Speech by Federal Minister Steinmeier at the opening of the Secretariat of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Remembrance

11.03.2008 - Speech

Translation of advance text

It is an honour for me to be with you today to open the Secretariat of the International Task Force for Holocaust Remembrance here in Berlin. Indeed that alone is reason to express our sincere thanks to the representatives of twenty-five member states of the ITF for vesting so much trust in us by making Berlin the headquarters of your institution.

I solemnly pledge:

For us, this trust means an obligation.

The German Government wants to strengthen and further develop the remembrance of the murder of European Jews which originated from Germany. We want to support and promote international research and education initiatives of the ITF.

As political office-bearers and as citizens of this country, we want to shoulder our responsibility especially through cooperation with the ITF, and want remembrance to be a shared trust.

We all know that the memory of the 20th century, the century of war and civil war, industrialized destruction of human life and mass expulsions, remains largely a matter for nation‑states.

During this century, the peoples of Europe have gone through “schools of bitterness”, as Imre Kertesz put it last summer in a moving address during the German Presidency of the EU.

These “schools of bitterness” do not simply fade through time. They need us to work together on and in the memory of our nations. We want to and must keep the memory of these destinies alive. And for that very reason it is perhaps time to open the way for a new kind of remembrance culture. By calling to mind that the bitter memory of past suffering is something we have in common.

We are separated by guilt.

And also today we remember the people in Germany, Europe and across the world who were tortured, murdered and humiliated by Germans.

We are separated by guilt.

Let us not be separated by suffering!

This is a hope that we passed on to Viktor Yushchenko and Jack Terry when we together opened the memorial at the Flossenbürg concentration camp last summer.

Today we should try to make this hope a reality.

For us Germans, this means: particularly by sharing remembrance with other nations, we are shouldering our undivided historic guilt.

Looking particularly to Europe, I believe it is now time to take this step. Every nation recalls its past from its own viewpoint. Yet if we want to move forward with the political project that is Europe, we need a shared focus in the remembrance of our more recent past.

Never again!

It is from this shared focus that we draw our moral identity and the principles behind our political actions – as citizens of Europe and the world.

Such a culture of remembrance, based on the knowledge of what has happened in the past and geared to a better and shared future is not a purely German matter, nor a purely European one.

Israel and also the United States are sharing in our culture of remembrance. Similarly, the interest shown by many non-European nations in the work of the ITF demonstrates the urgent need for historical truth in many parts of the world.

What is more, this need seems to be growing with time. The culture of remembrance which we need to develop is therefore not just joint or transnational in nature. But given the moral principles it generates, it can also lay claim to universality.

In a few weeks we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. And a little later in November, we will remember the 70th anniversary of the Night of the Pogrom in Germany. These are two occasions on which to once more take an honest, unblinkered yet in no way desperate look at the past.

The collapse of all civilized values was followed by what people in the immediate post‑war years could barely hope for, let alone expect: the return of Germany, and indeed European and international policy-making, to civilized and universal values.

Germans in the western part of our country were able to find their place in a post-war order based on freedom. Our gratitude has not waned to this very day.

And this blessing of history places us under an obligation. An obligation to face up to our past. And to my mind, it is fair to say we have taken on this obligation.

Just over two years ago, I visited Israel for the first time. This visit was and remains one of the most important and moving moments in my time as Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany. I was able to sense that our friends feel our country is sincere in dealing with its past.

We want to keep working on this. In the many memorials which were once the backdrops of disgrace and horror and have now become home to remembrance and commemoration, in institutions such as the Topography of Terror Foundation which help us find out more about the perpetrators and their political structures.

Above all however, we can take great joy in a revival of Jewish life in Germany. This is perhaps the most heartening signal for our country.

But we perceive the historic opportunity which I pointed to not just as an obligation towards our own country and its history. Germany bears a special responsibility towards the State of Israel to protect its existence and defend its right to exist. This is one of the cornerstones of German policy.

The active, self-critical and morally compelling reference to our history is a perpetual process which we want to continue to promote and support.

In an interview, the new Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ben-Zeev said a few weeks ago:

“The Germans don't make it easy for themselves and look not only to the future but also to the past. That is very impressive. The people I meet do not look at it from a distance as something that happened long ago, but from within and ask themselves: What can we learn from this? Witnessing this is an emotional and intellectual experience.”

Your words, Your Excellency, confirm us on our arduous path, on which we want to continue. And indeed, we must do so. We continue to observe disturbing indications of persistent anti‑Semitism in Germany. This is something we cannot and will not tolerate.

Perhaps the aggressive, eliminatory anti-Semitism is not even the predominant one at the current time. However, we are increasingly concerned by a highly resentful anti‑Semitism peddled by self‑proclaimed “decent” Germans seemingly taking the moral high ground. People who would take no blame but who clothe their criticism of Israeli policy or of the phenomenon of globalization in anti‑Jewish clichés with a telltale compulsiveness.

Changes in German society at the dawn of the 21st century enjoin additional responsibility upon us. We must be vigilant to ensure that Islamist groups do not feed anti‑Semitic tones into a section of our population which migrated to Germany over 40 years, a population which has never questioned our attitude to our own history and our special relationship with Israel.

Both phenomena – the new highly resentful anti‑Semitism and Islamist insinuations – we will not tolerate. They poison not only the atmosphere in our society but they also undermine its very foundations.

