While growing up on "the wrong side" of the wall in Soviet-controlled East Berlin, Wolfgang Thierse was shushed into absolute silence when his father strained to listen to jammed broadcasts of parliamentary debates in West Germany. Thierse dreamed one day of directing such discussions himself.
He now has been the president of the Bundestag, united Germany's parliament, for almost six years. Thierse is seen by Germans as one of the early heroes who helped contribute to the destruction of the wall. He rose from obscurity as a daring activist on human rights and press freedom in the 1980s at meetings in his neighborhood Protestant church. He participated in the New Forum movement, which was active in the transition to unification until elections were held in eastern Germany, and then became recognized nationwide.
The president of the Bundestag "has a strong voice of moral authority and moderation in guiding the national debate on how much reform is necessary or bearable," said one diplomat, as Germans grudgingly absorb the economic consequences of unification and grumble about unfulfilled expectations. Thierse said he did not agree with demonstrators in Berlin who have recently protested economic cutback proposals, but said he was glad that he had demonstrated once, earning others the right to demonstrate now. He has spoken out articulately against racism and xenophobia and promoted youth activities to lure teenagers away from extremist groups.
Through an interpreter, Thierse told a gathering Monday of members of Congress, administration officials and research group representatives that he was proud to be the first Bundestag president to visit Washington in 30 years, especially at this "exciting moment" in the presidential race.
"I am convinced our partnership will continue and remain solid, regardless of the outcome," he told guests dining at the residence of Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger.
Thierse was invited to Washington by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) after a meeting of parliamentary leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Chicago last week. He met with House leaders, as well as with Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, to discuss the rising costs of health care for an aging society.
"He is the first person from East Germany in such a high position," Ischinger said of Thierse.
"I am laid-back; I know where I have come from," Thierse said in an interview while sipping a beer at the German Embassy's basement Berlin Bar. "One develops out of the minority experience a stubborn confidence."
"I am trying not to get used to the privileges" of power, he said, "because I know it can be over at some point." He said he lives in his old, modest apartment in the eastern Berlin quarter of Prenzlauer Berg, and not in a villa. And he still goes to church.
A Tale of Terror
The symbolism was flagrant, yet universal, at the premiere of the Washington National Opera's "Andrea Chenier" by Umberto Giordano last Saturday at the Kennedy Center. The opera focuses on the blood-soaked rule of terror after the French Revolution.
French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte attended, saying he preferred "soft, peaceful evolution rather than abrupt, violent change." The St. Lazare prison set -- with its bloodied shutters, hooded executioners and passive mobs -- was poignant but unsettling to some, especially on the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Audience members said they could have drawn references to the beheadings of foreign workers in Iraq, to the images of masked men and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, or to war and fascism in general.
In the opera, Chenier, a poet who sympathized with the poor, is guillotined on trumped-up charges by a servant-turned-revolutionary leader. The servant is also Chenier's rival for the affections of a lady from the fallen aristocracy. Placido Domingo, the general director of the Washington National Opera, described the character of the servant as "a half-villain" who attempts to withdraw his accusations and has been the victim of injustice himself.
The most striking prop was a rectangular red and black tower from which accusations were made with stretched-out arms. For the scene, director Mariusz Trelinski, who is Polish, and his assistant, Brian Luedloff, studied photos of Adolf Hitler practicing speeches. Trelinski, 40, comes from a country that suffered under German and Soviet occupation. Asked if he was evoking more-recent events, the director said: "The music is the same, but you always want to make an opera that corresponds to our times."
Gathering Against Disease
Rarely do ambassadors get together willingly and on a grand scale for the same cause. Next week, however, more than 130 are scheduled to attend a traditional ball benefiting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Scientists from the United States, Israel, Germany and Switzerland have discovered drugs that mitigate the ravages of that disease. Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Ischinger of Germany and Christian Blickenstorfer of Switzerland, whose countries have contributed significantly to scientific research and advancement in the field, will be among the patrons next Wednesday at the Grand Hyatt Washington. Also attending will be the ambassadors of Britain, Mexico, Venezuela and Jordan, among others. Jeanne Angulo, president of the society's National Capital Chapter, said the annual event has raised a total of $8.5 million in the past. She is hoping to end up with $650,000 to $800,000 this season.