Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier to the opening of the 51st Biennial Meeting of German Historians

20.09.2016 - Speech

Mr Mayor,
Professors Schulze-Wessel and Lenzen,
Ambassador Singh,
Mr Bongertmann,
Ladies and gentlemen,

As you can see, I am not with you in the magnificent Festsaal of Hamburg City Hall but in New York, where the new session of the United Nations General Assembly opens today. I am talking to you from German House, diagonally opposite the UN building. I am delighted to be here with you today, at least by video link. Please excuse the rigmarole and glitches this may involve.


The irony of this situation is that the reason why I was so keen to make the opening speech at the 51st Biennial Meeting of German Historians is the same reason why I had to fly to New York so urgently to take part in the 71st session of the General Assembly earlier than planned: the war in Syria and its consequences as well as the efforts to contain the conflict. Together with Germany and other key partners, President Obama is hosting a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. Few issues occupy the attention of the international community more than the conflagration in the Middle East – IS terrorism, the suffering of the Syrian people. Almost 12 million Syrians have lost their homes. Most of them are still caught in the war zone, while many have found refuge in neighbouring countries – in Turkey, in Jordan, in tiny Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Europe and Germany.

Yet it has to be said that Syria has been a main focus of the United Nations for the last six years. We have not managed to end this brutal conflict. On the contrary, sometimes it feels as if it is getting steadily worse. It has taken us a long time to understand that this situation affects us in Europe. We have come to painfully realise that the war in Syria is not a faraway conflict. No, this is a conflict in our immediate neighbourhood. This became clear, at the latest, when the refugee crisis broke out last year, not to mention when the terrible terrorist attacks took place in Brussels, Paris and Nice, as well as in Würzburg and Ansbach.


Ladies and gentlemen,

And that brings me to you. This is not a routine speech for me – precisely because of the war in Syria. I have been looking for quite some time now at how we can improve our efforts to resolve the conflicts in the region, and I feel we have to dig deeper for new ideas and approaches. When I, for example on long-haul flights like the one yesterday, think about the situation in Syria then I always come back to the same key questions: how can we generate a momentum which will inject new impetus into the never-ending negotiations and bring about substantial progress? Are there other ways of resolving the jumble of mutual recriminations, the entanglement of aggression and fear, the quagmire of differences? What can be done to throttle the momentum on the battlefield and boost the momentum at the negotiating table?

I am not the only one agonising over these questions. Almost two years ago, I was sitting in the Saudi port of Jeddah one evening with some Arab intellectuals; we were talking about the war, about the region and the role of religion. Suddenly, one of the younger participants said: “We need a Peace of Westphalia for our region”. I admit that this remark has stuck with me. For this man was focusing on peace, not on war. The peace congress was the first of its kind in modern European history. It set standards in diplomacy and created an order which was to last almost 150 years – and continues to have an impact on our continent to this very day. If intelligent people in the region find this model interesting, why should not we as Germans, and especially I as a Westphalian, try it out? We held a small workshop on this topic at the Federal Foreign Office. I am interested in the practical application of historical research. And I hope it is of interest to you, too.


On New Year’s Eve 1647, the French King’s envoy Claude de Mesmes, better known as Count d’Avaux, was sitting in Münster writing a report to Cardinal Mazarin, the “head” of the French government. Mesmes was one of the French negotiators at the talks in Westphalia and he had to struggle fiercely not only with the representatives of Spain and the Empire but also with his own colleagues to find the right way to resolve this conflict. That evening, he wrote about a completely new threat to his interests: “The third party, which comprises the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg and the House of Brunswick, and which is being joined by other princes, does not bode well for us”, noted the diplomat, “no matter how reasonable the aim of their houses may have been at the outset”. I will spare you the rest of the quote, for what matters is the term “third party”, which the Count is the very first to use.

In retrospect, we can see that Mesmes was right to assume that their actions would not bode well for him. The third party did indeed turn out to be the key player in the last year of the Peace of Westphalia negotiations, the one which removed the obstacles placed in the way of peace by others. As a diplomat, I openly admit that I find the question of the success factors relating to the actions of the third party hugely interesting.

How did they manage it?


Before I look at this issue, allow me to give you some words of warning and advice which are also crucial for my own work.

Let us start with the temptations of history. Naturally, this warning applies to my trade, not yours, for the feeling for the – more than semantic – difference between equations and comparisons is more marked among historians than among any other group of professionals. Let me remind you of the late Hans-Ulrich Wehler, your colleague, who used to hammer into his students that for historians comparisons were a bit like experiments for scientists: the moment when the idea collides with reality.

We politicians should therefore not succumb to the temptation to equate situations. History does not lay down any rules for the future. What it does is illustrate options for action. I share the view of your Canadian colleague Margaret MacMillan: “History, if it is used with care, can present us with alternatives, help us to form the questions we need to ask of the present, and warn us about what might go wrong.”

Nor should we fall into the trap of Eurocentrism. The situation may be clear to a Central European with a good grasp of history: an uprising against a ruler, confined to a certain region, spins out of control. Hostile neighbours interfere and use the battlefield for proxy wars. Thanks to religious tensions, the conflicts escalate. The civilian population suffers due to the cynical power play of the major powers involved.

Seen from this angle, it would take less than five minutes to identify the Swedes, French and Spanish in today’s Middle East on a map, and another ten minutes to put forward a seven-point plan with solutions. Then, however, we politicians could expect interlocutors in the region to berate us that even a hundred years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement we still have not learned how useful our solutions are.

That brings me to my last piece of advice, namely the temptation of adopting a wait-and-see attitude. The Thirty Years’ War is used as an excuse to show that, unfortunately, nothing can be done to alter the course of a war before all parties to the conflict are exhausted. Although such comparisons may be a welcome pretext for doing nothing, they have little analytical value: in 1648, some players were exhausted while others were able to continue fighting undeterred and did indeed carry on, just no longer within the Empire.

