Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Halbe cemetery
Bishop Dröge, Bishop Ipolt,
President of Brandenburg Landtag, Minister, fellow members of parliament,
Ambassador Grinin, Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Admiral Lange, members of the Bundeswehr,
Marcus Meckel, Gunter Fritsch, ladies and gentlemen!
Silence. That is the word used by many people who experienced the end of the war. The silence that fell when the grenades were no longer exploding and low-flying aircraft was no longer screaming overhead. The silence when the cannons had stopped and the screams of the dying had faded away. Silence. Like now, here at the cemetery in Halbe.
For those who survived 70 years ago, the silence came like a deliverance. It is still silent today above the graves of those who did not survive.
Perhaps it is too silent?
“Because the dead are silent, everything starts all over again.” These words by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who lived through both world wars, express the fear that silence will make people forget the past. And so we are called upon to take action. When the dead are silent, the living must speak up so that everything does not start all over again.
We, the living, must keep the memory of the dead alive. We must recognise and take on board the warning that this place virtually shouts at us – despite the silence here above the graves.
We are familiar with the eyewitness accounts of those days. And yet we can hardly imagine the scenes of horror that the war culminated in here – not even two weeks before it ended. When silence finally fell here, the roads and forests were strewn with corpses. Steel helmets, rifles and pistols lay in the ditches. Children roamed the area in search of their parents. The stench of decay hung over all the chaos. This is how someone who experienced the horror of that time describes the scene. From the beginning of May to the beginning of June 1945, the inhabitants of Halbe and Märkisch-Buchholz did nothing but bury people and remove carcasses. They buried the remains of the deceased, fallen soldiers, people who had been shot dead and people who had starved to death.
We of the later generations can hardly imagine this horror. But many survivors are here with us today. These images remain deeply imprinted on their memory. Thank you for coming back here today to this place of horror. It is you, ladies and gentlemen, who keep alive the memory that we must never forget. You take us, the later generations, by the hand so that we recognise the warning of that time and learn lessons for the future. To you, the survivors and eyewitnesses, we extend a particularly warm welcome today.
Around 30,000 German soldiers were killed in the Battle of Halbe at the end of April 1945, and some 10,000 civilians lost their lives. Who were these people?
The soldiers included those who fought to the end.
· Some of them did so out of fanaticism and delusion.
· Others fought because they were afraid of facing a summary court martial.
· Some fought to escape the dreaded fate of being taken prisoner of war.
· Among the dead were also soldiers who were executed for desertion before the battle began.
· Some of the soldiers who fought in Halbe had perpetrated German war crimes and were guilty of terrible wrongdoing.
· Some of them still had their whole lives ahead of them.
· And some were far too old to fight; they simply wanted to survive the war, the second they had to live through.
At the last moment, they were driven to their deaths as a “last stand” by a criminal regime that could no longer sway the outcome of the war, but merely increased the dreadful death toll of the last months of the war, on both the German and the Soviet side.
Around 20,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives in this last large, futile battle alone – the biggest fought on German soil. These soldiers had come as liberators – initially as liberators of their home country and ultimately, with others, as liberators in the fight to free Germany from the Nazi dictatorship. Until the very last days of the war, many thousands of Red Army soldiers died fighting against what was left of the Nazi regime. We also remember them today. And their deaths too serve as a warning to us.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are also shocked by what we know about the fate of civilians – the thousands upon thousands of refugees and displaced persons with children, the most defenceless of all war victims. Many children were orphaned at the time and found a new home in the villages where the Battle of Halbe took place. As no one knew who they were, they were given new names – often the name of the place where they were found. Children were also forced to fight here. Inadequately trained and inexperienced, they were simply used as cannon fodder – to no avail whatsoever. Around 22,000 of the war dead – not only Germans – are buried here in Halbe cemetery. Soviet forced labourers and their families also died at that time. The graves of people from eight other countries who fought for Germany for widely differing reasons are found here, too. We also remember them today.
Part of the tragedy of this place is that prisoners from Internment Camp No. 5, the Soviet secret service NKVD camp in Ketschendorf, are also buried here. They were initially interred as “unknown” victims of April 1945. Only later was it possible to identify them as victims of the camp in Ketschendorf and to name them as such.
Ladies and gentlemen,
“The dead admonish us to live for peace.” These words written on a stele in the cemetery are a particular warning to us Germans, as the end of the war in 1945 was a liberation for us. And this liberation was not merely a liberation from something – from National Socialist tyranny, as Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker said in a speech 30 years ago. It was also a liberation to something. 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. Our liberation also gives rise to our responsibility – the responsibility of “never again!” And this is why when we Germans remember the dead at war cemeteries, we do not only pay tribute to them – we also recall the warning entailed in their deaths. “Never again” is the silent warning that emanates from these graves and from all those among us who survived the horror of Halbe.
