Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the German-Polish Forum in Warsaw

19.04.2016 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Foreign Minister, my dear Witold,
Mr Płóciennik,
Ladies and gentlemen of the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation,
Ladies and gentlemen of the German-Polish exchange programmes,
And guests of the German-Polish Forum!

The first steps on the long journey towards German-Polish friendship were taken barefoot.

More than a thousand years ago, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III made his way from Rome to Gniezno. He wanted to visit the grave of his friend and mentor, Adalbert of Prague. Just behind the Bohemian border, on the banks of the river Bóbr, he was met by Duke Bolesław of Poland. Recognising him as his peer, Otto placed his own imperial crown on Bolesław’s head as a mark of friendship. Bolesław then escorted the emperor to Gniezno with plenty of pomp and circumstance. On the last leg of the journey, however, Otto took off his shoes. He entered the city of his new friend and approached the grave of his mentor not as a ruler but as a simple pilgrim – as a human being. So began the long, chequered history of German-Polish relations. It was and remains not a primarily political journey – governments come and governments go – but the journey of two peoples.


Our journey through the centuries certainly did not lead through sunny uplands; it was to take us into the darkest of vales and to the absolute nadir that were the crimes against humanity carried out by Germans in and against Poland. As we look back on our history here in Warsaw today – on the anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising – we will remember those times too.

It is all the more astonishing – actually nigh‑on miraculous – to see where that journey has got to a thousand years after those first steps: to a firm friendship within a united Europe. The 25th anniversary of the German-Polish Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness is certainly cause for celebration – particularly for your cooperative foundation, which has contributed so much to that friendship over the years! And we needn’t feel guilty if our anniversary celebrations this summer seem a bit lavish – back at the Congress of Gniezno a thousand years ago, they sealed their friendship with a feast that lasted several days and which the latest research tells us was extremely rich... let’s just say it wasn’t vegetarian...


As the German-Polish journey has always been a people’s journey, we should mark this anniversary year together as people too; we should approach one another in frank honesty, without political frills – barefoot, if you will. Don’t worry, I’m not about to take my shoes off.

And if we’re honest with one another, we have to admit that, while the 25th anniversary is indeed cause for celebration, it falls in extremely dangerous times. Many Poles feel themselves to be in danger, and so do many Germans. Sadly, there are plenty of reasons to feel threatened:

- International crises are coming at us thick and fast, in Syria, Iraq, Libya – and here, right next door to Poland, in Ukraine.

- The crises are not only creeping closer to Europe, they have arrived among us, represented by the thousands of people seeking refuge from war and violence.

- The inhuman terrorism of “Islamic State” is not only a scourge on the Middle East but has also struck at the heart of Europe.

- Increasing globalisation, the sense that boundaries are dissolving and even European integration – many people in Poland and Germany see these things not as promising developments but as threats.

- The peaceful order painstakingly established in Europe on the basis of the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris has been called into question by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

All of these things instil fear in many Poles and Germans. Most of these fears are common to Poles and Germans, and we have to deal with them all at once. Differences of geography and history sometimes mean we weight these fears somewhat differently. Where this is the case, as it has sometimes been in the matter of how to deal with Russia, we need to talk about it. The important thing is that we take one another seriously. Neither sides’ perception of a threat is more or less justified than the other’s. The only question is how we should respond.


Ladies and gentlemen,

There’s something else happening just now too. Times in which we feel under threat are times when identity politics comes into its own. People fall back on existential questions: who counts as “us”? And who counts as “them”? Particularly at a time when refugees and new arrivals abound, people ask questions like “What does it mean to be Polish?” “Or German?” “Or European?” Naturally, differences come to light at such times, not least with regard to what we expect of Europe. These are times without make‑up. To stick with our metaphor, we are standing here barefoot.

This 25th anniversary is therefore not just a time for celebration. It’s also a test for the German-Polish friendship. A lot depends on our answers. German-Polish relations have not only scaled great heights; they also have a long way to fall – with consequences not only for our two countries but also for Europe as a whole. That’s why I speak of a “German-Polish community of shared responsibility”. People look to politics expecting it to furnish answers, and not just technical answers, measures to take and policies to enact, but also a sense of identity, a touchstone and source of reassurance. And again, we face the question of how to respond.


Some people have very simple answers ready: pull up the drawbridge, shut them out, keep ourselves to ourselves! That’s the easiest way of cementing your own identity – stirring up distrust of outsiders and painting them as the enemy. Such voices do exist, and, sadly, we hear them in Germany and in Poland too. They can also be heard among our neighbours in Europe and in America, where Mr Trump holds forth.

I can only warn them against pursuing a politics of fear. Fear may be an important human reflex, but it is not a good political guide. It is as poor an ally in politics as it is in life.


