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Rostock – Centuries of experience in dialogue with Russia

Interview with Roland Methling, Lord Mayor of Rostock (Germany)

cc. Rostock is a member of the International Association of Peace Messenger Cities (IAPMC). The Lord Mayor of Rostock, Roland Methling, attended the 29th General Assembly in Volgograd from 29 October to 2 November. At the same time the V. International Forum “Dialogue on the Volga: Peace and Mutual Understanding in the 21st Century” was held. Representatives of cities and municipalities from 20 countries of the world took part to discuss the preservation of peace and the possible role of municipalities.
    On the sidelines of the two events Roland Methling gave the following interview to Current-Concerns.

Current-Concerns: Mr Methling, Rostock and Kaliningrad in Russia - until the end of the Second World War it was Königsberg in East Prussia – have been involved in a town twinning cooperation since 1991. How did you start, and what motivated you personally to become active in this field?

Roland Methling: Rostock is an internationally oriented city. It’s coming from our history. As a Hanseatic city and seaport, we are situated waterfront and have always been dependent on trading and maintaining relationships with our neighbours. The city of Rostock currently has 14 official city partnerships and maintains close cooperation with another 10 cities worldwide.
Our town twinnings began in 1957 with Szczecin, formerly named Stettin. At that time it was taboo in the GDR to name it Stettin, that sounded like revanchism. This actually shows that it was not taken for granted; Szczecin was a German city until 1945. In the meantime, however, a deep friendship has developed. It is the oldest German-Polish town twinning.
There are now more than 500 town twinnings – contracts between municipalities and local authorities in Germany and Poland. In 2017 we invited all German-Polish town twinning partners to Rostock to draw the balance and to encourage each other to continue these partnerships.
And especially the partnerships with Russian cities are very important.

Why is this so?

Rostock’s relations with Russia already begin in the Hanseatic period, for example with Nizhny Novgorod. Skins from Russia were an important trading commodity of the Hanseatic period in the 13th and 14th centuries. Novgorod was the northernmost Hanseatic trading base. The sailors heading for Novgorod are also a legend in the history of the Hanseatic League.
After 1945 we established very close relations, because the Rostock port was an important connection for shipping to the Soviet Union. At that time, the economy was very closely linked: First and foremost, these were reparations that had to be rendered. Ships were built for the then Soviet Union. The first ships were ships that had been sunk in the Baltic Sea. We recovered them, restored them and handed them over to the former Soviet Union. The exchange of goods between the Soviet Union and the GDR was very intensive. They were the main trading partners, and many goods came by sea. Rostock’s economy at that time existed from close relations with the Soviet Union. Rostock was the sea trading centre for the Soviet Union and the gateway of the GDR to the world. As is well known, however, this gate was only open to people in one direction until 1989.

And then what happened to the town twinning agreements?

In the decades following the war, town twinning was also to a certain extent state-run. Our first partnership towards the Soviet Union at that time was Riga. Today Riga is our Latvian twin city. Just like Rostock, Riga is over 800 years old, a Hanseatic city, and we are still very, very closely connected today. We are happy when we meet in Riga an international assortment of other Baltic Sea cities and international partners, because that is of course also one of the upsides of town twinning, that one gets to know the town partners of one’s own twin towns. If one were to continue such a card system: We have 14 town twinnings, Riga has 10 town twinnings. If you now add 10 more each, then 140 cities would come together, and in five steps we would probably be able to reach the whole world.
On such occasions you can build up a lot of initial contacts that may be helpful. And this is of course always important for municipalities, especially if someone is interested in Rostock, from Russia or Poland - or from cities in Norway, Denmark, China or the USA, with which we also have partnerships. Then you have a first contact and can inquire: Do you know him, is it worth getting in touch with him? What do you have to pay attention to?
But of course, it also helps if one plays football like in Rostock. When FC Hansa Rostock was still playing in the first Bundesliga, we wanted some contact with Sweden. Within 5 years we had up to six Swedish players in our football-team at that time, who have contributed over 15 years to the fact that we played in the first league and later in the second league. That, too, can come from town twinning.
But I think it’s particularly important for town twinning that one continues promoting trust, that these encounters show that we all have the same tasks, similar worries in the family or in the municipality itself, which, of course, also has a strong unifying effect.

You mentioned earlier the importance of Rostock as a city of shipbuilding - also for town twinning. Can you explain this in more detail?

