Speech by Guido Westerwelle on the occasion of the presentation of the Walther Rathenau Award to Shimon Peres

27.01.2010 - Speech

-- check against delivery --

President Peres,

Federal President,

Mr Genscher,

Vice-President of the German Bundestag,

Dear fellow Members of the Cabinet and of the German Bundestag,

Dear Members of Parliament,


And, above all, dear Israeli guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the early 1980s, I first visited Israel as a young man. We also went to the mountains of Galilee. Standing on those summits on a clear day, not only sensing but also seeing the Mediterranean in the distance, you suddenly realize something that many books cannot give you a grasp of: namely what a small and vulnerable country Israel is, only a little more than a dozen kilometres wide at one point. How threatened and fragile Israeli society must have felt over the past sixty years. If you have seen what I saw, then you understand this. Seeing is understanding.

Today, I have the special honour of paying tribute to a great statesman of this country, a man who has defined 20th century foreign policy, a man who has witnessed and helped lay the groundwork for our bilateral relations, a friend of Germany: the President of Israel and the recipient of the 2009 Walther Rathenau Award, Shimon Peres.

Mr President,

It is a great honour for us all that you are here today, that you have spent this day with us – following a remarkable, and I believe it will one day be termed historic, speech in the German Bundestag. It is simply marvellous, in the best sense of the word, for it is also a marvel that you are here today, and I am glad that I can witness the occasion. The Walther Rathenau Award, as Michael Gotthelf mentioned in his introductory remarks, is presented for the outstanding lifework of an individual in the foreign policy domain, for exceptional commitment to democracy, international understanding and tolerance.

You, Mr President, impressively meet every one of these criteria. Your political lifework, which spans more than 50 years, is already today awe-inspiring – and it will become even more so considering your tireless commitment, of which I gained an impression during my recent first official visit to Israel.

This award is given in honour of Walther Rathenau, an outstanding personality of the early 20th century, a multifaceted and highly talented man: a visionary who wrote about a just society. Veronica Ferres delivered such an artful tribute with her reading. Through these texts, we have refamiliarized ourselves with Walther Rathenau. He was murdered by right-wing extremists in Berlin on 24 June 1922 – a crime that brought to the fore the rifts that divided Weimar Republic society and that foreshadowed the darkest chapter in German history, which would begin eleven years later.

Large memorial ceremonies were held for the murdered foreign minister in many cities in Germany. According to newspaper reports, more than 200,000 people gathered at the Lustgarten in Berlin alone. As the historian Lothar Gall put it, Rathenau became a democratic folk hero.

Another aspect arose with the frenzied search for Rathenau’s assassins. It is simply not the entire historical truth to only remember the large assemblies and memorial events. It is important to know that the police were repeatedly hampered in their search by statements of supposed eyewitnesses. Sympathisers with the assassins, who looked irritatingly similar in stature and dress to the men being sought with wanted posters, gave investigators false leads. Admittedly, these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, since the two main assassins died during the police pursuit.

And finally: the self-proclaimed Third Reich was not yet a year old when a new memorial was unveiled for the assassins, with a few thousand reichmarks in financial support provided by Hitler’s Reichskanzlei. That was eleven years after the murder. And we know which side the deeply-divided society ultimately chose to stand on – at that time.

Mr President,

It was only after the Second World War that we learned to pay fitting tribute to the historic achievements of Rathenau. For us, it is important to keep his memory alive. By accepting today’s award, with this gesture, you are helping us to do so.

In my opinion, two areas are particularly well-suited to illustrate the great achievements of your life, your far-sightedness and your attitude that has sought to bring about reconciliation: your formative role in German-Israeli relations, which you literally shaped from day one, and your work towards peaceful coexistence of the young state of Israel with its neighbours. I would like to address both of these.

Your state visit, which coincides with the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, symbolizes the complexity of German-Israeli relations, their special character, the consistent simultaneity of past and present, of mourning and – these days – also of hope.

Just now, you delivered a speech to the German Bundestag, only a few metres from here, and together with the representatives of the German people you paid tribute to the memory of the victims of National Socialism – victims who include your grandparents, relatives, and neighbours from Vishneva, the town where you were born.

It was your desire to be here today – despite everything. I am probably not able to fully judge what this means for you personally. But, on behalf of Germany, I can and want to thank you for this important gesture; it is hard to imagine sending a stronger emotional signal other than your being here with us today.

This gesture is of a piece with the attitude that you have long held towards Germany. In 1986, you were the first Israeli Prime Minister to travel to divided Berlin, and you said: “Many memories are associated with Berlin, and many hopes have been expressed about Berlin. We cannot change the past, but we can shape a different future.” This willingness to create a link between the past and the future is a recurring theme in your actions, and during this state visit. In your Berlin programme, the past and the future come face-to-face every day:

  • your delegation includes Holocaust survivors and young Israelis (to whom I again extend my heartfelt greetings);

  • the ceremonial event in the German Bundestag took place the day after young Germans and Israelis presented to you a joint film project that was produced with the support of the German-Israeli Future Forum Foundation;

  • as we commemorate the extermination of German Jews, we are also witnessing the growth of the Jewish community in present-day Berlin.

Germany accepts its responsibility for the Shoah. We know that, when you accept the past, you lay a foundation for the future. Your life, Mr President, is an impressive example of this.

When I look at how far we Germans have come since 1945 I am again and again both amazed and deeply grateful. After the crime against humanity that is the Shoah, it seemed pretty much impossible that, 65 years after the end of the war, Israel and Germany would be looking back on friendly relations.

