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"Pegida has inflicted a great deal of damage abroad"

25.01.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper about Germany’s relations with Israel, the situation in the Middle East and Pegida, published on 25 January 2015.

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70 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, can Jews feel safe in Germany?

Yes they can, and it is our duty to ensure that this remains the case. We must never again allow members of the Jewish faith to be threatened here in Germany.

During the Gaza conflict, demonstrators of Arab origin were heard shouting “gas the Jews” in Germany. Has the open anti-Israel hate-mongering on German streets damaged our relations with Israel?

The bond of trust between Germany and Israel has grown ever stronger over recent decades. The Germans are aware that the monstrous crimes of the Shoa have left a permanent mark on our countries’ relations. I am grateful that exchange between Germans and Israelis is steadily intensifying. The fascinating metropolis of Tel Aviv is a popular travel destination among many young Germans, and every year, thousands of Israelis come to Germany. Ever more young Israelis live in Berlin, making our capital more lively. Some even choose Germany as their home, perhaps only temporarily. Who would have believed that to be possible after our terrible history?

President of the Central Council of Jews Josef Schuster has noticed a growing sense of unease amongst Jews. What does the German Government need to do?

In the short term, we must be resolute in using all the instruments of the rule of law to repudiate anti-Semitism. As politicians, it’s incumbent on us to ensure that the younger generations never forget the murder of millions of Jews. The long-term task is much harder, we must stop anti-Semitism from becoming lodged in the heads of young people. We can counter it by maintaining a culture of remembrance, through education and above all by facilitating contact and meetings.

How have you explained our special relationship with Israel to your daughter?

Fortunately, my daughter’s school taught her about the responsibility that rest with us considering the crimes of Nazi Germany at an early stage. It remains the task of parents to teach their children that we will never be able to draw a line under what happened. We can count ourselves lucky that after the barbaric acts of the Third Reich, after 70 million people died during the Second World War and after the killing of six million Jews, we have been welcomed back into the fold of the international community in the way that we have been today.

And now with the Pegida movement, tens of thousands of people are demonstrating against immigration and in favour of marginalising people...

Pegida’s attitude that in Germany there are certain things you can’t say and that people’s concerns are not being listened to annoys me. It’s simply not true. Ultimately, it’s nothing more than a pretence on which to sow fear with absurd demands. Unfortunately, this includes xenophobic and islamophobic hate-mongering.

What effect have the demonstrations had abroad?

Here in Germany we underestimate the degree of damage that has already been inflicted by Pegida’s xenophobic and racist slogans and posters. Whether we want it to or not, the world watches Germany very closely when it comes to these kinds of issues. We will keep clearly repeating that Pegida does not represent the silent majority and that Germany is and remains a country open to the world, that sympathises rather than turning a blind eye when millions of people are forced to flee.

Do people ask you about Pegida during your trips abroad?

Yes, I’m constantly asked about it. The events unfolding on our streets are being closely followed in many countries, which makes it all the more important for us to state in no uncertain terms that Pegida does not represent Germany.

How should German politicians deal with the situation – should they talk to Pegida or ignore it?

I speak to people who are disappointed, have concerns and feel disadvantaged just as many other politicians do. But I have no desire to talk to the self-appointed frontmen of Pegida. Some citizens are anxious. But why have the organisers of Pegida chosen the topic of asylum to take issue with? Quite simply because it’s easier to mobilise anxious people with “asylum” as a headline than by addressing complex topics such as the lack of infrastructure or our ageing population.

Tuesday will see the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin won’t be there. Is that right in light of the conflict in Ukraine?

Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. I’m sure that this is a very important day for Russia. But it’s not for us to comment on who takes part in the celebrations on behalf of different countries. I’m sure that it has nothing to do with the current conflict in Ukraine. 27 January is a day of shame for Germany. Germany recognises its historical responsibility for the Holocaust and the crimes committed by the Nazis against millions of people in Poland, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

In 2008 the Chancellor stated that Israel’s security was a part of Germany’s raison d’être. Does that mean that Germany would have to send soldiers if Israel were to be attacked?

In light of its history, Germany has a special relationship with Israel and has a special responsibility for the existence and security of the Jewish state. That constitutes one of our defining features and has always served as the basis for our relations with Israel as well as our policy in the region. And I think that Israel knows that Germany will always live up to its responsibility.

There is no solution to the Middle East conflict in sight. What needs to happen?

After the elections in Israel we need a new start for the peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is an illusion to hope that maintaining the status quo can provide security for Israel in the long run. If nothing changes, then there’s no doubt that the fourth Gaza war will not be the last. We need a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Gaza which can pave the way for serious talks on a two-state solution to be relaunched. I very much hope that the Americans can facilitate a new start, and they can count on Europe’s full support in this endeavour.

The terrorist militia ISIS is advancing in the Middle East. How dangerous is that for Israel?

ISIS is a terrorist group which has brought barbarity and slavery back to the Middle East. Entire villages have been razed to the ground, women raped and hostages decapitated. ISIS wants supremacy in the Islamic world and the establishment of a caliphate. This primarily poses a threat to Islamic states themselves. Yet although the violence perpetrated by ISIS is not currently directed at Israel, the civil war and chaos in the region do put Israel at risk in the long term. That is another reason why we must stop ISIS.

Reproduced with the kind permission of BILD.

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