Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the ceremony to commemorate the 84th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland

01.09.2023 - Speech

“We all have a need to be a human being. A human being with dignity.”

These words were spoken to me almost a year ago by a 96-year-old woman, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery. I don’t know if they were friends, but she fought in the resistance with Anna Świrszczyńska.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska and I stood there at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery and she told me why she took up arms, why she fought, why she built barricades, as we just heard about in the poem.

Tens of thousands of children, women and men are buried in the Insurgents Cemetery ‒ people who rose up against the German occupiers during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and who were murdered by the Wehrmacht and the SS.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska told me why she took up arms as a 17-year old. She said: “I had never held a weapon before! But I thought that if I die, I don’t want the occupiers to take not just my life, but also my dignity, because we all have a need to be a human being. A human being with dignity.”

She fought for this need to be a human being. She survived. Her friends didn’t.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska told me what the German war of annihilation was like ‒ the war that not only began on this day 84 years ago, on 1 September 1939, with the invasion of Poland, but was also a war of annihilation there from the very first day.

And I am grateful to you, Professor Loew, for spelling out just now that with regard to Poland we Germans perhaps have not always seen clearly enough that this was not only an invasion, but a war aimed at annihilating specific groups of people in Poland right from the start.

German perpetrators left a trail of blood from the Baltic region, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to as far away as Greece and further beyond. Not only did the German attackers aim to subjugate Central and Eastern Europe militarily in this war, they also wanted to enslave and annihilate the people and countries there by burning and bombing towns, and by shooting, starving and gassing millions of people.

This was a war against human dignity. For millions of children, women and men in the countries Germany invaded, it was a war against the very essence of what makes us human. This war was started in Poland and deliberately conducted with the aim of annihilating Polish men, women and children. Girls like the then 17-year-old Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.

During this war, Poland lost a fifth of its pre-war population, that is, well over five million people. Five million lives, five million stories, five million futures. Five million times not only the subjugation of a country, but also five million times the loss of the human dignity.

While we were in the cemetery, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska led me to the new memorial that was unveiled just a year ago to commemorate the Warsaw Uprising.

In a very bare, sparsely furnished room, there was a very long table with a map of Warsaw. When you look at the map, the first thing you see is a mass of red. Looking closer, you see that these red patches are made up of many small pins with red heads ‒ one for each person who was murdered there. There were so many pins that it was impossible to count them. You just saw a mass of red.

But each of these pins stood for a human life, for a child, a mother, a father, a neighbour, a baker, a friend who was killed during the Warsaw Uprising, deliberately murdered, deliberately annihilated.

So when we commemorate the invasion of Poland here today on 1 September, we should not only think of tanks and aircraft or of an army’s invasion of one of our neighbouring countries. Instead, we should think of each and every red pin, each and every woman and man, and the 17-year-old girl who not only wanted to defend her country, but also to prevent her dignity and humanity from being taken from her as a Pole.

When I stood there at the cemetery with Wanda Traczyk-Stawska and she took my hand ‒ there is an age difference of over 50 years between us ‒ I felt deeply grateful to be able to stand there as a German thanks to her willingness to reconcile. But as Foreign Minister, I also felt something else, namely once again the profound awareness that reconciliation never ends, as robbing people of their dignity leaves a wound that never completely heals, a wound that is also felt by the next generations.

And just as each of these red pins reminds us of the dignity of a human being, each pin tasks us Germans today and for all time to foster everlasting reconciliation with our Polish neighbours and friends.

As the wounds caused by robbing people in Poland and Eastern Europe of their human dignity always remain, even after generations, so, too, must we maintain our sense of responsibility and reconciliation.

And that is why we are here today, namely to continue putting this reconciliation into practice down through the decades, not by merely gathering once a year, but by speaking in our day-to-day lives with other generations about what was done during the Second World War to our neighbours, to the parents and grandparents of the people who are now our colleagues and friends, and about how we are working together to heal these wounds.

I am very grateful that we can all be here together today; that you, ladies and gentlemen, are here today; and that we, with Minister of State Claudia Roth at the helm, are working to establish a documentation centre on the Second World War and German occupation in Europe. We are also working on setting up a German-Polish House here in Berlin, that is, a memorial site for the victims of the German war against Poland, a site that is also to be a place where people from our two countries can meet every day, as completely normal people, to heal and reconcile; a place where people, be they 96 or 17, can commemorate, talk and understand.