With that, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take you back to our workshop at the Federal Foreign Office and the question of the Peace of Westphalia.

And because – and this is one of the unusual aspects of a video broadcast – I can’t see you and therefore also can’t see if some of you have already started nodding off from boredom, I will simply continue undaunted!

Our first step in the Federal Foreign Office was to look at a couple of instruments used in the Peace of Westphalia, such as the “standard year”, but also at the important role of international guarantees.

However, we do not want to limit ourselves to the instruments. The second step involves looking at the success factors. And this brings me back to the third party, which was largely recruited from the Imperial States. I find it fascinating to read how the stakeholders’ priorities changed at the time, both among the Catholic and the Protestant factions. Loyalty to the great hegemonial powers gave way to a focus on peace. This shift forced the great powers to recalculate, as neither France and Sweden nor Spain and the Empire were capable of acting in the long term without their allies.

In his classic reference work, “Der Westfälische Frieden”, Fritz Dickmann explains how Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, attempted to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem. He threatened to withdraw his support from the Emperor if the latter did not part ways with his belligerent ally, Spain. Dickmann writes that when the Emperor demanded loyalty, Munich asked – and I quote – “very shrewdly if the Emperor wanted peace in Germany if he could have it without Spain”. The Emperor rejected the question as “untimely” – but in the end, this was exactly what he did. He agreed to peace in the Empire, although Spain continued fighting against France.


However, what it more important to me is the fact that the third party, this peace party, served as a game changer. It created momentum and dissolved rigid fronts – and it did so with a clear focus on peace.

Who could play that role today? We do not have any simple analogies and nor would they be helpful, but perhaps a somewhat more complex analogy would be of use to us. Which of the third party’s characteristics were crucial to their actions and influence? The States could no longer go on fighting. Although they were small, they were so important that the war could not continue without them. When they redefined their priorities, the balance changed.

It may sound curious when I ask if we Europeans do not share more of these characteristics than anyone else. As direct neighbours of the crisis region, as I explained at the start of my speech, we feel the heat of the war more than others do. The images of the war sear our souls. Being a European means not being able to stand seeing others suffer – and it means not wanting to do so either.

We want peace and we wield influence. The question is how we can use our influence.

We cannot force the other stakeholders – we are not that strong. That is another thing we have in common with the third party. And this is why I recommend analysing the historical success factors. I have not yet mentioned two such factors, which we discovered during our little workshop.

One involves revealing security interests transparently as a basis for genuine peace. Those who are familiar with the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück will know what I am talking about. At the very least, France’s aim was to put a stop to the two-pronged threat from the Empire and Spain. Once that had finally been established, talks began – and action was taken. Spain’s influence in the Empire was curtailed and the Emperor was compelled to accept peace without Spain.

The system of collective security in the Early Modern Age thus made it possible to curb one of the main causes of conflict in the territory of the Empire, that is, fear of other countries’ hegemony. I have been a frequent visitor to Iran and Saudi Arabia recently. In Tehran, they tell me about the threat of “Sunni encirclement”, while in Riyadh they invoke the spectre of a “Shia axis”. 1648 teaches us the need to take such perceived threats seriously.


Ladies and gentlemen,

We are still beavering away in our peace workshop and have found interesting partners to help us, including a team from the University of Cambridge, the Körber Foundation, and some of your colleagues, such as Christoph Kampmann of Marburg and Anuschka Tischer of Würzburg. But against the backdrop of what I have just said, allow me to mention a few lessons from the Peace of Westphalia as a type of interim assessment.

We need to explore, disclose and categorise security interests in a process that is free of taboos, like the one that took place in Münster and Osnabrück.

To this end, we need negotiators who work discreetly and have far-ranging decision-making powers – professional diplomats like those who made a difference in Münster and Osnabrück. What does Iran want? What do the Saudis fear? How far are the Russians and Americans prepared to go?

We need to find the strength to face up to the changing realities on the ground and to draw conclusions from them. While peace was being negotiated in Westphalia, the war was raging everywhere in the Empire and diplomacy reacted to the changing fortunes of war. In today’s media age, do we have the strength to do this?

To this end, we must accept that those who seek peace cannot expect to find the full truth, clarity and justice all at once. Everyone, including the Emperor, had to make concessions in 1648. In any war, there are always multiple truths, as told by the various parties to the conflict. That is why the question of truth was deliberately not answered in Münster and Osnabrück.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I am now going to close the door to our workshop. Why am I using this speech to talk about a single topic from the Early Modern Age? On the one hand, because it is important for my current political work; but on the other hand, because I think it is a good example of a general message I would like to put to you today, namely that historical research and teaching, your line of work, which you will discuss this week, can make a difference in foreign policy. I, for one, experience this time and again when I look for direction and ideas. This is why – as some of you may have heard – I also examined the reasons for the outbreak of World War I in depth and drew conclusions for my work from the “need for and the failure of diplomacy”. I firmly believe that history does not programme us, but that it can guide and inspire us.

We need this all the more because of the accumulation of conflicts in our time, whose dimensions and character simply exceed what even the best-oiled government machines can comprehend. The acceleration of globalisation and its counter-movements, climate changes, eruptions of violence, flows of migrants, and the dissolution of certainties create the impression that the world is out of joint. As historians, you know that we are not the first generation of governments to experience this.

Your task is to research and teach, and to discuss your work at the Biennial Meeting of German Historians. Perhaps you detect a certain note of envy in my voice. I hope you will have an exciting week in Hamburg. I am now going to end my live broadcast from New York, where I am looking forward to breakfast!

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