A few years ago the famous Israeli writer Amos Oz, who recognizes what contradictory feelings he has about his own country and discusses them with great insight and honesty, made the following comment to the weekly “Die Zeit”:

“What Israel needs most of all is emotional reassurance. For we feel we're some kind of outcasts, accursed and hated. Such reassurance would cost not a penny, all it takes is empathy. That doesn't require anyone to agree with Israel's policies. But given the difficult situation Israel finds itself in today, such emotional support from Europe would be a real help for the doves and moderate forces here.”

I'd like to say a few words about the nature of this emotional support from Europe. Empathy is much more than just a feeling. It is an expression of European solidarity that transcends national borders. A solidarity that is also tangibly present in the community, that manifests itself in public and culminates in political action.

Remembrance of the Holocaust has today entered a new and critical phase. The survivors are departing the stage. They speak with a natural authority – but their voices are ever fainter.

Not long ago we were vividly reminded of this when on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Angela Winkler read out in the German Bundestag the speech of Czech writer Lenka Reinerová.

Lenka Reinerová herself was no longer up to the journey. For us listeners it was a most poignant moment, for we realized that in future the likelihood of hearing first-hand accounts of survivors would be increasingly rare.

In a few years' time they'll be able to share with us their memories of the past only via various media.

This also means we must meet the challenge of ensuring that in future remembrance does not become something remote and abstract, obscured by the veil of history.

That's precisely why I would also point out here that remembrance is not the passive contemplation of history.

Remembrance is rather a joint exploration of the true nature of our identity and our history.

So the challenge for us political and civil society leaders is to create anew, time and time again, a sound, contemporary institutional framework for remembering the Holocaust, a framework that makes possible the kind of remembrance I have described.

That means initiating new educational approaches and, most importantly, it means making sure that remembrance takes place not just at memorial sites and universities but in the midst of our community – that is what “active remembrance” is all about.

There's also another aspect I would like to look at. Remembrance should be a shared task, I said earlier, but it must be shared in such a way as not to diminish our German responsibility.

We realize of course that different perspectives on history are often both unavoidable and legitimate.

For as Milan Kundera once pointed out, all European nations have a common destiny, but due to their heritage and history each nation experiences it differently.

That's why I say, too, that to view remembrance as a shared task does not imply any attempt to reduce history to a single dimension, let alone a single interpretation, nor in any way to minimize our guilt. In the light of our different perspectives on the past, what we really need to do is embark on a demanding Europe-wide dialogue about our shared history.

We realize there is one thing that unites us at the most fundamental level – “never again”. We know certain events must never, under any circumstances, be allowed to happen again.

Clearly this is the message of Auschwitz – and clearly also what underpins at the deepest level our cultural and political cooperation in Europe.

It is inspired by freedom and humanity's common bonds. And it offers solidarity, a willingness to share. On this basis other countries and continents can engage with us in a joint dialogue about history. Remembrance for us is not some self-contained space – we are keen to share it with others.

In this connection there's another point I'd like to make. Whatever path a nation takes in exploring its own history, it's certainly not one that other nations are obliged to follow. In recent years we Germans have been criticized for believing that wrestling with our history is some kind of moral crusade.

So let me point out again that there are many legitimate ways of coming to grips with the past. But it must happen within a framework of frank, critical and also self-critical debate. Let's call such an open dialogue aimed at fostering an ethos of practical, socially responsible morality “western”, for want of a better label.

A dialogue with such a universal credo is a far cry from any attempt, wherever in the world it may occur, to exploit history for the sake of political gain.

For active remembrance as a shared task requires us to delve deeper into historical facts, not to deny their existence!

That's by no means a matter of course. Let me remind you all of the sorry spectacle of December 2006, when 65 so‑called historians met in Tehran at the behest of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to air all manner of doubts about the circumstances surrounding the murder of European Jewry. And also of the shameful events in Germany, when rightwing extremists proclaimed their support for the Iranian President's views.

Of course the conference's scientific credentials were a sham, but the intention was crystal clear: to play down the significance of the Holocaust and thus call into question Israel's right to existence.

As a denier of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad will never be mistaken for a historian. Yet it is important that we take notice of such shamefully aggressive and ideologically inspired acts – and that we respond with all due clarity.

To take notice and act accordingly is something we are duty-bound to do if we view remembrance as a shared task, a task requiring action in and by the community.

We must do everything possible to ensure our whole nation remains conscious of and sensitive to these issues. Anti-Semitism in Germany, even in some obscure dialectical guise, will not be tolerated. Not just because that's what the law requires but because that's at the heart and core of our moral principles.

I argued earlier that the emotional support Amos Oz urges Europe to give Israel is not a matter of rhetorical gestures but of a certain outlook, a climate within the community.

To preserve this climate intact and enable both ordinary people and policy-makers to live up to their responsibilities, a concerted effort is required by all sections of the community, not just policy-makers and academics but also journalists, writers and educators.

If remembrance is to be a shared task, it must be shared not only in a transnational context but also by the various groups within the community.

The International Task Force for Holocaust Remembrance will, I'm sure, make a key contribution to this endeavour.

And we as Germans want to further enhance our special relationship with Israel. Accordingly, next week our two Governments will be holding a joint Cabinet meeting. That's an indication of how strong our mutual trust is and how closely we cooperate.

But we want to go still further. In the economic, the scientific and the cultural field. This year the German-Israeli Future Forum, a foundation established by the previous Federal Government, will now be starting work. It will further intensify exchanges between our two countries. But above all it will engage in what I have called active remembrance – which means shaping our common future.

In this shared endeavour we must all play our part!

Thank you very much.

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