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History of Optimism in Berlin, November 7-10, 2019!

Day 1 - Welcome to Berlin!

Upon arrival in Berlin, on day 1, our entire group of youth participants and partners - Nyt Europa, European Civic Forum, Institute of Public Affairs and MitOst - met and introduced ourselves to one another.  The focus of the day was narratives, storytelling and the history of Berlin around 1989.

Starting off at Clärchens Ballhaus - an old building in Berlin Mitte, which has been preserved and now functions as restaurant, ballroom and cultural spot – the participants shared their personal motivations and aspirations for participating in History of Optimism.

Next, we walked to the nearby Lawrence – an Arabic socioeconomic café - for a workshop on historical narratives and storytelling. Leading the workshop was Katharina Krüger, a German woman who grew up on the East side in the tumultuous years before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She started the session with a presentation of her personal experience of growing up in the GDR in the 80’s and how this shaped her sense of self and of the world she lived in. During the workshop, participants discussed the impact of living in and experiencing historical periods and settings – for individuals’ and groups’ identity, sense of belonging, outlooks, worldviews and expectations in life.

The programme of the day was wrapped up with a tour of the East Side Gallery where the group viewed the remnants of, perhaps, the most tangible physical manifestation of the GDR and divided Germany of 1989. Here, we were joined by the ZDF, the German news media, who were curious to ask the participants about today’s European youth’s interests in 1989; a story, which is truly relevant for today’s news in times of democratic unrest and youth mobilization.

Day 2 – Citizens and Civil Society at the 30 Year Anniversary

The second day of the trip turned the focus towards the present, at the 30 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the bottom-up developments leading up to this.

We attended the conference “30 years after the fall of the wall – Europe from the bottom-up”, organized by the Stiftung Zukunft Berlin initiatives Cities for Europe, Wir Sind Europa, and A Soul for Europe as well as our History of Optimism. Through a workshop, the History of Optimism-project, methods and aims was presented and discussed with representatives of other civic project and initiatives working on European history. During plenary sessions, European (Vice)mayors and city officials, as well as EU representatives Gabriele Bischoff (MEP), Barbara Gessler (Directorate-General for Education and Culture), Luca Jahier (President of the European Economic and Social Committee), and Karl-Heinz Lambertz (President of the European Committee of the Regions), provided their views on the importance of citizen- and civil society influence in today’s Europe and EU, as well as the major challenges facing us 30 years after 1989.

At lunch, we were joined by Thomas Lauritzen from, who interviewed the youth participants’ about their thoughts on 1989 and how it has shaped our current Europe for his 30 year anniversary podcast. As one youth participant, 24 year old Emilie, said: “It is important to think of the walls there have been in Europe, but also those that are still there today.” 19 year old Anne Katrine Windt Courbin stated that these days "remind ud to think great - great change is possible!". 

Later, the participants viewed the annual “State of the European Union”, ‘Europa Rede’, speech at the Allianz Forum, organized by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Stiftung Mercator and Stiftung Zukunft Berlin. This year, the speech was held by the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who emphasized the need for Europe to show courage to shape our shared future and protect the values at the core of the European project – at home and abroad. Also providing her remarks on the state of the EU was the German Kansler, Angela Merkel. Following the speech, one of our youth participants, Anna Katrine Windt Courbin, as one of just four panelists, provided her comments and thoughts on the speech in a panel debate moderated by journalist Anke Plättner. During the debate, she stressed the value and importance of breaking down barriers between the EU and its civil society and citizens – particularly the youth. She likewise personally handed von der Leyen the Ungdomsøen Manifesto, containing the demands and priorities of the European Youth for the future of Europe; the History of Optimism flyer; and a policy paper, containing Nyt Europa’s suggestions for civic involvement in the work of von der Leyen’s Commission, commencing with a Conference on the Future of Europe.

Day 3 - Reflection and Hope

On the last day of the trip, the group reflected on the outcomes of Friday’s conference and Europa Rede speech with an outlook to concrete opportunities for action and involvement as citizens and civil society actors.

We met with the Wir Sind Europa strategy group at the historical Walter Hallstein-Institute Library. Through plenary discussions and exchanges, the participants gained insight into the experiences and best practices of a diverse range of historically founded/informed civil society initiatives from all over Europe.

Later, we visited the Nineties Berlin exhibition - a colourful and interactive display, inviting the audience into an immersive experience of chaotic, dynamic and exciting Berlin in the 90's. Having discussed 1989, seeing the concrete impacts of change on a city and the people living in it, underlined the  centrality of citizens and civil society in producing and shaping societal transition.

Rounding off the Berlin trip, a number of the participants celebrated the historical 30 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at Brandenburger Tor.

Back Home - Going Forward

These first events in the History of Optimism-project were a rich and productive experience, which has only increased our expectations for the project. More than ever, we are convinced that using a historical lens, looking to the future, holds an exciting potential for European citizens and civil society to fully understand and appreciate our shared European experience and to review our present fully and critically.

The conclusions of the trip were many, including particularly:

  • One key to understanding and engaging in shared history is a localized point of departure.

  • Personal storytelling is a powerful tool for starting a conversation on the lives of European citizens and illuminating a shared European experience.

  • Historical awareness can increase knowledge of how the values and issues shaping personal, local and national agendas are often actual European values and issues.

  • A sense and awareness of shared historical roots help people and communities connect, relate, and understand each other across Europe.

Next Steps

Stay tuned to follow the next steps on our journey, as we explore the European past, present, and hopes and dreams for tomorrow! 30 years ago, people broke down the barriers separating and dividing them, to create a positive future for themselves and their countries. Their dreams and the idea of Europe are something to remember today.


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