Speech by Federal Minister Westerwelle on the presentation of the study by the Independent Commission of Historians Federal Foreign Office

28.10.2010 - Speech

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Federal Foreign Office staff,
Ladies and gentlemen,

To begin I would like to express my sincere thanks to the members of the Independent Commission of Historians: Professor Conze, Professor Frei, Professor Hayes and Professor Zimmermann. After four years you and your entire team have presented a weighty book in both senses of the word.

This is a book we need.

In the future your study will play an essential role in the debates about the self-perception of the Federal Foreign Office and German diplomats.

Your book provides answers to two central questions. What did the Foreign Service do in National Socialist Germany? What impact did this past have after the War? For some time now we have known the first answers. Christopher Browning presented an important study in 1978 and there have been a considerable number of publications in the meantime. The work of these researchers already made clear corrections to the image occasionally nurtured that the Foreign Office had only followed the crimes of the Nazi regime from the sidelines or even had endeavoured to prevent the worst.

Your work, Professors, makes this image more round, multi-faceted, multi-layered, sometimes more contradictory but all in all significantly clearer. The mass of detail you extracted from the files for your study lends particular weight to your findings.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Scientific research will go on. The debate will be re ignited and revived by the book. It is certainly far from over.

Coming to terms with the darkest chapter of our German past is difficult and has not been without pain. Transparency and openness only managed step by step to put an end to endeavours to suppress, conceal and also hush up the facts.

The Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, Willy Brandt falling to his knees in Warsaw, Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the War, all these were decisive staging posts in this process to come to terms with and be open about the past.

Now we have the study by the Independent Commission of Historians. The authors describe how the Foreign Office as an institution adapted following Hitler’s seizure of power. They even use the term “self-Gleichschaltung”.

The Foreign Office – this is now clear and this has been impressively and shockingly brought to light by your study – was a part, an active part of the heinous policies pursued by the so called Third Reich.

The Foreign Office was directly involved in the tyranny of the Nazi regime and was aware at an early stage of the criminal methods adopted in German warfare. It participated with administrative ruthlessness in the systematic destruction of Europe’s Jews.

Some of the most shocking documents from this period are on display here today. The minutes of the Wannsee Conference. Reports on the deportations of Jews from France. The travel costs claim of Rademacher from the so called “Jews Division”. He wrote “liquidation of Jews” as his purpose of travel. The incomprehensible had become reality. In this Foreign Office, travel costs could be claimed citing murder as official business.

All these documents reveal just how heinously everything was planned, organized and administered.

The book contains a host of other shocking examples of the involvement of German diplomacy of the day in the destruction policy of the Third Reich.

As the study summarizes, “The more radical policy on Jews became, the deeper the involvement of the Foreign Office in the planning and implementation of the Final Solution.”

As readers we can only shudder as we read the bureaucratic routine of the destruction policy in all its details. Conducted by an institution that saw itself as an elite and in reality sank deeply into crime. There is nothing to justify here, there is nothing to sugar-coat. This book will leave no one cold.

We are ashamed by how the Foreign Office and many of its staff members heaped such guilt upon themselves during Nazi rule.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Only a few resolved to follow a different path.

The study mentions diplomats such as Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz who has been honoured in Yad Vashem as one of Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to save Danish Jews.

Or Gerhard Feine, Counsellor at the Embassy in Budapest, who helped save thousands of Jews in Hungary.

Fritz Kolbe, who passed important information on to Hitler’s adversaries, was forbidden from returning to the Foreign Office after the War. It was not until the term of Federal Minister Fischer that a room in this Ministry was named after him.

Those involved in the attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944 had individual supporters also in the Foreign Office. There was however neither organized resistance nor a powerful network.

The few who dared listen to their conscience are today role models for the Foreign Service. We pay particular tribute to the twelve members of the Foreign Office who paid for their courage to resist with their lives. On a commemoration plaque here at the Werderscher Markt, we remember these members of staff and the stance they took. These twelve remind us of our duty and our responsibility to remember the past.

Some of those honoured were initially members of the NSDAP and later decided to get involved in resistance.

As the historians’ study states, “Arithmetic based purely on party membership can, however, as shown in particular by the cases of Hassell and Schulenburg, only provide part of the explanation. (...) It cannot shed light on the actions of individuals.”

We can only do justice to individuals by looking at their intentions very carefully. This is the difficult task the historians faced.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The question of who was taken on from the pre 1945 Diplomatic Service following the re establishment of the Foreign Office after 1951 and who was not, as well as the question of who was newly employed in the Foreign Service, triggered a fierce debate as early as the 1950s. There was a committee of inquiry in the German Bundestag even before the Federal Foreign Office came into existence again as an independent authority.

