Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the exhibition “1945 – Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning” at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum).

23.04.2015 - Speech

Professor Koch,

Ms Peers and Ms Quinkert,

Dear Roger Bordage,

Dear guests, ladies and gentlemen!

Europe, 1945.

Defeat – and a new beginning.

Victory – and expulsion.

Joy – and despair.

Independence – and imprisonment.

Reconstruction – and complete exhaustion.

None of us who were born after 1945 can gauge the depth of collective memory, fully grasp what was experienced, or see the immense shadows cast by this year that extend to the present day.

This exhibition does not attempt to do that. When you, dear guests, enter it, as you will do shortly, you will be overwhelmed in the first room by a multitude of impressions – images, numbers, and even sounds. But the exhibition will help you find your way. There are people who will guide you! You will be led through the rooms as you trace the stories of 36 individuals from 12 European countries.

For example, the Frenchman Roger Godfrin, who at the age of eight was the only pupil to survive the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Or the resistance fighter Henriette Bie Lorentzen, who after the war played a central role in rebuilding her home country Norway as publisher of the women's magazine “Women and Time”. She developed the idea to create this magazine while imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp near Berlin!

People like the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak, who after the German invasion was forced into exile. Later, after the war and the total destruction it brought, he laid the first stones for what would become a new international order, as president of the first General Assembly of the United Nations, then presiding over the European Coal and Steel Community, and finally serving as Secretary General of NATO.

One thing, ladies and gentlemen, is very important: Many of the people who experienced 1945 first-hand are still alive! They all can take us by the hand. Some of them are even right here with us today.

People like you, dear Ms Popovicenko. You were born in Leningrad. I've seen a photograph in which you are smiling and standing next to your teacher, surrounded by your 32 classmates. That was 1941. In 1942, you barely managed to escape the besieged city. When you returned in late May 1945 at the age of 14, nearly all of your classmates and your teacher had died.

The Briton Ernest Kolman is also still alive. His actual name is Ernst Kohlmann. He is a Jewish boy from Cologne who was saved by being sent to England with a Kindertransport (children's transport). On 8 May 1945, as a member of the Royal Air Force, he flew over the destroyed house of his parents in Cologne! In the exhibition you can see the logbook of this incredible flight. He, too, will be visiting the exhibition, but he is not here today because he first must pick up his son in the United States – although he is of course no longer piloting the plane himself.

People like you, dear Ms Brandstetter: You were found as an infant by American troops in Austria in 1945. Most likely you were the child of a forced labourer from the East. Today, you say: “I've never celebrated my birthday. You see, I don't know when I was born.”

Or you, dear Roger Bordage. Only three days ago, we both stood in the former concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, to commemorate its liberation seventy years ago. You, dear Roger, survived the hell that was Sachsenhausen – and after the liberation you spent your entire professional life promoting international cooperation and development.

We pay humble tribute to you all. We thank you for coming to Berlin today – the capital of the country where all of this unfathomable suffering originated through nationalist intoxication and racial hatred; where this war started, which cost the lives of 50 million people and robbed many millions of their home. It is the capital of the country that perpetrated the crime against humanity that was the Shoah.


We Germans therefore have a special perspective on 1945; and this we must. For us Germans, the war's end in 1945 was first and foremost a liberation – even though it took quite some time until this view was shared by a majority of the German people. “[The 8th of May] freed us all from the inhuman system of National Socialist tyranny.” Those were the liberating words that rung in a new era, as spoken by our Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker 40 years after the end of the Second World War, in 1985.

Some would like to misinterpret his words as freeing us from the past. That is precisely what they did not do! We were freed from the National Socialist reign of terror. And, with our liberation, we were free to embark on a task: After the darkest aberration in our history, we were able to shine more light on the path that lay ahead of us, and to remain ever vigilant and fully committed to the human values and political principles that Germany had desecrated in an unprecedented way. So our liberation gave rise to our responsibility. This responsibility can be expressed in a most concise way, with two words that are heard again and again, and that have shaped every post-1945 generation of Germans: the two words “never again”!


