Yesterday’s Hiding Places are Tomorrow’s Stages: Reconciliation, community building, and transatlantic relations

Civil society in Germany and the United States largely enjoys freedom to act and to shape society. In so doing, people of both countries belong to the just 2 percent of the global population that can make use of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. With the emergence of social movements since the middle of the twentieth century, citizens have more and more claimed their rights to participate and organize in order to promote social change, e.g., in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection. It’s safe to say that these movements—manifested in organizations and associations—have become a necessary corrective of and non-partisan counterpart to governmental action. However, the pure existence of these fundamental rights does not mean that all parts of the respective societies take advantage or even have the potential to make use of them. Due to demographic change and increasing diversity, German and U.S. societies are becoming more varied. Civil society actors can play a crucial role in giving this diversity a voice in setting the agenda, in holding state action to account, and in leading change.

Civil society actors can play a crucial role in giving this diversity a voice in setting the agenda, in holding state action to account, and in leading change.

During the last decades, many communities in Germany which share a common past, culture, religion, gender, sexuality, or other form of social commonality, started to organize themselves and reached out to the public with more confidence. Three examples: In April 2018, the first self-organized Roma Biennale by and with Roma artists from all over Europe took place in Berlin. On the occasion of International Roma Day, specific exclusion experiences were combined with individual artistic perspectives and feminist strategies to provoke visibility and self-determination. Since 2017, the Jewish magazine Jalta wants to give an increasingly diverse and changing Jewish community a voice. A new generation of Jews raises other questions and redefines Jewish self-understanding. The community no longer just wants to be addressed as part of a victim collective. Each One Teach One (EOTO) is a community-based education and empowerment project for Black people in Berlin. In 2014, the organization opened its doors as a neighborhood library: as a place of encounter and learning, EOTO introduces literature by writers of African descent and conveys knowledge through dialogue between the generations.

Many of these community organizations are, for better or worse,[1] important partners to meet public interests: be it as bridges to parts of society that are not reached by public institutions, be it as representatives of claims toward the majority society and the state. For their communities, most of the associations and organizations, big and small, serve the aim to gather, to work together, and to create safe spaces in which one can trust and feel understood. With that feeling of belonging they help to integrate these individual and collective perspectives into the wider society. They strengthen participation, work against exclusion and discrimination, point out challenges and problems, provide solutions, and empower people from their respective community.

The Majority are the Minorities

From a traditional viewpoint the majority society consists of a certain ethnically or nationally distinct population. From this perspective, minority communities are to be integrated, which often would mean to take on the majority perspective. But what is the majority in times of demographic change? And would this be an approach based on the values of democracy and freedom? The majority society itself consists of different minority communities and every individual in society belongs to at least one of these communities. On the one hand, in a century that creates more and more interdependencies between individuals and states by migration, a perspective that aims at including different positions into the majority conception is not only more democratic but strengthens participation and justice. On the other hand, the increasingly visible pluralism in Germany, which challenges the existing dominance of the majority community, boosts the potential for parts of society drifting apart. Past experiences of discrimination or the continuity of manifest structures of marginalization unfold the limits of people’s potential to take part in social life. Resulting domestic conflicts within the society can be based on identity and social status. Predominant narratives in the form of curricula, public understanding, or policies are visibly or invisibly challenged. As the same time, minority communities become more and more visible and organize themselves, such as Black Germans, Roma people, German Jews, and Muslims.

What is the majority in times of demographic change?

In times when society’s cohesion is increasingly under pressure and social diversity is apparent, reconciliation has to be reconsidered in three ways. First, the reconciliation of different parts of society and perspectives to serve social cohesion which involves all parts of state and society and is an ongoing task for a social state and state under the rule of law. Second, reconciliation issues are questioned by new perspectives. Reconciliation is a dynamic process that is never completed but rather challenged by each generation anew, no matter the context. The past is present. Historic conflicts evolve over time and shape societies and identities until today. In Germany, these issues are especially related to the Shoah, anti-Semitism, and relations with Israel. With demographic change and increasing variety, there are not only growing calls for equal participation, but also existing narratives such as the self-image of the postwar and reunified German state and society are questioned. Lastly, there is the call for public visibility of neglected or ignored reconciliation issues. Examples are current debates about Germany’s colonial past concerning genocide, mass crimes, and colonial cultural heritage; the increasing understanding of transgenerational transmission of trauma and memories as individual and collective heritages that need to be acknowledged (the context in Germany is predominantly both the Shoah and the Second World War, but in the United States especially a slavery and lynching past). There are often debates about ongoing forms of discrimination rooted in the past, for example against Roma people who, due to the lack of education and wealth in times of Nazi persecution, are still marginalized in the third, fourth, or fifth generation; and about feminist perspectives. Hence, reconciliation as a dynamic process is undisputed, as change of angles is inherent in the concept. Yesterday’s marginalized individuals could become tomorrow’s leaders. Their hiding places offer a potential of experiences and can become their stages to speak out and reach out to shape society – for the better or worse. Therefore, it is the state’s obligation and society’s interest to protect and empower the marginalized.

