Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler at the ceremony to mark the Day of German Unity Hamburg, 3 October 2008

09.10.2008 - Speech

Not long ago I was in Saxony-Anhalt, visiting the Burgenland District on the Unstrut River.

We took a walk through a number of small villages that all have one thing in common: their residents had joined together to save their churches from falling into ruin.

These efforts had started back in the mid-eighties; the GDR was still in existence. But the regime had neither the inclination nor the means to invest in small churches, and the Evangelical Church was too hard-up to do so.

So people could look only to each other for help. Parishioners teamed up with people who were not church members at all. Together they vowed to keep the church in the village.

“Why actually did you do it?” I asked them. “We couldn't let our church simply fall into ruin,” they replied. “It belongs to us. It's part of what we call home, after all, it's part of our history.”

The residents of Burgenland District in Saxony-Anhalt have preserved more than walls, stonework and towers. They have preserved something that makes life worth living, that inspires confidence in the future. Knowing others were here before us and we'll take care of what they left behind; knowing others will come after us whom we expect also to find and preserve our legacy – that in essence is what's needed if we're to remain a nation that values culture.

Eighteen years ago today we knew the division of Germany was finally over and done with. The oppressive GDR regime was no more. Through the actions of its own citizens the Wall had collapsed like a pack of cards.

Despite everything that happened in the aftermath, despite everything that went well and everything that went wrong, this unity achieved through peaceful and valiant struggle – what a boon it remains to this day, what a blessing for our fatherland!

The GDR is now history. Let's not forget, however, that the life-stories of people in the GDR are a record of so much more than the system and its perversities. Most people worked hard and achieved a great deal; they looked after one another, they shared good times and bad times. There was happiness, success and fulfilment in the GDR. Not because of, but in spite of communist party dictatorship. That's why for all who led their lives in the GDR without incurring blame I call for recognition and respect.

Then came the watershed events of 1989 – and new challenges thick and fast. I was in the midst of it: And looking back let me say it was practically impossible to know what was the right decision to take at any given moment as we headed down the path towards unification. So it's time we stopped pretending we took only right decisions.

My impression is that people in eastern Germany today greatly welcome the progress that has been made, take pride in what they have achieved and have confidence in their own abilities. Of course some things take longer than anticipated and of course there've been hardships and disappointments – and there still are. But anyone taking a good hard look can see we've come a long way. Perhaps not quite as far as some had hoped in the initial euphoria. Yet in reality we have made much greater progress than some people think – or are willing to concede. And I believe the experience of working together on this common project has also made us more mature.

I'd like to tell you about regions in both eastern and western Germany that had huge problems to contend with. I was in Rostock, Bitterfeld and Gotha, I visited Selb and Zweibrücken. In all these places I saw for myself what it means when the biggest employer shuts down overnight. The academics call it structural change. For those affected it means gnawing worry – and in many cases the loss of their jobs and a new start elsewhere. But these cities also demonstrate with what energy and determination people respond to the challenges they face.

Today Rostock's port is busier than it ever was in GDR times. Bitterfeld is once again an important centre for the chemicals industry. For the next two years Gothaer Fahrzeugtechnik's order books are full, thanks especially to its welders, who are simply top-class. With its porcelain industry in decline, Selb in Upper Franconia is now investing in a modern plastic products industry. And following the departure of the US forces, Zweibrücken in Rhineland-Palatinate has made a virtue of necessity: the former base now houses a university of applied sciences as well as a number of companies that are thriving and providing new jobs. And everywhere people told me it was difficult, it was tough going, but things are now looking up again.

As these examples show, there's now a measurable trend in the right direction. The German economy has recovered its strength, it's once again internationally competitive and that will also help us through the current financial crisis. The strenuous efforts of recent years have produced another most welcome result: the fall in unemployment. There's no denying that some employees had to accept tough changes and sometimes also jobs that were pretty insecure. Our goal of course is good jobs for everyone. And we'll continue to make a specially determined effort to reduce unemployment in eastern Germany, which is still twice as high as in the west. That's why eastern Germany remains in need of special support. I'm very glad there's a cross-party consensus on this.

Heaven knows a great deal still remains to be done in our country, despite the good progress made to date. One thing we've learnt from experience: The best way to cope with change that we can't stop is our own agenda for change that is well-conceived, bold and enjoys broad support.

