Opening Address by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the event entitled “Crossing 68/89. Reform and Revolution in Prague and Berlin”

30.05.2008 - Speech

“Art and Revolt - The Artistic Inheritance of ’68” – that is the title of an exposition currently shown at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. On this occasion Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on 30 May gave a speech about protest, reform and cultural upheaval between Prague and Berlin.

Jirí Dienstbier,

Jirí Gruša,

Lionel Jospin,

Adam Michnik,

Oskar Negt,

Friedrich Schorlemmer,

Members of the German Bundestag,


Klaus Staeck,

Hortensia Völckers,

Gert Weisskirchen,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me start by warmly thanking the German-Czech Discussion Forum, the Centre for Contemporary History Research Potsdam, the Sophiensäle, the Academy of the Arts and particularly of course the German Federal Cultural Foundation for inviting me to today's event.

Today we want to take an outside look at the two core dates – 1968 and 1989. This attempt bears the risk that some people here in Germany might see and indeed interpret the situation falsely. Our joint work expressly does not exclude this risk! Looking at the subject from outside allows different perspectives, the first of which can and indeed must be European. We want to use that perspective to remind ourselves that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany's reunification and Europe's integration would not have been imaginable without the civil courage, bravery and solidarity of people in Central and Eastern Europe!

One of the slogans shouted from Hungary to Romania, during the 1989 demonstrations, was “We are Europe”. We Germans owe a great deal to this European hope, and there is still a task therein today for us.

This is because 2009 marks the anniversary not only of the fall of the Wall but also of the 2004 EU enlargement. Not only are both events inextricably linked, but they also call on us to make sure that Europe remains a continent of civil courage, freedom, democracy and participation.

For that reason I say, both as foreign minister and as a German European, that on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall we should pay special tribute to the striking workers in Gdànsk, to the courageous politicians and people of Hungary who cut through the Iron Curtain in 1989, to our Czech friends, without whom the refugees in the Prague embassy would never have been able to leave for the West, and especially all those who made 1989 possible by fighting, since the 1960s, for freedom and civil rights, democracy and solidarity, and for a united Europe.

In this sense the upheaval symbolized by the year 1968 forms part of our European heritage, one we should not only cherish but also use in tackling our current challenges!

Adam Michnik, Jirí Gruša, Jirí Dienstbier, Friedrich Schorlemmer and Oskar Negt represent the many others whose dedication as citizens, citoyens, illustrates the link between 1968 and 1989, and for that reason I want to warmly thank them. It's a great honour for us to welcome you here today!

Ladies and gentlemen, this brings me to a second aspect made visible by today's change in perspective from 1968 to 1989 – there are links leading, admittedly with false and roundabout routes, above all in Western Europe, from the social upheaval of the 1960s to the peaceful revolutions of 1989, from which we should draw courage for the challenges facing us today. Courage to take civil action, to fight for participation and justice, not only in Europe, and courage to shape the major tasks before us!

Far too few people, at least here in Germany, change their perspective from 1968 to 1989.

For those reading German newspapers or watching German TV, 1968 means policemen swinging batons, water-cannon and demonstrators who shouted “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh!” and saw Che Guevara as a kind of new Messiah, when they weren't demolishing university lecture theatres, that is.

Analyses of these events thus mostly feature, on the one side, old men who look back fondly on their youth and who, at least verbally, want to prove that they're still the “streetfighting men” in the Rolling Stones song. In the other corner, we have those who always thought, or who were later converted to the view, that 1968 was the West's downfall and who, as the French President once said, want to “liquidate the heritage of May 1968”.

Therefore they view history without social upheaval, 1968 and the subsequent years, preferring to draw an unbroken line of tradition in Germany from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl.

Those championing this theory are of course troubled by those whom Willy Brandt called “left and free” and by the realization that in our society, too, there is a line of tradition of fighting for civil rights, participation and democracy, of upheaval leading from the 1960s to 1989. In Germany this tradition is linked in particular with Brandt and Bahr, Genscher and Heinemann.

This social democratic and liberal tradition certainly has nothing to do with the false theories of the Trotskyites, Maoists, Stalinists and all the rest, for whom Social Democrats were traitors in the class war.

There are countless examples of such people, and here in Berlin I can perhaps name Richard Löwenthal and Uwe Wesel by way of illustration.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to clarify this connection between “left” and “free”, which in my view links the European countries to a far greater extent than most of us imagine.

I'm less concerned here with comparing the political circumstances than the similarities in attitude – towards authority and power structures, but also as citizens, as citoyens.

In 1968, never before did a generation seem so united regardless of borders, did aims such as freedom, participation and transparency appear so universal. Questioning political authority, traditional civil norms or private lifestyles, and at times turning them on their heads, formed part and parcel of this joie de vivre. It is therefore no surprise that beat music was banned in the former GDR as early as 1965, or that jeans were a sign of rebellion from Prague to Paris.

“Be realists, ask for the impossible”, was one of the slogans of the Paris demonstrations, and people at that time felt that upheaval was in the air around the world. This spirit was a signal of hope for some, while others regarded it as a threat, and very often it was a mixture of the two. Of course the events of 1968 were only the culmination of a long development. The crises of the old empires, from the colonial powers to the Soviet Union and China, began at the end of the 1950s at the latest, and the 1956 uprising in Hungary, the riots in Poznan and Prague, the wars in Viet Nam and Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, as well as the race riots in the US, were all heralds of change long before 1968.

