Address by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the performance of the War Requiem in the Berliner Dom on 28 June 2014
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Ladies and gentlemen,
One hundred years ago today in Sarajevo, 19‑year‑old grammar school student Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shots at Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie.
That day, 28 June 1914, turned the world upside down. Nationalist zeal, the failure of diplomacy and the disastrous yearning for status in Europe’s cabinets pulled the whole of Europe down into the abyss of the First World War in the weeks following the assassination.
On 4 August, three days after the European powers had set the cogs of war in motion, the then Senior Court Chaplain Ernst von Dryander justified the looming war as a “fight for our culture (...) against barbarity”.
He did so here in the Berliner Dom.
A hundred years later the emotive power of such incendiary rhetoric has faded away. No century has seen as much culture destroyed as the 20th, and never before had the world been forced to experience such limitless and inhumane barbarity. What remains for us is to pay tribute for the victims. More than 15 million soldiers died on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918. Millions of civilians – men, women and children lost their lives during the dark years of this first global war. As Erich Maria Remarque wrote: a whole generation of young Europeans was obliterated.
Looking back, one aspect is particularly sobering – not even the horrors of the First World War were enough to cure Europe’s diplomats of their erroneous belief in controllable wars or free them from the manic grip of nationalism.
The crimes against humanity perpetrated by the National Socialists, who once again inflicted death and suffering on Europe and the world from 1939 to 1945 demonstrate this in an astounding manner.
The theme the “pity of war” served as an introduction to Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”. Composed after 1945 in remembrance of four fallen friends and played for the first time in Coventry’s cathedral, previously destroyed by German bombs, his requiem has become a musical tribute to those who died in both World Wars.
What befell these many victims of the 20th century obliges us today to learn lessons from our history and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, 75 years after Germany’s invasion of Poland and 25 years after the end of the Cold War we must make a stand against a new division of Europe. A “peaceful and united Europe” is not just one of the many results of lessons learnt from the past, it is above all the best answer that we have to the questions of the present. Evenings such as this one make us acutely aware of this.
And for this I would like to thank Berlin’s choir society, the German War Graves Commission and the Berliner Dom.