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“The July 1914 Crisis – Sleepwalking Diplomats?” Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier during the debate on the First World War at the German Historical Museum

14.03.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Colleagues,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Contemporaneity, even when it is coincidental, can sometimes make our hair stand on end and send shivers down our spine. In the last few days we could almost have gained the impression that one hundred years after the end of the First World War the question of war and peace, of unity and division of our continent, has once again been raised in Europe. The confrontation between the West and Russia concerning Crimea and the future of Ukraine is escalating.

It is therefore hardly surprising that a few days ago the news programme ZDF heute Journal posed the following – naturally rhetorical – question: Instead of organising acts of remembrance, wouldn’t we be better off devoting our full attention to what is happening in the here and now?

At first glance this question seems to be a valid one. And yet it is flawed, for two reasons.

One is because we can’t afford to be too careless when it comes to drawing historical parallels. Being too hasty to make crude comparisons distorts our view of what is fuelling today’s crisis. What is more, perceiving history as a constantly recurring cycle which we are powerless to interrupt robs us of our ability to act.

And the question is flawed for another reason, for memorial ceremonies, reflection and remembrance do not prevent us from simultaneously paying attention to current developments. On the contrary, as careful as we should be in drawing historical parallels, when we look back to 1914, one thing is clear: what happens when diplomacy fails, when dialogue is not pursued, when petty national jealousies, military posturing and recklessness gain the upper hand. That is why our timing couldn’t be better as we come together today, in the current situation, to discuss the First World War – focusing specifically on its outbreak, as we have planned to do this evening, on the July crisis, on those few days and weeks in which a regional conflict flared into a European, even a global conflagration.

I am delighted that this evening we can do this with two prominent experts whose research, analysis and interpretation of the events and developments surrounding the July crisis is virtually unparalleled: Professor Clark from Cambridge and Professor Krumeich from Freiburg. A warm welcome to you, and many thanks for accepting our invitation!

Professor Clark, over the past few months you have shaken up the German and European debate on the First World War quite successfully. Your theory that in 1914 European politicians, military leaders and diplomats stumbled like sleepwalkers into an – avoidable! – war has not met with universal approval. In a moment Professor Krumeich will explain why he believes this perspective does not go far enough and distorts our view of the particular responsibility borne by our own country.

Yet you have, very impressively in my view, put the issue of diplomacy’s responsibility back on the agenda. It does in fact make a difference whether we engage in good or bad diplomacy, too much or too little. Whether we seek to maintain dialogue or bow out of talks prematurely. Whether we allow ourselves to be driven by the desire for escalation in the hope of improving our position in the short term – or whether we pursue the arduous path of de‑escalation.

That is the perspective from which today I view the outbreak of the war one hundred years ago. That is also the idea behind the entire series of events which the Federal Foreign Office and the German Historical Museum have organised for this year, and which is entitled, “Of the Failure of and the Need for Diplomacy”. It was a deliberate decision not only to refer to failure and looking back, but also to speak of the need for diplomacy and thus focus our eyes on the present and towards the future.

No, memorial events such as this evening’s proceedings are not incompatible with vigilance in the face of current crises. Awareness of the mistakes made one hundred years ago is what helps us to determine our position in conflicts such as the current one concerning Ukraine. For there is no question that we as Europeans must respond and will respond with decisive steps if the Russian leadership continues to choose the path of escalation. Yet there must also be no doubt about the fact that we will not set up our response as a one‑way street, but will also ensure that exits still remain open at all times. That is why we have made a deliberate decision that any sanctions should be imposed in stages. That is why we are continuing to work towards finding international formats for talks which allow for de‑escalation. The criticism that our talks and efforts have not to date produced a tangible result is bitter enough. But I could not live with the accusation that we had not even attempted to engage in dialogue. That is the lesson from the events of 1914, and one that I personally have drawn.

Professor Clark, I was pleased to read an optimistic contribution from you in Der Spiegel this week. You write that we are now wiser than we were one hundred years ago, and your answer to the question of whether we are currently in danger of sleepwalking into a new conflagration is a resounding “No”.

There are good reasons for this optimism. Franco‑German reconciliation and European unification are two of these. Today, commemoration of the First World War is no longer something that divides us from our neighbours, but something that unites us. On 25 April a debate will be held in another location, in Paris, as part of our series of events. Together with my French colleague we want to consider precisely this optimism – to discuss whether Europe is now immune from making the mistakes of 1914.

For those of us in positions of responsibility today, this is not a purely academic question. Professor Clark, your optimism is also a challenge for us. For we must live up to it! It is down to us to draw the right conclusions from our reflections on 1914 – in the current Crimea crisis, but also in the context of German and European foreign policy as a whole. It is down to us not to underestimate the power of diplomacy but to ensure that it can fully exploit its potential for peacekeeping and even peacebuilding. I am convinced that today’s debate, too, will give us further food for thought concerning what we should avoid in future and how we should definitely not proceed now and in the days to come.

I would like to thank the German Historical Museum and President Koch for his hospitality this evening and for cooperating with us on our programme of events. And I would also like to thank Mr Sturm from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who will now chair the discussion.

I have left the most important thing until last. And again, it is all a question of timing. Professor Clark, we would have been delighted to welcome you to our debate any time. But we consider it a very special honour that you have actually accepted our invitation on your birthday! Many happy returns of the day!

Of course we have organised a little present for you – although given the size of it we can hardly call it “little”! Here on the table you can see the eight volumes of the “Amtliche Kriegsdepeschen” (Official War Reports). I hope that you will enjoy reading them and that these sources will inspire you to conduct new research and gain fresh insights.

Congratulations once again, and thank you, everybody, for your attention!

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