Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on awarding the Bonn International Democracy Prize to Vaclav Havel, 24 April 2009

24.04.2009 - Speech

Bärbel Diekmann,

Karel Schwarzenberg,

Hans-Dietrich Genscher,

Erich Bettermann,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

but above all, Vaclav Havel,

On 1 September 1948 the authors of the German Basic Law met here, in the atrium of the Museum König in Bonn, to begin their work.

What better location could there be to award the inaugural Bonn International Democracy Prize than here, the birthplace of the second German republic?

Who, indeed, could be a better recipient of that Prize, particularly in this special anniversary year 2009, than Vaclav Havel?

He stands like almost no other for the spirit of 1989 – fearless civic-mindedness, a belief in the liberating power of words, and a pan-European perspective which transcends ideologies, blocs and walls.

My generation, and I myself, were in political terms strongly influenced by the policy of détente which Willy Brandt helped formulate and which changed our country and our continent. Although this fact is sometimes forgotten, the events of 1989 would not have happened without the Helsinki Process, and therefore I'm delighted to see that Hans-Dietrich Genscher is among today's guests.

It was no coincidence that the Czech answer to that policy of détente was called Charter '77, and as students we saw ourselves as part of that era's critical youth and felt a deep sense of solidarity with the courageous people in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR.

In addition we hoped, with them, that democratic awakening and a new sense of civic-mindedness and pan-European responsibility would lead to a united, peaceful Europe.

I've often talked to my friend Karel Schwarzenberg about what fascinated us in the West at that time. There was certainly one element – the new dimension of cross-border societal cooperation.

We young students thought of ourselves as part of a European Left, as opposed to the Communist orthodoxy in the East and the intellectual “parroters” in the West, and we felt that in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern bloc countries the voice of democracy and freedom rang loud and clear, a voice which you used as clearly as almost no-one else, Vaclav!

In November 1989, when you stepped into the global limelight on that balcony in Prague's Wenceslas Square, no-one, not even you, knew how things would turn out. You often said later that you were fearful to the end that the Communist rulers might after all take violent action against this public uprising.

It is true that the Berlin Wall had already fallen without Soviet tanks being sent out to prevent it, but in Prague it still took courage to call for freedom of the press, assembly, travel and speech, to demand respect for human rights and criticize violations, and to insist on the separation of powers and an independent judiciary.

For you, Vaclav, these demands were quite obvious, and as Charter '77's spokesman you had never called for anything else. But now you were speaking to half a million people. A whole nation was now behind the demands for which you had earlier spent five years in jail.

The power of your words and your credibility made you unassailable. The formerly all-powerful leadership had no choice but to proclaim you as the country's new President.

In this way, Vaclav, you became what you never intended to be, a politician and even a hero – a “shining icon”, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung later put it, “in which word and truth, spirit and power, politics and morality come together”.

It was literally a fairytale rise to power, almost surreal, so much so that even you as a dramatist would have had difficulties turning it into one of your wonderful, absurd plays: Public Enemy No. 1 as President, the poet as actor, the thinker as a political helmsman – what a breathtaking reversal of roles!

But it wasn't a reversal of character, because even in your country's highest office you remained true to yourself: You said the same things as you did when you were in the opposition, more diplomatically perhaps with passing time, but nevertheless outside normal practice. Even as an “enemy of the state”, you contrasted “living a lie” with “living in truth”, and you remained true to yourself, also as President.

In your first New Year's Address as President you took up the urgent and at the same time sensitive issue that had occupied you in all those years – what effects the “conflict line” between lies and truth had on each individual citizen.

“We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought,” you said, and that “we had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it ... ... None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators”.

In the end, however, the old Hussite motto was proved right:

“The truth will conquer.”

Let me clear up a misunderstanding: I still don't know how some journalists decided to compare you, Vaclav, with the Czech national hero, the “Good Soldier Svejk”, who outwits all his commanders and survives due to his trickery and flexibility. Vaclav Havel, a goody-goody, a turncoat?

The Süddeutsche Zeitung rightly ridiculed the “media cliché-builders” who thought up this comparison. The article accused them of “failing to see the man behind their (false) stereotype – the ”anti-Svejk“, who tried as much as he could to rid his countrymen of their tendency towards toadyism and pragmatism”.

I agree: As President, Vaclav Havel didn't say what his people wanted him to say. He tirelessly reminded Czechs and Slovaks of the virtues which they had demonstrated so impressively during the heady period of the peaceful revolution, even at the risk of being made fun of as a moralist and having his powers undermined by his ever-growing band of counterplayers.

Vaclav, you were and still are a man searching for truth and real life, a moralist, even as a politician, and as such an example to us all! I, like you, believe that cynicism in politics and political journalism undermines the very foundations of our democracy. This too is part of the lasting heritage of 1989!

Vaclav, we Germans in particular owe a great deal to you.

From the beginning you personally did all you could to lessen the tension in our two countries' relations, weighed down as they were since the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and the subsequent expulsion of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs. Only a few days after taking office you travelled to Germany, not just anywhere but to Munich, the place where in 1938 Hitler, with the help of the Western Allies, announced the end of Czechoslovakia. You then invited President Richard von Weizsäcker to a return visit to Prague Castle, not just on any date but on 15 March, the day on which Hitler took possession of the Hradcin in 1939. Here, in this historic location, you gave the speech which can be seen as marking the turning point in German-Czech relations. You also clearly described the fate of the expelled Germans, their suffering and unjust treatment.

“I myself and many of my friends condemn the post-war expulsion of the Germans”, you said. “It has always seemed to me to be a totally immoral act which damaged not only the Germans but perhaps to an even greater degree the Czechs themselves.”

With gestures like these you became the architect of the reconciliation expressed in the Good-Neighbourliness Treaty of 1992 between unified Germany and Czechoslovakia and in the German-Czech Declaration of 1997. For this, too, we honour you today.

At the same time we recall one of your visions which is still to be realized. In your speech on your award of the Charlemagne Prize in 1991 you said that it was a “fact that no future European order is thinkable without the European nations of the Soviet Union, which are an inseparable part of Europe, and without links to that great community of nations the Soviet Union is becoming today”.

Many of these nations have now drawn closer to Europe, indeed some are today EU members, but the epochal task of creating a pan-European peace order which includes Russia has yet to be completed.

Even if we don't always agree on how to achieve that goal, we do agree on the goal itself and are keen to realize it, as the era of bloc confrontation is over for good. The way forward can and must only be that of cooperation!

Dear Vaclav,

A few weeks ago, as President Obama travelled to Prague on his first trip to Europe, he expressly wanted to visit you as a special highlight during his packed programme. Not only for Americans but also for us Germans you are and remain a symbol of the peaceful revolution of 1989!

Many of the principles which culminated in that revolution are just as valid and just as important as a guide to action today, 20 years later in a changed world. We need for example, to think outside the proverbial boxes; to seek dialogue, not confrontation; to cooperate irrespective of differences; to use power responsibly – as well as nurturing freedom and democracy!

Vaclav, as President you promoted these principles in your many speeches and interviews; indeed, you constantly lived by them. For this we would like to express our gratitude and respect. We bow in respect before you, Vaclav Havel, a great European statesman!

Thank you.

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