Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the event “Their Last Battle – Declining Empires as a Security Risk” at the German Historical Museum

13.06.2014 - Speech

--- Translation of advance text ---

Mr Koch,
Adam Krzemiński,
Igor Narskij,
Ladies and gentlemen!

The fight for group supremacy is under way in Brazil as we speak – and yet you are here. I’m impressed!

We were warned when we were planning this event. Nobody’ll turn up during the World Cup, they said, and certainly not on the second day of group matches, when football fever has just kicked off. We, however, together with the German Historical Museum, insisted that people would come ... as long as it wasn’t the final with Germany playing.

That confidence didn’t come from nothing. Our commemorative events at the German Historical Museum in 2014 have allowed me to witness frequently how deeply interested people are in the failure of and the need for diplomacy. A hundred years after the start of World War I, have we learned the right lessons? Is it true that a European catastrophe like 1914 is no longer possible? We are here in the Schlüterhof to discuss those questions for the fourth time.

Today, we are talking about the East of Europe – a region where the importance of speaking and acting with sense and moderation is particularly clear at the present time.

Let’s be honest, here in Germany we often have only a vague idea of the way the Polish and Russian peoples remember and commemorate the First World War. Who in this country is aware that the Poles were forced to fight against one another in the armies of three different empires? Who can imagine how profoundly war and revolution shaped Russian society?

And who in Germany can trace the far-reaching repercussions of the Ukrainian state being formed on the points of German bayonets in 1918, or of that first Ukrainian state of the modern era being defeated by the Red Army not long afterwards?

Our guests this evening are prepared to seek answers to those difficult questions. My sincere thanks for that to Adam Krzemiński and Igor Narskij, who will be sharing insights from Poland and Russia into the imperial power struggles at the start of the First World War and perhaps beyond.

I can’t always remember all the things that my school teachers hoped I’d learn. But I do have a very clear memory of the different chapters in my history textbook. Covering the turn of the century, there was the era of imperialism. The next chapter dealt with the First World War. I am aware today of how problematic simplistic headlines can be, especially in historiography. Nonetheless, in that case my school book wasn’t far off the mark.

Around 1900, the political elites in almost all of Europe were firmly convinced that you needed to stake out a sphere to exert power over if you were to safeguard your future as a nation. Similar maxims reigned in the cabinet rooms of the great European capitals.

That was the logic that led the competition for colonies, for a place in the sun, pursued above all by Britain, France and Germany. Some in the German Reich fantasised about a great central European sphere of influence stretching into the Far East – and financed the railway to Baghdad. Fearing they might fall behind on the international stage, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were all the more determined to defend “their” influence in the Balkans tooth and nail. In Russia, plagued by domestic instability since at least 1905, influential circles dreamed of the political unification of all Slavs.

Sooner or later, those different imperial ambitions were bound to collide. One of the underlying motifs in the run-up to catastrophe in 1914 was the same at all the pivotal points across Europe: nearly everyone who had a voice in foreign policy, diplomacy or military affairs a hundred years ago thought in terms of spheres of influence.

That way of thinking was outdated even then, as the economic data show. The experts have calculated that the global economy was as interconnected in the years before 1914 as it would not be again until the 1980s. Germany’s trade with its alleged so vital colonies was negligible. The Reich primarily owed its huge levels of economic growth to doing good business with its European neighbours, above all with its number one trading partner, the United Kingdom.

Europe’s social and cultural development also followed a pattern that had less and less to do with national spheres of influence in the years preceding the war.

One snapshot will show just how much was possible on this continent long before the Erasmus programme came along. Shortly before the turn of the century, a young Polish woman called Marie Salomea Skłodowska made her own way from what was then Vistula Land to Paris. She became a student of the Sorbonne, married a French researcher and began her own scientific career. As Marie Curie, she soon revolutionised the fields of physics and chemistry. Her ground-breaking work was recognised with two Nobel Prizes in 1903 and 1911. Marie Curie was an exception, of course, but her story nonetheless depicts the development of a sense of living as a European.

This was a continent where writers like Stefan Zweig or Romain Rolland had long ceased thinking of themselves as citizens of the native lands; they were Europeans. This had little to do with the nationalism inherent in the political apparatus.

The diplomatic elites of the times failed to take account of these revolutions and innovations in the economic, social and cultural spheres. They remained stuck in a way of thinking that centred around ideas of national power. It was out of date even then – and yet it was to become the signature tune of twentieth-century foreign affairs.

Looking back, it is particularly depressing to note that not even the horrors of the First World War were enough to cure Europe’s diplomats once and for all of their erroneous belief that creating spheres of influence was the way to control the balance of power.

On the contrary, each side’s sense of injustice suffered at the other’s hands added to the growth of ideologies in the interwar years. However much they differed, they eerily all agreed on one point. They were obsessed with the fixed idea of needing to defend and expand the areas where they exerted power – with disastrous consequences for millions of people across our continent.

The epitome of that are the crimes against humanity perpetrated in pursuit of the Nazi policy of expanding German “Lebensraum”.

The Soviet Union also remained stuck in the sphere-of-influence mentality right up until it collapsed. Only once the Cold War was over and the cynical logic of a balance of terror had crumbled did the nightmare that was the “short twentieth century”, of which World War I had been the first horrific climax, come to an end for our continent.

Today, a hundred years later, regressing into that nightmare would be doubly tragic. For one thing, thinking about foreign policy in terms of spheres of influence and power blocs did immeasurable harm to our continent in the twentieth century. For another, that mentality is less capable than ever of reflecting our fragile global order with its ever closer network of cultural, social and economic ties.

It is therefore all the more important, particularly in politically difficult times, not to break off dialogue between our civil societies but to deepen it. That’s one reason why tonight’s discussion among historians is so vital. That’s also why it was important for us to launch a German Russian Language Year on Pushkin’s birthday last week, even in the face of the crisis in Ukraine.

Tonight is about more than an interesting discussion of our shared and sometimes horrific history. It is about improving mutual understanding of what is important to us as Germans, Poles and Russians. Radek Sikorski, Sergey Lavrov and I were working on that at our meeting in St Petersburg earlier this week. All of these things are crucial to preventing new polarisation in Europe.

I am all the more grateful to Adam Krzemiński and Igor Narskij for joining us. I also thank Almut Möller for agreeing to chair.

I am sure you will not regret passing up a World Cup match! A very warm welcome to you all.

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