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Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the reception in honour of citizens with Polish roots and Poles in Germany

16.11.2016

Dietmar Woidke,
State Secretaries from Poland,
Ambassador Przyłębski,
Mr Huber,
Mr Löwl,
Distinguished guests from Germany and Poland,

I bid you all a very warm welcome to the Weltsaal at the Federal Foreign Office. I’m delighted to have you with us this evening.

I’ve had a look at today’s programme: after seven workshops and panel discussions and three addresses just now, all that stands between you and the more convivial part of the day – including the buffet – is my keynote speech on German-Polish relations which, however, I’ve shortened by 30 minutes to an hour!

But you’ll be glad to hear that I’m only joking: today at least I won’t be making a long speech ...

Instead, your work should be the focus of attention – all that has been achieved as a result of your trips across the border, the encounters and initiatives between Poles and Germans – namely, the solid foundation of close interpersonal connections which make up the German-Polish friendship.

***

I’d like to start by telling you about one such encounter. Just a few months ago, in the summer, I visited the German-Polish Grammar School in Löcknitz for the second time. Löcknitz is in Western Pomerania, just twelve or so kilometres from the German-Polish border. At this school, pupils from Poland and Germany learn together – and they learn, or at least this was my impression, a lot more than what’s required by the curriculum. Unfortunately, as Foreign Minister international crises accompany me to every appointment – and my trip to Löcknitz was no different. The head teacher, Ms Metz, had invited me to have a discussion with senior pupils and, as arranged, they proceeded to bombard me with questions: about the crises in the Middle East, about the conflict in Ukraine and – this had taken place around two weeks previously – about Brexit. I did my best to untangle the conflicts and the solutions we’re proposing for the pupils. But afterwards one girl asked, “Well, the diplomacy between states sounds interesting. But there’s one thing I don’t understand: where does all this hostility between people come from?”

This question, ladies and gentlemen, got a lot more approving nods from the pupils around her than all my explanations beforehand. There was a message in the room: namely, the certainty – put into practice day in and day out – that Poles and Germans live together peacefully as neighbours, school friends and as colleagues. For these young people in Löcknitz, the German-Polish friendship was the norm and thus also the benchmark against which they judged the rest of the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of you here today who know the scars of German-Polish history from your own personal experience perhaps feel the same way as I do. For me, at least, this was a lovely moment which inspired me with confidence, something which has become less frequent in my daily routine dominated by crises.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,

This positive outlook, these close contacts between Poles and Germans didn’t come about by accident. I said a few moments ago that today we’re focusing on your work. It’s the result of ever closer ties between our countries, over decades, built on many interpersonal initiatives and contacts. If we look more closely at the individual players, at those who time and again have reinvigorated this partnership, organised exchanges or looked after groups, then we come to you, our friends from Poland and our citizens with Polish roots. In short, Polonia!

You – whether you are Polish or German or, as is often the case, both – are the guarantors that Poles and Germans are much more than just neighbours today. I’d like to thank you for your tremendous dedication as ambassadors and facilitators between the two countries. Carry on the good work! And please accept our thanks.

You may rest assured that you not only have the recognition but also the support of the German Government. We take the issues that are important to you seriously.

We take the wish for Polish lessons in those towns and cities where there’s a demand especially seriously. We’ve taken the liberty of putting this issue on the agenda of a meeting with the German federal states at the Federal Chancellery tomorrow, and we want to achieve progress together.

Next week, we’re hosting a round table in Berlin for the Polish Government to talk about your concerns, those of people with Polish roots and Poles in Germany, as well as the German minority in Poland.

And seeing as the financial aspect is also important, the German Bundestag agreed last week to increase the funding for the German-Polish Youth Office by one million euros for 2017. I think that’s excellent news.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’ve spoken about young people but I also want to pay tribute to the older people here today who have spent their lives helping to heal and then strengthen German-Polish relations.

By way of example, I want to talk about one person with us today: Mr Magirius, you have experienced and, above all, have helped shape the work to foster peace and reconciliation between Germans and Poles for many decades. Even in the face of opposition. From the GDR, from Leipzig, you began establishing contacts with Poland way back in the 1960s and continued to expand them. You did so against the will of the party and political leaders of both countries. Anxious to shore up their own power – martial law had been in place in Poland since 1981 – the Governments sought to prevent contacts between the two civil societies, or at least to make them more difficult. But it was all in vain. You and others simply carried on.

You later wrote that the encounters with Polish intellectuals and civil rights activists were “more interesting than West German television”. And that’s saying something... It became clear in the late 1980s how valuable these contacts with Polish society were. When Solidarność ended the reign of the Communist Party in Poland, you followed this revolt “with fervent interest” from Leipzig. You emulated the round table in Poland with the first semi-free elections in 1989 by establishing your own round tables. The round tables in the GDR were – Matthias Platzeck said – “Polish furniture”.

Mr Magirius, you later created an unusual expression to describe this era: the “Polish bacillus of freedom” spread from Poland to Germany – it infected the peaceful revolution in the GDR.

At that time, you – together with others – were the avant-garde but, I have to disappoint you, for you weren’t the first to learn from courageous ground-breaking Polish democrats.

In 1791, for example, the Sejm gave Poland the first liberal constitution in Europe. This was an inspiration to many, not least the German freedom fighters of the 19th century. It also – the current discussions prompted me to read up on this recently – contains the principles of the rule of law and the separation of powers. Thus, they are deep-seated constitutional principles in Poland, in Germany and in Europe, and, ladies and gentlemen, I firmly believe they should remain so!

We Germans can and should look with a measure of humility at what we’ve learned about freedom and democracy from Poland. And if we value this and continue to expand our ties – for instance, in the city and regional twinnings you spoke of today – then we shouldn’t shy away from discussing openly and honestly developments in our two countries and in Europe which we find worrying. And that applies to the governmental level in line with the example you have set at the civil society and municipal levels.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I went to Warsaw in April I said that in times such as these, Germans and Poles face each other barefoot. As far as I can make out, you all have shoes on – but I didn’t mean it literally... Rather, I said that we live in turbulent times. Many people in Poland as well as in Germany are worried about the crises in and around Europe. At such times, people fall back on existential questions: who are we – as Poles, as Germans, as Europeans? And who counts as “them”?

This is about identity, about differences, about vulnerability. In that sense, we stand before each other barefoot. I believe that at such times, when there are considerable problems at political level, ties between people become all the more vital, as does your contribution to society. German-Polish friendship actually began barefoot more than a thousand years ago. When the German Emperor Otto III travelled to the city of Gniezno he took off his shoes for the last leg of the journey. He went to Poland, to his friend the Duke of Bolesław, not as an emperor, not as a ruler, but as a simple pilgrim, as an individual. If we continue to cultivate our ties, if we encounter each other as barefoot individuals – honest and earnest, without false make-up and, if possible, without prejudices – then we won’t step on each other’s toes. Rather we’ll get rid of the obstacles that may still be on the path we are following together.

Thank you very much!

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