Lessons from the Wall – Review of A Conversation with J.D. Bindenagel

This week, the Honors Program, alongside the Grace School for Applied Diplomacy, was fortunate to host J.D. Bindenagel for a conversation about his lifetime of diplomacy, centering on his experiences of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ambassador Bindenagel was appointed by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in 1999, later serving as Special U.S. Negotiator for “Conflict Diamonds.” He is an expert on U.S. – German relations, having served in West, East, and united Germany, including as deputy chief of mission and Chargé d’Affaires in the U.S. Embassy. He served as Vice President of Community, Government, and International Affairs at DePaul and as the founding Henry Kissinger Professor for security and governance at Bonn University, where he currently teaches strategic foresight. He has published widely on international security issues in the 21st century, and we are grateful to welcome Dr. Bindenagel (back) to DePaul for such a fascinating event!

As the event began, the room was filled with students and faculty both in person and over Zoom, with many friendly faces from our Honors community. Dr. Bindenagel sat at the front next to Professor Eugene Beiriger, with the event uniquely framed as a conversation rather than a lecture. This conversational style lent itself to an engaging back and forth, with the two experts building off each other in exploring the complex history of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The talk highlighted key events exploring the “German question,” hailed as central to understanding the 21st century. Germany has acted as a faultline for decades, existing as a transitional space between the East and the West. And it is this exact sort of threshold that diplomats seek out, places of connection, conflict, and transformation. The Berlin Wall served as a symbol of this borderline status in the most concrete way, arguably meant to keep in the East even more than it kept the West out.

Dr. Bindenagel shared several fascinating stories of his work as a diplomat, giving us the scoop on what it is like to be at the center of the action during such a pivotal moment. He discussed the many conversations, news reports, and diplomatic acts that built to a turning point no one fully saw coming until it was there. Stories of friendly conversations leading to late-night diplomatic meetings, with ambassadors rushing to create and communicate a clear picture as press outlets blasted incomplete messages of the unfolding transformation. From his experiences, Bindenagel emphasized the importance of self-determination, democracy, sovereignty, and, most critically, acts of courage to bring about changes like the fall of the Wall.

While the focus of this event was the role of diplomacy in historical events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, much of the conversation was salient to the events of today. Dr. Bindenagel emphasized that, while history may exist in the past, it is certainly not past us. So many current events, most obviously the crisis in Ukraine, are influenced by our history. Dr. Bindenagel graciously passed the torch to us, the students entering a new world of international engagement. Quoting Thomas Bagger, Bindenagel reminded us that, “The end of history was an American idea, a German reality, and a millennial [or gen Z] problem.” Most notably, and reassuringly, he emphasized that we do not have to go forward blindly. We have a history behind us full of lessons, and it is up to us to learn what we can and take it with us in creating lasting change.

The event ended with a hint for more diplomatic events featuring Dr. Bindenagel to come, so keep an eye out for those and more great events here at the Honors Blog! And again, many, many thanks to Dr. Bindenagel for his time and generosity!

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