Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 70th anniversary of the Potsdam Agreement and on the conferring of the M100 Media Award

17.09.2015 - Speech

Dear Mayor, dear Jann,
Members of Parliament,
Editors-in-Chief and media professionals,
Dear guests!

While doing research for this speech, I actually went into the basement of the Federal Foreign Office at Werderscher Markt – maybe some of you have visited it. There, in the vault where the Nazis used to store their gold, is now the archive of the Federal Republic of Germany’s diplomatic records, as well as its international treaties and agreements. If you ask me how they actually sort this myriad of documents, well then I can say: The Federal Foreign Office archives contain only two long rows of files, two historical categories for the post-war period: Agreements with Genscher, and agreements without Genscher!

OK, so that’s not exactly accurate. But I truly would have liked to welcome our guest of honour Hans-Dietrich Genscher that way this evening. Unfortunately, he was forced to cancel due to illness – and we all wish him a speedy recovery! Very recently, I met with Hans-Dietrich Genscher at the Federal Foreign Office and we spoke about the signing of the Two Plus Four Agreement, exactly 25 years ago. That agreement, Two Plus Four, which Genscher and others made possible through years of indefatigable diplomacy, marks – at least from a foreign policy point of view – the end of a division that lasted many decades, and of which today we are remembering the beginning: the Potsdam Agreement of 1945. However, that agreement belongs to the second category that we don’t really like to talk about at the Foreign Office: agreements without Genscher.


I am grateful that you have invited me to Sanssouci to speak about this agreement and its impact on world politics. I had the honour of doing that once before in Potsdam exactly eight years ago, when I had invited the G8 foreign ministers to the historic site of Cecilienhof Palace. Some of you may have witnessed that event.

And yet: It is more or less a historical accident that we are gathered here today in Potsdam to commemorate this fateful agreement. Had history taken a slightly different course in 1945, we would not be sitting in the Orangerie in Potsdam, but in some conference centre in Berlin. It was because in July 1945 the victorious Allies could find no adequate place to meet in the bombed-out city of Berlin that the conference was held on the other side of the Havel river. That is why the Potsdam Agreement – not, as it were, a Berlin Agreement – went down in history as the document establishing a new order for Germany – and Europe – after the Second World War.

Coincidence or not – it would have been hard to find a more fateful location for the conference. Is it not one of those symbolic accidents of history that the “Big Three” – Truman, Churchill and Stalin – would negotiate a new order for Europe and Germany within view of the Glienicker Bridge, a structure that soon would become a symbol of division, and of confrontation between the blocs?

Creating a new order in the wake of catastrophe – that was the historic moment of Potsdam. After many millions had fallen victim to the war, and after the crime against humanity of the Shoa, the order and structure of the world was shattered – both politically and morally. Not only Berlin, not only Germany; no, all of Europe lay in ruins, and it was here that the difficult effort got under way to build a new international order on top of the rubble.

A political and moral foundation for this new order had already been laid prior to Potsdam: The Charter of the United Nations, which was signed in San Francisco shortly before the beginning of the Potsdam conference, remains the bedrock and cornerstone of world order. Shortly afterwards, on 20 November 1945, the beginning of the Nuremberg trials also marked the birth of modern international criminal law. The impact of these events extends all the way to present-day international relations. We want to keep this legacy alive through the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, which I had the honour of inaugurating only a few weeks ago.

The Potsdam conference itself, however, stands for the one aspect of the new order that would most strongly shape the world during the following half century, namely the aspect of division! What was agreed in Potsdam established the division that for many decades would characterise Germany and the confrontation between the blocs. For millions of people, this meant they would driven from home and forced to start over in a new country. For people in the Soviet-occupied territory, as well as in Eastern Europe, it was not so much a new beginning as a situation in which they continued to be denied freedom and democracy. A deep rift ran through the bedrock of the new world order that had just been established, a rift the world would mend only some 45 years later.


Yet you did not invite a historian to give this speech, but rather the current Foreign Minister. And you are interested not only in my view of 1945 – but presumably also of 2015!

