Re-Building a Nation via Entrepreneurship and Civil Society Engagement

The turnaround tale of Germany in motion.
A Special Europe Feature on Social Innovation – Interview with Irene Weinz, Program Officer for International Relations Europe and its Neighbours, Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation

Before visiting Berlin and Munich, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War were historic events that I registered cognitively. While conducting Halogen’s ‘The Foundations of Leadership’ workshop, I recall asking the students, who do you think is a leader? Some of them shouted ‘Hitler!’ and when asked whether he was a positive or negative influence, I had mixed reviews from them.

Through learning from the guided walking tours (Berlin and Munich), visits to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe (Berlin), the DDR museum (Berlin), the Berlin Wall and a brief look at the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam), I felt deeply the gravitas of these ‘historical events’. It was bloody. It was inhumane. It was devastating. I remembered as I walked back one night to my airbnb apartment (situated in the East of the Berlin Wall previously), I thought of the people who tried to climb over to the West (and died), I thought of people who were trapped. It was not a good feeling.

Against the backdrop of post war political turmoil, Robert Bosch (the renowned entrepreneur of the German multinational engineering and electronics company) committed the Foundation he set up to reconcile Germany and France. Introduced by a fellow INSPIRIT friend, Pak Shun, I rode the Berlin Metro to Potsdamer Platz to meet up with Irene Weinz, program officer with the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation.

After the first World War, Robert Bosch (the renowned entrepreneur of the German multinational engineering and electronics company) committed to reconciling the Germans and the French. Bosch died in 1942 and continues his legacy of social good via Robert Bosch Stiftung (foundation) that was founded in 1964.

Over a cup of coffee at Balzac Coffee, Irene shared with me the work they were doing.

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Halogen360 (H360): Can you tell me more about Robert Bosch and also what the Foundation was set up for?

Irene Weinz (IW): Robert Bosch was born in 1861, as the eleventh of twelve children. In 1897, he built the first low-voltage magneto for combustion engines in automobiles. His business grew rapidly with global motorisation. As he built this successful business, he has also always looked after the health and welfare of his employees as he believed that every person had a right to personal freedom, health, education and peace. He said “One should always seek to improve the status quo; nobody should ever content themselves with what they have achieved, but should rather constantly aspire to do things better.”

During his lifetime, he made donations to numerous institutions. He was particularly keen in advocating international reconciliation after World War I, especially with France, as he viewed this as a key to long-lasting peace in Europe.

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Before he died in 1942, he made extensive arrangements to ensure the continuation of his corporate and philanthropic work. He outlined that the profits from his assets should be used to alleviate hardship, promote the moral, physical and intellectual development of people. As a result, much of the work of the Foundation also focuses on the areas of health, science, education and international relations.

Since its beginnings, the Foundation has invested more than one billion Euros in its non-profit work and approves around 800 projects a year.

(H360): You mentioned about reconciling the Germans with the French. How successful have the efforts been? Is that still a key area of interest?

(IW): Right after the World Wars, there obviously was a great need to build unity among the two nations. This was a starting point for the foundation’s activities in the 1960’s. In all our activities, until today, we facilitate interactions, exchange and promote mutual understanding and collaboration.

With the learning from the success of these programs in German-French relations, we apply it to our current focus – the EU integration. EU integration is important as we believe that with a closer relationship and understanding, we can prevent future wars and enhance closer cooperation. As a region, we can definitely wield greater influence and power.

With this aim, we want to promote Europe as a whole and support younger democracies. We are dedicated to facilitate the integration of citizens across the borders and groom active citizens within the EU. Through the meeting of minds of experts and young professionals, we are growing a tighter network. We hope that through the discussion, reflection and action on current EU issues, they can also find a common thread and be united.

Beyond Europe, we’re also reaching out to other countries, to promote international growth by engaging professionals such as urban planners, journalists and other leaders. Among our department’s focus areas are the promotion of good governance and civil society.

(H360): Can you tell me more about the projects you are directly managing?

Irene Weinz (IW): I am responsible for our activities in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and I am coordinating our activities in the field of “societies in transformation”. One of the projects I’m managing is called “Baladiya” where we bring together urban city planners and developers from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Over a two-year period, we invite them to come to Germany for several 4-5 week-seminars. German experts will then discuss with them our views and current challenges in urban development and city planning. The Northern Africans are most curious about how we involve our citizens in the planning process.

(H360): Does the Foundation do any work with youths?

Irene Weinz (IW): We have several programs for youths. The most recent initiative is the Robert Bosch United World College that we opened last year in Freiburg (South-West of Germany near the French border). Youths from 71 countries come together to live, learn and serve together. This experience allows for the growth of international understanding among the youths.

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While Europe is known for its beautiful cathedrals, culture and lifestyle, their history is not all pretty. Rather it is of bloodshed, beauty and sacrifice. Much of Berlin and Munich was bombed and had to be rebuilt. It was only later in the trip that I found out that at Potsdamer Platz (where I met up with Irene), used to be completely wiped out during the War II and where the Berlin Wall was built too. Since the German reunification, Potsdamer Platz has been remade to be perhaps the most ‘shiny’ part of Berlin – showcasing new tall office buildings like the Daimler complex and the Sony Centre.

Beyond the rebuilding of the physical structures, much work too has been done to build the ‘inner life’ of the citizens across Europe. Its heartening to see the legacy of Robert Bosch live on. Through entrepreneurship and civil society engagement, he built and still builds many cities and countries. With dedicated people like Irene Weinz, who is a political science graduate, we can expect strong efforts to build up the European Union.

– Article by Jael Chng
Photos contributed by Jael Chng and Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation