"Don't worry, if it doesn't work this time, young man", they had said. "It is your first try, so don't be disappointed if you can't succeed. You still have to learn a lot, but the future belongs to you!"
Again and again I had to think about the words of those two women, when I fell into my bed that night. Were they right? Was I just too young for success?
I had fought four long weeks, day after day, night after night, hour after hour. I had talked to thousands of people, had walked hundreds of kilometres. And all that for nothing? Was the idea just too crazy? I did not want to believe it.
It was the night of the 14th September 1996. The next day would be the day - all or nothing, win or lose - it was election day for the city council of Herzberg.
1 Joining a party
My interest in politics was awakened by the peaceful revolution in East Germany in the fall of 1989. I was born and raised in Leipzig, the centre of the resistance against the communist regime. My father had come into conflict with the communist party in 1985 and was not allowed to work as a journalist after that. Consequently, he took part in the movement to bring the party rule to an end right from the beginning, and participated already in the first of the famous "Monday-demonstrations" in Leipzig.
Two weeks after the inhuman border had opened, we moved to the Western part of the country and settled down in a small village in the Harz Mountains, close to Herzberg.
Herzberg is not an especially exciting town. It has around 17,000 inhabitants, a castle and not a lot to do for young people. I went to school there.
My political interest never fell asleep again, and when I was 15 I finally decided that I had done enough sitting around and watching other people destroy the future of my generation - it was time to get active myself.
While carefully comparing all different parties and the ideas behind them, I was fascinated by liberalism. Therefore I joined the Free Democratic Party (F.D.P.) and it's youth organisation, the Young Liberals, in August of 1993.
Quickly, I made friends within the Young Liberals. The more or less old party members in Herzberg were happy to get some fresh blood and energy, and integrated me as much as they could.
It was at that time that I first heard about the upcoming election in the
fall of 1996. After a bit of calculating I realised that the date was perfect
- I would turn 18 just five months before the election. I now knew that I
was going to run for city council.
2 Preparing the campaign
In the summer of 1994 I went to the United States, and when I came back in 1995, there was one year left before the election. We started planning the campaign, and I convinced the party members that I was serious about being candidate, that I really wanted to be elected.
After all, the odds were good for running a campaign designed for young people with young people as candidates. This would be the first time in Germany's history that 16 and 17year-olds were allowed to vote. In addition, I had talked four of my friends into running with me on the list to support me, so it would be a truly young one. And then there were also many topics to cover for young people, many things that had to be changed in Herzberg. I opened my ears, collected ideas from the people around me and introduced them into our program for the election.
Half a year before the election, the F.D.P. now had a young program for Herzberg and five young candidates. That allowed us to set up a good list for each of the two districts of the city - an older and a younger one. The party members showed their confidence and put me on the top spot of the young list.
Thus motivated, I prepared the corner stones of my personal campaign, using many of the ideas I had collected. Then I went to the Ukraine for six weeks, where I had a lot of time for planning all details. I decided that I would go from house to house, trying to get in touch with as many people as possible. When I came back, there were five weeks left until the election. I wrote the last leaflets and had them printed.
3 The campaign
Finally, just four weeks before the voting, I set out on the streets of Herzberg. With a pack of leaflets I went down the street I had picked to be conquered first. My knees were shaking and my belly felt rather funny. Fortunately, there were two women standing in a front yard.
I walked towards them and said my sentence for the first time. "Good evening. I am candidate for city council here and I would like to introduce myself to you and ask, whether you have any ideas or suggestions what can be done better in Herzberg."
This would become my standard sentence for the next four weeks. I repeated it over and over, thousands of times. There were many different answers. Some people were nice, others were not. Some wanted to talk, others did not.
Those two women really motivated me, telling me not to be disappointed, if I was not successful. They did not believe that it was possible for a young man like me to be elected. I thought differently and I wanted to prove them that I was right.
To do so, I put in a lot of effort. Every night I walked from house to house. The weekends I spent entirely on the streets. I came into corners of Herzberg of which I had never even known that they existed. Often it was extremely strenuous, but I was rewarded by meeting many interesting people.
One woman showed me two rooms full of miniature houses that her husband had built. Another woman who was living in one of Herzberg's oldest houses told me the story of the house and showed me pictures from the town's history. Also I had the chance to meet the people actually living in the castle.
