Germany and the Town Twinning Movement

By Weyreter, Martina | Contemporary Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Germany and the Town Twinning Movement

Weyreter, Martina, Contemporary Review

Half a century after World War II, there is hardly any European city Without one or several twin towns. Yet the role of town twinning in improving international relations on a worldwide scale has been little researched or documented. What is more, town twinning seems to have secretly undergone a near-metamorphosis in the recent past, reflecting its position in an ever more rapidly changing world. Yet it has also retained all its original values.

Once again it is Germany which is in the forefront of these changes, not surprisingly due to its unique political history and geographical position in Europe. By tracing the development of Germany's town twinnings from a basic idea into a worldwide network, one may hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of the current situation as well as of future prospects.

The very first post-war effort by two European cities to join hands in friendship dates back to 1947 when Bristol Council sent five 'leading citizens' on a goodwill mission to Hanover. The visit, which was to result in the very first town twinning ever, was, unfortunately, marred by difficulties. First of all, the delegation needed special permission to travel to Germany at all. With the city of Hanover in ruins and no public transport available, the mayor only just made his way to the meeting and, with food rationed, a considerable amount of ingenuity and planning was needed to serve the visitors at least a cup of tea and some dry biscuits. Worse than that, everybody felt ill at ease and unsure how to behave in front of the former enemy. On their return home, the Bristolians duly resolved to start sending food to Germany while Hanover, eager to reciprocate in some way, decided to send back music. A choir of students went to perform in Bristol the following year.

The idea spread quickly in the years that followed. It was thought that if people of different nations got to know and understand each other on a personal level by meeting in their normal environments, even their private homes, then the horrors of war would never be repeated. Also, if one city ever needed help or advice it could be more easily and unbureaucratically given by another city than, for example, by national aid programmes.

Oxford and Bonn were next in tying the knot, Reading and Dusseldorf followed suit, and the first German-French twinning, between Montbeliard and Ludwigsburg, came about in 1950. Surprisingly, yet in line with the original idea of informal contacts, the phenomenon was allowed to mushroom in a more or less random fashion until 1951, by which time Germany had well over 100 twinnings in place. That year saw the establishment of the Council of European Municipalities (CCRE) with offices in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. For the first time, an assembly of 50 European mayors had got together to establish standards and guidelines by joint decisions, draw up standard twinning contracts and finally put the aims of twinning down on paper. The CCRE was hoping to promote a European spirit at grass roots level, encouraging the idea that Europe needed to unite in order to rebuild. Above all, it recognized the autonomy of--and democratic s tructures within--local government as the base of any democratic state and as a means actively to rule out the possibility of another dictatorship. Local government was to act as a mediator between people and national government, with a view to influencing national foreign policy over time.

In practice, local communities were more likely to take power into their own hands with the CCRE in the role of a mere advisor or would-be matchmaker. For how, after all, do you find your perfect twin? It is a task akin to choosing the right partner in marriage: do you have something in common? Can you see yourself spending the rest of your lives together? And are you aware that that solemn ceremony in the town hail is only the beginning of something yet to be built? …

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