Articles - June 2017


By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Hans Jörg Neumann’s life story mirror’s his country’s modern history from the early days of the Cold War to German reunification to the first decades of the 21st century.  He was born in what was then East Germany. “I was three-years old,” Neumann recalls, “when my parents escaped from East Berlin, two years before the Berlin Wall was built, leaving their parents, sisters and brothers behind. Even though we could visit my East German family every year, it was a miracle for all of us when my East German relatives could finally visit us and discover West Germany.”

The Berlin Wall, a central reality of Neumann’s childhood, schooling and professional training, came down in 1989. Germany was reunified in 1990 and a reunited Berlin was named as its capital. Today, 28 years after the wall came down, Hans Jörg Neumann is united Germany’s Consul General in Los Angeles. And, Los Angeles is one of Berlin’s Sister Cities, a friendship that began when that city was divided and that celebrates 50 years of continuous friendship this year.

In many ways, the Berlin Wall offers a metaphor for Consul General Neumann’s diplomatic career. Speaking of the often tense and deeply emotional issues surrounding the mass migration of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Germany in recent years, he has acknowledged that taking in so many people whose cultural backgrounds are so different from Germany’s historical culture “is a huge experiment, but an experiment we cannot escape from because they are there.” Educating and integrating these refugees poses serious challenges, Neumann agrees, but the right to political asylum is enshrined in Article 16a of Germany’s constitution and in international law. Moreover, Germany’s aging population can potentially benefit from the influx of youth into the labor force if the integration process is successful.

Still, there is more to Germany’s decision to admit large numbers of refugees than constitutional law and economic growth. There is an emotional commitment as well.  Recalling both Germany’s misbegotten policies of racial exclusion during World War II and the tragic post-war experience of walling Germans off from each other because of political ideology, Neumann explains, “We need to tear down walls in the head.”  That is an apt description of his entire diplomatic career.

Consul General Neumann’s international experience began in his late teens when he spent a year as an American Field Service foreign exchange student in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where he received an American high school diploma. A year later he received his German baccalaureate degree. Following his 15 months of mandatory military service, Neumann began his law studies to which he dedicated much of the next ten years of his life eventually training for judicial service and beginning a career as a lawyer.

Though law was fascinating, Neumann explains that “the thought of doing the same thing for 30 or 40 years, sitting at the same desk all my life was not appealing to me. When – to my great delight – I was among the few applicants chosen to enter the German diplomatic school in 1987, I wanted to give it a try. I’ve had wonderful experiences during my diplomatic career, and I’ve never regretted
my decision.”

Consul General Neumann built a multi-dimensional diplomatic career alternating between legal affairs; African assignments in Cairo and on the Maghreb desk at the Foreign Office, where his primary interest was in political and economic development efforts; Eastern European postings in Prague and Bucharest where he was able to watch and encourage post-Soviet democratic transitions; and Washington, D.C., where he was able to probe the innermost workings of the on-going relationship between critical alliance and economic partners. Periodically, assignments would take him back to the Legal Department of the Foreign Office, whether in Bonn or Berlin.

Before arriving in Los Angeles as Consul General, Neumann headed one of the three Foreign Ministry Inspection Teams at the Foreign Office in Berlin for three years (2008-2011) and then was named as Germany’s Ambassador in Cotonou, Benin on the West Coast of African (2011-2015). Now, in Los Angeles, his mission is “to promote German-American economic relations, present Germany as a modern European country, foster bilateral cultural relations and engage in German-Jewish dialogue.”

Consul General Neumann was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer an extensive list of questions that asked him to reflect on his career and the varied political and diplomatic issues he has faced, not least the reunification of his own country.

Diplomatic Connections:  There could be few more dramatic relocations than moving from being Germany’s Ambassador in Benin on the West Coast of Africa to being Consul General in Los Angeles on the West Coast of the United States. Did you experience some culture shock in the process? How did you deal with the transition?

Consul General Neumann: Rotating posts and adjusting to a new environment is routine for diplomats. I have served in the United States previously, so adapting to life in the U.S. has not been too difficult.

Moving from the West Coast of Africa to the West Coast of the United States, however, represents a dramatic change in my official functions. Cooperation in the field of development was one of my major tasks in Benin. By contrast, my major tasks in Southern California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are fostering bilateral trade, assisting numerous German and American citizens in consular matters and observing regional political developments.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you give us a functional description of your responsibilities as Consul General? To what extent is the consulate an extension of German government bureaucracy, and to what extent is it an extension of the German Embassy’s diplomatic initiatives?

