Current discussions about the role and force of civil society in different countries around the world mark a situation in which democratic structures are in various ways endangered by political movements or political leaders. A paper of leading German and international welfare organizations criticizes this development: An independent, lively, and critical civil society is the expression of a pluralistic and democratic state and fulfills a controlling function. It asks governments and leading actors to take over responsibility and act transparently; it functions as a voice for minorities and disadvantaged parts of our societies. If these processes of civic engagement are being cut, our freedom in democratic societies is threatened. What needs to be done?
Our civil society is just as strong as we make it! If we want people to stand up for their rights, if we want people to get engaged in political decisions being made, if we want people to care about environmental issues, if we want people to speak up for the weaker voices around them and to get engaged in our society in any respect, we need to empower them to do so. We need to teach them insights into the structures of decision-making in a democratic state, we need to offer them connecting points and fields of engagement according to personal interests, and we need to empower them to become active and self-conscious civic actors without fears—and we need to make sure that they are successful in doing so. The more engaged people we have, the stronger our civil society and democratic culture will be.
A strong civil society implies a great danger, too: Self-conscious actors can exploit their freedom of opinion and voice, the freedom of gathering and the freedom of press. They can misuse these freedoms to create extremist public opinion. They may misuse it for spreading undemocratic viewpoints and for discriminating against minorities and subcultures. They misuse our freedom and act legally, aiming at diminishing our democratic values. For years the discourse around the prohibition of the right-wing NPD in Germany has divided democratic and legal opinion here.
Since a strong bond of German-American relations relates to democratic values, let us focus on this again and even more: In order to raise again the awareness of each person’s role as a civic person in a democratic society, we need to invest in learning and honoring democratic values. Each exchange program of students, volunteers, or (young) professionals should include some educational session on experiencing the value of a diverse and open society. Every program should offer professional assistance to learn about the differing democratic structures in the United States and Germany and about the comparable ways of political engagement. Every encounter should look out for personal or collective traces of undemocratic times in the past and for democratic visions for the future. Educational programs for these purposes exist—we need to put them on the agenda again and more. We need to invest in civic education for all!
We need to initiate a series of German-American programs on democracy learning both for young leaders and professionals in formal and informal education from both countries. A central question therefore is: How much and in what ways is this aspect of civic education truly included in programs of German-American encounters, professional exchanges on education, youth exchanges, or volunteer services? How can we intensify the qualification of the professionals working in this field of German-American cooperation focusing on education and civil society?
Given this situation, discussions in Germany focus on the importance of civic education on the level of both educators and students in order to strengthen the power of civil society in public discourse and in political action. This discussion, by the way, is very present within the field of European and international youth work and youth education in Germany.
Given the current state of a world facing numerous military conflicts, rising violence, and decreasing room for civil engagement, we also need to reflect on the aspect of civic education both in Germany and the United States. These trainings on democracy could be related to the program of “Betzavta,” “Democracy and Tolerance,” or “More than one democracy,” for example. These are well-known approaches in Germany (originally coming from Israel), but there seem to be comparable programs used in the United States such as the ones promoted by the Anti-Defamation League. A new program could set up bilateral German-American qualifications and trainings following these goals.
While continuously hoping for a development of peaceful rapprochement of conflicting groups and nations in the Middle East conflict, the United States and Germany could possibly make more use of their close relations with Israel, on the one hand, and to other partners in the region, on the other hand. We need to keep supporting cross-border and peace activities, which, despite all obstacles, remain while following human coexistence and respecting differing religious and national identities. In addition to that, we need to keep thinking in unconventional paths, supporting initiatives that try unexpected steps of rapprochement, such as the idea of young people wanting to bring together young Israelis with young people from neighboring Jordan or even (difficult to imagine) from Iran.
Christine Mähler is the Director of ConAct – Coordination Center German-Israeli Youth Exchange, an institution that is funding, advising, qualifying, and expanding the national youth exchange program between Germany and Israel.
This blog post is sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.