These are sentences that resonate for a long time because they contain so much experience and active humanity. “Today’s politics must begin with the needs and problems of the individual, nowhere else,” said Barbara John some time ago at an event on the German-Turkish recruitment agreement. The long path that the former refugee child has traveled over decades to persevere with persistent will to get a bureaucracy that is often unwilling to cooperate to see the people behind the administrative regulations becomes palpable. The people who came to Barbara John with their worries and concerns felt this and trusted her. Whether as the first Berlin “Foreigners Commissioner”, as integration was still a foreign word in Germany, whether from 2012 as the Federal Government’s ombudswoman for the victims of the NSU terror cell, or as long-standing chairwoman of the Berlin Parity State Association. One for all walks of life, that’s what Barbara John has remained to this day. And a woman who never gave up, not even in her own Christian Democratic Union, which she sometimes pointed out to the Christian element in the party’s name.
You have to be able to be incredibly compassionate without losing your critical eye. It takes an independent mind that stands on solid foundations. This includes the experiences of the child who, at the end of the war, experienced the misery and terrible fear with the mother when fleeing from Silesia to Berlin. But this also includes a family in which the father, who made candles, preferred to be sent to war as a soldier than to join the NSDAP as required. This can become a light for life.
And the flame was fed by the later time in London, where Barbara John studied with Karl Popper at the London School of Economics. Throughout her life, she combined the skepticism she learned about fixed world views and ideologies with an emphatic and heartfelt pragmatism for people. The direct look that sometimes comes across as a little skeptical or even mocking when you discuss things with her may have come from this time. Studying there was probably also a result of that feeling of wanting to get out of the Germany of that time. As a “tramp to many European countries” she was on the road, Barbara John once said. Driven by the desire “to want to live in a better world”. After the war, the father supported the family with a small workshop in Kreuzberg, when the district was still in ruins so that even the children could see over the vast field of ruins.
She first became a primary school teacher in Hamburg before moving to London on a scholarship at the end of the 1960s. It was a time in the then struggling center of the proud British Empire “when I was confronted with the pains and contradictions of a multi-ethnic, post-colonial society”. At the time she was probably neither aware that this multi-ethnic society would one day also be a German reality, nor that this topic would soon become a central task in life. At home, the students’ struggle against the “must have from a thousand years” not only collided under the robes of the professors, but also in ministries and the judiciary, with the German economic miracle gluttonies and dreamed of vacation trips to the blue Adriatic. It was part of the Republic’s lifelong lie that the “guest workers” brought to the country would soon leave – and stayed that way for far too long. It is also thanks to her that this has changed and that Germany has arrived in the reality of a modern immigration society.
In 1981 it was a far-sighted move by the new Governing Mayor Richard von Weizsäcker to make the young and energetic Kreuzberg CDU district councilor the first “foreigners’ representative” in the state of Berlin. A departure at a point where it had long been felt that Germany was becoming more diverse and international. But Barbara John first had to find her own way because there was no role model for this position. Often enough she rubbed shoulders with the macho and conservative frontmen of the Wall City CDU, who in turn gave John’s work malicious nicknames and taunting slurs. For twenty-two years, until 2003, Barbara John remained in this post, which made her a nucleus of an inclusive and community model of society. If Barbara John had had her way, she would have held this office longer. The red-red Wowereit Senate, however, did not have the intellectual size and pragmatic foresight to allow a CDU woman with such an outstanding profile. It would also have fitted in well with a compassionate social democracy. But it feels like there has never been another “integration officer” in Berlin than Barbara John anyway.
Could the Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband in Berlin have imagined a chair other than Barbara John? She took over the office in 2003 immediately after her “forced retirement” by the Berlin Senate. A person who is warm-hearted and resistant, who paved the way and constantly crossed borders. She never allowed herself to be restricted, the offices and tasks always overlapped because all activities are equally permeated by her firm convictions. Could there be anything better than Barbara John for such a diverse organism as the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, which offers over 780 organizations and associations a common roof in Berlin? An association as multifaceted and diverse as the chairperson. Can you imagine Barbara John as a tough Basta functionary narrow-mindedly pursuing her interests? Impossible. She has always remained an independent spirit that seeks full freedom of thought.
Since taking office in the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, she has shown that social work is above all network work. “This means that there are no authoritarian and hierarchical structures from above. In this network, one does not only turn to a central leadership from below, but to other members,” she told the Tagesspiegel in 2020 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Berlin Parity Welfare Association: “With many associations that also have opposing ideas, the common Work can only succeed if everyone knows that the opinions and work of others are recognised.”
