In the autumn of 1989, thousands of people from the GDR sought refuge in the West German Embassy in Prague. On 30 September, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German Foreign Minister at the time, had good news for the refugees. Speaking from the balcony of the Embassy, he announced that the GDR had agreed to allow the refugees to travel to the Federal Republic of Germany. Foreign Minister Steinmeier was among the guests who attended a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of this historic event.
“Naturally, it moves me to be here today 25 years later, where many people literally overcame obstacles and fences in their unquenchable thirst for freedom and found refuge,” said Foreign Minister Steinmeier during his visit to the German Embassy in Prague on 30 September.
Steinmeier described the speech by then Foreign Minister Genscher from the balcony of the Embassy as “firmly fixed in the hearts of the German people”. Genscher’s words were: “We have come here today to tell you that you are free to leave... (for the Federal Republic of Germany).” His final words were drowned by the crowd’s cheers and wild rejoicing – and the images were broadcast around the world.
Talks with contemporary witnesses at the Embassy
Steinmeier attended the ceremony in the Czech capital Prague on 30 September along with former German federal ministers Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Rudolf Seiters, as well as Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek and other guests of honour. The premises of the German Embassy, including Palais Lobkowicz, provided refuge for thousands of refugees from the GDR 25 years ago. Steinmeier was moved by the accounts of the conditions in the Embassy at the time:
It is almost impossible to imagine what things were like back then in this spacious and magnificent palace, with bunk beds and sleeping bags on every stair and in every available space.
The German Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Arndt Freiherr Freytag von Loringhoven, and Saxony’s Minister-President Stanislaw Tillich hosted a reception at the German Embassy. Steinmeier’s agenda included a meeting with young people from Germany and the Czech Republic. However, the focus of his visit was on talks with former Embassy refugees. During a walk around the garden, one of them told the Foreign Minister how he felt at the time: “I had never felt freer than I did in the camp in the Embassy in Prague!”
Around 150 former refugees travelled to Prague to relive their past. Many of them were visibly moved. Steinmeier said that he was very touched by their stories:
Many of the former refugees showed me the part of the fence that they climbed at the time or the tree in the garden where they hung the keys to their apartment – as a symbol of the radical break with the past, but also of leaving their home and family behind.
Czechoslovakia played an important role
Steinmeier noted that commemorating the events at the German Embassy in Prague in 1989 also reminds us that 30 September “was not merely a great moment in German history, but a shared triumph for Europe”.
In his speech to a large audience in the cupola room in Palais Lobkowicz, Steinmeier paid tribute to the role played by many Eastern Europeans, including former Czechoslovakia, saying that they had made a great contribution to German reunification.
For us Germans, this dream would not – and I would go so far as to say it would never – have come true without the courage of the protesters on Wenceslas Square in Prague and on the streets of Bratislava. We in Germany have not forgotten this, and we will be eternally grateful for it.
Preventing a new division of Europe
“However, 30 September is not just a day for looking back,” Steinmeier said. “The event of 25 years ago that we are commemorating today did not just mean freedom for the people who had found refuge here in Palais Lobkowicz!”
In Steinmeier’s view, 30 September also stands for the beginning of the end of the East‑West conflict and for European reunification. He said that the current crisis in Ukraine shows the extent to which this peaceful order is under threat.
This is why today’s date is certainly a reason to rejoice, but also serves as a warning and reminds us of our duty to prevent a new division of Europe.
Meeting with the Czech President and Foreign Minister
Before visiting the German Embassy, Foreign Minister Steinmeier met the President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, for talks in Prague Castle. He also had a meeting with Czech Foreign Minister Zaorálek, who accompanied him to the ceremony in the German Embassy.