I would like instead to remind you of a different sentence, a very simple one, which has particular resonance in Poland: “Do not be afraid!”

That was Karol Wojtyła’s motto when he became pope nearly forty years ago. Shortly afterwards, he visited his native Poland. He spoke here in Warsaw, in Piłsudski Square, just a stone’s throw from this room. And he spoke in Gniezno, the town where the German-Polish friendship was born. It was perhaps no coincidence that he celebrated Mass in Gniezno on Pentecost Sunday – a message of understanding and community as opposed to exclusion and fear.

In his Pentecost homily, John Paul II spoke about the meeting between Otto the German and Bolesław the Pole at the grave of Adalbert, who was Czech. He talked about Gniezno being made an archbishopric and about monks arriving from Italy and Ireland. What he was saying was that Poland’s origins are inextricably bound up with the origins of Europe. The Polish identity you are looking for, he said, has been a European identity from the very start.

Today, at a time when people are asking questions about identities – their own, other people’s and shared identities – there is fresh awareness of these long histories. I am therefore particularly glad that an important joint project has just passed its first big milestone. Volume I of the German-Polish history textbook is finished! As I hear, volume I takes us to the end of the 15th century, so pupils in Poland and Germany will hopefully soon be able to check that I haven’t been talking rubbish about imperial footwear. They will also learn that our Bolesław was none other than the son of Mieszko, whose christening was commemorated here is Poland – very festively, I hear – just a few days ago. In other words, the origins of Poland are inextricably linked with the birth of the German-Polish friendship.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Europe we know today is of course very different from that of John Paul II, not to mention Bolesław and Otto III: it is larger, more open, more diverse and certainly no longer purely Christian.

But we needn’t be frightened by that. On the contrary, today’s Europe is undergoing turbulent times and needs Poland to be strong and active. By the same token, we – Germany and Poland – need one another too. We should take heart from Wojtyła’s “Do not be afraid!” and let it spur us on, particularly at times when we find ourselves barefoot!

Our German-Polish community of shared responsibility has plenty to do in many areas:

- In our neighbourhood to the east, in Ukraine, especially now that a new government is having to embark on urgently needed reform;

- In our neighbourhood to the south, with joint projects to deliver humanitarian aid and help stabilise the trouble spots of the Middle East;

- And of course in the realm of security policy, particularly as we prepare the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw.


When it comes to these matters, and the many other issues Witold and I will be discussing today, Europe needs Poland! Throughout history, Poland has often been a courageous torchbearer.

In 1791, for example, the Sejm gave the country 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 climate prompted me to read up on this recently – contains the principles of the rule of law and the separation of powers. I think this shows that these are deep-seated Polish and European constitutional principles, and they should remain so!

Later, John Paul II visited Poland and reignited the spark of freedom that would set not only Poland but the whole of Europe alight. One year after the papal visit, Lech Wałęsa signed the agreement founding Solidarność – with Pope John Paul’s likeness adorning his biro. I personally was well and truly shaken awake by that moment. I was a student at the time, and being pro-Solidarność generated, at least in my political camp, a good deal of turbulence and heated debate which, for me, even broke apart certain political friendships.

Something had come unstuck in East Germany, too. Dietmar Woidke, our Coordinator of German-Polish Intersocietal and Cross-Border Cooperation, unfortunately cannot be with us today. He was doing his national service in the National People’s Army when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981 and his battalion was deployed to back up the Warsaw regime. One night, the siren went. In pitch darkness, Kalashnikov at the ready, he sped with his convoy through the woods of Brandenburg towards the Polish border – and in that moment, Dietmar tells me, the GDR died for him.


Nowadays, a whole new generation is discovering the spark that lies at the heart of our relations – a generation who only know the scars of our history from the memories of other people. More than two and a half million young people have taken part in the German-Polish youth exchange programme since the Good-Neighbourliness Treaty was signed. We couldn’t fit them all into this room today, but I am happy to have two of them as our guests: Franziska and Paul from Dillenburg in Hesse.

Franziska, you have said that you were pretty excited to arrive at your Polish exchange home. You thought it would take a while to settle in. But your host family embraced you in welcome straight away, and the settling in was done. Soon afterwards, you sat in a group of classmates one night and talked in depth about refugee policy. Though I don’t know if you were actually barefoot at the time, you were discussing precisely those existential questions that occupy not only us oldies but your own generation too.

I hope that you – Franziska, Paul and your friends here in Poland – will keep these links to one another alive. In politically difficult times, ties between people become all the more vital. Precisely because Poles and Germans are crucial to Europe, we must be honest and sincere with one another. If we walk our shared road barefoot, we won’t step on each other’s toes. We will clear away the stones that lie in our path.

Thank you very much.

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