We have established close political contacts. Israel considers Germany to be one of its closest allies and friends, the second German-Israeli intergovernmental consultations recently took place, where discussions were held on how we can jointly shape the future. Has this become routine, or do we actually understand how special such encounters are?

Scientific cooperation and youth exchanges are on the rise. Here are only a few examples: In 1986, you were personally involved in the establishment of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development. This foundation is meanwhile promoting state of the art research in all areas of science. Since 2000, there has also been a special programme for young researchers.

There is a strong interest in each other’s countries. The large number of active town twinnings is proof of this, as is the steady rise in tourism. In 2008, there was a 41 percent increase in the number of Germans visiting Israel, and Israelis already today represent the second largest group of non-European tourists visiting Berlin. To many of them, the reunited Berlin feels like the coolest city in the world – and right they are, if I may say so. It is great hearing so much Hebrew on the streets and squares of Berlin, especially in the summer, along those walking routes where you can discover former and present-day Jewish Berlin, on Museum Island, and in the vicinity of Israeli restaurants on Kastanienallee or the Jewish Museum.

Our countries’ citizens have forged close ties, and they are expanding their networks. This all has come about thanks to brave men and women who were willing to reach out to each other across all trenches of division. Your life and your political career, Mr President, are exemplary of this development.

In your various functions you, Mr President, have both fostered and decisively shaped nearly every step taken in German-Israeli relations since the 1950s. Whether it was as a close friend of Prime Minister Ben Gurion in the negotiations with Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, as a Member of Parliament, as Minister of Defence or of Foreign Affairs, as Prime Minister or now as President.

For us Germans, it is important to pass down to future generations our feeling of obligation to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. This is the express aim of the Federal Government. And that is our common effort, for example through the German-Israeli Future Forum Foundation, which brings together young Germans and Israelis. We hope a new network of young people will be created that can maintain and foster our relations.

Like Walther Rathenau, you too, Mr President, have worked since the start of your political career to enhance your country’s regional ties and to bring about reconciliation with your neighbours. During the past 60 years, Israel again and again had to defend its existence. In your speech to the Knesset upon assuming office in 2007, you vividly described this fight for survival, but you also emphasized the importance of striving for reconciliation.

Through this approach, and beginning with the Camp David peace accords, Israel has managed to lay the groundwork for overcoming confrontation and hostility. Your name is closely associated with the Oslo process, which you initiated. Together with the unforgotten Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and with Yasser Arafat, you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Incidentally, the current President Abbas was already then a partner on the Palestinian side. At Oslo, the foundation was laid for reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. But the finish line has yet to be crossed. You accepted the Nobel Prize as an incentive, and you have not slackened in your efforts: With the Peres Center for Peace, you have established an institution that is working to bring about reconciliation with Arab neighbours within and outside of Israel.

President, ladies and gentlemen,

Israel and Germany share common values and fundamental foreign policy interests. At the core lie peace in the region, resolving the issue of Iran, and strengthening our moderate partners.

Iran is, no doubt, one of the international community’s most important security challenges. For Germany, preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons option is in our genuine national interest. It is however also an expression of our responsibility for the security of Israel. I have said so in Jerusalem, and I would like to underscore this again today: Germany’s efforts to secure the existence of Israel are a principle of state, an absolute constant in German foreign policy. To us, Israel’s security is non-negotiable. We will continue to work towards a solution – as a party to the E3+3 talks, within the EU and of course within the United Nations. Our moderate Arab partners are natural allies on this issue. We intend to take advantage of this.

I would like to quote your words,

Peace will not come from love, but from necessity!“ That, Mr President, is what you said in the Knesset last October. The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians affects Israel’s vital interests. Like you, we too believe: Only the two state solution can bring long term security to Israel. It is also the only way to preserve the historic achievements of 1948: Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.

During our November meeting in Jerusalem, we agreed that, in President Abbas, we have a true partner on the Palestinian side. This constellation must now be put to good use. The clock is ticking, and inertia is not an option. We must keep our Palestinian partners on our side, strengthen them, and quickly find a way to begin negotiations. That is why the US and the EU are sending out a reminder that the obligations of the road map must be met – by all parties.

The decisions that need to be taken are difficult in every respect. In Europe, we at times lose sight of this fact. Ladies and gentlemen, if we in Germany think back to the Brandt/Scheel era, we will realize how controversial the Ostpolitik of the social-liberal government was, and how great an effort was required at the time to convince people in the Federal Republic that this was the right path to follow.

Israel is, in many respects, a strong and self-confident country. Moreover: Israel has friends around the world. These include Germany, as well as the United States. Together with the US and our European partners, we want to lend you our support along the road to peace.

It is our hope that Israel can take brave steps with the help of its friends. We are not belittling the challenges that your country will have to overcome. We know that, by insisting that the obligations of the road map and other commitments be met, we are expecting quite a lot from your country. But we are convinced that the two-state solution is possible, and that it is necessary.

Mr President,

On accepting the Nobel Peace Prize together with you in 1994, your colleague Yitzhak Rabin said: ”There is only one radical means of sanctifying human lives ... The one radical solution is peace.“ End of quote. I could not have said it better.

My wish for you and for the Israeli people is that your term of office may be crowned by the peace that has been sought for so long.

Ladies and gentlemen, normally the prize honours the recipient. But there are those special instances when the recipient also honours the prize. This is precisely such an instance. Thank you.

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