On 4 July 1990, Stephan Steinlein received his official “agrément” from France, allowing him to become the last GDR Ambassador in Paris. He then completed his diplomatic training in Bonn – having already served as an ambassador. Today, the theology graduate is State Secretary at the Federal Foreign Office. He takes a look back.
“I’m always surprised by people who claim to know what they’ll be in twenty years,” says Stephan Steinlein, smiling. “My experience is quite different...”
Globally‑minded at the time of change in 1989
On 10 November 1989, when Stephan Steinlein wakes up in his student residence in Strasbourg, far from home, he learns that the Berlin Wall has come down. “At first I refused to believe it, but then it was all over the news and of course I was overjoyed.”
Undertaking his postgraduate studies in France is a great privilege for the young theologian from the GDR, even before the democratic revolution he was looking to the West:
“I always tried to live as if the Wall were already gone.”
Born in the East German town of Finsterwalde in 1961, at a young age Steinlein sees how, as an evangelical superintendent in the church, his father stands up to the SED socialist party’s regime. After initially training as a mill‑worker, the son then also opts for theology. In 1987 he successfully completes his studies at Sprachenkonvikt theological college in East Berlin.
It was a backyard university with an atmosphere of openness which equipped us to do things at a later stage that one would not actually normally do as a theologian.
Learning languages, thinking outside the box and exchanging ideas with fellow students and lecturers from the West – all of this is part of Steinlein’s every day university life. The college serves as a space of freedom within the GDR, and Steinlein’s doctoral supervisor Wolfgang Ullmann is one of the leaders of the transition to democracy.
An unexpected offer
From his place of study in Strasbourg, Stephan Steinlein follows the developments in Berlin after the Fall of the Wall, mostly through the press. “Suddenly many of my friends and acquaintances were playing a prominent role. At that point it felt a bit strange to be so far from the action.”
In the meantime in Strasbourg, he has also met his future wife, a French woman. In April 1990 he travels to Berlin without her. There, he wants to try to find job prospects for his partner in Germany. Why not in the new GDR government?
Back then I went to see Hans Misselwitz, new State Secretary of Foreign Minister Markus Meckel. He was a classmate of mine and I asked him if he happened to know of any positions in the Foreign Office that would be suitable for my wife, because if he did she would gladly come to Berlin with me...
To his surprise, by way of an answer Steinlein receives a job offer for himself, one which he “would never even have dreamed of”:
“No I don’t have anything for your wife, but I’ve got something for you. You don’t want to be Ambassador in Paris do you?” I discussed it briefly with my wife and accepted – you can’t say no to something like that!
For the position of Ambassador in Paris they were looking for someone who spoke French and was trusted by the new government. “There weren’t many people around who fit the bill”, ponders Steinlein and reports that a total of three theologians with similar career paths to his had been in the running for the position of new GDR Ambassador under the “Two Plus Four Treaty”.
Ambassador in Paris at the age of 29
On 4 July, the French government gave Stephan Steinlein their “agrément” for him to officially commence his work as GDR Ambassador. The embassy staff however, had not changed, he explains: “I was the only new recruit and a complete novice when it came to diplomacy.”
Dealing with the staff’s existential angst and winding up the embassy whilst handling the challenge of motivating himself and others was no mean feat for a 29‑year‑old.
For me these were people who I never would have spent time with in the GDR. We lived in entirely different worlds. They would probably have had to write reports on me had they met me. And vice versa, I wouldn’t have been interested in meeting them. But in the short time that we worked together we managed to do a good job of pulling together.
The political situation “changed from one week to the next”, remembers Steinlein. “You have to keep up with it all and ask yourself: why I am actually doing this?”
New opportunity – diplomat training
Looking back, Steinlein explains that he viewed his relationship with the Embassy of the Federal Republic in Paris as a close partnership. Yet his cooperation with the then Ambassador, Franz Pfeffer, is short‑lived.
He arrives for his first official visit bringing news for the Federal Republic’s Ambassador. “Mr Pfeffer, I’m here for my first official visit, however this morning I received a letter of recall.”
The reason: the grand coalition in East Berlin has collapsed and the date for reunification has been set for 3 October, meaning filling the position of GDR Ambassador makes little sense. Yet as Steinlein notes, the meeting was still worth his trip:
During the conversation I told the Ambassador: “I’m interested in foreign policy and would like to continue working in this field.” He gave me advice on the application process for a career as a diplomat at the Federal Foreign Office, and so I swiftly wrote my application, sent it to Bonn and that got the ball rolling.
“Learning about the West again”
And so in 1991 it’s back to the classroom for Stephan Steinlein, who during the time of the GDR had planned on becoming a church history professor.
As member of the 46th year group at Bonn’s school for diplomats he has the chance “to learn about the West again”, as he happily reports. Previously it had been up to him to teach himself about West German economic and foreign policy issues.
And what if back then someone had told him that he would one day be State Secretary at the Federal Foreign Office?
Then I probably would have laughed, just as I would have done if someone had told me in 1986 that I would end up being an Ambassador of the GDR. Things beyond what I could have imagined in my wildest dreams have kept on happening.
The “46th Crew” is the first pan‑German year group of diplomats following the democratic revolution. According to Steinlein, whether one came from the East or the West no longer played a role in this group – “during this time we really came together.”