Opening speech by Guido Westerwelle, at the international conference “Remembering the Second World War – Memorials and Museums in Central and Eastern Europe”

01.07.2010 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Dr Kunert,

Professor Tschurbarian, Professor Troebst,

Dr Beggreen-Merkel,


Bundestag colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sixty-five years after the Second World War ended, the way we remember it is changing. The period of “remembering” by those immediately involved or affected is drawing to a close.

Now only a few witnesses to the events remain. There is very little time left for grandchildren and great-grandchildren to ask questions.

Soon we will no longer be able to trace the fates of individuals in encounters with living persons and their stories will remain for ever untold. Later generations have gradually replaced “remembrance” with the desire to “commemorate something”.

Those who can no longer experience contemporary witnesses first hand are dependent on written and other records. These may be found in history books and memoirs but also in video recordings and TV documentaries.

The image of the Second World War is increasingly influenced by film narratives in the cinema. Many associate films such as “Das Boot” and “Schindler’s List” with the period.

Ladies and gentlemen,

History has far too often torn the nations of Europe apart. Commemoration must not be instrumentalized so that it blocks the path to the future.

Every nation, every people, looks back on its history in its own unique way. This is especially true when it comes to memories of the Second World War. The national point of view is both inevitable and legitimate.

In Russia the siege of Leningrad, in which the German Wehrmacht drove the people to starvation, is etched in the collective memory.

In Poland it is the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 that is imprinted on the collective memory.

The key issue with regard to our common future in Europe is how the different memories of Europeans converge. This begins with knowledge and understanding of the experiences of our neighbours. A peaceful Europe needs a dialogue on the collective and cultural memories of all.

In the next few days you will be able to exchange your viewpoint with that of your European neighbours. The organizers of this conference and its speakers come from Poland, Russia and Germany. In addition there are the viewpoints of participants from other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Viewing the world with our neighbour’s eyes enables us to see ourselves more clearly.

Memories of the Second World War are inextricably linked to the annihilation of European Jewry. Germany accepts its responsibility for the Shoah. The Shoah is an immutable part of the collective memory in Germany.

That we in Israel and Germany can look on amicable relations 65 years after the end of the War is something that fills me with immense gratitude. It is precisely because we are prepared to face the historical truth, to look back, that we are also able to look together towards the future.

Part of the conference programme includes visits to four Berlin memorial sites. These sites reflect the contradictions and the change in the nature of remembrance in Germany when it was divided and since reunification. The Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park and the German-Russian Museum in the Karlshorst district of Berlin illustrate the development from remebrance of the victor to a remembrance shared by the victor and the defeated. The Monument of the Polish Soldier and the German Anti-Fascist in the Second World War erected in 1972 is one example of the official remembrance culture in the GDR. The Topography of Terror memorial commemorates all victims of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe beside the Brandenburg Gate is a national memorial commemorating the Shoah, that most atrocious crime against humanity.

Amongst German memories of the War are the night-time bombing raids on Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden, and also the fate of those Germans who lost their home as a result of the War. The fact that we can speak openly of these events today is thanks to the rapprochement and reconciliation that have taken place in Europe.

When we think of the German victims, we never forget Germany’s responsibility. We remember them in complete awareness of Germany’s responsibility for unleashing the Second World War. We think of what we did to Poles and Russians in their millions. Germany’s enduring historical responsibility is beyond any doubt.

It took decades in Germany before we submitted ourselves to the task of remembering. Germany struggled for a long time after 1945 to achieve transparency when dealing with our country’s history.

The history of remembrance of the Second World War had long been a history of forgetting and repressing, of taboos and veils of silence. The Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt from 1963, Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees in Warsaw, President Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech marking the fortieth anniversary of the end of the War – all these are examples of how Germans have constantly reminded their fellow Germans of their responsibility.

The debate over what constitutes an appropriate way to remember goes on. With every act of remembrance, with every story we tell, with every image we conjure up, we are to a certain extent re-creating the past. Every silence and dissimulation, every omission and failure to pass on information shapes the past.

Showing respect for victims and acknowledging their suffering does not mean disrespect for others who have also suffered. When we recall the suffering of the Sinti and Roma, of homosexuals, of people persecuted for their political beliefs, that does not imply disrespect for the incalculable suffering of the murdered Jews of Europe.

Our remembrance of the suffering of millions of murdered Poles and Russians does not diminish the suffering of others. We owe remembrance to all victims. Their suffering is part of historical truth. The principle “Against Forgetting” applies to all.

Outside this hall, in the foyer, there is a cabinet displaying the protocol of the Wannsee Conference in 1942. There you can see a map bearing the signatures of Ribbentrop and Stalin. It was part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 and showed the division of Poland and where the border between the German Reich and the Soviet Union was to be drawn.

I name these two examples because they have played a particular role in the struggle for historical truth. Working on the sources, on establishing historical facts, is one of the first tasks of any responsible engagement with history.

Free and independent research is crucial to determining the facts. Determining historical truth is not a matter for the state but for academic research.

Researchers need free access to all historical sources. They must be able to question, interpret and disagree without hindrance. I wish you a productive debate over the next few days.

If a nation’s collective memory creates a point on which identity and peaceful co-existence within a state hinges, then it raises the question as to whether Europe can exist in the long term without a similar linchpin. Do we need some kind of European collective memory? If yes, how is it to emerge?

In the past there have been many attempts to make provision for remembrance at state level. However, historical truth is not an object of negotiation, nor do ossified rituals serve anyone.

It is more important to allow time for an impartial discussion on the content and limitations of remembrance than to find ready answers. The process itself is part of active remembrance.

A few days ago here in Berlin, Hans-Dietrich Genscher looked back on the Two Plus Four Treaty. He said it was a matter of “Remembering, and wanting something new”. This is precisely what reconciliation within Europe is about. Russia and Poland have achieved a great deal along the path of remembrance and reconciliation with Germany.

That a German Chancellor should be a guest in Moscow on 9 May at the memorial ceremony to mark the anniversary of the end of the War would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. That a Federal Chancellor should give a speech in Gdansk on 1 September to mark the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland would still have been regarded as a utopian dream even a few years ago. Last year it became reality.

Poland and Russia discuss their common past with a new openness also in the context of their bilateral relations. I found the sympathy extended towards the Polish people in their grief following the tragic plane crash at Smolensk in Russia deeply moving.

In Europe we can unite to transform places of horror and suffering into places of commemoration and remembrance. Places of reconciliation can thus emerge over time.

A few days ago in Warsaw I spoke about the fact that our friendship with Poland is of cardinal importance and does not take second place to our friendship with France.

As part of the European Union, Poland has decided over our common future since 2004.

Just as we have succeeded in producing a joint history textbook with France, so we can do the same with Poland. Looking together at our – in so many respects – difficult history allows us to look together towards a better future.

Germany, Poland and Russia are daring to break new ground in our triangular relationship. We work together on a common, trilateral basis. This Conference is the second of its kind. Last year in Warsaw historians, many of whom are here today, talked about the genesis of the Second World War.

We talk about the past, but also about the future. The policy planning staffs of the three Foreign Ministries also openly discuss sensitive issues relating to European security. We talk about relations between NATO and Russia and joint projects in the OSCE. The Foreign Ministries of our three countries want to come together soon at deputy foreign minister level.

The dialogue between Russia, Poland and Germany concerning both past and future goes on. It is essential that there should be trust between our three countries. Our freedom in Europe can only endure if there is mutual and undivided security from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

I intend to work consistently towards this goal together with my Polish, Russian and European colleagues.

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