Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the “Europäische Erinnerungskulturen” (European Commemoration) conference in the Weltsaal at the Federal Foreign Office

17.12.2014 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our topic this evening is the presence of the past in our various European cultures of remembrance – and how it influences our thinking and actions.

Tonight’s event is the final act in the anniversary year of 2014 in which we have been commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. We are concluding our series of events on the topic of “1914 – 2014. Of the Failure of and the Need for Diplomacy”, in which Herfried Münkler, Christopher Clark, Gerd Krumeich, Kevin Rudd, Laurent Fabius, Michael Thumann, Adam Krzemiński and Igor Narskij – to name just a few – took part with great dedication and passion.

At the same time, we are bringing the two-day European Commemoration conference here at the Federal Foreign Office to a close.


Ladies and gentlemen, the anniversary year may be coming to an end, but the past remains present. This year has certainly brought that home to us in full force. History did not end in 1989 with the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. Some people may have dreamed of this “end of history”, but I suppose none of us ever really believed in it.

This year’s radical upheavals in foreign policy have certainly shattered the hypothesis of the “end of history”. At the same time, these upheavals have shown us more clearly than any anniversary or commemorative event that European history continues to cast a long shadow to this day.

Twelve months ago, who would have thought that the anniversary year of 2014 would itself go down in the history of our continent? Hardly anyone, I imagine. At the start of our series of events here at the Federal Foreign Office almost exactly a year ago, I myself said that a war in Europe had become inconceivable. But something made me add, “However, ladies and gentlemen, this was also once the case, 100 years ago.”

And this is what has happened. Nowhere has this become clearer than in the crisis in Ukraine that has been keeping us in suspense for almost exactly a year. This crisis is intrinsically linked to a complex historical background.


The events in Ukraine also shine a glaring spotlight on how much we still need to learn about our neighbours in Europe and their cultures of remembrance. This is particularly true for Russia because regardless of whether it is a friend or foe, a partner or an opponent, Russia will still be our neighbour, no matter what happens. With this thought in mind, I travelled to Yekaterinburg last week to keep the channels of communication open.

Ladies and gentlemen, halting the crisis in Ukraine requires clear and also tough action. It requires a resolute stance on principles, as well as clear judgement, also when complex matters have to be weighed up.

Today, this also involves spelling out to our Russian neighbours, in no uncertain terms, that the attempt to revise borders 70 years after the end of the Second World War in Europe – and to revise them unilaterally, without respect for national sovereignty and without reference to the processes of the international community – is no way to treat each other!

But it is also true that more is needed to point a way out of the crisis, indeed to resolve a crisis peacefully. This also requires the ability to understand others and the willingness to consider their view of history.

Obviously, this does not mean justifying the actions that other people extrapolate from their interpretation of history. However, it does mean thinking about what motivates them.

Let’s be honest. Here in Germany we often still have only a vague idea of how people in Ukraine and Russia feel when they look back at the past. Just take the First World War, for example.

Who in Germany can gauge the far-reaching repercussions of the Ukrainian state being formed on the points of German bayonets in 1918, or of the defeat of that first Ukrainian state of the modern era being defeated by the Red Army not long afterwards? And have we truly understood which internal conflicts broke out in Ukraine at the end of the war, and how they continue to have an impact today?

What do we know about how profoundly war and revolution have shaped Russian society? On an emotional level, can we understand how the history of the erstwhile Russian Empire reverberates today in Moscow, St Petersburg or Yekaterinburg and how some people in Russia ask themselves how it might be possible to build on this past in the world of the 21st century?

We need to look far more closely at such questions than we have done so far in order to interpret the events in Ukraine correctly. The anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which we will mark on 8 May 2015, will give us plenty of scope to do so.

We will only be able to take the crucial step, that is, to restore communication, once we understand the lessons our neighbours take from the past, as well as the dreams and traumas their history has left them.

This is not only a matter for historians. We diplomats in particular need to understand these issues. The July Crisis of 1914 showed us all too clearly where a breakdown in communication between diplomats can lead in the worst case. When words failed and the channels of communication collapsed, the two shots in Sarajevo were enough to plunge the entire world into the abyss.

No, understanding something doesn’t mean one sympathises with it – and it certainly doesn’t mean one agrees with it! But understanding is the prerequisite for communication – and without communication, it is not possible to end a conflict. Understanding is the fundamental requirement for critical dialogue – and without critical dialogue, it is not possible to resolve a dispute peacefully.


Because this task is so challenging, I am glad that you chose the plural for the German title of today’s event: “Erinnerungskulturen” (cultures of remembrance) rather than “Erinnerungskultur” (culture of remembrance).

If you had used the singular, the conference would have been very different. Although this summer’s joint memorial ceremonies on the battlefields of the First World War were important and moving, there cannot be and there will not be a shared memory of the 20th century any time soon because our forefathers experienced this history too differently and because this history continues to have such a different impact on our countries to this day.

This has also become obvious in the Ukraine crisis. Just think about the different viewpoints within the European Union – in Warsaw, Paris or Berlin. Our historical experiences with each other, with Europe and with Russia have affected us differently. The western part of Germany did not have to live under the yoke of the Soviet Union – but Poland had a completely different experience, and things were different again in France.

We need to listen very carefully to the historical echoes resounding in our neighbouring countries. We need to understand the historical backdrop against which our Polish neighbours in particular view the crisis in Ukraine. Naturally, this is reflected in the ways and means we conduct foreign policy. Naturally, this means that we interpret events differently time and again.

But what counts is what connects us in the European Union despite differences between us, that is, the determination to stand and act together in the here and now despite our different cultures of remembrance. It is precisely this determination to stand united that provides the inner logic and the heartbeat of the European Union. And this logic is proving its worth, even in the acid test of the crisis in Ukraine. If we can draw one encouraging thought from this crisis, then this is it.

For this reason, it is not desirable or necessary that we turn our different cultures of remembrance into a “uniform narrative”. What matters is something completely different, namely openness – without false relativism – to how our neighbours view history. What matters is respect for the fact that the dreams and traumas our neighbours have as a result of this history are not the same as ours. What matters is the shared willingness to provide joint answers to the questions of our time, despite different views of the past.


Ladies and gentlemen, we should never forget one thing. Europe’s history may cast a long shadow. One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, this history may be confronting us with extremely difficult foreign policy tasks. But it is up to us to determine the future of this history.

Diplomacy does make a difference, be it for better or for worse. This is why we need to act responsibly and to weigh up consequences with a level head. We need the tools and the willingness to explore compromises and to resolve conflicts – all things that were lacking on the eve of the First World War.

And no matter how difficult this task sometimes is, as historians and foreign policy makers we should take to heart what the Israeli historian Menachem Ben-Sasson told me a few days ago: “History does not only cast shadows on the present. It also casts light.”

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