Town twinning: the world’s largest peace movement?
The very first mention of a bond of friendship between the German city of Paderborn and the French city of Le Mans dates back to the ninth century. However, most formal agreements establishing partnerships between cities did not come into being until the 20th century. Known as town twinning, these links were born out of the desire to build a durable peace between countries, mainly in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The main event took place on 22 September 2017: at a ceremony in Kiel’s City Hall, Kiel’s City President Hans-Werner Tovar and Mayor Ulf Kämpfer were joined by San Francisco’s Mayor Edwin M. Lee to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on future cooperation. This means that Kiel – the capital of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein – and the US city now have a formal partnership. The arrangement has a unique selling point: Kiel is San Francisco’s first sister city in Germany and is likely to remain that way, for the Californian metropolis has a policy of only ever signing one partnership agreement per country. The two cities are planning programmes of cooperation in clusters such as economic development, education, climate action, tourism, science and digitalisation.
Around 15,000 town twinning links exist worldwide, most of them across international borders. Germany alone has more than 5,000. In both cases, the number of informal partnerships is thought to be very much higher. A desire to foster economic and cultural exchange – just as Kiel and San Francisco are planning to do – is one of the main factors now motivating cities to seek partners in other countries. But there’s much more to it than that: town twinning has sometimes been described as the world’s greatest peace movement.
Most of Europe’s twinning links were established after the Second World War – and all were motivated by a desire to consolidate lasting peace in Europe. In 1951, a group of 50 mayors of German and French cities met in the Swiss city of Geneva and set up the Council of European Municipalities (CEM), renamed the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) in 1984.
“Its aim was to support rapprochement and understanding among European nations at a time when the vision of a united Europe had not yet become the focus of political debate.”
By supporting encounters, exchanges, language learning and friendship, town twinning has made a major contribution to the success of European integration over recent decades. It is based on the recognition that familiarity between nations, an understanding of another’s language and perhaps even a bond of friendship all encourage us to respect other countries and cultures, making recourse to force of arms much less likely.
In many cases, the partners have common features:
- Perhaps they have a similar infrastructure: they may both be port cities like Hamburg and St. Petersburg (Russia) or Rostock and the Croatian city of Rijeka.
- They may be connected by the same river: like its partners cities Prague and Dresden, Hamburg is located on the Elbe.
- They are both capitals: examples are Berlin and its partners London, Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Madrid, Moscow and Paris.
- They may both be financial centres, like Frankfurt and its Italian twin Milan .
- They may be centres of science and research: the German university town of Heidelberg is partnered with international centres of scientific excellence: Palo Alto in the US, Montpellier in France, Cambridge in England and Rehovot in Israel.
- The partner cities’ names are the same or very similar – Bocholt in Germany is twinned with Bocholt in Belgium, just like Linz in Germany and Linz in Austria, and the German city of Coburg and Cobourg in Canada. Dresden – dubbed “the Florence of the Elbe” – has a link with its Italian namesake.
- And sometimes, they are united by a common interest: Cologne in Germany and its partner Rio de Janeiro in Brazil share a passion for Carnival.
Intra-German twinning links: a major contribution to reunification
Without partnerships between cities, German reunification would surely have been even more of a challenge. Most formal links between German cities and municipalities were established at the time of the peaceful revolution – known as the Wende – in 1989/1990. They were a way of providing support for the East German municipalities: for example, work placement programmes were set up for East German local government officials, enabling them to learn about West German administrative structures and procedures.
West German professionals also spent time in their East German partner cities, helping, for example, to improve the health sector and set up new administrative structures at the local level. As a result of these exchange programmes, many friendships were formed on a personal level, and they too have played an important role in consolidating Germany’s internal unity.
"The findings of the study on intra-German twinning links also show that these city partnerships are well-established on a broad social basis and are experienced and supported with considerable engagement from individuals and the community."
Twinning builds bonds – especially in challenging times
A particularly impressive example of a link which has proved its worth, even in turbulent times, is the partnership between Hamburg and St. Petersburg, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017. In 1957 – during the Cold War – the Mayor of Hamburg received an invitation to visit Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He accepted and – despite protests from the West German Foreign Office – travelled to the Russian city with a delegation from the Hamburg Senate. The visit led to the signing of the first friendship agreement between a West German and a Soviet city, despite the unfavourable political climate.
Today, the two cities have strong economic and cultural links. The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce opened its office in St. Petersburg in 1993, while St. Petersburg has maintained a foreign trade office in Hamburg since 2006.
“The Port of Hamburg is of special significance for Russia, assuming the function of a hub for Russia’s trade with the European Union.”
The Foundation for German-Russian Youth Exchange was set up in Hamburg in 2006. Every summer, students on Slavonic Studies programmes at the University of Hamburg are offered the opportunity to spend six weeks in St. Petersburg and attend a course to enhance their Russian language skills. The fees for this Rossicum programme are minimal and additional support is available in the form of scholarships.
These are just a few examples of the lively exchange between these two port cities. In today’s difficult political climate, their partnership is once again facing challenges. But its great strength is its power to keep open the dialogue and enable Germans and Russians to continue to meet in a spirit of respect and equality – despite the current political differences.
Tell us your opinion!
Have you benefited from town twinning? Perhaps you have taken part in an exchange programme or contributed to a city partnership in your professional capacity. Do please write to us and share your experience!