Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and current foreign policy issues. Published on 29 September in the Czech daily newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.
Where were you on 30 September 1989 and how did you experience this day? What were your feelings when you heard the news from the Prague Embassy?
Back then, I was in the final stages of my doctoral thesis and spent most of my time buried underneath a pile of books. But I was also following the events that summer with a great deal of excitement, of course. When discussing the news from the GDR, Hungary and Czechoslovakia together with my housemates, we were both hopeful and worried. We wondered just how much of an impact this exodus would have.
When I visit Prague now as Foreign Minister and see the balcony at the German Embassy, I always hear the words spoken by then Foreign Minister Genscher in my mind again – the words that set the refugees free and were almost drowned by cheers and wild rejoicing. Twenty‑five years later, that evening remains as fascinating as ever to me. And acts of commemoration in Prague remind us time and again of the important role that our European neighbours played in these events.
How did you experience the day the Wall came down?
We were all sitting in front of the television and watched in disbelief as SED functionary Schabowski announced the new travel regulations for East Germans. The moving pictures of people climbing to freedom over the embassy fence in Prague just a few weeks previously were now suddenly repeated in the centre of Berlin as the Wall ceased to be a border between East and West. Not long afterwards, I attended a symposium in Potsdam where we discussed what the constitution of a unified Germany should look like. A political process with incredible dynamism began, in Germany as well as throughout Europe.
What three things spring to mind when you hear the acronym “GDR”?
There is a statue of a Trabant on legs in the garden of the German Embassy in Prague. It recalls the many cars that East Germans abandoned on Prague’s streets on the day they fled to the Embassy. But it is impossible to boil the complex history of German division down to three things. It is important to me that, during these anniversary days, our focus is on remembering the courage of the people who left their homes and who brought an end to repression.
Which German politicians made the biggest contribution to German reunification? Helmut Kohl is often referred to as the “Chancellor of Unity”, but what about the people we sometimes forget?
For us as Germans – as well the Czech people – the lifting of the Iron Curtain is an abiding source of joy bestowed on us and the whole of Europe. Of course there were the “great men” of history who proved themselves here. But what I find even more inspiring is the thought that the foundations of German reunification lay in the strength of contacts between civil societies – contacts which had, unnoticed by some, grown across borders. The democratic idea of freedom flowed through these networks, leading to solidarity between European citizens.
In the 1990s, a new sense of trust between the West and Russia emerged that has now been shattered. Do you believe it is possible that Moscow will enjoy a good working relationship with Berlin in the future? Is close cooperation conceivable under Vladimir Putin?
With its annexation of Crimea, a violation of international law, and its actions in eastern Ukraine, Russia has called the peaceful order in Europe into question and has eroded a great deal of trust. Even if it is very difficult to imagine close cooperation based on trust between our two nations at the moment, Russia is and will remain Europe’s biggest neighbour, and we need to ensure that neighbourly relations between us are as fruitful as possible. Our main priority now is to take steps to avoid an open military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and ensure that the conflict over eastern Ukraine is defused.
What does “responsibility of the West” mean to you? What should the West do in Iraq and what role can Germany play?
The terrorist barbarism of ISIS is not only endangering the Iraqi state, but also the entire Middle East and us here in Europe. We must therefore ask ourselves what role we can play – Germany is doing its part in the fight against ISIS. The West’s humanitarian and military contributions are important, but only go so far. What we need is a broad political strategy that is, above all, based in the region and is supported by Iraq’s neighbours and other Arab states. ISIS can only be successfully countered by stabilising Iraq with the inclusion of all regional and ethnic groups, stemming the flow of fighters and funds to ISIS and debunking ISIS’ abuse of religion.
Do you foresee German cooperation regarding military operations in Iraq, Syria or other countries in the future?
After an intensive and painstaking decision‑making process, we have decided not only to support Iraq with humanitarian aid, but also, in consultation with the Government in Baghdad, to supply Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq with weapons to help them defend themselves against ISIS. Other ideas are currently not up for debate.
Will Germany play an active role in the world almost 25 years after reunification?
Twenty‑five years after German reunification, there is no special status for Germany for us to hide behind. The German economy is doing relatively well. As the biggest country at the heart of the EU, Germany has proven to be politically stable also in times of crisis. As such, the world’s expectations of us are increasing, also because the international community is currently facing great challenges posed by the various crises in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This not only applies to Germany, but to the European Union as a whole. This is why it is important for us, as Europeans, to combine our efforts and speak with one voice.