Consul General Neumann: Embassies and Consulates represent the German government and are bound by the rules of German law and regulations. The missions are the “mouth, ears and eyes,” and lobbyists of our country.

German Ambassador Peter Wittig is Germany’s highest-ranking representative to the U.S. government. He represents German interests in the whole of the United States and works to foster and deepen German-American relations in the political, economic and cultural spheres.

The eight German consulates serve specific regions in this country and are tasked to promote German interests in their jurisdiction. That means providing German government services to German citizens living in the United States, reaching out to the German-American community, promoting bilateral trade as well as assisting cultural and scientific exchanges.

Diplomatic Connections: One of the most unusual aspects of the consulate’s mission is “to engage in German-Jewish dialogue.” Is this part of the mission of German consulates across the world? How does the Consul General go about fulfilling this role in Los Angeles?

Consul General Neumann: Germany cannot and will not forget its history. The German-Jewish dialogue is a very important task for all German missions in the world but especially in the United States.  We have excellent relations with Jewish institutions and maintain close contact with the different organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, the Israeli missions in the U.S., Jewish communities in our region and individual Jewish leaders. As do many of my German colleagues I attend Holocaust remembrance days and ceremonies such as the lighting of Hanukkah candles, give speeches about Jewish life in modern Germany, organize meetings of German dignitaries with Jewish institutions and host events at my residence with Jewish guests.

Every year Germany invites American-Jewish groups to visit Germany.  In July 2017 I had the pleasure to accompany ten influential rabbis from the West Coast on a one week visit financed by the German government.  German consulates in the U.S. work closely with Holocaust survivors to make sure that they receive financial assistance accorded to them by Germany. Several times each year, as do the other German consuls, I have the honor to solemnly hand over German citizenship documents to Jewish citizens or their children who have applied to get back their citizenship taken away unlawfully by the Nazi regime.

Diplomatic Connections:  Los Angeles, California and Berlin, Germany have been “Sister Cities” for 50 years. What is the importance of the “Sister Cities” initiative? How does the program work in terms of the Berlin-Los Angeles connection? What has each city gained from this special relationship?

Consul General Neumann: Out of the more than 100 German-American sister city relationships, the partnership between Los Angeles and Berlin is one of the oldest and most active friendships. Sister City relationships depend very much on individual initiatives. Official assistance is essential to the program but a lasting “friendship” requires continuing people to people contacts. During the 50 years of the Berlin – Los Angeles friendship, there have been concerts and film festivals, trade missions, educational exchanges, and visits by many professional groups such as police and fire fighters. Berlin mayors have often visited Los Angeles and over recent decades each has planted a tree in the Berlin Forest next to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The current Berlin Mayor, Michael Müller, planted his tree last year.

The sister city committee of Los Angeles is presently restructuring its 25 international partnerships, putting more emphasis on the economic component. To underline this development, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was accompanied by an economic delegation when he visited Berlin in July 2017; Berlin’s Mayor Michael Müller and an economic delegation will come to Los Angeles in October 2017. These are only two highlights of this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Diplomatic Connections: What is special or unique about a German consulate in Los Angeles as opposed to one in Boston, Atlanta, Houston or Chicago, for instance?

Consul General Neumann: What is unique in Los Angeles is the very important entertainment industry. Our consulate is the only German mission that has a specialist for the film industry within the economic section. One of the highlights is Oscar season with the big Pre-Oscar reception for the German Film industry organized by the Villa Aurora, German Films and the Consulate General.

Our Consulate tries to assist German filmmakers with networking and assists United States producers with learning about the German system of film subsidies. We also assist the film initiatives in the German American Business Association (GABA Film Initiative) with networking and cooperation.

Diplomatic Connections: East and West Berlin have been unified into a new, modern capital symbolized by its remarkable new architecture. East and West, Germany despite their Cold War history have been reunified as a single country and an integrated national economy. Do there remain distinct differences between the two former adversaries?

Consul General Neumann: The reunification was a wonderful event on a political, economic and a very personal level for many Germans. While the political systems of both Germanys were incompatible, ordinary people never felt like adversaries. Now 28 years after the wall came down, Germany is a united country.