The port in Rostock was, as already mentioned, more open in one direction in the decades after the war. At the turning point in 1989/1990 we made the decision in Rostock that we wanted to invite to a tall ship meeting in Rostock in 1991. At that meeting, the Hanse Sail, more than 100 traditional sailing ships came to Rostock - also ships under steam, which also belong to the world cultural heritage – at that time from 13 nations. The wonderful thing was that we could say for the first time: We invited you. If you invite us, we are prepared to come. We also bring our ships, and we come in person. For forty years it was just a phrase if someone from Denmark or Holland invited us.

Where do the ships come from attending the Hanse Sail today?

From the US, from Sweden, from England, from Holland, from Spain. The Hanse Sail has become an annual meeting. These ships are wooed stars, they delight your eyes. By all means, you have to visit us and have to see it. You have to have seen it: when these ships are visible on the horizon, also the Hanseatic cogs that come regularly. With these seven cogs in front of the old town scenery you actually have the feeling that you are thrown back into a somewhat former time. This takes place every year on the second weekend in August.

Do any ships come from Russia?

Russia has the largest traditional sailing ships in the world. These are the sailing ships, the real stars of every regatta - these ships were originally German ships that were delivered to the Soviet Union as reparations after the Second World War. These ships are also today the stars of our Hanse Sail. We are courting them. We court them all year round and have offered these ships a home for many years, for example in the nineties, when things went very badly downwards in Russia. These ships were once the pride of Soviet shipping, these “white swans”, but at that time they were very run-down.
Even the crews, who used to walk through the cities in ironed uniforms and white sailor suits, to show the naval power of the former Soviet Union. After 1991, all this was very rundown. We also took care of these ships. We brought them over the winter in the nineties, in the truest sense of the word.

With all the crew?

With the crew. And of course, we built up a piece of friendship and commitment, so that these boatmen feel very comfortable with us. We are envied for that. This is such a small piece of history. They love to come back, and they come when we invite them and when we need them. One always has to acknowledge, that these skippers have hard sailing schedules, they are in training, in the nautical college in Kaliningrad or in Rostock itself. We tell them, for example, that it would be nice if they could come to our Russia Day on 17 October. And the Nautical College adapted its schedule and they came to Rostock on 17 October and “provided a scenery” for 850 participants on the third Russia Day.

Exactly, only recently Russia Day took place in Rostock for the third time.

Russia Day is an initiative of the state government of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It was held for the first time four years ago, in 2014. At that time there were – also with a very sceptical eye – some representatives from the German Foreign Ministry. The conflict in Ukraine put a heavy strain on relations between Germany, Western Europe, NATO and Russia. But while many politicians only talked about the fact that one should not break off contacts, we actually maintained these contacts. We continued to cultivate our contacts, and so the third Russia Day this year with 850 participants had even more guests than in previous years. 10 contracts were concluded between economic entrepreneurs and institutions, which underline that nothing will work without Russia. Without Russia, we do not want to shape Europe nor the future.
It is important that we play an active role here, and we support this. The partner region for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is Leningrad Oblast, in other words the district around St Petersburg. But it is still called Leningrad Oblast. There are also top cultural achievements there. We have invited the Taurida State Symphony Orchestra of Leningrad Oblast to Rostock. This orchestra helped to shape the Russia Day. And we made it possible to have an avant-garde art exhibition in a new exhibition area of our Kunsthalle, which we built in Rostock this year to celebrate our 800th birthday. The first exhibition came from Russia. Also this is a symbol, a small sign.

“Trust and truth are basic values for living together. This includes knowledge about our history, as well as knowledge about the issues in history that still cause mutual distrust today. We must also do something about the very current reservations that still exist towards Russia – but also in the opposite direction. Russia is the largest country in the world, but it has had to experience time and again that nations dared to cover the country with war.”

We would like to take another look into recent history. What significance did Rostock have in the GDR?

