Jump Into Something Where Your Heart is

Prof. Dr. Markus Ziener on his Washington DC sabbatical, American culture & the future of his students

A blog by Airinë Nuqi

“They stole my bike! I was furious!” Prof. Dr. Markus Ziener shares with me. “This crap happened to me already once before when I was living here as a correspondent years ago… And it’s not even mine, it’s the bike I borrowed from my friend.”

Reporting for duty, all the way from Washington DC, is our very own, Prof. Dr. Markus Ziener. For those who have not met him yet (and you wouldn’t have, since he is currently away on a sabbatical for the Fall semester), you will get to meet him when he rejoins our institute again, in the spring semester.

While Markus has been with HMKW since 2014 and has taught different classes ranging from Politics and Economics, all the way to Digital Formats and Storytelling, he has also reported as a correspondent from Warsaw, Moscow, the Middle East, and Washington.

Currently, he is carrying out research in Washington as part of the Helmut Schmidt Fellowship which was awarded to him by the German Marshall Fund (GMF).

As a young boy from Darmstadt in the state of Hesse, Markus started his journalistic career as far back as high school, when he was a schoolboy contributing to his local newspaper. Later on, he and his family moved to Bavaria, where he wrote about sports topics, recorded with the Bavarian broadcasting station, Bayerischer Rundfunk, and after graduating from university, he joined the Frankfurter Rundschau, one of the most prestigious left-leaning newspapers in Germany at the time.

Most young people go through a phase of trying out different jobs and careers and figuring out what they want to do. This is a relatively normal occurrence. For Markus? Not so much. Sure, at one point or another he wanted to be a very successful soccer player or a guitarist in a rock band (which, hello? Would have been amazing), but journalism was the only thing Markus ever pursued professionally. 

“It was easy actually. I wanted to write, wanted to work with words and writing sentences and stories, asking questions, and trying to extract something interesting from people. I always loved that, so maybe it’s a little boring but…” he shrugs, “I knew I wasn’t good at mathematics and physics and all those kinds of things, so I knew I should pursue a different path.”

In January 2020, Markus was awarded the fellowship at the German Marshall Fund in the US, but as you can all guess, a tiny thing got in his way. The tiny issue of a global pandemic… I know… these things always happen at the worst possible time, don’t they? He ended up going a year later and got to experience the COVID working environment at the GMF in Washington.

“It’s difficult to dive into a buzzing, lively environment, where things come at me… some stuff happens – but it happens on Zoom, which is not that funny and does not require my presence here in DC,” he says while sitting in his office with the door wide open, pointing to the emptiness of the hall beyond his office door.

Prof. Dr. Markus Ziener via Zoom
Prof. Dr. Markus Ziener via Zoom

Despite these challenges, Markus has had the chance to throw himself into his journalistic work and show his media prowess by scheduling interviews left and right. Having conducted almost 50 interviews so far, he has also appeared on C-SPAN, Euronews, Al Jazeera, Welt (WeltN24), France 24, BBC Arabic, and more. 

The project that brought him to Washington DC, focuses on the transatlantic relationship between Germany and America, but in the context of what is currently happening in China, Russia, and the US. “I think Russia is becoming a dictatorship or is a dictatorship, China is a bully, and the US is very much inwards looking and focusing on what’s good for America, even under the presidency of Joe Biden,” he says, adding, “So, the question is, where is Europe here in this equation? And that’s what I’m looking at.”

One thing Markus admits, having had a talk with a China expert earlier that day, is that when it comes to China, and it being the main topic in the city, he needs to know more.

“I mean this guy was from the Wilson Center, and in order to be on eye level with the questions and in the conversation, you have to build your own knowledge base,” he says, promising he will pass this on to the students at HMKW next semester (but not before I pass it on).

This is not the first time Markus is in the US or even Washington. Years ago, Markus lived in the capital for years. However, this time around (other than being a victim of bike stealing), Markus seems baffled at the level of environmental consciousness (i.e.lack thereof?) that people there possess. He compares Germany to the US, and admits that if the US would have the German Müllpolizei (translated: trash police), they would “have a field day in Washington.”

However, working with the GMF has given Markus some unique opportunities, making the time in Washington worth the ‘culture struggle’. As a German journalist in the US, it’s easy to be dismissed sometimes, but as someone from the German Marshall Fund, “considered to be an American NGO, it’s a door opener,” Markus says, adding that, “People here are really on top of their stories. They have China experts, Russian experts, experts for everything. They can hit the ground running, you know? They don’t need any kind of warm-up, they know their stuff and that’s exciting, and that’s why it’s really good being here.”

To the students Markus might not catch in time before returning, he says: “Be curious!” adding that, “I have this conversation with my daughter – when you’re young, I think it’s good to really jump into something where your heart is… where you want to achieve something, to leave a mark, and not just to check how many hours did I work this week.”

To my humored facial expression, regarding the hours comment, he adds, “I think there should be a time in life where you feel that something is more important than yourself, and you have to commit yourself to this…It’s an individual thing and I think sometimes you have to test your limits a little… I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. That was the goal I had when I was young and I didn’t want to settle for the low-hanging fruit, to be honest. I wanted to be a correspondent in Moscow and in Washington, that was something I dreamed of. And you don’t know whether you can achieve that because there’s a lot of luck involved but at least you try, and if you try and you don’t get it… I can live with that. But if you haven’t tried…”

If you want to hear more about his views and work on the transatlantic relationship between the US and the EU, give a listen to the EUROPALABER episode he was a guest on in mid-October https://open.spotify.com/episode/7EUKQflWVkwGptT593pvbm?si=6625c8153a144b80