The question of world order is as important an issue today as it was back then – although in an entirely different way. Because, in 2015, we have luckily overcome the order imposed by Potsdam and the bipolar logic of the Cold War. However, even 25 years after reunification and the end of confrontation between the superpowers, no new order has emerged. In the early 90s, there was much hope; “the end of history” and “a multipolar world” were all the buzz, a world in which many actors would assume responsibility on the world stage. Thing turned out differently: The world is no longer bi-polar, and it has never become multi-polar, but is instead non-polar. To put it more optimistically, the world is searching for order. But this search is not taking the form of a peaceful discussion at university. Rather, in recent months, struggles for influence and domination have given rise to a great number of crises and conflicts, to an extent that I, at least in my political lifetime, have never witnessed before.


If the world today is searching for order, then the factors shaping this search have radically changed. The political stage is completely different from Cecilienhof Palace. This evening, I would like to highlight two key differences.

The first difference is the role of nation states. Regarding this point, a small anecdote from the Potsdam conference comes to mind. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say the Political Archive of the Foreign Office was not able to confirm the story.

But I will tell it anyway. The first difficult day of negotiations has come to an end, and the Big Three retire to the library to enjoy a glass of cognac. Soon, Truman lights a cigarette and places his finely-crafted, glittering bronze cigarette case on the table in front of him, in plain sight of his companions. It has a phrase embossed on it: “Dedicated to the hero of our nation – the grateful citizens of the United States of America”. Churchill soon rises to the challenge. Cognac in hand, he takes a cigarette from his elegant silver case and places the case in front of his fellow statesmen. It bears the words: “Saviour of the King and the empire – the grateful citizens of the Commonwealth”. Without batting an eyelid, Stalin reaches into the pocket of his brown jacket, slowly removing from it his golden cigarette case, with great satisfaction lighting the cigarette he takes from it, and letting the other two read the engraving: “With deep gratitude – to Count Esterhazy – the Vienna Jockey Club”.

What I want to say is this: In 1945, nation states were the – more or less uncontested – shapers of global politics. In Potsdam, the heads of state and government of the world’s great powers sat down around one table to negotiate the fate of nations. They did so not on a blank slate, but with great room to manoeuvre.

Today, the situation is different: The nation state as such is being called in question. The challenges are many and diverse: First of all, the problems politicians are being called on to resolve often extend beyond the national remit. Climate change, epidemics, new cybersecurity threats – all these issues exist across borders and can only be resolved through cross-border cooperation. No other current issue highlights the human impact of this development as clearly as the mass influx of refugees and migrants that Europe is currently faced with. I will expand on this later. Cross-border challenges are one aspect. At the same time, however, influence and power are shifting from state actors to non-state actors. Classic conflicts between states are increasingly becoming the exception. Take a look at the arc of crisis in the region stretching from Libya to Afghanistan: These are conflicts in which state functions are completely collapsing, and non-state actors are assuming a dominating role. This is an incredible challenge for international politics. We have invested great effort over many decades to develop the systems of international law and the law of war. These are marvellous achievements and must be preserved. Yet it is precisely non-state actors that feel in no way bound by these systems. Think of the heinous acts of terror of the so-called Islamic State, which is on a rampage in Iraq and Syria and does not stop at national borders. Our neighbour, France, suffered a dreadful cross-border terrorist attack early this year, when terrorists stormed the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing nine people. It was an attack on freedom and democracy in the heart of the country which has achieved freedom and democracy for Europe. It is in this spirit that, this evening, the city of Potsdam is awarding the M100 Sanssouci Media Award to the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo. Since I will need to leave shortly, I extend my warm congratulations to you right now!


The second difference between Potsdam today and Potsdam in 1945 that I would like to mention is – us! By this, I mean: Germany.

In 1945, it was Germany that was being given a new order. In Potsdam, the superpowers were in agreement on one thing: Never again should this Germany pose a danger to the world.

Over the next seven decades, however, our country was fortunate enough to gradually once more be welcomed into the heart of the international community. Today, in 2015, Germany:

– has been reunited for a quarter century.

– is anchored firmly in the heart of the European Union.

– is a closely-integrated member of the North Atlantic Alliance and the United Nations.

– is economically strong and more globally interconnected in economic terms than just about any other country in the world.

– and even currently holds the FIFA World Cup....