30 years ago, Weizsäcker's words were mainly directed at the German people's innermost identity. As Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: “People can reasonably be expected to accept the truth”. And Richard von Weizsäcker expected us to do so. He helped Germany free itself from its delusion. He forced the Germans to take the guiding hand of Ernest Kolman, Katharina Brandstetter, Larisa Popovicenko and Roger Bordage.

30 years on, only a few weeks ago and not far from here, in the Berliner Dom, we bade farewell to Richard von Weizsäcker. We are far from finishing the work that began when he spoke about the liberation. It is possible that, today more than ever, we must perform this task and assume this responsibility not only within our society, but also through our role in the international community.


Looking back on 1945 from an international perspective, the year marked not only the end of a catastrophic global war. Rather, in 1945, amidst the ruins across Europe, the difficult construction of a new international order began.

To this day, the key element of this order is the Charter of the United Nations. This milestone, too, was set in 1945. It is worth recalling this for a moment. Because today, as new and ambitious powers from Asia and Latin America are stepping on the world stage, doubts are on the rise as to whether the United Nations still adequately represents our present-day world – or if it is not a product of the “old West”, the fading footprint of a waning transatlantic era.

To anyone expressing these concerns, I say: Look back at 1945! The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the world's joint response to the unparalleled horrors of the war and the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. Not only the so-called West, but also the Soviet Union, as well as many countries in Asia and Latin America, declared “never again” in 1945, enshrining it in international law. We Germans in particular are well-advised to recall the eternal and universal validity of the words “never again”.


Germany itself, it must be said, was not part of the newly-emerging structures in 1945, but was rather an object of this new order. Never again should such disaster be unleashed by this country.

What has happened since then? Over the past 70 years, Germany has gone from being an object of this order to becoming a recognised part of it. And this has happened not least because many of the victims have reached out to the country of the perpetrators. This year, in 2015, many anniversaries are reminding us of the milestones along this prudent path to becoming part of the order: the establishment of NATO 60 years ago, the establishment of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe 40 years ago, and finally the reunification of Germany 25 years ago. Also, there is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel that we will celebrate in a few weeks, which symbolizes this positive development in a special way.

But those are only political dates, facts from history textbooks. To truly understand their full significance, we must think of the people: of the French, the Belgians, the Britons and the Norwegians that I have mentioned. Only then can we behold the miracle of reconciliation, indeed of friendship, that has come about since then!

I was particularly touched by a completely silent object on display in this exhibition. You will see a dress hanging in a glass case. A French woman, a mother and loving wife named Suzanne, sewed it for her daughter Jeanine, for her to wear on the festive day that Jeanine's father would return from the war. It is a beautiful dress – made of blue, white and red fabric, of course, the tricolour; and stitched onto it is the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the French Resistance.

Ladies and gentlemen, you will have guessed it: This beautiful dress was never worn. And yet, a friendship has grown between France and Germany – a friendship that has become the foundation of Europe!


Germany has become part of the international community, and we can be grateful for that. Today, Germany is more closely interwoven with the world than hardly any other country, in many different ways – not only economically, but also technologically, culturally and through its society. This also implies that, as the most interconnected country, Germany more than any other country relies on a functioning international order. Our prosperity and our security depend on respect for its rules. So it is in our vested interest to work to maintain and strengthen the international order.

Yet this is only one driving factor behind our foreign policy – an economic and rational factor, if you will. Looking back on 1945 from today's perspective, and looking at how Germany has since then been able to become part of the international community – especially if we think of all those people and their destinies – then Germany's present-day efforts to promote a peaceful international order are more than just in our national interest. They are our historical obligation, in much the way that Richard von Weizsäcker reasonably expected. Germany, once a firebrand and an instigator of disorder, must now be a particularly dedicated champion of order, and must be more committed than other countries to finding political settlements to conflicts, and to preserving structures that safeguard peace.