But it is equally clear that all these trends culminated in that year, from Prague to Paris, from Mexico to Viet Nam.

In this regard transnational relationships and networks were a very new and perhaps decisive factor which evolved outside the traditional, cemented structures and official contacts.

Young people in Europe shouted anti-Viet Nam War slogans coined a few days earlier by US students; the Praxis group in the former Yugoslavia sought a new way forward in cooperation between East and West; the May 1968 demonstrators in Paris called on the Polish government to “free Kuron, free Modzelweski”; the Czech Jirí Pelikan, in 1968 head of state TV, later became an Italian Socialist MEP – all these are elements of new networks and structures that were previously unthinkable.

It is precisely that international, global dimension of civil cooperation which represented a whole new kind of politics. One of the most telling examples of the conservatives' failure to understand these phenomena is still the interjection by the then Chancellor, Kiesinger, in a Bundestag debate on the student movement, “I only say: China, China, China!”

Why am I emphasizing this? It's because I feel it is the beginning of a societal development in which progressive thinking no longer – and this is what counts – takes place within a policy based on the nation-state, very often limited in scope, but rather within civil-society structures. A development which in the final analysis, in Germany, has much to do with the uniting of the Red and Green movements and with our commitment to the 2004 EU enlargement.

The revolt against cemented power structures and lack of social mobility and participation in education and prosperity, as well as the criticism here in Germany about the failure to deal with the dark chapters of our history, went hand in hand with calls for a more modern state and for new civil freedoms – for a process of reducing tension between state and society.

Particularly this year, the 60th birthday of the State of Israel, I feel it is appropriate to remind you that the rehabilitation of German Jewish intellectuals, from Marcuse and Fromm to Wittfogel, would probably never have taken place but for this civil upheaval!

I also don't think the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is too far off the mark to take just these phenomena – self-organization, modernization and the redetermination of freedoms – as the basis for his thesis that 1968, the symbol of these developments, marks the beginning of “civil society”, i.e. a society of committed citizens.

Adam Michnik, whom we are pleased to see here today, recently repeated in an interview that for him 1968 marks the birth of the young Polish democracy.

Here in Germany we were lucky in that large sections of the political class heeded the calls for modernization and reduction of social tensions. In 1969 Willy Brandt was elected Chancellor of the Federal Republic's first Social Democrat-Liberal coalition.

“We'll create a modern Germany” – this Social Democratic election slogan by Willy Brandt meant, and still means, facing up to the past, learning from it and trying to create more civil freedom and participation for the future!

This positive idea of freedom, of the committed citoyen, together with society's intellectual reconciliation with its own roots, would have been impossible in our country without 1968!

Indeed, this upheaval enabled people to reach heights which we today regard as totally normal, but which in those days would still have been almost unimaginable. Without 1968 many biographies – including my own – might have looked completely different.

A new education policy at that time made West Germany a different place. Until then grammar schools, colleges and universities were mainly the preserve of the happy few, but the social-liberal coalition opened them up to the children of less wealthy or well-educated parents.

During the subsequent decades equal opportunity and social mobility became a reality for millions. If we look at the most recent figures, which show that educational success in Germany once again depends on social and also ethnic background, I think it's high time we renewed this Social Democratic promise of participation and modernization.

But Willy Brandt, Gustav Heinemann and Hans-Dietrich Genscher not only began Germany's process of modernization and reducing social tensions; they also, on that basis, initiated a similar process of détente with the countries beyond the Iron Curtain, one which changed these countries from within.

This “golden fish-hook” for democracy and human rights, as it has been described, was “Basket III” of the Helsinki Process – in return for political détente, the signatory States had to declare their commitment to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This not only sounds modern, but is modern policy! Indeed, for that reason I want to say here how much I dislike the new trend towards thinking in blocs, the revival of old animosities, and the opinion that isolation is the beginning of cooperation.

On the contrary, precisely in our globalized world, only through dialogue can we set out our values, find out where the other's pain barriers are, and above all do what's necessary to achieve concrete social improvements, civil freedoms and political and social participation.

At that time some people refused to see this connection – and some still do even today. In the 1970s two parties rejected the CSCE Final Act to the very end – the Albanian Communists and the German Christian Democrats.

It is therefore all the more important for us to draw the right conclusions from this historical experience. Today we know that Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik managed through political rapprochement to launch a process of societal change in the former Warsaw Pact countries!

In the 1980s, the Western European left made the major error of losing sight somewhat of this power to change through realpolitik.

It is all the more true that without 1968 and without the people behind it there would have been no Brandt policy of détente, without Willy Brandt no CSCE process, without the CSCE and 1968 no Gazeta Wyborcza and no civil-rights movements, from Charta in Czechoslovakia to KOR in Poland and the Helsinki Committee in the Soviet Union, which in turn campaigned for civil détente in these countries.

In this way the language of law and civil society became key elements of democratic policy.

Europe became a joint aspiration – from the famous Carpathians walk by Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in 1978 to cooperation within the Visegrad Group after the fall of the Wall.

Not least, Central European dissidents helped, and still help, counter the laissez-faire approach prevalent in the 1980s which misunderstood the concept of freedom!

I think we should pay tribute to this link between 1968 and 1989 by launching a new era, not of blocs but of détente, and by finally using the upswing of the past two or three years to create a new awakening for greater participation and freedom – not only in Europe!

Thank you.

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