More direct democracy in Germany (part 5)

The importance of personality in public involvement

by Christian Fischer, Cologne

In the previous four parts of this series, structural or institutional issues have been presented, highlighting how our state is organised and discussing what could be organised more directly and democratically in various places. Alongside, but also not independently of it, there is the level of daily life away from the institutional world. Does everyday life have nothing to do with democracy, with living in solidarity within the human community? That is what the fifth part of this series is about.

Even in authoritarian states people can, outside the reach of the state, live as equals. And even in a democracy people can “forget” their equality, thus emptying democratic institutions of their meaning or opening them up to crooks. The vigilance and activity of citizens is always the litmus test of democratic maturity. This is not to say that democratic institutions were not important but, on the contrary, that we should recognise their value and use them, improving them where necessary. Institutions alone can neither guarantee nor prevent democratic life. Institutions can hinder or promote democracy, no more, but also no less.

A view of living democracy using one person as example

This “unofficial” view of living democracy is to be illustrated by the example of a person whose activities I had the pleasure to accompany for a while almost 40 years ago. Werner Böwing (1928-2016) was a full-time trade unionist from the age of 30 to 60. I met him when I was a young professional and a trade union member myself. Recently, by chance, I met a mutual colleague from that time again. In conversation he asked me, among other things: “By the way, have you read the book Werner wrote later (1997)?” No, I had not. I borrowed it from the colleague. It is a modest autobiography with the apt title “Memories of the attempt to change the wind direction with an air pump”. The book is a lesson for anyone who is serious – without losing the necessary humour.

Werner Böwing grew up in a poor family that later became somewhat better off. Often they had to move to another town for job reasons which meant that Werner also had to go to a different school. After finishing school, Werner began an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but at the age of 16 (in 1944) he felt obliged to volunteer as a soldier. With luck he survived, but he also experienced the horrors of war. At the age of 17 he became a British prisoner of war and stayed in labour camps in Scotland and England for 3 years. He describes this as an almost happy time: he had survived, he had food, he was allowed to work (in agriculture) and he met friendly people, especially in Scotland. Somehow he learned a bit of English, tried to understand, to learn, to live. He always sought contact with people, all his life.

In 1948 he was released and returned to Germany, first to his family which had survived in the Soviet occupation zone. He could finish his apprenticeship and started to work as a carpenter. Politically, he was now clearly critical towards war and authorities. He never wanted to be abused again. So he soon ran into conflicts with the authorities and fled to the West shortly after the founding of the GDR, with nothing in his hands but his journeyman’s certificate and his carpenter’s tools. After having experienced too much at the age of 21, he was no longer afraid of life.

Involvement with the trade unions and the “Falken”

There was enough work in the West. He came to the Rhineland, worked at various construction sites, became involved in the trade union and founded the socialist youth organisation Falken in Bonn, where he met his wife. They soon started a family and stayed together until the end of his life. He also became involved with the Young Socialists and ran for their chairmanship in Wuppertal in 1957 – but could not prevail against a certain Johannes Rau. Forty years later, now Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rau wrote a very personal and appreciating foreword for the book under discussion. In 1958, Werner Böwing was elected managing director of the IG Bau Steine Erden (construction workers’ trade union) in Solingen and was confirmed in this function again and again until he retired in 1988, also for health reasons, but did not remain inactive.

How an alert person can move in democracy

This is not just about Werner Böwing but about him as an example of how an alert person, a journeyman without a high school diploma and with one year of training at a trade union academy, can move about in democracy and help to shape it, what he can achieve and how he, as a democrat, knows how to deal “as a sportsman” with what he could not achieve. A small memorial is to be erected here to such a person, representative of numerous committed citizens.

Even in the course of his full-time trade union work, Böwing gave offence many times and had to consider what compromises he would have to make in order not to jeopardise his opportunities as a representative of the interests of the construction workers. A higher career in the trade union would certainly have been achievable for him, had he agreed to more far-reaching compromises, but his convictions as a fighter for social justice and peace – not always conforming to the “mainstream” – were more important to him and he was content with his position in Solingen. Apart from that this position was not sufficient for him, but not for career reasons.

