Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the event “Does History Repeat Itself? How does the July 2014 Crisis Compare with Current Security Issues in East Asia?” at the German Historical Museum

10.04.2014 - Speech

-- translation of advance text --

Kevin Rudd,
Mr Koch,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here once again! And I am delighted that we have a full house. It is Kevin Rudd who has probably had the longest journey. Kevin, thank you for coming from China to be with us here in Berlin!

“History will teach us nothing.” If that sounds familiar to you, I can help you by telling you that it comes from a well-known Sting song from 1987. The song calls on us to shake off the past once and for all, to free ourselves from historical compulsions and automatic reactions. As, according to what Sting sings: “Without freedom from the past, things can only get worse.”

Does history have nothing to teach us? It has not only been since Sting’s song, or since the 1980s, that this question has caused a stir. For example, Hegel gave us the bon mot that history had only one thing to teach us, namely that peoples and states never learned from it.

Yet if we really cannot learn anything from history then what is the point of a series of events like this, which has brought us to the German Historical Museum this evening (at this point I would like to extend a warm thanks to our host, the President of the Museum, Professor Koch!).

What is the point of us meeting, now for the third time this year, to remember the outbreak of the First World War one hundred years ago, to discuss the factors that shaped the events and to attempt to fathom out their consequences?

You may have guessed that we, having invited you here today, would answer the question about what history can teach us slightly differently – with all respect for Hegel! and regardless of what Sting says.

And you may have guessed that we know our guest of honour at our side here today also agrees with us, as otherwise he would not have made the long journey.

Kevin Rudd, I know from our many meetings over the course of past years that you have excellent knowledge of East Asia, and as such you caused quite a furore a few months ago with your article in the magazine Foreign Affairs. You asked the question of whether the East China Sea of today was not to a certain extent a maritime Balkans of the 21st century.

Whether the developments which we see there – for instance the partly overlapping, partly competing alliances and loyalties, the ever closer integration of economies and populations whilst at the same time the growing nationalism, the stark isolation from one another – whether all of these developments cannot be compared with the highly complex situation in the Balkans exactly one hundred years ago.

And in all debates which you sparked: you are not alone in thinking this. I remember that Henry Kissinger, so to speak the ultimate old hand of American diplomacy, also referred to similar parallels in the epilogue of his hefty tome “On China”.

Asking questions, uncovering parallels – this does not mean fashioning analogies and equating them to one another. Here in Germany, we know better than anyone else how quickly false or forced historical comparisons can backfire.

I am sure that Kevin Rudd knows this too. And nonetheless in the conclusion of his article he writes that “Europe is a cautionary tale.”

This is exactly what learning from history is about – reflecting on, understanding and discussing experiences from the past in order to see and evade possible dangers in the present. History does not automatically repeat itself. We have the chance to intervene, and this makes it worth looking back!

There is no question that if you want to apply history to the present in a useful way you must examine it very carefully. The so-called moral of the story is also always the moral viewed by the storyteller. We view 1914 from our own perspective. We ask questions which are of interest to us and which spring to mind. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren in 50 and 100 years will attend events on completely different topics and who knows what questions they will be asking.

However when I look back to 1914, with my own eyes and with the background of my own experiences, one thing in particular worries me, namely the failure of diplomacy. This cumulative lack of communication, this inability to grasp the other party’s position, to predict its reaction. Max Weber summed this up bluntly when he wrote a letter to his colleague Ferdinand Tönnies in 1914: “Hundreds of thousands are bleeding for the appalling incompetence of our diplomacy.” By this he surely also meant foreign policy! And without drawing rash analogies let me nonetheless say one thing: we should not allow such a reproach to enjoy any justification in the context of contemporary crises.

As soon as today’s event comes to an end I will be boarding a plane for East Asia. To exactly the place that Kevin Rudd is going to speak to us about. There, in Japan as well as in China, I will take part in various panel discussions, and so for me this evening is not only exciting – it is the perfect preparation!

As what I can take with me to Asia is not advice from thousands of kilometres away, that is something our Asian friends do not need, but what I can do is tell them about our experiences and about the lessons that we Europeans have drawn from our bloody history. I can tell them about the framework for peace that we have laboriously constructed over decades of work, and after endless suffering and millions upon millions of deaths – by refraining from nationalist zeal, using reconciliation and being good neighbours, with Ostpolitik and the CSCE, with European integration, the collapse of communism and the rapprochement between East and West. I can tell them about the experience we have in defusing ‘powder keg’ situations and, with Ukraine in mind, that we are not yet successful enough at doing so!

The famous British military historian John Keegan starts his story of the Great War fairly tersely, with the sentence: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Such a laconic statement sends a chill down the reader’s spine. So let me add that it would be all the more unnecessary if we do not learn any lessons from it, meaning it is both our job and our responsibility to do so.

And this is also how I understand Kevin Rudd’s call – look at European history, he asks his Asian friends, and see what you should not do! Or in his own words: Europe’s history is “worthy of reflection”.

Kevin Rudd, I am very interested to hear what you have to say and look forward to the ensuing discussion, which Michael Paul from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik will moderate and commentate with his customary expertise. I hope we all enjoy this evening!

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