So in future, too, a willingness to roll up our shirtsleeves, drive and commitment will be crucial – qualities countless people up and down the country demonstrate day in, day out. But such energy needs also some kind of anchor. From time to time it must be replenished, it needs some sense of direction, some gauge of quality and even, on occasion, a measure of solace, too. All this we find in our culture.

Our culture is a storehouse of memories, experiences and all we have learned. In this storehouse we're constantly busy, we're forever tidying up, stumbling on things we'd forgotten, putting other things aside. We ponder what's worth keeping, what's out-of-date, what should best be forgotten. We wonder if we've learnt anything we didn't know before, if we've forgotten something important. We wonder where we should be heading.

Culture nurtures our creativity, imagination, love of beauty, flashes of inspiration. It's a wellspring of energy and creative impulses. It allows us to sense more clearly our own potential, for it shows us how people can – thank goodness – follow their own different and highly individual inclinations and time and again come up with something new and unique.

Individuals can express themselves in so many different ways, in visual images, words or music. By viewing the world from a new perspective and exploring it through drama, film or fiction. By using poems, plays, paintings and songs to address themes of joy and sorrow, pain and happiness, conflict and reconciliation.

People who've grown up with no exposure to this culture – and of course early childhood's the best time to start – find it much harder to express their thoughts and feelings, develop their own personal style. They're also more likely to find themselves alone and without friends – and at worst will also be much less capable of treating other people and cultures with respect.

A lack of culture may lead to all kinds of barbarity. But as we Germans know best of all, to be cultured of itself grants no immunity against perverted ideologies. We have learned the importance of doubting, and that I see as a strength – provided it spurs us to try even harder.

To be cultured means being able to recognize differences and accept them. People who are conscious of their own culture feel connected both to the past and the present. They know everyone else in the world has the same right to feel at home in their own culture. Culture gives people a sense of inner security, and that's why they can live and let live, that's what makes people tolerant and truly free.

Our culture, we realize, is one of those things that shape the lives of all of us in Germany and forges a common bond. And we're realizing that anew very clearly, now our country is reunited. Once again we can tangibly sense we're one nation, whole and undivided, whose common culture permeates our lives.

The Frauenkirche in Dresden and Cologne Cathedral, the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig and the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Bauhaus in Dessau and the Ulm School of Design – they're all part and parcel of this heritage. Goethe belongs to both Frankfurt and Weimar, Schiller to Marbach and Jena. And when we think of Martin Luther, the man who, more than anyone else, left his indelible mark on the language we all speak, we must mention both Wittenberg and Worms.

Even during those years we were a divided nation, by the way, there were – unknown to many – a number of joint projects which helped preserve our common heritage and were taken forward in both parts of the country. The German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in Halle on the River Saale, a centuries-old association of scholars from eastern and western Germany as well as all over the world, recently became our first National Academy of Sciences. Other projects were the New Bach Edition, which was completed last year, and the work on the new national edition of Schiller's complete works, which should be finished next year.

In the GDR there were special state security – “Stasi” – agents who, in all seriousness, called themselves “arts and culture defence officers”. Yet the very first text in the GDR's quasi-official “German Reader” published in 1976 was Luther's hymn “God is our hope and strength” based on the 46th Psalm. Even the GDR had to concede the Christian tradition was part of German culture.

Today we no longer need carefully planned tactics or delicate operations to preserve and care for Germany's cultural heritage. This is something countless people brimming with enthusiasm and ideas do all the time – in school bands, literature courses, theatre groups, orchestras and choirs, or by organizing street and neighbourhood festivals or running thousands of websites on the Internet.

A nation that values culture needs this creativity, this shared heritage. High culture is what nurtures us. But we're nurtured just as much by the culture we encounter as we go about our daily lives. A nation that values culture owes its strength and vitality also to things that are a matter of course, everyday experience – and should remain exactly that. It thrives on respect in our dealings with one another, friendship between young and old, courtesy and considerateness towards others, tolerance towards different life-styles, respect for public property as well as fairness and decency across the board. I think we need to watch out here. Some tendencies we see we ought not to get accustomed to.