“His main concern was peace politics”

His main concern was peace politics. In the fifties this meant opposing the re-armament of Germany – and, as he insisted, of both German states. This was also a problem for some members of this movement. To the displeasure of his union superiors, he helped organise Easter marches. After the Bundeswehr was created, he became involved in the “Deutschen Friedensgesellschaft“ [German Peace Society] (co-founded by Berta von Suttner), the “International of Conscientious Objectors” and the “Group of Conscientious Objectors”. He helped to bring the latter two groups together to form the Association of Conscientious Objectors (VK), where he assumed honorary leadership functions. He was not concerned with accumulating offices, but with practical help for people who – contrary to the Zeitgeist – did not want to take up arms. And he organised practical help for French deserters of the Algerian war, later for US deserters of the Vietnam War. This could only happen very silently and thus required some compromises in other areas.

He was also active on the international level for the peace movement and against nuclear armament. However, he withdrew from the VK’s executive committee in 1968. Why? The student movement had begun to infiltrate the VK for its own purposes, in order to politicise it ideologically, without any further commitment to the practical aid work that had often taken place behind the scenes. For Werner Böwing these were “theorists” whom he did not want to deal with. After all, there was enough other work to do.

Travels to Yugoslavia

For example Yugoslavia. Since the late fifties, Werner Böwing had been travelling with his family to Bosnia for camping holidays. Despite his holidays, he made political contacts there because he was interested in the Yugoslavian model. Soon he was invited for lectures and organised mutual meetings to learn from each other. In his book he emphasises, with regard to the later war, that he did not notice any hostilities in the multi-ethnic state. “I would have noticed that.” And later, in 1992, he found a way, together with friends, to organise an aid convoy to an Adriatic island striving for a demilitarised status in the beginning of the war – which, however, did not happen. He personally participated in this risky convoy. During the German attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 he left the SPD after half a century of membership and later became involved with the party Die Linke, although he always had a critical relationship with the GDR and the Soviet Union.

Cooperation with Danish construction workers

He also maintained contacts with Danish construction workers, which had arisen from his international peace work. Every year, over the Ascension weekend, he organised meetings with about 40 to 60 German and Danish colleagues, alternately in Germany and Denmark, where the focus was on professional exchange and human encounters. I was able to take part in these meetings several times and remember with pleasure the relaxed, but also seriously solidary atmosphere and the professional exchange.

These are just two examples of Werner’s often expressed conviction: “As long as we talk to each other, we don’t shoot at each other.” Werner also followed the Prague Spring and the Polish Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement with active interest. He has organised practical help for refugees from the Chilean dictatorship as well as for construction projects in Nicaragua. In Solingen, not very Christian himself, he worked together with Father Willy when it came to finding help for the respective “wards” for whom the other partner was better suited. Werner Böwing, for all the seriousness of his concerns, always brought enough humour and slyness with him to remind me sometimes of the soldier Schwejk, sometimes of Don Camillo.

In a leading position in a building cooperative

In the Solinger Spar- und Bauverein, a very active building cooperative, he worked in a leading position and campaigned for strengthening the cooperative system and closer cooperation between trade unions and cooperatives. He used the additional personal income from these activities for his numerous “off-duty” trips when he was not donating them directly to aid projects. As part of this function, and in the context of arranging a town twinning, he also organised aid for construction projects in Nicaragua.

“Democracy is beautiful, but makes a lot of work”

What does all this have to do with democracy? Even with direct democracy? Werner Böwing has not held any political office. He has helped people full-time, part-time and privately, built and maintained networks, facilitated encounters and educational work, activated political and professional elected representatives, sometimes with, sometimes without success. He has appreciated that in our democracy it is possible to fight for a humane life, for fairer conditions, even if there is no guarantee of success. But it is easier than in the dictatorships he also got to know. He would have liked the phrase “Democracy is beautiful, but makes a lot of work”. He did not like “theorists” who can prove that democracy is only possible after the abolition of capitalism and before that only enlightenment in the sense of this bad news is indicated.

Where people like Werner Böwing work – there are many, look around you! - lives democracy. It lives the better the more direct structures, i.e. the more freedoms there are for citizens to participate in public life. It is therefore worth fighting for democratic structures as well as for political goals whose contents cannot always be simply evaluated “for the people” or “against the people”. Not everyone pursues the same goals and is allowed to do so. But everyone must have the opportunity to advocate their concerns and promote them in public. And: He must also do it.                       •

(Translation Current Concerns)

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