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President of the Bundesrat,
President of the Bundestag,
President of the Federal Constitutional Court,
President of the German War Graves Commission,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, the Day of National Mourning, we remember all those who lost their lives through war, terror, violence and tyranny.
Today we remember those who were persecuted, mistreated and murdered because of their beliefs, religion, race, sexual orientation or simply because they were who they were.
We know how tenaciously war and violence continue to blight lives. Wars cast long shadows. Also on generations who did not experience them at first hand.
War, violence, persecution – these are not just scourges of the twentieth century. This still young twenty-first century has already seen a multitude of conflicts that have brought suffering and death to millions. Our world is not a peaceful place.
Every day we see reports and images of human tragedies that have claimed lives. We know how powerful these images are – and we know what they convey is also powerlessness. Let us never forget that every victim has a personal story. Every victim is sorely missed.
The German War Graves Commission looks after the sites where so many have found their last resting place. Through this work it gives the dead back their dignity, and the living a place to mourn and meet others who have suffered similar loss.
The German War Graves Commission carries out its valuable work at the behest of the German Government. So let me express heartfelt thanks, Mr Führer, to you and all the Commission’s staff as well as to the whole organization.
The Commission is assisted in its activities by thousands of ordinary citizens who give generously of their time and energy. Over one million supporters and donors help ensure the organization can fulfil its important mission. This broad support in all sections of society testifies to the great respect people feel for the Commission’s work. And it also highlights the importance they attach to ensuring the dead are remembered in a fitting way.
With the Iron Curtain gone, the War Graves Commission could also extend its activities to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In recent years this has led to the creation of several new German war cemeteries in Russia, most recently in Kursk and Smolensk, as well as in Belarus and Ukraine. Even 65 years after the end of World War II, however, the Commission’s work is still far from over.
Just a few weeks ago another German war cemetery was consecrated in Cheb, the culmination of years of hard work. Around 5000 war dead have been laid to rest there.
The discovery of a mass grave in Slovenia containing the mortal remains of thousands killed at the end of World War II was confirmed only this week.
Through establishing and looking after over 800 war cemeteries containing almost 2 million war dead in 45 different countries, the German War Graves Commission has created not only sites of remembrance but also places where people can learn about the past. With its motto “Reconciliation above the graves – work for peace”, the Commission aptly sums up its agenda and underlines the political significance of its work.
Federal President Theodor Heuss delivered the first speech marking the Day of National Mourning in the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany. In this speech he cited a soldier with whom he had previously discussed his thoughts on the subject. “Don’t forget,” the soldier told him, “that the feelings of the German mothers and wives are the feelings of the British, French, Italian, American and Russian mothers and wives as well.” The suffering of millions of families both on the side of the defeated and liberated and on the side of the victors and liberators became a common bond dedicated to reconciliation and peace that still remains strong today.
Where enmity and mistrust had long shaped perceptions on both sides, new trust could start to grow.
Trust is a most precious thing. Both between countries and between people. Trust needs time to grow and is quickly destroyed. Trust needs a solid basis. Credibility and reliability can provide that solid basis. However, trust goes beyond what there are good reasons for – it ventures into new and unknown realms. Therein lies its strength.
Sixty-five years ago no one trusted the Germans. Germany had excluded itself from the community of nations. It was in this context that the fathers and mothers of our Basic Law clearly defined in its preamble the fundamental goal of Germany policy: “to promote world peace in a united Europe”. With this compass as our guide, over the decades we gradually built the trust without which the achievement of German unity 20 years ago would never have happened. Our country continues to steer by this compass to this day.
Germany was elected to the United Nations Security Council just a few days after we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Day of German Unity. Both events had something to do with the trust the world now has in Germany.
The great achievement of the post-war generations was to seek reconciliation with our neighbours. Here also the work of the German War Graves Commission played its part.
Today in our relations with Poland we are well on the way to forging the same kind of close ties that Germans and French people developed over the decades. Europe is growing together and we want to complete this process also with our neighbours to the East. Achieving full reconciliation with Poland we see as our historic mission.
The European Union is the starting-point for Germany’s whole foreign policy. Europe means greater freedom, greater security and greater prosperity for everyone. But even more important, European integration has, right from the start, been a unique project for peace. The old paradigm of confrontation in Europe has given way to a new paradigm of cooperation and integration.
While we may complain about Europe at times, we must never forget what we owe to Europe. If Europe had given us no more than decades of peace on our continent, it would still have been worth it.
I am rather concerned right now about Europe. I can only warn against any trend towards renationalization directed against Europe. Those who responded to the euro crisis this spring by calling the whole European idea into question have learned nothing from history. Cooperation can be tough going. But anyone familiar with the consequences of confrontation, anyone familiar with European history knows that cooperation is worth every ounce of effort.
The secret of the success of European integration is the table in Brussels, around which all EU countries sit as equal partners with the same rights, whatever their size. The Union is not divided into important and unimportant countries. We have only been able to overcome centuries of confrontation by cooperating and treating each other as equals.
As individuals, we all owe each other respect. As countries, too, we all owe each other respect.
That goes for Europe and for the whole world as well.
In many parts of the world today peace, freedom and human rights are under threat. Germany is living up to its international responsibilities. This is incumbent on us also in the light of our history. In the so-called Third Reich what was lost first was respect for the human rights of some and then the freedom of everyone in Germany and finally peace in Europe and the whole world.
Today, however, Germany’s commitment to peace, freedom and human rights is universally recognized. We are participating in several peace missions. All with a clearcut mandate from the United Nations. We see the use of military force only as a last resort. Where military force is concerned, Germany remains committed to a culture of restraint.
As is clear from our engagement in Afghanistan, working for peace and human rights can be a dangerous business. Forty-four of our fellow citizens have been killed while serving there. Today we pay tribute also to them. We feel deeply for their families.
Our thoughts are also with those who, in the interest of us all, are doing important work far from home: our soldiers, police officers, development workers, NGO staff and diplomats. We are grateful to them all. And we are proud of what they are doing.
Our country does not look the other way when human lives are at risk. Germany is helping to bring security to people whose lives are in danger. We are helping to bring freedom to people who still today know only the opposite.
We are doing our share in Yemen, in Somalia and also in the Middle East. Last week I returned from my third visit to the Middle East. We should not delude ourselves that we hold the key to a peaceful solution there. But we want to do all we can to foster and strengthen the fragile process towards a two-state solution.
Our dogged attempts to settle conflicts peacefully should not be mistaken for a lack of realism. There is only a limited amount we can do to stabilize failed or failing states. The real key to ending violence is a yearning for peace among people on the ground and a desire for reconciliation.
Here in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century a new chapter was finally opened, a chapter dedicated to overcoming hatred and promoting reconciliation. That is why it is incumbent on Europeans especially, and us Germans in particular, to strive for mutual understanding and reconciliation throughout the world and thereby help make it a more peaceful place.
Political action encompasses far more than what government does. The dead teach us that the community has a responsibility for each and every individual. They also teach that every individual has a responsibility for the community in which they live. Humanity and compassion are values that make no distinction on the basis of colour or belief. These are the values that must inform the way we live together in Germany and the way Germany acts in the wider world.
The Day of National Mourning enjoins us to recognize the value of human life and the inalienable dignity of every human being for what they are – the most precious thing there is.