How is this going to work? There can be no question that building international order is a difficult, long, and often discordant task. That was already apparent in 1945. 1945 is known as much for the universal Charter of the United Nations as it is for the ideological conflict between East and West and the beginning of the Cold War, which would determine world order in the decades to come.

Today, building an international order is no less difficult or marked by contradictions. Since 1990, the bipolar order of the Cold War has been overcome – something our country is thankful for! However, it has not yet been replaced by a new order. The tectonic plates of global politics are still shifting, and the traditional structures are under great pressure. The pressure comes from many directions: On the one hand, confident countries such as China, India and Brazil have emerged on the world stage, and each nation is asking if following the international rulebook is not too much of a restraint on its national room to manoeuvre. On the other hand, there is a totally opposite development, namely the shift we are witnessing away from hostilities between nations toward threats emanating from non-state actors – actors who do not feel bound by international law – and who do not respect minimum humanitarian standards, which groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram violate in such an abominable way. It is these new threats that, in some world regions, weak and fragile states must confront. When faced with terrorist groups, epidemics or waves of refugees, these states' government functions break down.

Germany should and must stand up to this erosion of order – for reasons deeply rooted in our history. We have learned that national sovereignty and international law do not contradict one another. On the contrary: A sovereign country will reach its full potential if it willingly conforms to the international rulebook, and at the same time helps to shape these rules.

The crucible of this German experience was the year 1945. National Socialist Germany up to 1945 stands as an example of the disaster of an unleashed excessive nationalism that was repelled by all inclusion. How Germany developed post-1945, first only in its Western half, serves as the opposite example: a nation that pursued steady development and slowly found itself, through constant inclusion in an international community. Initially – in the early years after 1945 – the inclusion of Germany was not only of its own accord. However, over the decades, as ties strengthened, trust in Germany grew and grew. Then finally, in 1990, both parts of Germany joined the international community as a reunited country. It is especially thanks to its strong ties that Germany has itself become a stronger country in the 25 years since reunification. At the same time, Germany's inclusion has increasingly become deliberate self-inclusion.

Today, 25 years after reattaining unity, Germany is economically strong, politically stable and has great influence. Now more than ever, our foreign policy must remain absolutely free of over-confidence and arrogance. Especially today, with more eyes fixed on us than ever before, our self-inclusion must be even more deliberate! This, I believe, is a lesson that we can learn from 1945: In our foreign policy, we must add another word to the two-word expression “never again”. For us Germans, “never again” also means: “never again alone”!

This “never again alone” refers to more than a process. It has become part of our identity. “Never again alone” because we will no longer let go of the hands of Ernest Kolman, Katharina Brandstetter, Roger Godfrin and Henriette Lorentzen. We also will not let go of your hand, dear Mr Bordage, which you extended in such a singular manner when – at the end of your speech three days ago in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where you experienced unspeakable suffering as a young man – you referred to present-day Germany as the “grande République d’Allemagne”. For me, this spontaneous and joyful expression, Mr Bordage, was not only deeply moving – it is first and foremost a great responsibility!

For us Germans, “never again alone” should be not only a warning by history, but also our future calling: a calling to assume responsibility for international order; and for those rules, institutions and discussion forums that are needed for nations to freely develop and peacefully coexist in this interconnected and complex world.


There is another photograph in this exhibition. On 5 May 1945, the day the war ended in Denmark, Danish resistance fighters are standing in front of the locked gate of a store. There is a sign on the gate that reads: “Closed due to happiness” – is it not almost a miracle that, today, a German can stand in front of this photograph, next to a visitor from Italy or Poland, or maybe even Denmark, and that we all can share in this happiness?

That is when “never again” becomes “never again alone”.

Thank you.

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