– Translation of advance text –
Ladies and gentlemen,
In August 1943, in the midst of the worst horrors of the Second World War, Willy Brandt wrote a newspaper article from his exile in Norway in which he stated: “The day will come when hatred, which seems unavoidable in war, will be overcome. Someday the Europe where Europeans can live must become a reality.” In the hour of humanity’s greatest catastrophe, Willy Brandt possessed the gift of looking ahead – full of hope and confidence – to a better future.
“Remembering for the Future”: this is the title of the exhibition we are opening today here in the Atrium of the Federal Foreign Office, a title that could certainly also serve as the leitmotif for the year 2014. That is because this year we are commemorating two particularly momentous and devastating events in our continent’s turbulent history.
One hundred years ago, gunshots in Sarajevo launched the First World War. And 75 years ago, Germany’s invasion of Poland set in motion the cataclysm of the Second World War.
In countless locations throughout Europe, the horrible wartime atrocities of the 20th century left behind deep wounds and scars. These scars remind us that the peaceful Europe in which we now live must not be taken for granted.
This year’s commemorative dates provide us Europeans with the opportunity to foster greater mutual understanding and to affirm the various methods we have developed to come to terms with the past. Yes, there are many small, practical examples that demonstrate how we in Europe are moving step by step towards a culture of shared remembrance. For example, at the Douaumont memorial in France, near the Verdun front, the name of a German soldier was recently inscribed on a memorial plaque for the first time.
Not only at Douaumont, but in countless battlefields of the past, the dead lie together: often in mass graves, sometimes separated only by hedges, and sometimes separated from each other by only a few kilometres. They admonish us to keep the memories of wartime horrors alive, both today and in future generations.
We Germans in particular bear a particular responsibility, which we acknowledge – regardless of the fact that today’s generation is not directly responsible for the atrocities of the past. However, we know that we would repeat our guilt if we were to keep silent about or relativise, let alone deny, what the generation of our grandparents and great-grandparents did to other human beings and countries. Shared commemoration, remembrance and reconciliation are qualities that shape German foreign policy. We are therefore very grateful to our European partners and friends that many commemorative events all across Europe will be organised jointly. To us, their willingness to do so is a visible sign of reconciliation. Reconciliation requires effort and strength.
At the same time, reconciliation also sows the seeds for confidence in the future. And, as Federal President Gauck recently stated so memorably in the Greek village of Lingiades as he asked forgiveness for the Wehrmacht’s horrible atrocities: “Truth is the sister of reconciliation.”
The tireless efforts of the German War Graves Commission also give testament to how the memory of 20th century war victims is being kept alive, genuinely and with respect. The Commission is a non-profit organisation that tends the graves of over 2.5 million people who were killed during the First and Second World Wars, in over 830 cemeteries and 45 countries around the world. Where else, if not at a mass grave, can one even begin to comprehend the unimaginable suffering of war? Where else, if not at the grave of a young soldier, do abstract numbers of victims give way to an awareness of the deeply touching individual fates of the millions of soldiers and civilians who lost their lives during the two world wars?
The German War Graves Commission carries out its work under the motto, “reconciliation transcending the graves”. This is a very special way of depicting the uniting effect of shared remembrance. Unlike in most countries, the Commission tends war graves in its capacity as a registered association, not as a government authority. Its efforts deserve recognition and respect. The Federal Foreign Office engages in close and trusting cooperation with the Commission and supports its work.
The Commission’s youth work – which carries forward the idea of reconciliation in a particularly important way – deserves special praise. This is because it is essential to look not only at the past but also towards the future. Projects involving young people from different countries are something that I and the entire Federal Foreign Office care about deeply.
Our future lies in a Europe that is peaceful, tolerant and open to the world. After the tragedies our continent has seen, this is something that certainly cannot be taken for granted. That’s probably another reason why the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
With all of the current problems confronting the EU in our globalised world, the narrative of peace is neither outmoded nor irrelevant. That’s very likely what the jury in Oslo wanted to admonish us to remember.
This is something that becomes even more understandable when we shift perspectives. Contrary to all the pessimistic talk about the EU, reconciled Europe resonates powerfully and serves as a model for other world regions. That is one reason why people on the Maidan risked their lives waving the European flag. Yes, the values that Europe stands for continue to exert attraction and spawn hope. They make us strong, but they also give us special responsibility. We must not shy away from this responsibility; rather, we must work to protect and defend the European model of values.
The tending of war graves makes an outstanding contribution to these efforts, by admonishing us to remember the past and by reminding us of our shared responsibility for the future. On behalf of the Federal Government, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone involved with the German War Graves Commission.
I am pleased to welcome you here at the Federal Foreign Office, and I look forward to finding out more about the Commission’s work. The exhibition is now officially open.