One time I sat down and had a drink and a talk with a nice couple in their late 50s. They were really interested and asked a lot of questions. Just when getting ready to leave I realised who I had talked to, where I had seen the face of the man before - in the newspaper, he was the head of the county administration, the Oberkreisdirektor.
I especially enjoyed meeting immigrants from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Quite a few of them had moved to Herzberg in the years before the election. Now they would be allowed to vote in Germany for the first time, so they were not sure about the procedures. Therefore they were always happy when I explained them how to vote and when I showed them an example of the ballot. I did not go so far as to tell them to vote for me, but I made sure they knew where to find my name on the list. And of course they liked it when I said a few of the sentences I knew in Russian.
As time went by, I learned more and more. I learned about the people and their problems. I learned about their new ideas and the things they liked about Herzberg. I learned how to react to personal attacks and I learned to laugh when people shut their doors right in front of me. And I learned to listen.
After some time I knew exactly, what the people in Herzberg were thinking and what they expected from their city council. It was an incredible learning experience, which everybody who is active in politics should make at least once in a while.
The longer I was on tour, the more people had heard about me before. Some were even waiting for me to ring at their door - they were happy to have someone to talk to. I was the only candidate who came to them.
Finally, the other parties became nervous. Just two nights before the election, the party with the majority in city council, the Social Democrats (SPD) started distributing an awful leaflet all over Herzberg.
Besides three articles ridiculing their main opponent, the Christian Democrats (CDU), it featured a mean attack on us, the Free Democrats, and especially our young list. Essentially, the article argued that the older party members must have lost control when setting up the list. The Social Democrats stated that they could not imagine a co-operation in city council with a person like me, as I was lacking any experience in life and did not have any qualifications.
Since there was hardly any time left, we decided to stay calm and not to start a counter attack. We hoped that this pamphlet would help us more than it would hurt us.
The attack was an exciting climax at the end of the campaign. A campaign that had brought me into every part of Herzberg. A campaign that had showed me the limits of my physical capacity - I had spent more than 100 hours on the streets. A campaign that had made me tired.
But when I lay in bed that night before the election, I once again realised how much I had learned during those four weeks, during the months and years preceding the election. I realised, that those first two women were right - I should not be disappointed, if I was not elected. I had learned for life, the future belonged to me!
4 Election sunday - conclusion
Election Sunday was an interesting day. At 6 o'clock, I went to watch the counting of the ballots in Lonau, the small village we were living in. But what disappointment! I had received only twelve votes for city council, of which three were mine and three my dad's.
Expecting a disaster, I rode the bike down to Herzberg to the central election information centre that the city had set up. After a short wait, the results started to come in. They were amazing. I had won many personal votes in the town of Herzberg, in total 347. That made me thirteenth of all 84 candidates.
Unfortunately, the accounting system had been changed by the state parliament just before the election. That caused the F.D.P. to lose one of the two seats in city council, although we received slightly more votes than five years before. I was the only liberal in the new city council. Although I was happy for myself, I felt sorry for Mrs. Meyer, who had been in city council and the county parliament for many years, but on that evening lost both positions.
Another fact was more enjoyable. I had received far more votes than two of my teachers. While my history teacher was elected as well, a politics teacher did not reach her goal. She had not liked me before, but now she hated me, which I would feel at grading time.
But that was nothing to worry about on that happy night. I had worked hard for a long time, and the effort had paid off. Not many people had believed in my success, but now I had showed the rest that young people were able to shake things up.
Two days later, all big newspapers in Lower-Saxony, even the "Bild Zeitung", ran a small article. They called me "Germany's youngest city council man". Later I realised that this was not true, but I was certainly one of the youngest.
Working in city council was very interesting - the learning experience continued. Too soon, already after eight months, I had to give up the seat though, before going to Venezuela and then starting university at the Otto Beisheim Graduate School of Management (WHU) in Vallendar near Koblenz. I moved out and Mrs. Meyer moved back in - today she is once again member of the city council in Herzberg.
Of course I would have liked to stay for a longer time, but it was not possible, I had to study. So the experience ended, but the lessons I have learned will never be forgotten. I do not know, whether I will ever have the chance again to be that heavily involved in politics. But I hope that a few of the skills I developed while convincing people, dealing with unfair attacks, physical and emotional stress, will help me in the business world as well.