«We must encourage young people to get involved»

An interview with Thomas Krüger, President of the bpb
Reading time: 6 min.

As someone who stood up against the dictatorship in the former GDR and actively campaigned for democracy, Thomas Krüger understands the importance of democratic participation and civic engagement and the impact this can have. Particularly important to the long-time president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) are young people. In our interview, he expresses his firm conviction that international exchanges, especially between young people, are democracy promotion and political education «at its best».

The Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb)

The work of the Federal Agency for Civic Education focuses on promoting awareness of democracy and political participation. The bpb’s broad spectrum of educational programmes is designed to motivate and empower citizens to critically engage with political and social issues and to actively participate in political life. Currently, around 400 staff at the bpb’s headquarters in Bonn as well as branches in Berlin and Gera are committed to this aim. 

Website:   www.bpb.de

How and in which ways can young people get involved in political decision-making processes and developments?

Thomas Krüger: There are various ways of doing this. In every federal state where voting is permitted at local government level from age 16, young people are a significant part of the electorate and help shape our democratic society. Experiencing this at a young age is extremely important because it makes young people realise that their vote matters. People who vote in their first election learn to understand the democratic process and are more likely to exercise their right to vote later on in life. 

Beyond that, there are a growing number of opportunities for people to get involved in democratic settings at local level, as proven by over 500 local children’s and youth parliaments and almost 300 youth forums that now exist. But young people also find their own way, outside the institution route, to participate in democratic life, by showing personal initiative and organising demonstrations, for example.

Plus of course, there are more informal roles, like being youth chair of a music club, a school representative or on the committee of a sports club. These are all central settings in the lives of young people, and therefore places of democratic coexistence where young people’s voices are heard and participation is actively practiced.

Porträtfoto von Thomas Krüger mit Mütze und Schal vor der Berliner Mauer
© Gordon Welters/laif/bpb

Thomas Krüger has been President of the Federal Agency for Civic Education since July 2000. He says: «The political culture of citizens, consisting of political values, convictions and consequent political support, is crucially responsible for the future of the [European] Union. [...] The political support of the population has continued to weaken in parts of the EU [...] The cracks are growing ever wider in the foundations of Europe.»

What is needed to promote and further develop this active involvement in the educational field?

Thomas Krüger: One of the key aims of political education is to encourage young people to actively participate in democratic life. Of course, political education also constitutes an educational process in a general sense. Because anyone wanting to actively engage in the process of democracy has to know how political processes work, how they can contribute personally and what positions exist on key topics. 

Media literacy is also playing an increasingly important role and has to be acquired so that we can identify reliable sources in our complex and multi-layered world, and of course recognise disinformation for what it is. The importance of the latter cannot be understated! And so, political education needs to become more prominent both in schools and non-school settings. 

This can be practiced in junior elections that enable youngsters to learn about and experience democracy. This should be promoted much more. A well-designed preparation phase and follow-up to the voting process is essential here. It improves preparedness for party-political discussions and helps young voters learn about and understand political processes. In this point, I can only appeal to all multipliers of political education to take advantage of these opportunities, because they can have a huge impact on the political socialisation of young people.

How can young people be made more aware of the EU’s collective values, its principles of unity and diversity, and its social, cultural and historical heritage?

Thomas Krüger: Exchange projects can in themselves promote a better understanding, empathy and respect for European neighbours and their outlooks. To achieve this, we need young people who participate, get involved and do not shy away from conflict. Because these skills and insights gained from exchanges and personal encounters are becoming more and more important given the upsurge in right-wing extremist and xenophobic movements. It is also up to the young generation in our countries to continue building on values such as tolerance, respect and mutual understanding and to promote the teaching of these values. 

Essential to this is an emphasis on the social successes of European cooperation. We have to ask the question: What would our cultural, financial and political co-existence look like without the joint achievements of the European Union, such as the freedom to study, live and work anywhere? If the required education takes place in this area, people can look past the anti-EU populist smokescreen and acknowledge positive developments. Common values can then not only be accepted, but also championed and fought for.

Porträtfoto von Thomas Krüger mit Mütze und Hoody auf einer städtischen Straßenkreuzung mit Altbauten und Fahrradfahrern im Hintergrund
© Jordis Antonia Schlösser/OSTKREUZ/bpb

The bpb supports institutions, non-governmental organisations, foundations and associations throughout Germany that provide political education. Specifically, these number about 400 organisations, 5,500 seminars and about 300,000 participants annually.

For work in political education contexts, more than 1,500 books, journals, teaching materials and much more can be ordered from the bpb shop or downloaded online.

What dangers do you see for a united Europe if interest and commitment fade?

Thomas Krüger: United Europe has secured the longest period of peace ever experienced in the countries of the European Union. Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement: «Whoever does not believe in Europe, who doubts Europe, whoever despairs of Europe, should visit the military cemeteries in Europe» shows the enormous gravity of a non-united Europe. Achievements such as peace and freedom, which have been hard-won and reinforced through joint European action, would be at risk. This also applies to many arrangements we take for granted in our everyday lives, such as borderless travel within the EU thanks to the Schengen Agreement, the common internal market or the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. 

Compromises at European level are often hard to reach, but the achievements are lasting and form a long-term basis from which everyone benefits. The UK is a prime example of what happens when the European community falters.

What role can a programme like Erasmus+ play in strengthening democratic participation and civic engagement?

Thomas Krüger: An international (youth) exchange, which Erasmus+ facilitates in an exemplary way, is democracy promotion and political education «at its best»! It enables us to change perspectives, learn to tolerate and handle controversies, and see what is possible and how we can achieve goals. Nothing works better against populists with supposedly simple answers to complex questions than personal encounters and empathy for others that results from such encounters. There is no better place to learn what ambiguity tolerance means and that «travel educates» is not an empty phrase.

In your view, where is there a need for further action, where are there opportunities for development?

Thomas Krüger: Digital education can also play an important role here. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us how easy it can be to share information via videoconferencing. We can overcome borders at any time and make international encounters easier and, above all, more regular. Before or after analogue meetings, digital exchange enables us not just to stay in contact, but also to maintain a productive connection with others.

In this respect, we need intermediaries in education who are willing to commit to this venture. We need expertise and training for all those who will buy into it; we need practice and training for those who are already involved; and we need passion for this form of digital education – from everyone. 

Interviewed by Lutz Cleeves and Marcus Klein

Examples of bpb publications related to youth and democratic participation

Repräsentation – Identität – Beteiligung
The book asks how representation and political participation can succeed in a changing plural, digital and democratic society.
Order no.: 10871

Demokratie als Zumutung
Some expect everything from democracy, others nothing any more. Felix Heidenreich sees the causes in the unreflected economisation of democracy, which has to «deliver» or be rejected.
Order no.: 10964

Jugend und Protest
Younger people are now campaigning loudly to be heard and involved in decisions that affect them and their future. 
Order no.: 72138

Authors: Lutz Cleeves und Marcus Klein