In the early years of the new Ministry, about one in five in the higher service had suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazi regime.

The proportion of former NSDAP members was more than twice as high, at some 40 percent. As the study documents, representatives of the old Berlin Foreign Office based in the Wilhelmstrasse played a major role in the re establishment of the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn.

Some of those who had been involved prior to and during the War crafted a legend after the War. Some perpetrators and some sympathizers later purported to have been against the regime. This created a self-perception according to which the Foreign Office had been a cradle of resistance seeking to slow the advance of the regime of injustice, which had ultimately proved futile. Had there not been this staff continuity, this self-perception would never have emerged.

This self-perception shifted under the influence of the work of Browning, Dörscher and others, as well as with the emergence of a new generation. As stated in the publication issued at the 1995 celebration of the 125 year anniversary of the founding of the Federal Foreign Office, “The paltry number of active members of the resistance within the Foreign Service shows that the Federal Foreign Office between 1933 and 1945 was not a cradle of resistance against Nazi tyranny.”

But the sentence continues: “Neither, however, was it an office ruled by the SS. (...) The truth lies somewhere in the middle.” But the middle, we now know, is precisely where this truth does not lie.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Independent Commission of Historians was appointed by Federal Minister Fischer in summer 2005, and began its work in 2006 under Federal Minister Steinmeier. I would like to expressly thank both of them for this. The Commission concluded its study this summer, during my term in office. We all share the conviction that both the Federal Foreign Office and our country are best served by the greatest possible openness and transparency. For this is not only the history of an office, it is the history of our country.

The Commission assessed personnel files on a completely unprecedented scale. Classified documents were made available. Personal papers were posthumously released. Members of the Commission were also able to examine previously secret files.

The Commission has criticized the work of the Federal Foreign Office Political Archives. I take this criticism very seriously, precisely because I know how many researchers use the Archive. We will carefully review the Commission’s arguments, and will take the necessary and appropriate steps in response.

Our task now is to decide what steps should be taken in the Federal Foreign Office in light of the findings of this study.

What sort of remembrance should an institution with such a history engage in?

Which portraits of former ambassadors should be put on display?

How should the Office deal with obituaries for former employees?

One thing is absolutely clear:

Nazis will not be honoured.

But I see it as a matter of respect that the Federal Foreign Office recognize and commemorate deceased employees who did nothing wrong and who devoted their professional lives to serving our country.

The guiding principle is as simple as it is clear: the rule of law accords justice to the individual.

In light of the Commission’s findings, we will consult external experts in all cases in which there is doubt.

I have established a working group under the leadership of State Secretary Ammon, which will address all of these issues without delay.

I am pleased that the historians have agreed to attend an event tomorrow to discuss with the members of the Federal Foreign Office the findings of their study and the possible initial consequences to be drawn from it.

I have come to the conclusion that in future the culture of remembrance of the Federal Foreign Office must devote more attention to honouring those who as resistance members, emigrants, victims of persecution and career-switchers helped build up the new Foreign Service after 1949. We must not forget these men and women, who gave their good names to helping the young Federal Republic find its way back into the international community in the wake of the Holocaust.

These employees stood for a Germany where the pursuit of German interests was bound to immutable values, to freedom, democracy and inalienable human dignity. These values remain our compass.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The obligation to “promote world peace (...) in a united Europe”, as enshrined in the Basic Law, provides the foundation for our Republic’s foreign policy.

This was the spirit in which Konrad Adenauer firmly anchored the Federal Republic in the West and took the critical first steps towards reconciliation with Israel.

This was the foundation on which Willy Brandt pursued his Ostpolitik, for which he was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Based on this reliability the Federal Republic of Germany under Foreign Minister Walter Scheel became a member of the United Nations.

These were the values that developed the trust which brought Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher the historic achievement of German unity and European integration.

The Foreign Service has contributed vitally to the reputation of the Federal Republic of Germany as a peaceful, open and democratic country. This too is a part of the history of this place and its people.

That’s why I attach great importance to the presence here today of the future generation of young diplomats.

My young colleagues, you are starting your careers in a place with a history full of vicissitudes. You have to know this history, including its darkest chapters.

Whoever does not know the past cannot take from it any lessons for the future. This is true of the Foreign Office, it’s true of politics, it’s true of the entire country and of society as a whole. That’s why the study “The Foreign Office and the Past” will in future be a permanent component of the training of German diplomats.

In the course of your career you will help shape foreign policy on the basis of the trust that has been built over six decades of German peace policy.

Do this work with the full knowledge of the past of our Federal Foreign Office. Do not forget what a precious commodity the trust that is now accorded to Germany is. Work to help keep our country a valued partner worldwide on the basis of this trust.

Thank you for your attention.

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