Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Ostdenkschrift 'Reconciliation and Understanding as Guiding Principles for Political Activity'

17.09.2015 - Speech

Mr Chairman of the Council, Professor Bedford‑Strohm,
Praeses Dr Schwaetzer,
Ladies and gentlemen,

“Neither understanding nor reconciliation can be ordered by governments, but must ripen in the hearts of people on both sides.”

This sentence stems from Willy Brandt, speaking to Polish Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz in 1970. Cyrankiewicz was a survivor of Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps. Now the two men were together in the palace of the Polish Council of Ministers to sign a document which was intended to “normalise” relations between Germany and Poland, the Treaty of Warsaw.

That Brandt was able to be there, and that his wish for reconciliation was indeed able to ripen in the hearts of the people of Germany and Poland was due in no small measure to impetus five years earlier from the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) and the Polish bishops.

The Ostdenkschrift, a memorandum published by the EKD in 1965, marked a watershed in relations between Poland and Germany. Why? Because its authors courageously opened the way for a debate which had never previously taken place in this form, either in government offices in Germany or around German dinner tables. It tackled the huge issues of German guilt, German responsibility and the border with Poland. In other words, issues people tended to steer away from, politicians included. Issues, however, which our country had to tackle if reconciliation were ever to be a possibility.

The memorandum recognised the terrible personal consequences of expulsion. At the same time, however, it reminded people to view the injustices committed against Germans in the context of the terrible crimes of the National Socialists, the suffering and horrors unleashed by Germany. The authors encouraged the Germans to seek reconciliation with their eastern neighbours and dared to breach that great taboo – recognition of the Oder‑Neisse line.

In a remarkable letter written a few weeks later, Poland’s Roman Catholic bishops asked forgiveness for Polish guilt and forgave German guilt. Despite, or precisely because of, the “virtually hopeless past”, the pastoral letter should be the “beginning of a dialogue”, the bishops said. That, too, has not been forgotten.

These two documents were a turning‑point, as Polish President Andrzej Duda said to me during his visit to Berlin a few weeks ago.

On the one hand lay the darkest chapter of our shared history: Germany’s attack on Poland, the terrors and crimes of the Nazi regime, committed on Polish soil, against Polish citizens.

On the other, however, we find the positive, the wonderful development of our relations which began with the Ostdenkschrift and have evolved into a close and multifaceted friendship. Let me mention a few stages along the way.

In Germany, the new Ostpolitik under Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr; Willy Brandt kneeling before the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial.

In Poland, the energy and courage of Solidarność, which exerted grassroots pressure on those in power, unprecedented in Eastern Europe. We all remember Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. His words of courage provided the spark for throwing off the shackles of the Communist tyranny. Thanks to its unbending love of freedom, the Polish people has written itself indissolubly into Europe’s history books.

In both our countries it was people’s desire for freedom which finally brought down the Wall and made European integration possible.

And we are still grateful even now for the unbelievable generosity with which our Polish neighbours extended their hands to us following German reunification and cleared the way for the Friendship Treaty.

The Ostdenkschrift was a turning‑point from sorrow to confidence, from the view back to a divisive past to that towards a shared future.

There was controversy within the Church in Germany. Not only about the content of the Ostdenkschrift itself, but also about the social and political role of the Church. About questions which I suspect occupy many of you here today, and to which I myself return again and again, both as a politician and as a Christian.

I find what the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth said in his famous speech on “The Christian in Society” in 1919, almost 50 years before the Ostdenkschrift, illuminating. In that speech, Barth formulated a fervent commitment to the Christian message which permeated all aspects of life and society. It is a force for change and renewal which also protects against regarding the current Zeitgeist as the ultimate truth. A force which recognises what is needed in society, which frees people from degrading constraints.

A force which takes on responsibility, even when doing so makes things difficult. Which is exactly what the authors of the Ostdenkschrift dared to do, some 50 years on.

