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Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the exhibition "Peaceful Revolution 1989/90" at Alexanderplatz in Berlin

07.05.2009 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Mayor Klaus Wowereit,
Members of the German Bundestag,
Minister of State Neumann,
Mr van Dülmen,
Mr Sello,
Wolf Biermann,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Twenty years ago today, on 7 May 1989, local elections took place in the GDR. The state rigged the elections – as usual. The election fraud was covered up by state-controlled media – as usual. The only goal was to retain power for the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/Socialist Unity Party of Germany) and its Common Front of Anti-Fascist Parties – as usual.

But then something different happened: Just before 6 p.m. people in three East Berlin districts and at many other locations across the country insisted on their right to a public count of the votes.

Today we know, and this exhibition clearly shows us, that this effort to ensure free elections – the fundamental prerequisite for any democracy – was the beginning of the end of the SED-led totalitarian state. It was the endgame, or "Endspiel", as the book by Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk is called.

The GDR was vanquished by active citizenship.

This exhibition commemorates the protagonists of the peaceful revolution. And it rightly shows that they were not, first and foremost, just the few individuals recorded in our history books. Rather, they were courageous citizens of the GDR – thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of them.

And it wasn't just in 1989 that this movement began, but much earlier. I consider it very important that today's exhibition pays special tribute to this beginning – for two reasons.

Firstly, because this exhibition also reminds us of the many courageous individuals who were nevertheless defeated by the SED system. The years of persecution and privation these people had to suffer! Without them, 1989 would not have been possible.

But today's exhibition also reminds us of another reason to remember how the peaceful revolution started: The events of 1989 were born out of a spirit of social awakening and civic engagement, which was alive in both parts of Germany.

Allow me to mention three examples of this tradition.

Peace, disarmament, a Europe without nuclear weapons – it wasn't just Robert Havemann who called for these things. These were also the objectives of groups in West Germany. And now that Barack Obama is governing the United States, we finally have a chance to make significant progress towards these goals!

Environmental destruction, the dangers of nuclear power and a commitment to protecting our planet – these were the main issues for environmental groups in the East and West.

And finally, taking an openly critical stance towards state authority and rules that refused and prohibited not only political participation, but also freedom of opinion. Many of us from the West do not know how important the theatre, literature and the cinema were for the peaceful revolution of 1989. Political cabaret, too! Just a few days ago I honoured Peter Ensikat and Wolfgang Schaller for their work in the East and the West. And we shouldn't forget visual art from the GDR, which is unfortunately not on display in the wonderful exhibition currently at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Peace, democracy, a culture of freedom. These are three roots underlying the events of 1989.

These roots are strong. And they are roots we should remember – especially today.

Commemorating means remembering. But celebrating a commemorative year doesn't mean we should wallow in our memories. Instead, especially in times of crisis, we should draw on these memories as a source of strength for a new beginning.

For we have not reached the end of the path to freedom. We want and need to follow the path further so that we and our children can continue to enjoy a life of openness, tolerance and solidarity in Germany.

Particularly in times of crisis, it is important to remember that a democratic society can only exist if the basic principles of fairness and justice are observed. And unfortunately here I have to refer to the recent events of 1 May – this principle applies especially to minorities! It is completely unacceptable that people who look different are harassed on the streets and have to fear for their lives.

Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. And it also means freedom for everyone regardless of their cultural background.

We know that the "successful democracy" enjoyed by the Federal Republic of Germany, a phrase coined by historian Edgar Wolfrum, did not fall into our lap, nor is it guaranteed to endure in perpetuity. Not even by our constitution, the Basic Law, which we can rightly be proud of and whose 60th anniversary we will celebrate in two weeks.

The Basic Law provided direction then and continues to provide it now. But a liberal democracy is not something you inherit, it's not something to be taken for granted. Rather, democracy lives from the participation of the people. It must be defended and buttressed anew every day.

Willy Brandt once said, "Nothing comes from nothing and there is little that lasts."

He was referring to everything that we tend to take for granted: peace, freedom and democracy. The year 1989 also reminds us that democracy did not just fall from the heavens. It is the result of a hundred-year struggle waged by people who fought and suffered for it.

I have to emphasize this here. Not because this struggle is intrinsically linked with the social democrat movement. That is true, but it's not what I'm here to discuss today.

I'm thinking instead of Willy Brandt because especially here in Berlin and particularly in this anniversary year we should pay tribute to the contributions he made to democracy, unity and freedom. Because across party lines and physical borders his name stands for these values. Especially for our Eastern European neighbours. And, in turn, because we Germans also have so much to thank our Eastern European neighbours for in our own history.

The striking workers in Gdansk and the Polish labour union Solidarnosc, the supporters of Charter 77 in the CSSR (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic), all of the brave dissidents in the so-called brother countries, the courageous Hungarians who tore down the Iron Curtain in the summer of 1989!

It is this exhibition's achievement to pay tribute to them.

But moreover, it reminds us of our own responsibility to stand up for freedom and justice!

We need shared memories, not just for the sake of having them, but to guide us. That is why it is so difficult to transform remembrance into a monument made of stone or glass, as we saw at the beginning of this week.

"He alone deserves his life and liberty who every day must fight for them," Goethe wrote in Faust II, which I recently had the pleasure of seeing in a wonderful performance at the Deutsches Theater.

That is what we should remember when we reflect on the events of 1989.

And it is thanks to those whose courage brought down the Wall that we have this memory.

Thank you very much.

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