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When you enter Germany’s massive Federal Foreign Office at Werderscher Markt 1 in Berlin you have a unique rendezvous with history. More than any other building in the city it has witnessed the past 75 years of politics and history, from the darkness of the Nazi era to the country’s new role in international affairs as a broker of soft power.

This latest layer of history is reflected in the ministry’s 1999 extension with its tall glass façade that seems to invite you in to have a latte in the coffee shop, look at one of the exhibitions about Germany and browse in the bookshop. This transparent, inclusive face of the ministry helps make it “a part of the city”, according to the architect Thomas Müller who, along with Ivan Reimann, designed the extension. It’s also a reflection of the aims and ambitions of the people working away for Germany behind its walls.

The older parts of the Auswärtiges Amt (Federal Foreign Office) or AA, however, embody Germany’s grim past. This was the first major administrative building commissioned by Hitler (it’s the second biggest structure in Berlin after Tempelhof Airport) and was designed to be a part of the Reichsbank, Germany’s then central bank. Under its presidents Hjalmar Schacht and Walther Funk, the bank played a dark role in financing the illegal rearmament of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War and also in the exploitation of the victims of the Holocaust. The country’s gold reserves were stored in its giant vaults but also property taken from Jews and other concentration camp victims.

After the war, in a divided Berlin, the building found itself in the communist East and became the seat of the Central Committee of East Germany’s ruling party, the SED. But it was also here, that the first freely elected parliament of East Germany met to approve the treaty for German unification in 1990.

In the 1990s, when Germany’s unified government relocated from Bonn to Berlin, there was a debate about whether the burden of history on this building was just too heavy for it to be used as the ministry. Joschka Fischer, from Germany’s Green party who became Federal Foreign Minister in 1998, was one of those who felt the building could play a part in Germany’s future. “The building’s history remains present,” he wrote. “What is decisive is the honest and open way in which it has been confronted.”

The historic parts of the ministry have been restored by renowned architect Hans Kollhoff who, in collaboration with artist Gerhard Merz, developed the concept of “three layers of history”, referring to the Nazi era, the communist past and the present. “We wanted to retain as much of this building as possible but also make it eminently clear that a new spirit was moving in,” Kollhoff has said.

Markus Ederer is one of those who represent this new path. He joined the AA in 1988, worked in German embassies in Ottawa and Moscow, at the EU in Brussels and at Germany’s intelligence Service, BND, near Munich. There he was employed as an analyst, identifying future challenges for a reunified Germany. He sent his reports to Berlin, where Gerhard Schröder was the then chancellor.

Ederer predicted that energy security and climate change were set to become important issues of national security and foreign policy. “The only person in Berlin who was interested in these reports,” Ederer says with hindsight, “was Frank-Walter Steinmeier”, head of the Federal Chancellery under Schröder from 1999 to 2005. In 2005, when Steinmeier was appointed foreign minister in Angela Merkel’s coalition government, he asked this brainy Bavarian to become his head of political planning.

Soft power is a useful concept for Germany: after losing two world wars, traditional hard power strategies are not an option. With its history, unlike any other country in Europe, Germany has to avoid being seen to throw its weight around.

Today, for a young, cultural crowd, Berlin is Germany’s biggest asset. If soft power is the power to attract, Berlin now pulls in more hip young visitors than any other European capital. “Berlin shapes brand Germany among a younger generation,” says Aron Mir Haschemi, who is German-Iranian and an example of the new generation in the foreign service.

Postwar, Germany gathered a great deal of expertise in negotiating with multiple players and their various interests and in doing so developed a supreme soft-power skill set. “We’ve gained a lot of experience over the decades in how to balance between east and west, former foes, north and south, poor and rich,” says Ederer, “and we can offer this expertise to the international community.”

When the Berlin wall came down 20 years ago, Germany’s structures were deemed sclerotic, its leaders timid, and for quite a while the country looked like a major loser in the age of globalisation, German policy now looks in some ways like a role model in a new post-communist and globalised world: Germany is now a pillar of the EU and a posterchild of multilateralism. While the new issues of foreign policy – energy, climate change, resources, water, finance, health and food – are concerns for every country, Germany is carving out its own way of dealing with them. It is making sure its views are heard and its interests taken care of – but in a subtle way.

The country’s limited power ambitions (although that’s not a view every British or French prime minister might have concurred with), combined with German skills in logistics, organisation and engineering, have also helped make its national institutions – including the AA – come across as trustworthy and neutral in times of trouble.

When major natural disasters happen, such as this year’s earthquake in Italy’s Abruzzo mountains, governments request the assistance of Germany’s THW, or Technisches Hilfswerk, an organisation of engineers, civil protection experts and disaster-relief teams with skills in search and rescue missions and rebuilding infrastructure. Founded in 1950, it is funded by the Interior Ministry.

