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Participants in the History Campus,
“History will teach us nothing.”
That’s the title of a well‑known song by Sting from the year 1987. The song calls on us to shake off the past once and for all, to free ourselves from historical compulsions and automatic reactions. Sting sings: “Without freedom from the past, things can only get worse.”
Sting was not the first to say something along those lines. My French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, recently pointed out to me that the great French poet Paul Valéry said something very similar about the origins of the First World War. He believed that history could teach only one lesson: that nations and governments learnt nothing from it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the fact that you are here today makes me think that you agree with me that maybe this opinion expressed by Sting and Valéry wasn’t meant to be as simple as it may at first appear.
So it is an even greater pleasure to welcome you to the History Campus here in the German Historical Museum.
400 aspiring young historians from 40 countries in Europe and North Africa have gathered here in Berlin to discuss what the dreadful history of the First World War means for the present.
This premiere in itself is encouraging. It fits well with this 9 May, when we celebrate the anniversary of Robert Schuman’s historic speech, a speech which drew the correct conclusions after the horrors of two World Wars and paved the way for European integration. It signals confidence on this 9 May, when we are struggling with the serious crisis in Ukraine.
As Foreign Minister it is clear to me on a daily basis that understanding is vital for successful foreign policy. So I find it rather preposterous that some commentators just now are deeming understanding an absurdity.
Anyone who wants to resolve a conflict needs understanding. And to reach an understanding you may not need to agree, but you do need to understand.
The United Nations comprises almost 200 states. If we were to maintain relations only with those of these 200 states with which we are in full political agreement, then I think the Federal Foreign Office could move into a much smaller building. And we could save on the expensive rents for quite a few of our embassies as well.
Only those who are prepared to look at the world through others’ eyes can reach understanding. Henry Kissinger called it “perception”.
When I look at the history of 1914, I am shocked at the failure of a diplomacy which had lost its ability to understand and reach understanding. Max Weber summed this up bluntly when he wrote in 1914: “Hundreds of thousands are bleeding for the appalling incompetence of our diplomacy.”
Of course history never repeats itself exactly. We always have the chance to intervene. And that’s precisely why it’s worth taking a conscious look at the past.
One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, we have on our continent a framework for peace based on reconciliation and good-neighbourliness. This joint achievement by the countries of Europe can only give us encouragement in the tasks facing us today. This applies particularly with regard to the dramatic situation in Ukraine, where it seems we are facing the most difficult foreign-policy crisis Europe has seen since the end of the Second World War.
Perhaps that’s actually what Sting wants to say. So next time you put on an old Sting record – they’re probably still lying about somewhere in your parents’ record cabinet – then you’ll be doing something for your history studies.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very much looking forward to our discussions today!