This is precisely why the slim and sometimes almost boyish-looking woman always allows herself thoughtful words in conversations or interviews. Anyone who met Barbara John on appointments always had the pleasure of a stimulating conversation in which the thoughts lingered. Whether at appointments in social initiatives or in facilities for refugees. Or for our conversations on the sofa of the editor-in-chief of the Tagesspiegel, for which Barbara John wrote her “interjections” for more than twelve years – offensive columns in the best sense of the word month after month. Being with the people who get involved has always been the case for the campaigns as part of the Berlin volunteer days “Common Cause”, which the Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband and the Tagesspiegel have been organizing together for eight years. You could find her everywhere at events. You could experience her there, for example, in the Neukölln community center on Werbellinstraße, how she lent a hand to beautify the house with the volunteers. Up on the roof, she was equally enthusiastic about the sprouting flowers in the raised beds and the wide view over the district.
In the corona pandemic, Barbara John, despite all the suffering and the limited opportunities for contact, also paid tribute to civil society, which has impressively taken on responsibility in this time of crisis. “The great willingness to help in civil society was really kissed awake by the circumstances,” Barbara John stated: “It has become apparent that people do not expect the state to be able to regulate everything, but that they feel responsible and tackle. Just join in and take responsibility, that is the principle of a strong civil society, as we are experiencing right now. The state and bureaucracy should remember that.” Barbara John is convinced that there can only be a vibrant democracy with an active civil society.
This wide view has always given her the courage to surprise and offend. She has always defended the constitutionally secured right to asylum, but at the same time criticized the lengthy, absurd, bureaucratic, Kafkaesque processes that lead to people with no prospects of staying and no reason for asylum being allowed to stay for years and claim social benefits. She advocated creating clear regulations early on so that people do not come to Germany just because of the local prosperity: set quotas and create clear immigration laws. Instead of spending billions in Germany for people who have no chance of integration anyway, she is convinced that the money could do far more for positive development if it were invested in the refugee countries. Barbara John could well bear the fact that she was also indirectly criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel. After all, she also actively helped to use the consequences of the flight movement for Germany after 2015. She initiated the “Work for Refugees” project to get refugees into work quickly – in order to strengthen their self-esteem and integrate them better.
Being there for people and helping them take life into their own hands has run through the decades since she started as a primary school teacher. It is difficult to get an overview of how many organizations, committees or networks she contributes her expertise to. Can it really be true that she is still – and has been since 2003 – the coordinator for language support at the Senate Department for Education, Science and Research in Berlin? Yes she is. She is also chair of the expert committee for integration language courses at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and since 2007 also chair of the advisory board of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. She has also represented the Federal Republic of Germany since 2008 in the Council of Europe in the Commission against Racism and Intolerance and is a member of the Federal Government’s Integration Commission. She has also been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Education Foundation and the Synanon Foundation for many years.
Added to this is her faith, which always influenced her image of humanity and gave her strength without her speaking about it. In addition to all the other offices, she has also been the Berlin chairwoman of the Catholic German Women’s Association since 2009. In this office, she sharply criticized the official church for the delayed and prevented processing of the thousands of sexual abuses by clergy. She also demanded “an end to the men’s church” and accused the “contempt, contempt and assigned subordination of women in the Catholic Church laid down in canon law”. “We demand that women can also become priests,” she said at a protest rally organized by the “Maria2.0” initiative.
She has also processed her experiences as an honorary ombudswoman for the federal government for the victims and survivors of the NSU neo-Nazi cell (NSU) in the book “Our wounds cannot be healed by time”. In it, the relatives of the NSU victims have their say and describe what the series of murders and their public perception meant for them and how it changed their lives. Being by the side of the families of the victims and representing their concerns is something that Barbara John has been demanding of the state with all her might for years. A bad chapter in German history – with narrow-minded investigators who wanted to turn the murdered and the survivors into perpetrators themselves, victim families left alone by the state, the lack of excuses for blatant failures by the security authorities and against a remote bureaucracy. Barbara John had to fight for everything against a bureaucracy that was often far too remote from people – even at the official commemoration of the Federal President, she had to enforce against great resistance that the father of a victim was also allowed to have his say.
Barbara John will remain persistent when it comes to this topic, too. Because this German trauma is far from being processed and worked through. A meeting with the Hanau families is planned for the summer and participation in the design of a memorial for the victims of the neo-Nazi cell in Erfurt. “Old and new Nazis only have as much leeway as responsible citizens allow them,” says Barbara John: “In the best case, zero.” She will continue to ensure that.