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Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp

19.04.2015 - Speech

“We lived in fear of the SS every day. We had no doubt that, in the end, they would murder us as witnesses of their crimes.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is a child describing his fear. A fear that makes his blood run cold, every day anew.

Saul Oren was 14 years old when he was brought from Auschwitz to the sickbay of Sachsenhausen concentration camp together with a group of Jewish children. The children had been selected for medical experiments to be carried out on them. They were then tortured. Fluids were injected into the children and a hepatitis vaccine was tested out on them. The young people suffered febrile convulsions and faintness.

Saul Oren would later come to describe the fact that he survived the hell of Sachsenhausen as a miracle. Tens of thousands of others died in Sachsenhausen; they were tortured and murdered here where we now stand today.***

Dear Saul Oren,
Dear Roger Bordage,
And all of those with us here today who experienced and survived the horror of Sachsenhausen:

We are humble and grateful that you have returned to this place today to bear living witness to the most terrible chapter of German history.

The crimes of the National Socialist regime are without parallel. They make us shudder. The murder of millions of Europe’s Jews, the crime against humanity that was the Shoah. The murder and persecution of Roma and Sinti, of homosexuals, of people with disabilities, of political activists, of people who thought differently, looked differently, prayed differently and acted differently than what the National Socialists dictated.

You, ladies and gentlemen, experienced the unimaginable – humiliation, hunger and loss – first hand. The mortal fear that Saul Oren so vividly describes. We bow our heads before you. And we are grateful to you for reminding us of our obligation to never again allow such injustice. Never again.

***

This concentration camp stands for the monstrosity of a regime that institutionalised terror.

In the summer of 1936, while Hitler was being feted by the masses at the Olympic Games in Berlin, hundreds of concentration camp inmates were forced, using the most primitive of tools, to clear a pine forest for a new, murderous project just a few kilometres away from the stadium. The “most beautiful concentration camp in Germany”, as the Sachsenhausen’s architect so maliciously put it, was to be constructed here in close proximity to the capital of the German Reich. It was to be modern and entirely state-of-the-art, Heinrich Himmler ordained.

The plans for Sachsenhausen themselves make us shudder. Here, the aim was to achieve “functionality”, as well as the best architecture for realising barbarous objectives. Symmetrically designed prison huts and watchtowers aimed to achieve total control and surveillance. A novel topography of terror was thus created. And it was from here, from Sachsenhausen, that the terror was directed bureaucratically as this became the administrative hub of the entire concentration camp system from 1938. This place where we stand today bears witness to the terror of a machinery in which inhumane crimes were planned and routinely administered according to functional criteria.

Political opponents of the National Socialist regime were Sachsenhausen’s first inmates. Later on, they were followed by ever greater numbers of members of groups that the National Socialists had declared to be racially or biologically inferior – Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, so‑called “anti‑social” people, those who were “work‑shy” and “career criminals”. From 1939, tens of thousands of people from the occupied countries, foreign forced labourers and allied prisoners of war were deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Today, we commemorate the liberation of Sachsenhausen 70 years ago. In April 1945, around 3000 prisoners were liberated – emaciated, critically ill people, all of them utterly exhausted. The Soviet and Polish soldiers who entered the camp were confronted by a terrible picture of unimaginable brutality.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

You, who survived the terror of the camps, the fetters and chains, the daily torture of the guards, were liberated. However, you were not set free from the pain of these dreadful memories. Pain that, as so many of you describe, you still carry deep within you today.

Noach Flug, who survived the death march from Auschwitz as a young man and did such impressive work to keep the memory alive over the course of many years as President of the International Auschwitz Committee, once said that memory “has no expiry date, and you cannot decree that it has been dealt with or brought to a conclusion”.

Memory has no expiry date. This thought should guide us when we commemorate the end of the Second World War this year.

Seventy years ago, Germany was liberated from the inhumane National Socialist regime. That is how former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker put it in his speech 30 years ago, thereby opening up a new way for us Germans to come to terms with the past: not by suppressing this memory, but by actively remembering our difficult history, and thereby helping Germany to find its identity.

And so 8 May 1945 does not stand for the liberation of Germans from the past, but rather it is a liberation that helps us to face up to the past and to learn from it. So that we can shoulder responsibility, consciously aware of our past.

But what does this responsibility mean in practice?

For me, it means standing up to injustice, to all forms of xenophobia and discrimination. Because it is up to us to decide what the country we want to live in together, 70 years after the terror of the Shoah, should be like.

