“I wish Germany more love for Europe.”
What is the first thing that you think of when you think of Germany – is there a personal anecdote you associate with our country?
Tonia Mastrobuoni: The first thing I think of are my grandparents. I had a German mother and travelled to Germany in the summers and winters, specifically to Nordhorn on the Dutch border. I associate this with very happy memories of my childhood. I learned to ride a bicycle there and to speak English. Dutch television was broadcast there with films shown in their original language with subtitles.
But there were a couple of negative memories, too. During this time, for example, I also learned that, even in the 1970s, the derogatory names for Italians and Turks were spaghetti-eaters and wogs. I had a neighbour who thought that Italians stank. Just for being Italians.
But in 1990, I went back with school and we went to Berlin, when the Wall had just come down. I stood somewhere on Friedrichstraße and it was a single grey strip. That was somehow a dominant colour in the former East Germany (GDR). Then, in Prenzlauer Berg, under this grey-brown, very often crumbling façade, I discovered a very beautiful architecture: wonderful Wilhelminian style houses. It was there that I fell eternally in love with Berlin.
Today it is completely different, of course. Berlin is a very colourful city. I have lived here for many years and Berlin is the most colourful place you can find in Europe.
How do you experience united Germany after 30 years of reunification?
Mastrobuoni: What is remarkable is how quickly East Germany was integrated. I come from Italy and we have still not managed to really integrate southern Italy after 150 years.
The second thing that comes to mind are the fears that people had at that time. There were fears about the new big Germany. I can remember the words of Giulio Andreotti, our prime minister at that time. He said: “We love Germany so much that we would rather have two of them.” And Margaret Thatcher went even further, she said: “We beat Germany twice, we do not want to beat it a third time.” After 30 years we know these fears were completely unfounded.
In your opinion, what effect did the reunification of Germany have on Europe?
Mastrobuoni: Germany is, after 30 years, one of the soundest democracies in the world. It stands for many of the values on which we have built western democracies. It stands for freedom, democracy, liberalism, tolerance - and lately for solidarity, too.
Secondly, I believe that it is important that, with the reunification, Germany fast-tracked a few processes in Europe. We know that an agreement was reached at that time between French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mitterrand agreed to the reunification and said: “good, this way we also fast-track the united Europe and a common currency”. And now the euro is one of the most successful currencies in the world. A very strong and sound currency.
Thirdly, I believe that coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship is important - something that is somewhat underrated. It happened in the heart of Europe. In reunited Germany. Coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship was very important in understanding the brutality of these illegitimate states behind the Iron Curtain. This process was very important in Germany as a way of creating awareness of these illegitimate states.
What do you think is the biggest weakness and the greatest strength of the Germans?
Mastrobuoni: Cohesion is the greatest strength of the Germans. I come from Italy, a country of individualists. By this, I mean that at times politics, trade unions, the church work together, for example, to overcome a very difficult social situation. One example of this is the historic structural change in the Ruhr area. I find this admirable in the Germans. This cohesion can also be very scheming, however, as shown in the case of Volkswagen.
Germans have a great sense of the public. Italians have that to a much lesser degree. I love that about the Germans. That is a strength but also a weakness. Love of the public sometimes crosses over into social control. I have had problems with my neighbours ever since I first lived in Germany. The moaning neighbour is simply a pest, it really is a German phenomenon. And I find that somewhat sad.
What does Germany specifically mean to your home country – do you know what is desired from Germany in the future?
Mastrobuoni: Germany is the most influential and most important country in Europe. It can do a lot to move the necessary integration forward. This was seen, for example, with the July agreement on the EU recovery fund and the budget. This was mainly thanks to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
Germany can achieve a lot when it comes to immigration. Not much has happened in five years since Merkel's “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it). We have no Dublin reform; we still have no mechanism for redistributing refugees. This is not just a social problem in Italy, this is a political problem, as these years have made right-wing populism and eurosceptic parties very strong. This is very dangerous for the European Union, too. Over the next few years, Germany can play a major role here in solving this immigration problem and finally making the populists smaller and weaker.
Finally, what do you wish for the Germans for the next 30 years of unity?
Mastrobuoni: I wish Germany more love for Europe and more trust in Europe. What I do not like – as a journalist, too – is that the argument is always based on this donor complex. I want to remind people that Germany is not the only net contributor in Europe. Italy is also a net contributor. Up until the coronavirus crisis.
We never had a debate on the Greek bailout. We never had a debate on the fact that it is our money too that goes to Hungary or Poland, which are net recipients. And which never showed us any solidarity when it came to issues of immigration. I think this way of talking is very bad for Europe.
What I wish for is simple: I wish for this lecturing to die down a bit over the next few years. I mean, look at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he is just one example of a writer of great cultures, who travelled to Italy in order to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of a country there. Of course, I often get very annoyed with Italian politics. It is abysmal, but I must say that this lecturing is not at all helpful in Europe. It is simply not helpful at all. Europe needs to be trusted more. I say that to my fellow Italians, too.
Tonia Mastrobuoni has been working as a Germany correspondent in Berlin since 2014 - first she worked for “La Stampa”, since February 2016 she has worked for “La Repubblica”. Prior to that she worked for 15 years as a business journalist for, among others, “Il Riformista” and as a freelance journalist for, among others, “Westdeutscher Rundfunk”, “RAI” and “Reuters”. The Italian with German roots studied literature in Rome.