In the late 1990s the Federal Foreign office also installed its own “nation building” task force. Coordinated by the European Union and OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), on any given day at least 90 volunteers from the Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF) are serving in countries where “Germanness” is in high demand. You can find them digging wells in Mauritania, establishing civil administration in Timor-Leste, offering forensic evidence in trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and training the police force in Afghanistan.

“It is our policy to look around the bend and see what is ahead,” says Ederer, sitting in his sober office, “and identify new challenges in foreign policy.”

Born in 1957 in Bavaria, Ederer is a child of the Cold War. He was part of a generation who grew up with the prospect that their country, which was then dotted with the missiles and military bases of four different nuclear powers, was most likely to be the main battleground for an all-out nuclear war. That’s why his generation of German diplomats, politicians and NGO leaders have embraced the tools of soft power and embedded them in policy.

There’s another facet of German political history that has also helped the country’s ambitions. In the 1970s, the country’s Green movement helped it to get a head start in green issues – expertise that the world now wants.

For example, under the last government in 2004, a bill was passed to support renewable energy at the individual level. Put solar power panels on your roof and you will be paid up to 50.6 euro cents per kWh by the local power supply utility company which is obliged to buy solar, thermic and wind-generated power. The concept led to a boom in solar power, encouraging new and better technology and cheaper prices for the panels. “The law, the Einspeisungsgesetz, or EEG has now been adopted by 47 other countries,” says Ederer. “Five months after its foundation, a new International Agency for renewable energies [IRENA], initiated by Germany to promote alternative energies, was joined by 130 countries. We seem to be able to give a lot in this field.”

The annual Munich Security Conference, held each February, is one of the most important global forums for issues of policy and strategy. Traditionally it was a stage for die-hard Nato Cold War power players but things are changing here, too. “When minister Steinmeier in his first address to the conference mentioned foreign energy policy as a main issue of international security, the feedback was bleak,” says Ederer, “because the participants at the conference were thinking only in Nato categories. But energy and climate protection are global issues that can not be solved or secured with military means – but still, if left undealt with, can lead to military conflicts.”

In September, Germany will go the polls and it seems likely that Angela Merkel will keep her job. For Steinmeier the future is a little less clear as he is standing as the Social Democrat’s candidate against her. But even if there is a change at the head of the AA, Germany will stay on the soft power shuttle.

Name: Tobias Krause
Position: Protocol desk officer
Years at the Ministry: 7

How do you think Germany is seen by the rest of the world?
A cosmopolitan country in the heart of Europe, reliable, pluralistic, social.

What elements of ‘German-ness’ do you think could win the country friends overseas?
Global exchange programmes in education and research (from high school to university teachers); tourism emphasising style and culture. Highly desirable products made in Germany.

Which soft power effort has done most for Germany in the past 10 years?
The soccer World Cup in 2006 and the message that Germany wants to be a host to friends from all over the world.

Favourite place in the foreign ministry?
The roof terrace of the International Club.

Name: Judit Goldstein
Department: Desk officer for Israel
Years at Ministry: since March 2009

How do you think Germany is seen by the rest of the world?
Surprisingly cool, sympathetic and relaxed.

What elements of ‘German-ness’ do you think could win the country friends overseas?
Berlin with its unique diversity.

Which soft power effort has done most for Germany in the past 10 years?
The soccer World Cup in 2006.

Which country do you think is best at using soft power to sell itself?
Often it might be less a real strategy than a side effect – for example of design, popular culture and art. Japan is really good at it.

Name: Aron Mir Haschemi
Position: Desk officer, OSCE
Years at Ministry: 5

How do you think Germany is seen by the rest of the world?
Still as a country that takes itself and basically anything very, very seriously. Plus being punctual, beer and pretzels, world class cars, soccer and great quality in manufacturing. A survey said the Chinese think of a 40ish-year-old engineer when they are asked to picture a German.

Which elements of ‘German-ness’ do you think could win the country friends overseas?
Berlin. It is affordable to live here, lots of international artists come here, culture is unparalleled. The perfect place to get rid of stereotypes about Germany if you are a tourist. Two of Gemany’s major cities are governed by gay mayors. Germany today is tolerant and cosmopolitan and Berlin shapes brand Germany in Europe and North America.

Which soft power effort has done most for Germany in the past 10 years?
The Soccer World Cup. Germany’s EU presidency and the G8 in Germany in 2007. I still have colleagues from embassies raving about Heiligendamm by the Baltic, where the G8 summit took place.


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