Do we want to live in a country in which anti‑Semitism and discrimination continue to exist? In which shelters for asylum seekers are set ablaze? In which a young man is beaten up in the Berlin underground because he is a Jew? A country in which people roam the streets in packs and rant at everything they presume to be foreign with inarticulate slogans?

Is that what we want our country to be like?

It is clear to me that this is not the tolerant country that the large majority of Germans stand for. However, all of the things I mentioned are happening here in Germany. And this shows that the work that started with Weizsäcker’s speech about liberation is far from complete.

Our liberation in 1945 and our rebirth into the European and international community underpin our special obligation for those human and political principles that Germany abused so singularly here in Sachsenhausen and elsewhere.

This responsibility applies to the heart of our society and to our role in the world in equal measure.

A country that – after all the suffering and injustice that was caused around the world from here – was given the chance to return to prosperity and international partnership, this country especially, cannot turn a blind eye when conflicts and violence run rampant around the world today and millions of people are forced to flee their homes.

Our foreign policy commitment to tackle these crises and to work to achieve an international order in which rules of the game foster peace and understanding also stems from the awareness of our German past. This is a principle to which German policy makers are committed – a principle that, and I want to be quite clear about this, also has no expiry date.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

What can emerge from a responsible approach to the past is demonstrated by another, quite special and astonishing anniversary that we are marking this year: the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel.

Standing here before you in Sachsenhausen today, at “Station Z”, the place where Jewish inmates were sent to their deaths, then it truly seems a miracle that Germany and Israel are united in friendship today.

Getting there wasn’t easy. A great deal of patience and time were necessary to allow trust to grow beyond the abyss of the past. A joint path became possible because the country of the persecuted reached out a hand to the country of the persecutors – hesitant at first, and then determined.

This was also made possible by the fact that my country acknowledged and continues to acknowledge its historical guilt, and because we acknowledge our current responsibility with respect to Israel’s right to exist.

When I travel to Israel, I sometimes marvel at just how far Germany and Israel have come on this joint path even today. When, in 1965, Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations, they regarded each other warily. Today, my German and Israeli cabinet colleagues and I meet around a big table once a year (and far more regularly around smaller tables) to hold discussions and work on new, joint projects. At our meetings, we not only engage in serious discussions, but also laugh and argue, just like good friends do.

Today, 70 years after the liberation of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the end of the Nazi regime of terror, Germany and Israel are united by a special and unique friendship – one that is carried by people on both sides. Above all, and I am particularly delighted by this, by young people.

Around 9000 young people take part in exchange programmes each year. We have Israeli interns working in the German Bundestag and German volunteers looking after patients in Israeli care homes. Artists from Tel Aviv and Berlin are swapping studios and scientific teams are working together.

And everyone who boards an underground train in Berlin these days is familiar with the sound of Israeli visitors enthusiastically discussing their experiences of Berlin. One in four Israelis have friends in Germany; among the younger generation, almost one in two have been here themselves – that at least according to a recent survey.

I am delighted that Jewish life is flourishing once more in Germany – that Rabbis are being ordained again and that young Jews are celebrating their culture and religion here. Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of Jewish children and young people met for the Jewrovision Festival in Cologne to sing and dance together.

The fact that they are doing so, and the fact that so many young Israelis are curious about the country that inflicted so much suffering on their families, should fill us with both humility and joy.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

Memory has no expiry date. This applies to German‑Israeli relations. And this also applies to how we teach our young generations to approach their own German past responsibly.

At the same time, it is getting ever more difficult to keep this memory alive as, unfortunately, ever fewer survivors of the National Socialist terror remain to recount their experiences themselves.

The work of remembrance that you, Professor Morsch, and many others do at foundations and organisations, is therefore incredibly valuable. You and your staff ensure that the personal stories of victims of terrible suffering do not die with them and go unheard and that the sites of National Socialist terror such as here in Sachsenhausen are preserved as a visible warning.

So that we can learn from them.

Only very few people have issued as stark a warning as the famous Polish author Andrzej Szczypiorski. As a young fighter in the Warsaw Uprising, he was deported to Sachsenhausen, and was one of the 3000 people to be liberated in April 1945.

Twenty years ago, he stood here and issued a moving plea against forgetting.

“I know one thing”, Szczypiorski said. “And that is that the Europe of the future cannot exist without remembering all those ... who were murdered, tortured to death, starved, gassed, burned or hanged back then in hatred and scorn, or who died on the fields of battle in the face of such contempt. This is why we are here today.” His sentiments, this warning from Sachsenhausen, have lost none of their currency.

Thank you.

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