In Germany politicians, too, demonstrated the courage to revise long‑held positions. Egon Bahr, whose funeral took place was last week, spoke in his famous lecture at the Protestant Academy of Tutzing in 1963 of “change through rapprochement”, the foundation for the new Ostpolitik, for a process of opening up towards our Eastern neighbours. Bahr’s basic axiom was that “people have to come first” and that “every conceivable responsible effort” must be made to improve their prospects for the future. Thus Bahr, Brandt and their fellows continued in politics what the Ostdenkschrift had started in society: the desire for understanding and reconciliation which had ripened in the hearts of the Germans, as Brandt hat put it.


Today, too, I believe we need both of these as we build understanding with our partners: on the one hand, the political framework – negotiations, agreements and institutions. On the other hand, however, it is clear that this political process can only function if it is supported by the people’s desire and determination to breathe life into cooperation.

This becomes particularly visible in our relations with our Polish neighbours. At political level, our ties are closer today than ever before in our chequered history. But this political friendship is underpinned by countless civil‑society initiatives and by church, cultural and personal links between the people of our two countries.

It was Ralf Dahrendorf who coined the phrase “foreign policy of societies”, by which he meant that relations between countries are shaped not only by governments and foreign ministries, but above all by people. I think what has grown up between the people in Poland and Germany reflects this very closely.

Anyone who takes a walk around Berlin will know what I mean. There are more than 50,000 Poles living in the city. The beautiful language of Czesław Milosz and Wisława Szymborska can be heard all over the place. We want to encourage even more young Germans to learn Polish. Countless school and university partnerships are helping to pique young people’s interest in the other country. The German‑Polish Youth Office and the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder are outstanding cooperation projects.

Frank and open exchange plays an important role in our dense relations. We argued strongly over the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation documentation and information centre. I am convinced that if we run it in the spirit of reconciliation and friendship, then a reckoning with our history, and especially the horrors of last century, will bring Poles and Germans even closer together. One thing is crucial in this context: we must respect the other side’s perspective, both from the historical viewpoint and from today’s.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Today our societies are interconnected at so many levels that the future of our relations will inevitably be characterised by cooperation, irrespective of day‑to‑day politics and election outcomes.

Next year we will be celebrating a major anniversary: 25 years of the Treaty on Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation! But that’s not all. Together with our French friends, we will also be celebrating 25 years of the Weimar Triangle, and thus our close friendship in and for Europe. To me, this is important. For I believe that, precisely because our bilateral relations are so close, we now need to look farther afield – to Europe.

That is why next year we won’t just be celebrating what we have already achieved. We also want to work together. To that end, I have proposed that a working group involving representatives of our two Foreign Ministries be set up. This working group will draw up a forward‑looking, European‑oriented agenda for the future of German‑Polish cooperation – not necessarily looking ahead to the next 25 years, but certainly far beyond the here and now.

It is my belief that as close partners at the centre – at the heart – of Europe, Poland and Germany especially must help find joint responses to the European question. We urgently need to put in place a new European policy on asylum. Such a policy needs to reflect our fundamental European principles: the principle of humanity, for one thing. The principle of a Europe which takes in people in need, offers them protection, quickly, safely and in a humane manner, no matter where in Europe they arrive. And, for another, the principle of solidarity. European values are shared values which we must work together to defend. Neither geographical situation nor size nor economic statistics must lead to the burden of the refugee crisis being borne by only a few countries, but not by the majority. On the contrary: only if no‑one shirks the responsibility will the challenge posed by migration be manageable.

That’s why we need rapid agreement in Europe on how to divide the shared responsibility fairly. We need to issue this concrete signal of solidarity together – not at some vague point in the future, but soon, before society’s present huge readiness to help gives way to disappointment at Europe’s lack of action.

