Speech by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the opening of the exhibition “The Wall: A Border Through Germany” at the Federal Foreign Office

11.01.2011 - Speech

-- translation of advanced text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have with us today, representing the Foundation for the Study of the SED Dictatorship, without which this exhibition would not have been created in the first place, the chairman of the Council and former Foreign Minister Markus Meckel and the chairman of the board of trustees, Rainer Eppelmann. Welcome, gentlemen.

Welcome also to our media partners – the editor-in-chief of BILD, Kai Diekmann, and the deputy editor-in-chief of Die Welt am Sonntag, Ulf Poschardt – who conceived and curated the exhibition.

I should also like to welcome former GDR civil rights activist and now Federal Commissioner for the Files of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, Marianne Birthler, former GDR civil rights activist and now Land Brandenburg Commissioner for the Study of the Repercussions of the Communist Dictatorship, Ulrike Poppe, and former GDR civil rights activist, now author and film-maker, Freya Klier.

Bundestag colleagues,

Boys and girls,


This year sees the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. The Wall was built in 1961 and torn down in 1989. Today some people say the Wall “fell” and speak of “the fall of the Wall”. The Berlin Wall did not fall. It was pushed down by the people’s desire for freedom, and it was knocked down from East to West. Germany was reunited in 1990. In 1990 reunification ended the division of our country for which the Wall had stood.

The events of 1989 and 1990 bear eloquent testimony to the fact that freedom rarely comes as a gift. Freedom must be won. Or, as Mr Döpfner rightly said yesterday: freedom does not rule, freedom has to be fought for.

The Berlin Wall no longer exists, but it remains a part of Germany’s history. The Berlin Wall is a part of history that must be spoken about, not consigned to the archives. The Berlin Wall has a great deal to show and teach us. Not only about a central chapter in recent German history, but about freedom and lack of freedom in the world.

I am very pleased to be opening the exhibition “The Wall: A Border Through Germany” here in the Federal Foreign Office today. This is the exhibition’s premiere, and in the course of the year it will be shown in many places both in Germany and abroad.

I am delighted to have with us today some of the courageous citizens who were so instrumental in pushing down the Wall.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to the many schoolchildren here today, who are too young to have actually experienced the Wall. When critics complain today about children’s lack of knowledge of the GDR, they must remember this: it is not the duty of the young to enquire about the past, it is the duty of the older generation who lived through it to take the initiative to speak about it. It is up to us to tell it as it really was. And this exhibition has a valuable part to play in that.

A country which fails to teach its young people about its own history runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past.

I will never forget how, as a 14-year-old boy celebrating my confirmation with a trip to Berlin, I stood with my father on a wooden platform at the Berlin Wall, looking at the death strip, the wooden crosses, the armed guards. At that moment, I understood where extremism leads.

Notwithstanding disagreements between the parties, this is the first lesson the Berlin Wall teaches us: let us, as stalwart democrats, fight to prevent political extremism from taking hold in Germany.

The Berlin Wall caved in under pressure from many courageous citizens. The collapse of the Wall ended the division of Germany and the division of Europe. Germany promised that, in return for unity in freedom, it would be solidly integrated into Europe and the international community.

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.

We must never forget that European integration has given us an era of peace – something which for centuries in Europe remained only a dream.

For the younger generation war in the European Union is utterly unthinkable – and rightly so. But millions of people living in Europe today did experience the terrible devastation of the Second World War. Europe will not be won until the young generation is wholeheartedly committed to Europe as well. This is the second lesson we need to learn from the Berlin Wall: Europe is in Germany’s interest.

We have been living in reunited Germany for over twenty years now. Some people regard the freedom we enjoy every day as a matter of course. But a glance at the world shows that the freedom we enjoy in Germany is anything but a matter of course.

Take freedom of the press: two German journalists have been in prison in Iran for over three months, since 10 October last year. They wanted to report the case of an Iranian women sentenced to death. We will not slacken in our efforts until our two fellow countrymen can return to the arms of their families.

Take freedom of opinion: the presidential elections in Belarus on 19 December were unfortunately neither free nor fair. On the evening of election day, members of the opposition were hunted through the streets of Minsk and incarcerated.

Take freedom of religion: when Christians are persecuted or even killed, then it is our business. If someone in another country is threatened with death because he converts to Christianity, we do not look away. No religion justifies murder.

Human rights and civil liberties are universal and indivisible. They are cornerstones of German foreign policy. Germany will continue to make itself heard when it comes to safeguarding human rights and civil liberties. Because there is a duty to interfere in internal affairs when human rights are at stake.

Our commitment to peace and freedom in the world is the third lesson we learn from the story of the Berlin Wall.

Before handing over to Rainer Eppelmann, I should like to thank the Foundation for the Study of the SED Dictatorship for the excellent cooperation. I also extend warm thanks to BILD and Die Welt and to journalists Sven Felix Kellerhof and Ralf Georg Reuth for producing this outstanding exhibition which will make many people both in Germany and abroad more aware of the story of the Berlin Wall and the lessons it teaches us.

Thank you for your attention.

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