“Poland and Germany commemorate 20th anniversary of Round Table Talks: democracy and freedom in Europe” – Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier

09.02.2009 - Speech

Two decades ago – on 6 February 1989 – the first session of the Polish Round-Table Talks opened in Warsaw. The scene was broadcast around the world – and the message it sent as well.

Direct talks between representatives of Jaruzelski's Government and the Opposition linked to Solidarnosc (“Solidarity”)! That was something that caught the attention of the whole world – and especially people in Eastern Europe.

No one could fail to grasp the symbolism of the “round table” – which then really was round.

I still have vivid memories of that time. I had closely followed the events unfolding in Poland since the early eighties – the struggle of the Lenin Shipyard workers in Gdansk, the proclamation of martial law and the campaign of resistance. I was a student at first and later worked as a university academic assistant. We felt strongly with the dissenters calling for freedom. We argued fiercely with the old-style dogmatists who thought reforms could come only from the old guard. For us, too, the winds of change were blowing from Poland.

We sensed the power of the democratic idea, we admired the Polish workers and intellectuals for the courage with which they challenged the ossified regime. It all reminded us of the democratic movement in Germany so abruptly nipped in the bud after 1848. Yet what we were witnessing now raised hopes also for a new democratic order that would end the era of ideological confrontation.

That this movement would cause the collapse of a whole system, however, that this “round table” would be the epicentre of a political earthquake that changed not only Poland but also Germany, Europe and the whole world: that was beyond not only my wildest imaginings.

At the Round Table Talks in Warsaw both sides agreed to hold Poland's first semi-free elections on 4 June 1989. These proved to be a historic turning-point, which spelled not only the end of communist rule in Poland but ultimately also the demise of the whole communist bloc.

By the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall had fallen and in the GDR, too, a Central Round Table was working – successfully, as we know today – to stabilize the situation in the run-up to the first free elections and pave the way for democracy.

In this “annus mirabilis” of European history totalitarian regimes across Eastern Europe toppled. This marked the end of the East-West conflict and the division of Germany and heralded the start of a new phase in European integration.

With good reason Bronislaw Geremek has called the successful struggle people waged for freedom that year a “second founding act” of European unity.

We Germans know how much we owe the Poles for courageously blazing the trail and are deeply grateful.

So I am delighted that today, Mr Mazowiecki, we can together open a joint German-Polish round table.

I am most grateful to you and Lothar de Maizière as well as all Polish and German eye-witnesses here today for agreeing to discuss, together with representatives of the European Youth Parliament and historians, the events of that era – and what they mean for us today. And I would also like to thank the Heinz Schwarzkopf Foundation “Young Europe” for organizing this whole event.

A special word of thanks, too, to the Federal College for Security Studies for the use of its premises here at Schloss Niederschönhausen. I hope our discussions will be inspired by its genius loci, for this, after all, is where the GDR's Central Round Table met from its fourth session in late December 1989 to its sixteenth and last session on 12 March 1990.

The GDR's Central Round Table – and the many regional and local round tables – was inspired by and modelled on the Round Table in Poland.

As in Poland, the Round Table in the GDR was at once the result of and a catalyst for change.

However, for the course of events across Europe in 1989 the first Round Table in Poland was, more than anything else, a catalyst for change. It was a watershed moment for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. So I will confine my brief introductory remarks to the developments in Poland.

The special dynamic of what transpired in Poland is inconceivable without the Solidarnosc factor. Ever since the successful revolt of the Gdansk shipyard workers in 1980, Solidarnosc had been a thorn in the side of the country's rulers in a way that, for a grass-roots movement in Eastern Europe, was quite unprecedented. The significance of the movement's steadfast resistance even under martial law is impossible to overrate.

But that might not have been enough without the tremendous moral authority Solidarnosc acquired thanks to its insistence on non-violent resistance. Even during the difficult period of repression, Adam Michnik called for “dialogue, not confrontation”.

And it was this that made the Round Table possible! It was possible because the more enlightened members of the ruling elite in Poland realized that, with the country in crisis and the regime unable to assert its authority, there was no alternative to dialogue and that repression alone would not solve any problems.

Later on the Round-Table accords became the subject of some criticism, there was talk of a “dirty compromise”.

I look forward to hearing how our eye-witnesses see them in retrospect. But there is much to be said for Adam Krzeminski's view that the Round Table took care of the nitty-gritty of dismantling communism – and did it extremely well.

Of one thing there can be no doubt, however. After the Round Table, after the elections in June and also after the formation of the first non-communist government on 24 August 1989, consummate political skill was required to secure for the democratic forces a progressively greater say in the affairs of state – and to do so without provoking those who still controlled the levers of power. This was the achievement of Tadeusz Mazowiecki in particular.

We owe you, Mr Mazowiecki, and all your erstwhile comrades-in-arms a great debt of gratitude!

Our Youth Parliament guests may be wondering what the lessons of 1989 are for a united Europe in today's world. Others here today are better placed than me to give an opinion on that.

But I will say this. Today once again we are living through a watershed moment for the whole world. Once again the situation holds both perils and opportunities. So the question of the legacy of 1989 is perhaps more relevant than ever.

And as I see it, many aspects of the legacy of 1989, the year of peaceful revolution, are just as valid today and just as important as a guide to action. We need, for example, to think outside the proverbial boxes; to seek dialogue, not confrontation; to cooperate irrespective of differences; to use power responsibly – and use freedom responsibly as well. And above all, we need to be conscious of the power of a shared vision to change the world for the better.

In 1989 we together wrote a new chapter in the history of freedom. And we began also to explore the dark chapters of our history in a new spirit.

This is a process that requires trust, requires empathy with one another and respect for the sensitivities on both sides.

Especially on the sensitive subject of a “Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation” it is crucial that we deal with one another as partners, that we act considerately and predictably.

It is in this spirit that we have discussed the subject in recent years. I would like to thank Professor Bartoszewski in particular for all he has done to prevent this issue casting a pall over or completely stymying the new start now under way.

As the groundwork for the Foundation goes ahead, tact and sensitivity will continue to be very important. And this is something I will do my best to communicate.

Thank you very much.

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