However, this also means: We have gone from being an object of order to becoming a subject, a partner in shaping order. I strongly believe that we should assume this role! Not because we desire it, but because this role has befallen us. We should accept it for two reasons: As a globally interconnected country, we, more than others, have a vested interest in a peaceful and functioning world order. Second, we have a historical responsibility, stemming from the positive development our country has enjoyed since 1945. Germany, which once destroyed order, must now be a 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 what we are attempting to do: in Ukraine, where calming the conflict may also lead to more constructive engagement between the United States and Russia; via the agreement with Iran; and, as the third piece in this puzzle, through possible agreement in the near future on a government of national unity in Libya – all of which may finally bring about a situation in which we can reach a political solution in Syria, as well. After five years of civil war, more than 250,000 lives have been lost and more than 14 million have left their homes. We have not only a great political, but also a moral, obligation to do so.


How is this going to work? How can we help strengthen and further develop international order – considering that, as I have described, nations’ political room to manoeuvre is decreasing rather than increasing?

I know that several speakers are waiting for their turn. We do not have time now to jointly redraw the world order and make a new Potsdam Agreement. However, I do believe that two significant factors give us food for thought and are well suited to both this forum and the historical context:

The first factor is Europe. Again, the situation is different compared to 1945. At that time, the thought of a united Europe was a very distant one indeed for those in power. France did not have a seat at the table, nor did Poland and other countries that were very much affected. Today, 70 years after the Potsdam Agreement, France is our closest partner, and the friendship between France and Germany is one, if not the fundamental, pillar of the European Union.

Whenever we individually – as Germans, Frenchmen and Poles – can no longer come to grips with large, cross-border issues, we develop new strength by taking concerted, European action and bringing Europe’s weight to bear in the global arena.

During the Greek crisis, we all thought this was Europe’s greatest political challenge. That is already today no longer true. Only a few weeks later, a much greater challenge has presented itself: An influx of migrants and refugees is straining to capacity Europe’s ability to act. Yet there is no issue that Europe more urgently needs to act on right now than the refugee crisis! More than 60 million people have fled their homes worldwide – the greatest number since the end of World War II, since the Potsdam conference. People have never been more willing to help, with thousands of Germans volunteering to assist efforts to welcome and shelter those who have come from crisis regions to seek refuge among us. We politicians can be grateful for this helpfulness. But we must also take action now, before helpfulness gives way to disappointment over Europe’s inability to act. It is simply unacceptable that a mere handful of countries should take in the many hundreds of thousands of people who are coming to Europe these days. The right to asylum is not only a German, but also a European, core value – as is solidarity between states, which includes fair burden-sharing. We must demonstrate at the European level now that we will uphold both of these values: humanity and solidarity.


For the second and final factor, I will turn directly to you media professionals.

Of course, you know that the media have always played an extremely significant role. That was also true in 1945 – specifically, in Potsdam. I would like to share one final anecdote – and this time, it will actually be true! Truman, Churchill and Stalin all placed such great importance on their image in the media that no agreement could be found on the order in which the Big Three would appear before the cameras in the conference room. Each of them wanted to be first. Do you know how the problem was solved? They appeared simultaneously, through three separate doors! How lucky we politicians are today that we long ago left behind us such vanity and staging issues ... or did we? The only difference is that, today, it is not about wanting to be first, but rather about who can afford to be last.

Honestly, I believe the media may bear even more responsibility today than they did in the past – not only because they reach more people, but because the power of providing orientation has significantly increased in a time that is lacking this commodity. In a confusing and rapidly changing world that is “in search of an order”, if you will, the media can guide us, if they refuse to give in to the temptation of reducing everything to oversimplified categories of good and evil – not only when describing complex conflicts. It is essential to know not merely “what is happening?”, but also “who has the answers?”. Who has a legitimate voice, and whose voice is possibly not even being heard? That is where you, the media, bear a great responsibility. The issues of migration and displacement, of opportunities and dangers, as well as of terrorism, Islam and integration, are complex and interconnected. It is my guess that these topics will be the focus of many of your conversations this evening. And I suspect that oversimplified, high-profile, black-and-white headlines and images will provide the worst answers.

How much I would have liked to have left the final word to our guest of honour. Since he is not here, I will quote him. It is a striking comment he made about the relationship between politics and the media: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I do not know if he would still say so in the day and age of Facebook and Twitter. What I urge us to do on both sides, in politics and in the media, is to recognise and take seriously the responsibility that we bear.

Thank you.

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