Welcome speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the event “1914 – a Failure of Diplomacy”

28.01.2014 - Speech

--- Translation of advance text ---

Ladies and gentlemen,
Members of Parliament,
Markus Meckel,

Just one year before the First World War broke out 100 years ago, Thomas Mann began his work on “Zauberberg” in Munich. The members of the “Blaue Reiter” (Blue Rider) group were preparing a new exhibition just as Franz Kafka asked the woman who he was exchanging letters with to marry him. Louis Armstrong picked up a trumpet for the first time and Rainer Maria Rilke and Karl Kraus fell in love with the same woman.

Only one year before the “Great War” broke out, an atmosphere of imminent change was brewing amongst German artists and intellectuals – but alongside this was a nervous tension, a kind of feverish excitement. This is how Florian Illies powerfully described it in his novel “1913”. He takes us back to a time that whilst still peaceful, was also agitated. Just as if people had guessed what was to come.

But, ladies and gentlemen, they had not. So impossible did it seem to them that the creativity and prolific spirit present in art and culture would be cut down in one fell swoop. So unrealistic did it seem to them that the European states, so closely intertwined in economic terms would begin a war which could be of no benefit to anyone. So unimaginable was it that the governments would stumble into a war, or even actively instigate one, without really knowing what they were doing, what blame they were saddling themselves with, what suffering they would take into the bargain. Norman Angell’s talk of “The Great Illusion” was popular – namely the illusion that a war could possibly benefit anyone at all, be it the victor or the vanquished.

In the end this did indeed prove to be an illusion. Only a few months later, a diplomatic crisis accompanied by nationalist zeal and the flexing of military muscle flared into a conflagration and a world war, which would by its end claim 17 million victims, broke out.

Perhaps it is this very rift, this contrast between the unimaginable and what actually happened that causes the dismay that overcomes us when we look back on the events of 1914 today. What we see is the picture of a failure – of the military and political elites but also of diplomacy. Their task should in fact have been to calm, in the world of politics, the feverish excitement that Florian Illies described for the world of art, to quell the recklessness, to dispel the mutual mistrust. To weigh up level-headed alternatives and work out compromises. But what they lacked was not as much the tools as the will to do so. This much is sure, the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century was a man-made catastrophe.


100 years on the events of 1914 remain a hot topic. Even those who do not study historical journals can hardly let the debates pass them by. In these discussions the sleepwalking of the European Governments is described and what triggered the outbreak of war is debated. In these discussions the long shadow cast by the First World War over the 20th century – in Europe, in the Middle East and indeed over nearly the whole world is considered. And these discussions raise – above all! – the question of lessons learned from history.

I am very pleased that this is being discussed and it is also why we want to pick up on these debates and develop them here in the Federal Foreign Office. The events of 1914 hold the key to understanding our history, of that century and up to the present day. Yet we must not only look back, when looking forward we can also make good use of an analysis of the events of 1914.

And I use the word “analysis” on purpose, as we must be careful to avoid all-too simplistic conclusions. It is not enough to consider the united Europe of today to be a successful lesson learned from the drama of the World Wars and to sit back, self-satisfied.

One need but glance beyond the confines of Europe to remove any doubt that 1914 remains relevant today. Many parts of the world are still governed by a fragile balance of power. It is no coincidence that keen observers of international politics, such as Gideon Rachman and Kevin Rudd, compare the current conflicts in East Asia, above all in the South China Sea, to the situation in Europe before 1914. And whilst one should surely not read too much into such historical parallels, they do seem to touch a nerve – something which in itself shows that they are catching on in day-to-day political debates, in very divergent forms on the Japanese and Chinese sides and in different forms again by both countries’ neighbours.


But the memory of 1914 does not only remain of vital importance to far away, it does to Europe as well. Europe as we know it today has grown out of the experiences of the First (and Second) World Wars. In the place of the shaky balance of power stands the European community of law. Today, it is no longer the law of the strong which reigns, but the strength of the law. Cooperation has supplanted old rivalries. European governments mull over options of compromises together, instead of each formulating their own plans of attack, they struggle over solutions, rather than over centimetres of gains on the front. On the former battlefields, the young people of Europe work together to maintain the war cemeteries and bring reconciliation to life. We, who take all of this for granted, should take a moment every now and again to remember that the European project represents progress for civilisation, the express aim of which is to prevent another “1914” from occurring and to learn from the mistakes of the past.


Conversely all of this does no mean that we can now put “1914” behind us once and for all and turn our attention to other issues without batting an eyelid – you will have guessed as much or else we would not have invited you here!

A war in Europe has become inconceivable today. However, ladies and gentlemen, this was also once the case, 100 years ago. The achievements of European reconciliation and the increasing integration which we politicians so like to refer to in our speeches are in fact sometimes accompanied by other adverse, strangely disconnected, yet concurrent, developments: growing tension between the European Union member states, increasing nationalist sentiment and an ominous loss of trust in the European project amongst certain groups of the population in Europe. And this (which particularly concerns me) is present amongst young people for whom Europe no longer automatically brings with it opportunities for the future and the hope of better and more peaceful times. For them it has become synonymous with the opposite, with never-ending crisis and a lack of prospects.

Europe may well have banished the demons of 1914 – but they have not been locked up for good. It is our responsibility therefore to retain the rights lessons that we have learned, pass them on and ensure that they are heeded in the future.

This does not only mean overcoming the crisis, it means preventing the dismantling of Europe and taking the continent forward.


Be it in Europe or in the world as a whole, 100 years on from 1914 diplomacy and foreign policy have a lot to do. This comment is aimed at those who have been spouting theories of the decline of diplomacy for years. 1914 teaches us otherwise! Diplomacy makes a difference, be it for better or for worse. We cannot do without prudent foreign policy and diplomatic craftsmanship. Especially not in a world which is more integrated than ever before, brimming with opportunities for cooperation but also full of friction points and trouble spots. We need a clear perspective on our own interests and those of our partners more than ever. We need to act responsibly and to weigh up consequences with a level head. We need the tools and the will to work out compromises – as it is this above all that was lacking 100 years ago.


The First World War is not a chapter that we can close once and for all, neither here where we are in Europe nor out in the world. It is up to us – as it was to our parents and grandparents – to ensure that it does not simply remain an uncomfortable memory but also an incentive to make the future better.


That is the conviction that lies at the heart of the series of events that we want to organise over the course of the upcoming months on the topic “1914 – of the failure of and the need for diplomacy”.


I hope that we will all enjoy an stimulating and fruitful discussion. Thank you very much!

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