It fills me with humility and gratitude that we Germans are not remembering the victims and dead of the Second World War on our own here today in Halbe and other places. Instead, we are doing so together. We are remembering the victims with representatives of Germany’s former opponents – with the Russian Ambassador and representatives of France, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary and Ukraine. We are remembering with the countries on which Germany inflicted unspeakable suffering under National Socialist rule.
Avi Primor, former Israeli Ambassador to Germany, gave a moving speech to the German Bundestag on the National Day of Mourning. He asked if former enemies could mourn together. His answer was “Yes, they can!” Primor’s mother lost her entire family in the Shoah. And now her son stood before the German Bundestag and urged us to mourn together, to remember together so that we can put “never again” into practice.
I regard this as a great gift. Remembering the past together is living evidence of a development for which we Germans can be profoundly grateful. Over the past seven decades, Germany, which unleashed all this suffering, brought about so many deaths and displacements, caused destruction and perpetrated unprecedented crimes worldwide, has been granted the privilege of becoming part of the international community once again, gradually and step by step; the privilege of becoming part of the heart of the community of states and of a united Europe. And we have enjoyed this good fortune partly because many of the victims have reached out to the country of the perpetrators. We now live in friendship with our neighbouring countries and erstwhile war opponents. We must look after this friendship!
However, this gift also gives rise to our special responsibility for the international order that we were allowed to rejoin. Germany, once a firebrand and an instigator of disorder, must now be a particularly dedicated champion of order. It must be more committed than other countries to finding political settlements to conflicts and to preserving structures that safeguard peace. That is also part of our historical responsibility.
There is no doubt that the terrible events of the last days of April 1945 mark an extreme, not only as regards the course of the war, but also a low point in German‑Russian relations. The levels of delusion and hatred, the willingness to betray all standards of civilisation and the breaking of every last taboo by the perpetrators are both shameful and incomprehensible. The suffering inflicted by Germans in the name of Germany is inconceivable. Halbe stands for the horror of what nations can do to each other, for the depth of the wounds inflicted between Germans and Russians in particular, and for the difficulty of healing these wounds.
We know that, just like in Germany, hundreds of thousands of people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are still waiting for news of their brother, father or grandfather who did not return from the war. All over these countries, people remember the missing in action and dead of a dreadful war. And each country remembers in its own way, in the context of its own history, and with a view to its own actions, its own suffering and its own losses. But one thing unites us when we remember the victims of the Second World War, and it unites us Germans and Russians in particular – our commitment to “never again”.
Never again should relations between our two peoples deteriorate to the terrible extremes scorched into the earth here in Halbe or in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, which I will visit next week. And this is why we can also perceive remembrance of the war as an opportunity to underline our shared commitment to “never again”. In remembering the past, our aim is not to stoke old prejudices and tensions, but rather to work towards understanding and to remind ourselves in places like this of our shared responsibility for peace in Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Since 2007, Russian and Bundeswehr soldiers have met here in Halbe and in nearby Lebus to tend the war graves together. What I see incorporated in their acts of remembrance is the willingness to build a future of understanding from a past of extremes. I, too, will continue to support these endeavours. And this is why we want to carry on these and similar activities to look after war graves this year and in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Remembering the past as a warning for the future also means ensuring that remembrance is not exploited for domestic policy ends. In the past, right‑wing extremists here in Halbe have tried to exploit those laid to rest here for political purposes. This is a gravely misguided course. Even in the early years after the war, Pastor Ernst Teichmann, who initiated the setting up of the cemetery, was aware that the fallen soldiers buried here “were not heroes – they were men who wanted to go home.”
The tireless efforts of the German War Graves Commission also give testament to how the memory of 20th century war victims is being kept alive, genuinely and with respect. With the help of countless numbers of volunteers and donations, the German War Graves Commission tends graves in over 830 war cemeteries in 45 countries. Every year, it brings together thousands of young people from all over the world. They clean the graves, talk to each other and make new friendships that last long after they have returned home. In this way, they work for peace in a very tangible way. The German War Graves Commission was awarded the Peace of Westphalia Prize for its work with young people last year – an award it justly deserved.
Thanks to this Commission, we are also interring war dead here today – here in the silence of Halbe cemetery. We commit these deceased to the silence of the graves. But it is not the silence of forgetting. Instead, all of us gathered here today – young and old, survivors and the later generations, Germans and non‑Germans – are listening to what the silence has to tell us. A silence that warns us. A silence from which we derive new strength for the never-ending task of preserving peace. Thank you.