A report issued by the German Embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus has gone viral online. It states that, on 15 September 1989, a Syrian national made a donation of 2000 Syrian pounds to help refugees from East Germany make it across to the West. This sum – the equivalent of 255 deutschmarks at the time – was more than a “month’s earnings for many ordinary Syrians”, as the Embassy informed Berlin.
Trending on the re‑run
The report from Damascus stated that the Syrian national came to the Embassy “to express his compassion for the Germans fleeing the GDR in recent days”. He thus asked the Embassy to see that his donation of 2000 Syrian pounds was used to help the refugees. This amount was ultimately forwarded to a charity, the Malteser Hilfswerk, in Germany and earmarked to assist those coming through Hungary.
Thereafter the report lay untouched in the Federal Foreign Office’s Political Archive for 25 years. In 2014 it was published as part of the “25 years ago today” project, a joint initiative of the Stasi Records Agency, the Center for Research on Contemporary History in Potsdam and the Axel Springer publishing house. Almost another year on, journalist Martin Speer retweeted the document on Twitter. When the Federal Foreign Office then confirmed the document’s authenticity, the response was huge. More than a thousand followers shared and commented on the document. A Facebook post on the Federal Foreign Office page was soon viewed 3.5 million times, shared some 15,000 times and liked almost 20,000 times.
Emotional discussion via social media
Most of the one thousand plus comments on the Foreign Office’s Facebook page were positive. Most people were really moved by the act of solidarity and expressed their thanks that the document had been published. A few, mainly anonymous contributors hijacked the thread for their xenophobic comments. But there were also many people who raised serious questions and made sober criticisms. Here are just some of the most frequently raised questions.
Why is the document being picked up on now? Is it a political move?
As a rule, documents from the Political Archive are not released until they are 30 years old. This particular document was published early in 2014, as part of the celebrations marking 25 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was justified back then by citing the public interest in its release in connection with the fall of the Wall anniversary, with no obvious interest militating against it. When the journalist Martin Speer picked up on the document on 27 August 2015, he mentioned the Federal Foreign Office in his tweet. The media team at the Federal Foreign Office took this opportunity to verify the authenticity of the document within the Foreign Office, and then they publicly confirmed it.
Is the document genuine?
The original is in the Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office. Neither its form nor its content suggest that it is a forgery. It was first published at a time when refugee policy was not a key public issue in Germany. It is true that the author of the report used the modern spelling “dass” (that) in one place, although the report pre‑dates the German spelling reforms and the old spelling “daß” was still usual. However, since he spelt “muß” (must) according to the old spelling rules, his use of the double “s” can be viewed as a mistake. Division 210, to which the report is addressed, was responsible at the time for “Germany as a whole”. According to the filing plan, the reference “330.66” which appears on the report was the code for “refugees from the GDR”.
Was there even a German embassy in Damascus in 1989?
The Federal Republic of Germany did not maintain diplomatic relations with Syria from 1965 to 1974 and was at that time represented by an Interests Section at the French Embassy. Diplomatic relations were resumed in 1974, and the Embassy in Damascus was reopened accordingly. The Ambassador in 1989 was Dr Georg‑Hermann Schlingensiepen.
Can a one‑off like this make a worthwhile contribution to this key debate?
In the course of the debate about refugees, Foreign Minister Steinmeier has repeatedly spoken out against xenophobia and called for solidarity and humanity. This document provides a concrete example of the form that solidarity with strangers can take. And it also shows that solidarity is not a one-way street – today’s givers may be those in need tomorrow.
Is it intended to foment ill-feeling against East Germans? Is it meant to suggest that Syrians are compassionate and (East) Germans aren’t?
It is the Federal Foreign Office’s opinion that the document is one example of one Syrian’s compassion for German nationals. Foreign Minister Steinmeier has repeatedly praised people throughout Germany for their tremendous willingness to help and the voluntary work they do. He stressed this in July 2015, for example, when he joined a family of Syrian refugees and their German hosts in rural Brandenburg for iftar, the traditional Muslim fast-breaking meal.