Claudia Roth, this week you presented a key issues paper with Minister of State Anna Lührmann, and with you, Mr Neumärker and Professor Loew, with the aim of furthering this unique project, this German-Polish House. And I am grateful to you, Ambassador, that you are here today and that we are taking this path together.

We need this remembrance work in order to preserve and strengthen a world of humanity and human dignity, as knowing about the crimes of the Second World War and being aware of the crime against humanity that was the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews, show us how incredibly grateful we can be that we now live in a Germany, a Poland, a Europe and a world order in which humanity and human dignity are protected, with these values forming the foundation for our reconciliation and healing.

Article 1 of Germany’s Basic Law states that “Human dignity shall be inviolable.”

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.”

And Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

All of this, from the Basic Law to the United Nations, seems like a matter of course to us today, as we, my generation, have never known anything else. But democracy and freedom, peace and European integration, international law and human rights did not automatically fall into our laps over the course of history.

Brave people fought for these things and achieved them for us. Brave people found the strength to reconcile.

We saw this after 1945 when former enemies accepted the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR back into the international community and welcomed them into the UN and, in the case of West Germany, into the European Community.

We also saw this in 1989 when our East European neighbours, particularly Poland, rose up against the dictatorships on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, before the brave people in East Germany did so, and then reached out their hands to the reunited Germany in a common European Union.

And that is why 1 September is also a good occasion for a German Foreign Minister to underline that we stand today with our neighbours in the same way that they reached out their hands to us after 1945 and supported us in 1989 in our reunification.

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine was a shock for us Germans. Many saw what was happening sooner than we did. The war has taught us that peace, freedom and security in Europe are not a matter of course today either.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska also said the following to me at the cemetery: “At the age of 96, I don’t know how long I have left to live. But since 24 February 2022, I know that it is my duty every day to tell you, the young generation, to do everything you can to support people in Ukraine. Every day, I see the 17-year-olds there and am reminded of how I wanted to defend my human dignity as a 17-year-old.”

That is why I underline that Germany has a special responsibility here.

That is why we will stand firmly with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

And that is why we tell our Polish neighbours today and every day loudly and clearly: Eastern Europe’s and Poland’s security is Germany’s security.

I would like to conclude my speech by sharing something else with you from my visit to Warsaw a year ago. When we were about to leave and Protocol was urgently telling us that we really needed to go to the cars, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska took my arm and said: “No, you can’t go yet, we need to go a bit further. I really want to show you something.”

She took me aside and led me to a small statue made of granite. Maybe some of you can imagine what it was. The statue was of a woman with a shroud. It is dedicated to all mothers who lost children during the Second World War.

And when we wanted to move on, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska said: “No, you haven’t seen the most important part yet. You have to kneel down.” Small gestures sometimes mean the most for reconciliation, so I knelt down and looked at one side of the plinth, where something was written in Hebrew. She said: “Keep going.” On the next side, there was a word in Polish, and on the side after that, one in Russian. As I unfortunately don’t speak any of those three languages, I still didn’t know what the word meant. Then she said: “Go round to the fourth side.” And that was when I saw the word written in German: “Mutter”. Mother.

It was not a matter of course that this word is also written in German at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery, where people grieve with Polish mothers. It was a profound expression of reconciliation.

And Wanda Traczyk-Stawska said to me: “When I saw the pictures from Dresden, years later, the bombed houses in German towns, I knew how much German mothers had suffered, too. I knew then that we need reconciliation so that mothers, regardless of which country they live in, never have to grieve and suffer like that again in the future.”

The suffering of mothers is human suffering. And I think to understand this – that is what counts. What matters is that we constantly remember what it ultimately means to stand up for humanity. And that we remember every day, not only as regards atrocities, but at these very places we are now building ‒ the German-Polish House ‒ that despite all the discussions and differences between people and our countries, we must always see the people involved.

That is precisely what the German-Polish House we are working on together is to stand for. I am grateful for that.

It will stand for a place where one sees people.

A place where we meet as human beings, as women and men, as children, as 17-year-old Germans and 96-year-old Polish women.

A place, a Europe, where the humanity and human dignity of all children, women and men are safe.


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