had a famous saying: “not age, but the act of existing for a long time is a value for itself on earth”. Four hundred years is something special, so we are celebrating that the school survived. Time in itself is a value.
Today, this bilingual school has an important role. Nobody knows the culture of others better than these students. They can make an important contribution to building cultural bridges in Sweden and Germany in a huge variety of respects.
TL: The German language is not as popular as it once was in Swedish schools, with English the most popular second language learnt since the forties. Should more students learn German?
HK: First, English is needed. It’s a world language. German, French, and Spanish come in second.
If I can see it from the point of view of young people – a language must make sense and be nice to the ear – and German is not easy to learn.
However we will hold a huge meeting soon in Gothenburg to talk with Sweden’s German teachers about our strategy. We need to seriously discuss why it is important to learn German, and as industry is screaming for German speaking workers, the time is now.
TL: Lastly, how are things progressing with the nuclear phase-out discussions?
HK: The file I have on the phase out and energy efficiency is certainly my biggest. Sweden and Germany have different opinions on nuclear energy and the interest of Sweden on the German decision is huge.
We have the idea that nuclear energy is dangerous. Swedes are thus different and think that nuclear energy is safe and clean, and are very sensitive to climate issues. We’ve made different decisions, despite having one common idea.
We need a European market for energy, we need grids, but there is a Swedish concern that the German decision will cause energy prices to rise. I hear it all the time.
Two things are certain. As long as the Swedes stay with nuclear energy, they stay. But Germany has left it and won’t come back; there is a a lot of resistance to it among the [German] people.
Now we have a huge industry and a big demand for energy, and we are neighbours. We need a shared policy, a new approach to what we have with water, windmills and bioenergy.
The whole Swedish society is in a constant dialogue about this. This is what it means to be neighbours, and gives us a chance for cooperation. On the other hand, there are concerns.
"Why are they doing this?" Germans ask.
"Are the Swedish nuclear power plants a risk for us if there’s an accident?"
It’s important to know what your neighbours are up to, especially when they’re as close as Sweden and Germany.
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