Rostock was the exposed point of the former GDR to achieve recognition as a GDR state on an international level. Until 1975, Rostock organised the Ostseewoche (Baltic Sea Week), an international festival held annually from 1958 to 1975. It usually took place at the beginning of July in the Rostock district and was held under the motto: “The Baltic Sea must be a Sea of Peace”.
The Baltic Sea Week then had “seven sisters”: Denmark, West Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland and the GDR. To repeat an important sentence again and again: “The Baltic Sea must be a Sea of Peace.” This sentence, I think, is still true. It has been possible to preserve the Baltic Sea as a Sea of Peace for seventy-five years. This must be continued.
In 1975, at the Helsinki Conference, the CSCE, East and West decided reduce propaganda efforts mutually to some extent. That is why there was no longer a Baltic See Week as an event to unite nations; because in East and West it was also regarded as a propaganda event. Instead, there were summer festivals. The Kunsthalle, which I mentioned, was built in 1968 for the 750th birthday of the city, but also in connection with the Baltic Sea Week, as a cultural site for the Biennale of the Baltic Sea Countries. There has been an exhibition of avant-garde culture from the seven sister countries since the end of the seventies, and we continue to do so today. That’s why it was a bit symbolic that we set up an exhibition area, an extension, next to the Art Gallery. We are also dedicated to art in the Baltic Sea Region. But we also have a focus on Eastern European art in order, together with the University of Rostock, to scientifically research the art of socialist realism, i.e. as an element of Eastern European culture. It is also part of European culture, a culture that is more than a thousand years old. But many still associate Eastern Europe with predominantly communist art.

One notices that you hold your city so dear. Here in Volgograd you have represented your city. How could one raise awareness of the importance of town twinning?

I would like to come back to something I said earlier that is close to my heart: The friendship with the ships has given rise to the idea and now also the Russian’s wish to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Sedov – a Russian four-mast barque built in Kiel in 1921 and now used as a sailing school ship – in Rostock. Of course, we are trying to give Sedov a present, that is, to contribute a little to the fact that this ship can be on the way as an ambassador on the world’s oceans for another hundred years.
And perhaps a story will explain the importance of town twinning or internationality. I grew up in the GDR, but what I mean has little to do with communist education, but with a basic humanist attitude: we belong together in this small world.
It can only be peaceful if it is peaceful all over the world. In fact, one can only live well in Europe if the other almost 8­billion people on our planet can live in peace, freedom and dignity as well. I believe this is a challenge. We must work to ensure that, over the next thirty or forty years, these humane living conditions are created at every point on this earth. This is how I grew up, and this is my basic attitude: Everyone is part of it.
Trust and truth are basic values for living together. This includes knowledge about our history, as well as knowledge about the issues in history that still cause mutual distrust today. We must also do something about the very current reservations that still exist towards Russia – but also in the opposite direction. Russia is the largest country in the world, but it has had to experience time and again that nations dared to cover the country with war.
This is why Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, is such a special place. Anyone who wants to form an opinion from the outside about Russian politics, Russian decisions, Russian behaviour, even today, should have been to Volgograd. He should be a little concerned with history, and he will understand much better that Russia, of course, acts in its own interest out of experience in history. But I have the impression that this interest is always directed towards having equal conditions in the world, and that presupposes that Russia is also acknowledged in such a world.
Back to your question: Town twinning is an international task. Because it is voluntary work, because most cities in Germany are indebted, the work on it is often neglected. Even if the mayors and of course the people in the cities get involved in this international work, the international work does not get the rank it deserves because of our duties and daily tasks, namely to provide kindergarten places and to organise the school and to maintain the streets and to secure the social tasks.

How could that be resolved?

The closing event of the German Russian Year of Local and Regional Partnerships took place in Berlin in September. It was noted that last year there were over a thousand activities between German and Russian municipalities. Opportunities to meet at eye level and reduce reservations, but also to shape a piece of multipolar world together. That gives us hope, and that is what we should be guided by.

Mr Methling, thank you very much for the interview and continue to enjoy and succeed in your important work.    •

(Translation Current Concerns)

Roland Methling (independent) was born in Tessin, district Rostock-Land, in 1954. He graduated at the University of Rostock in 1972 with a degree in engineering. From 1978 he worked in various areas of responsibility in the International Seaport of Rostock. In 1990 he moved to the administration of the Hanseatic City. There he led the international meeting of the traditional sailors “Hanse Sail”. He has been Lord Mayor of the Hanseatic City of Rostock since 2005. He won the elections twice at the first attempt, most recently in 2012 with 53.8 percent. During his term of office it was possible to completely reduce the deficit in the municipal budget of formerly around 230 million euros with the support of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The largest and economically strongest city in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has thus fully regained its financial power to act.