There are still areas in former East Germany that are economically less developed than others. But in general, we have – as in many other countries – disparities between rural and urban areas rather than between East and West. The younger generation generally does not think in categories of East and West.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have been Consul General in Los Angeles since 2015. That means you have survived a presidential primary season as well as campaign, and a dramatic change of presidential administrations in the United States. What impact does the change of administrations and the new Trump administration have on your work as a German diplomat and on the functioning of the German consulate here in Los Angeles?

Consul General Neumann: Transatlantic relations are very important to Germany. Our nation has cooperated closely with the former U.S. administrations and will of course work with the present and future administrations. Since the new president took office, Chancellor Merkel and numerous high-ranking members of the German government as well as important politicians have visited their counterparts in Washington.

The German missions in the U.S. will continue to foster good relations between our two countries on both national and regional levels. Consulates have to learn about and report on issues that are of specific importance to the individual states for which they are responsible. Water is of particular importance in the American Southwest, for instance. And, immigration is a special concern for states located along the Mexican border. Since the new Trump administration is not always on the same page as California, this task of reporting on regional differences has become very interesting.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have highlighted trade promotion and promoting economic growth for both Germany and the United States as central to the work of the German consulates. Could you help us to understand the economic relationship between Germany and the United States in more concrete terms?

Consul General Neumann:  Germany is one of the most important U.S. trading partners in the world. In 2016, U.S. exports to Germany amounted to $49.4 billion and U.S. imports from Germany reached $114.2 billion. Germany thus ranks fifth in terms of bilateral trade volume with the United States, behind Canada, China, Mexico, and Japan.

German goods exported to the United States include world-class motor vehicles, machinery, chemicals, and heavy electrical equipment. At the same time, Germany imports many value-added products from the United States, including aircraft, transportation equipment, electronics, and telecommunication goods.

Germany – as well as other EU countries – has a big impact on jobs and investment in the U.S. German direct investments but German companies have a positive impact on growth and jobs in the U.S. More than 3,000 German companies have provided almost 700,000 mostly well-paid jobs here.  In return, approximately 6,200 U.S. companies are active in Germany investing more than $108 billion in Germany and providing about 640,000 jobs (2013).

This tightly woven trading pattern between our two countries is precisely what economic interdependence means. And, that is precisely why negotiating and maintaining a rules based international trade regime is so important in the face of the temptation to revert to economic nationalism.

Diplomatic Connections:  Germany (and France) have been at the center of the European Union institutions and have been the heart of the its very existence. What will be the impact of BREXIT on the future of the EU? The recent presidential election in France seems one hopeful sign, but there is still significant anti-EU sentiment is several parts of Europe. Can the EU survive, or is it in danger of disintegrating?

Consul General Neumann:  The outcome of the British referendum sent a shockwave through the EU. For both the EU and for Great Britain this is a lose/lose situation.  A divorce after 44 years of membership and carefully nurtured integration will be very difficult.  What was so painstakingly built must be undone with even greater care. Although Brexit hurts the EU a great deal, it has strengthened the unity of the remaining 27 partners.

The EU27 has not fallen into paralysis. Indeed, the European Council has set out clear parameters and a unified position ahead of the upcoming negotiations. It is obvious that Great Britain cannot expect to keep the advantages of free trade but get rid of all the duties. A third country — and that is what Great Britain will be after Brexit — cannot and will not have the same rights, or perhaps even be better off than a member of the European Union.

Diplomatic Connections: Immigration has become a major international issue in Europe, especially as refugees come across the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East into Southern Europe and then further to the North. Chancellor Merkel has been at the eye of the immigration storm in Europe. How does Germany now believe the immigration problem should be handled?

Consul General Neumann:  The European Union is one of the major destinations for political and economic refugees. Even though Europe, especially Germany, has seen far fewer immigrants in 2016 as compared to 2015, immigration will continue to be a major international issue in Europe.  It’s such an important issue that the international community has to cooperate to find solutions for all surrounding matters related to the subject. The standards for accommodation, health care, integration programs and the asylum process need to be similar, at least within Europe, in order to assure that no one country is disproportionately impacted by the influx of refugees.

Diplomatic Connections: Looking ahead, what might come next in your career? What is left yet undone on your “To Do” list?

Consul General Neumann: Even though I have already spent 30 years as a career diplomat I am still curious what my last posting after Los Angeles and before retirement will look like. I would love to experience one more country if possible in a continent where I have not yet lived, perhaps South East Asia. From my experience, I know that I will adapt to any place and enjoy it.

On my “to do list” for Los Angeles is the wish to visit as many places on the West Coast, including Hawaii, as possible.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you for sharing your experience and your insights with us.

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