The refugee issue is confirming once again something that became obvious during the euro crisis: our responses to the major challenges of our day can only be European responses. And one thing that “giving a European response” certainly doesn’t mean is showing the citizens of our own countries that their government was able to push its own national interests through in Brussels. Rather, it means looking for a different perspective, a joint perspective, and asking this: what is the best solution for Europe as a whole?

For all of us in Europe, this might more and more mean that we sometimes have to be willing to accept uncomfortable debates at home in order to make progress on major European questions. The debate about the third bailout package for Greece made that very clear to us Germans. You don’t need to be a prophet to see that it won’t be any different when it comes to migration. This, too, will be a learning process – and probably not only here in Germany. We need to realise that taking on responsibility in Europe also means being ready to see our partners’ viewpoints, to work patiently towards compromises and to cooperate in mutual European solidarity.

What makes me optimistic in face of the current refugee crisis is the fact that large swathes of the population – and the churches – are already showing us what it means to take our European values seriously, what it means to put humanity and solidarity into practice.

The Protestant Church throughout Germany, the Chairman of the Council, who is here today, and Pope Francis have in recent days all appealed to the faithful throughout Europe to protect refugees. And already countless volunteers are working hard – at railway stations, reception centres, schools and churches – to supply those seeking refuge with the basic necessities. To help them find their feet and feel welcome here. I have been told that church congregations are doing the same thing in Poland. In Poznań churchgoers are making donations to make it possible to take in refugees. The archdiocese of Wrocław has announced that it will accept several families. The Church is active here in Germany, too. In Saxony church members are accompanying refugees on doctor’s visits. In Hamburg Syrian children are learning German in Evangelical congregations. In churches in Lower Saxony donated clothes are piling up beside the hymnbooks.

As a television journalist I was talking to recently put it, society is showing the way.

And it’s true. The engagement shown by civil society in many countries of Europe is setting an inspirational example. But it is also a clear wake‑up call to us politicians. In fact, it is a wake‑up call for policymaking.

Because even those very people who are helping now, with great commitment, are wondering just how much Germany can do. And how we will master the situation in the long term. The question is justified! And it is clear that in the long term we will only succeed if we direct our attention to the causes of the refugee flows, to the refugees’ countries of origin and to the countries they pass through on their dangerous journey to Europe. Why are so many people coming here from the Middle East and via North Africa at this particular juncture? Most of them are fleeing political conflicts which also need political solutions so that the refugees can return to a home country which once again offers them security and prospects for the future. For that’s exactly what most of the people who undertake the perilous trek to Europe long for! That is why we must not and will not slacken in our efforts to find political solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Here I’m thinking of Syria. But I’m also thinking of Libya, where, after months of talks, we now hope to see the first important steps towards the resolution of the conflict.

It is clear that we in Europe can only tackle the causes and repercussions of the refugee crisis by acting together. And that is why I wish to close by quoting a great European, Władysław Bartoszewski. Bartoszewski, who passed away in April, did more than virtually anyone else to promote German‑Polish rapprochement in the wake of the Second World War. A survivor of Auschwitz, he was a champion of reconciliation, a bridge‑builder. And I am delighted that next year Bartoszewski will be posthumously awarded the highest honour in the gift of our two Governments, the German‑Polish Prize.

Speaking in the German Bundestag no less than 20 years ago, he said: “Cooperation between (our) two states in the united Europe is today one of the most important objectives and pillars of our bilateral relations. It imbues them with meaning. And provides all sorts of motivation – as we look to the younger generation of Poles and the younger generation of Germans. As we look, God willing, to the happy people of the 21st century.”

Bartoszewski showed courage and far‑sightedness in voicing these thoughts 20 years ago. 30 years before that, 50 years ago, it was the courage and far‑sightedness of the authors of the Ostdenkschrift that paved the way for reconciliation with our Polish neighbours. It was they who provided the impetus half a century ago for what has today become a wonderful reality. It was brave. It was important. It was decisive for our friendship in Europe.

And for that we owe them our gratitude to this day.

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