By John Kelly,
Running an errand recently in the Dupont Circle area, I noticed two separate buildings with clear signage identifying them as the “German Marshall Fund.” They are handsome Belle Epoque structures, well-maintained and clearly active. Germany has long since demonstrated its postwar economic recovery. What, then, is the continued reason for offices of the German Marshall Fund in Washington?
There is a difference between the Marshall Plan and the Marshall Fund. The plan’s work is finished. The fund’s work continues — not only in those two buildings, but all over Europe.
“I believe that the German Marshall Fund’s mission has never been more important than it is right now,” Karen Donfried, the organization’s president, told Answer Man.
We’ll get to that mission in a bit, but first let’s refresh ourselves on the Marshall Plan. In the wake of World War II, Europe was a shambles. As countries struggled to rebuild, President Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state, Gen. George C. Marshall, decided that a bold approach was needed.
Marshall introduced what was called the European Recovery Program on June 5, 1947, at Harvard University. In the three years of its existence, the plan would pump $13 billion into 16 European nations, revitalizing their economies. Roughly $1.5 billion of that went to West Germany.
Exactly 25 years later — June 5, 1972 — West German Chancellor Willy Brandt traveled to Harvard and announced that in honor of what Marshall and the United States had accomplished with the Marshall Plan, his country would give 150 million Deutsche marks — roughly $47 million — to launch an educational foundation devoted to studying European issues. That is the German Marshall Fund.
In his 1972 remarks, Brandt implored the United States not to forget about Europe.
“In this phase of change, America’s presence in Europe is more necessary than ever,” Brandt said. “I trust that those who carry responsibility in this country will not refuse to appreciate this. American-European partnership is indispensable if America does not want to neglect its own interests and if our Europe is to forge itself into a productive system instead of again becoming a volcanic terrain of crisis, anxiety and confusion.”
Today, in addition to its Washington headquarters, the fund has offices in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Warsaw, Belgrade, Bucharest and Ankara. It employs 160 people and has a budget of $34 million.
The German Marshall Fund does all that think-tanky stuff: It conducts research, publishes reports, hosts conferences. It also sponsors the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, a program for up-and-coming leaders from both continents, funding field trips to Europe (for Americans) and the United States (for Europeans).
Close to 4,000 people have gone through the program, including Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and France’s Emmanuel Macron. (The message doesn’t always stick. Hungary’s anti-democratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was also a Marshall fellow.)
Despite the first word in its name, the German Marshall Fund of the United States is a U.S. 501(c)3 charity, with a board composed of Americans. At first, its Washington staff was in rented spaces. Then, around 2003, the co-chairman of the GMF, Marc Leland, learned that 1744 R St. NW was being put on the market by its then-owner, the TransAfrica foundation.
The handsome building dates to 1912. It was designed by Clarke Waggaman and built for Alban B. Butler, who struck it rich in the oil business in California and Oklahoma. (His son, Alban Butler Jr., fought the Germans as a U.S. Army officer in World War I.)
The building has a special resonance: In the 1950s and ’60s, it was the West German chancery. What today is a conference room once hosted a black-tie dinner that President John F. Kennedy and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer attended. (The fund also occupies a building on 18th Street NW, a block away.)
The renovation of the R Street building took a while, and when it was ready to be dedicated, Angela Merkel had recently become chancellor of Germany.
“We reached out through the embassy here and got an agreement for Chancellor Merkel to come to the German Marshall Fund during her first visit to the United States,” Donfried said.
That was in 2006. Merkel is still Germany’s chancellor. That might suggest that the relationship between the United States and Europe is as stable today as it was then. Not so, said Donfried: “That masks the profound changes we’ve seen on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Many of the things we associate with the liberal democracies of the post-war era — from the rule of law to human rights — are being questioned now. So, too, is America’s dedication to Europe, whether through NATO or trade ties.
Said Donfried: “The German Marshall Fund is making the case that it is in the interests of the United States to have this strong alliance with Europe.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.