What makes us a nation that values culture is our fellow citizens' enthusiasm, commitment and creative talent. That requires support and space to develop – and that's what we need to provide. To my mind, the final report of the German Bundestag's enquête commission on “Culture in Germany” has made a host of good and practical suggestions on how this might be done. Never before has Germany's cultural landscape been portrayed in such detail. So let me take the opportunity today to thank the parliamentarians as well as all the experts involved very much indeed.

There are major challenges ahead for our nation. One challenge is jobs, which we need to create. Another is education, which must give everyone a fair chance. Integration, too, is a challenge: forging bonds between the country and the town, east and west, old and young, poor and well-off, native-born and those with roots in distant lands.

There's no need to be afraid of these challenges. In the recent past – after 1945 and 1989 – we successfully tackled far greater challenges.

Let me point out, too, that we've not even mobilized as yet all those who will help us meet these new challenges. I'm thinking, for example, of our energetic and experienced older citizens, who could and should play a much bigger role in the world of work and also in the life of our community. And I'm thinking of Germany's women, for whom equal opportunities at work, in their careers and in the family are still not the reality they should be. Gender equality, by the way, is one of the most attractive things our culture has to offer talented and hard-working people from other parts of the world.

And there's another important source of orientation and strength that we haven't really drawn on as yet: the conviction that a nation is more than just a group of people living under the same roof or a mutual insurance society; the conviction that we as a nation and state have a task that extends beyond the here and now, a large task and a demanding one, but one that is feasible, worthwhile and made to measure for us.

So why don't we ask ourselves what's actually good about being German. The main thing, I think, is that we've learned from history and we go on learning. The ability to learn has become part of our culture, our national character. We are curious without being indiscreet, we take a serious interest in the world around us. When we see people elsewhere doing things differently, we are intrigued, not condemning. However diverse nations may be, we're keen to discover what common cause unites us and we strive to ensure it benefits us all. Secure in the knowledge of our abilities, we remain equable and modest. Those perpetual swings between euphoric jubilation and deepest depression we can put behind us. Let's simply rise to whatever the occasion demands, use our good sense and cool judgement to improve what needs improving here at home, help people elsewhere and make the world a better, more wholesome place.

Our nation is free and politically united. Our borders are secure, we're surrounded by friends and partners. We enjoy prosperity such as few can match, we stand up for democracy and the law. We're now finding our true selves.

That's reason to rejoice, something to celebrate!

We've no call to make ourselves bigger than we are. Or smaller, for that matter. So providing responsible leadership in Europe is something I believe we mustn't shy away from either. That's not at all what our European partners expect of us. Such responsible leadership means we must speak up in the European Union for what we, the German nation, want; we must keep our own house in good order and be ready at all times for a fair give-and-take with our partners. Let's have confidence in our own and Europe's abilities. The world needs the European model, especially in these times of global turmoil.

To voluntarily stand up for one another, to shoulder responsibility and see this as fulfilling, not burdensome: all over the country that is an attitude I frequently encounter. Let me give you an example, an example from western Germany, one to do with children and the music of the future:

Not long ago I was in Gelsenkirchen to lend my support to the campaign “An Instrument for Every Child”. If everything works out, over the next few years all primary school children in the Ruhr region will have the chance to learn a musical instrument. In 2010 Essen and the Ruhr will be European Capital of Culture and this is one of the most wonderful ideas I've yet come across for celebrating it.

When the new school year began, 46 children from the Don Bosco and Martin Luther Primary Schools were given an instrument, completely free of charge. Over half were from immigrant backgrounds. But wherever they came from, they were all equally thrilled and eager to learn.

As we all know, our next young generation will – to a much greater extent than now even – be a generation with roots in distant lands. It's going to be a great but also a very rewarding task, as I see it, to win their hearts and minds for our nation and our culture. The whole process is clearly going to change us, too, for it will mean assimilating even more traditions, backgrounds, religious convictions, talents and family histories. Of course this can in no way compromise our love of freedom, our commitment to individual responsibility, the pursuit of happiness and respect for human dignity and universal human rights. We can have confidence in the power of these values.

All over Germany people are joining together to keep our culture vibrant and thriving. This shows how much they care about our culture – and also that we as a nation will strive to ensure it merits such care and devotion. Let's all actively care for our country.

God bless our German fatherland.

Related content

Top of page