It Takes a Village

Following the state’s principle of subsidiarity, existing both in Germany and the United States, communities want and should (partially) take care of themselves. If legal frameworks are known and necessary qualifications are acquired, civil society actors will have more impact in their communities than the state and will respond to their specific needs more directly. By providing funding, setting the legal frame, and qualifying civil society actors, communities are involved and empowered, resulting in the reconciliation of fragmented parts of society.

On the one hand, deregulation in Germany further limits possibilities of the welfare state to reach out and impact minority communities. On the other hand, this may be a chance to relate more strongly to the concept of community organizing and building in Germany, activities long existing in the United States. Referring to the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” there is a shared responsibility of the state, the communities, and the individual for shaping a society which successfully looks out for each citizen and human being. When empowered and equipped with rights, instruments, knowledge, and funding, civil society actors can work more effectively to impact their respective communities.

In times of increasing separation between groups and ideas of a shared society in Germany and the United States, the major effort to reconcile the diverse parts of society can become a joint effort. Specific communities in both countries may have much more in common with each other than with other communities in their respective society. I see three added values: First, transatlantic cooperation and a useful exchange of views can empower these communities. Second: instead of focusing on differences, commonalities should be promoted. Lastly, transnational perspectives on minority rights and communities have the potential to revitalize transatlantic relations as they would be oriented toward the needs and interests of communities on both sides of the Atlantic that, due to demographic change, have not yet been involved in bilateral relations.

Transnational perspectives on minority rights and communities have the potential to revitalize transatlantic relations as they would be oriented toward the needs and interests of communities on both sides of the Atlantic that, due to demographic change, have not yet been involved in bilateral relations.

Numerous NGOs in Germany and the United States have focused on the exchange of ideas, academics, youth, businesses. Yet, a platform that strengthens transatlantic partnerships on transnational issues is still missing. Such a transatlantic platform could develop a common vision for a shared future. It could give credible proof of our shared democratic and liberal values like fundamental rights or nondiscrimination. It would help professionalize the increasingly visible communities and—in the spirit of the United States and Germany—actually promote the value of Western democracy and freedom. It would empower like-minded communities to share experiences and best practices. This platform should be government-supported since it is in the best interest of Germany and the United States to reach and empower their citizens.[2]

Two examples demonstrate that there are existing models for transnational cooperation in international relations. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany can be taken as an example of an already existing transnational civil society platform supported by governmental funding. The Claims Conference unites different non-state actors for a common concern: reparations by the German state to Jewish survivors. It is funded by the German government due to reconciliation interests and acts by means of social help, transgenerational activities, and educational programs. It is transnational due to the universal character of the purpose as well as the target groups in different countries. Another example is the German-Israeli Future Forum. It aims at supporting civil society actors in both countries to work together on a shared future within the next generations.

These recommendations may sound idealistic and too visionary. However, the need for a comprehensive framework of how to involve civil society and marginalized communities in our liberal democracies is crucial for the credibility of Western states such as Germany and the United States and may help to revitalize the transatlantic partnership based on what is needed for the future: solidarity and participation within our changing societies. It is the responsibility of the state and the society on both sides of the Atlantic to integrate diverse perspectives to develop a shared future and offer communities a vision of what could be.


[1] One current critically discussed organization is the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs in Germany (DITIB) which has strong personal and institutional links to the Turkish state, thereby questioning the independence of the represented community and the organization’s actions in Germany and within German society.

[2] To counter the argument that only left-liberal organizations would profit: the concept of Community Organizing originates in churches.

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.

Lukas Welz

AMCHA Germany

Lukas Welz is chairman of AMCHA Germany, an institution that supports the psychosocial aid for Holocaust survivors in Israel. Within this volunteer position he developed the PresentPast dialogue forum on trauma that brings together practitioners and scientists. He currently serves as policy advisor in the German Bundestag and works for a NGO in the field of political education for the German multicultural society. Lukas Welz studied political sciences and history in Heidelberg and conflict, development and governance at Cranfield University/Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He was head of the Working Group “Conflicts in Europe” of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research and researched on Transitional Justice in Cambodia. Lukas Welz has been involved in German-Israeli relations since his civil service with the German NGO Action Reconciliation Service for Peace in Jerusalem, Israel. From 2008 to 2015 he has been chairman of the German-Israeli Young Forum and member of the executive board of the German-Israeli Friendship Association.

He is a 2017-2018 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).