Gesine Schwan: Passionate about reconciliation

Gesine Schwan heads a university dedicated to Europe, ran for German president and learned French and Polish as a child to help heal the wounds inflicted on her family by Nazism.

“European Union enlargement is a gift for our children,” she said in May after the bloc expanded to 25 members bringing in Poland, the biggest, most populous of the 10 entrant countries and binding it ever closer to its neighbour Germany.

A native of Berlin, Schwan’s parents were members of the resistance who hid a Jewish girl during World War II.

They enrolled their daughter in a French school in West Berlin in the 1950s out of contempt for “a so-called hereditary hostility” between Germany and its neighbours, she said, in word-perfect French.

But because Poland “suffered even more at the hands of Germany than France”—over six million Poles were killed—and to fight continuing “disdain for the Slavs”, she dedicated her prodigious energies to this country close to her heart through philosophy and political science studies.

In preparing her doctoral thesis on the Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, Schwan travelled regularly to Poland and forged close links with the dissidents of Iron Curtain times.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently named her coordinator for relations between Germany and Poland—she was the obvious choice.

Today, Schwan seems to have found the perfect place for her talents. As chair of the private Europe University Viadrina in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder on the border with Poland, she is in charge of Germany’s main institution for the study of central and eastern Europe.

Almost one in three students on this campus are from across the border.

That means the recent exchange of hostilities between Germans wanting to retrieve their family assets in Poland, and Poles demanding compensation from the government for war-time bombings, has found few supporters here.

Indeed to counter it, the students have been organising a German-Polish debate between different generations.

“Relations between the two countries are stable enough not to be damaged by the actions,” of the Germans claiming compensation, many of whom are linked to the conservative opposition, said Schwan, who ran for president for the ruling Social Democrats.

She deplores the lack of interest, other than economic, that her compatriots have for the Poles.

“It’s at the root of many misunderstandings,” she said in her vast, book-lined office, and part of a “general asymmetry that will always remain between west and east.” To combat that, a “governance programme” for Europe’s administrative elite and business leaders is scheduled to begin in the 2005 academic year.

And because Europe does not end with the EU, the Viadrina will host students from Belarus and offer courses on Ukraine and the volatile Caucasus region.

“I have confidence” in Europe, said the widowed mother-of-two, who recently remarried, to Peter Eigen, the chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Schwan was largely unknown to the public until her run for the presidency.

With the energy of a perpetual student and a sense of decorum that puts her above the fray, she succeeded in May in winning votes among the conservative and liberal camps.

The conservative candidate Horst Koehler was named to the largely ceremonial post, but Schwan succeeded in putting a shine on the Social Democrats, who are so unpopular these days under Schroeder.

“They like me a lot in the party,” Schwan said, hinting that her place in a future government is almost assured.—Sapa

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