Conflict Resolution and German Reunification

If any country were in need of a national program of conflict resolution at every level of society, it would have been Germany after it reunified in 1990. East and West Germany were like a couple that had rushed into marriage with very little understanding of what it would be like to live together, merge finances, come to joint decisions, and make all the little adjustments that are necessary when two people with very different backgrounds are suddenly thrown together. Marriage counselors can help a new couple sort through all these challenges.

But Germany didn't have a national agency of marriage counselors to mediate the conflicts that arose after reunification. It took a rather traditional approach. West Germany acted in many ways like the husband in a patriarchal family. West Germany was the primary breadwinner, the one that brought the lion's share of the wealth to the union. And so West Germany made most of the decisions.

When I met Jamie Walker in 1990, she was a specialist in mediation and conflict resolution. She worked in this capacity from her home in West Berlin, becoming involved in the peace movement, doing violence-prevention work in the school system, and eventually pioneering efforts in mediating cross-border family conflicts.

As German reunification proceeded, she became involved in inter-German conflict resolution. But it was not a systematic program. "Mediation was hardly used in those days," she told me in an interview at at a Kreuzberg restaurant in May 2013. "I can't remember a special program for solving the conflicts. People from the East especially felt at a certain point that they were just being told, 'Okay, this is the way it is now. You have our system now, so forget the old system and just get used to this.' There wasn't a lot of give and take. And people felt threatened because of losing their jobs. The whole system changed. I had friends who worked in the health system -- family centers, psychological counseling centers, stuff like that -- but they belonged to the Ministry of Health in the East. Then, all of a sudden it was the Ministry for Social Issues or something like that. But I don't think there was any systematic way of handling conflict, although in the different organizations they must have had mechanisms."

She conducted some trainings in the East, but it was often as part of workshops just for former East Germans, such as teachers who had to go through retraining to be recertified. "When we did them in the East a couple of times when it was all very fresh, they were not used to the informality," she remembered. "They were used to the frontal approach. The teacher stands at the front, and the students address her as "Frau Doktor," and they sit, and they're the ones who are learning. Maybe they ask a question. But the teacher is the one who knows it all, and they are learning. And then we came in and said, 'Oh no, let's put the chairs in the circle. Of course we have something to say, otherwise we wouldn't be here, but what you have to say is important too. We don't know what it's like to work in the schools everyday, you're the experts on that.'"

It was a novel approach. But it also ran up against certain structural problems. "There was a lot of resentment from the teachers," Walker added. "They had been working as teachers for 10 or 15 years. They'd been qualified under their system. And now they had to go get additional training. They really resented that."

These sessions revealed something of what was happening under the surface in former East Germany, such as the growing rebelliousness of young people.

"From what the teachers told us in the East, things started to get more difficult because everything was changing in their society, and the kids stopped doing everything they were told," Walker explained. "I'm sure they didn't do everything they were asked before, but it kind of changed. And then the teachers didn't know how to deal with it. The reason I became an adult educator is so that people would come to me voluntarily and wouldn't be forced to. But after the Wall fell, people would be sent to some kind of training to add on to their hours of education. I'd want them to talk about their conflicts, and they would sit there and say, 'I don't have any conflicts. I've never had a conflict in my life.'"

She continued, "That was a little frustrating. I thought, 'Okay, so now I see why the kids don't have conflicts either.' I'm not saying they were totally repressed before, but they did have a different level of behavior. And later they started acting out, which is normal. And the teachers didn't think it was their problem, just the kids' problem, of course. I just remember being totally shocked that anybody could claim they'd never had a conflict in their life. But, of course, they weren't there voluntarily, so there's a good explanation for it."

The Interview

When did you start doing the conflict resolution work you're doing now?

When I was in Germany, the first three years I was doing youth work in a church, so that's what politicized me. And then an American friend of mine in the same program wanted to do conflict resolution training for the kids in her church where she was working. So I did that, and that got me interested. Then I went to Philadelphia and worked in the Life Center at the Movement for New Society from 1980-1981. I took part in a training course, and then I became a trainer all within that year. I came back to Berlin in 1981, and that's when I started to get really involved in the peace movement and doing conflict resolution training.

Tell me a little bit about the trainings and the peace movement. Was that exclusively with West Germans?

We did a couple of seminars in the East without calling it that. One time was with some friends who were involved in the church, and we basically did a non-violence training in someone's apartment over the weekend. The other time was with some families who were most of them involved in the church. That was a training on non-violence that included children. We were there for Easter or some kind of vacation. I knew people in the peace movement in the East. In 1983, the peace movement got really very popular. I was in a group called Non-Violent Action Berlin, in the training group. All of a sudden what we did was super popular. We did all kinds of weekend trainings for people to go to demonstrations and civil disobedience. I was training people to do this, but I wasn't doing the civil disobedience itself because I didn't want to get run out of the country. Then, after the Pershings and Cruise missiles were stationed in West Germany, it went way downhill.

What would you say were the major differences between doing trainings in the East and the West? Obviously you couldn't advertise the ones in the East. But just in terms of the interactions or how people dealt with issues?

I only did a couple of trainings in the East. But you always knew there was probably the Stasi listening in. And it was newer to people, especially when we did the family training with a friend of mine who came from Amsterdam.

Obviously the peace movement in East Germany was non-violent up through 1989. What do you think that came from? As you said, you were afraid that there might have been violence...

Yes, but from the state not from the protestors. I think the commitment to non-violence came from their hearts. It may sound really stupid. They knew that if they became violent they would have been slaughtered in absolutely no time. Nobody knew what would happen then. Probably the West would protest, but big deal. The West certainly wasn't going to invade just because they beat up or even slaughtered some protesters. They probably felt like that was the only choice they had. There wasn't a big discussion about "should we become violent?" And there wasn't the tradition we always had in West Berlin of the "Black Block," the demonstrators who at the end of the demonstration would often become violent. They have them in the East now, but that didn't exist in the East back then.

You said that after the cruise missile issue faded, the peace movement in the West declined.

The peace movement declined and the need for the non-violence training dropped.

So you shifted to different kinds of training.

That's when I got involved with non-violence training and teaching social skills to children. In the mid-1980s, I did my Master's thesis about that. I was studying adult education. That was a totally new thing in Germany. The problem of violence in schools - and the approach of violence prevention -- was just beginning. I thought, "Okay, if they don't want to be trained in the peace movement anymore, I'll look for somebody else who does want to be trained." Because there was also a Quaker program of trainings in prisons, I thought: either schools or prisons. But the schools were easier to get into.

Do you still do those programs today?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.