Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony awarding the first Brandenburg Freedom Award to the Centre for Human Rights Cottbus

11.10.2016 - Speech

Jutta Allmendiger, Wolfgang Huber, Cord-Georg Hasselmann,
Manfred Stolpe,
Madam Mayor,
Members of Brandenburg Cathedral Foundation and members of the jury,

And above all: honoured awardwinners,

In the yard of Cottbus prison there is a tree. Hidden behind several walls and barbed wire fences, in the soulless quadrangle surrounded by the prison buildings with their far-too-small, barred windows, stands the tree. It is tall and green and looks somewhat melancholy. It’s a weeping willow, you see.

“Alright, Mr Steinmeier,” you might be saying, “that all sounds very picturesque. There’s a tree in my yard too. But what about the Centre for Human Rights?”

I’ll come to that in a minute. But there’s one more thing you need to know about the tree: previously, when the prison was still a prison, there was no tree. Anywhere. There was nothing of the kind. Not a spot of green.

Once, in the 1970s, a prisoner exercising in the yard found a little flower growing in a crack in the prison wall. The prisoner, who was a pastor by the way, picked the flower, took it back to his cell – 30 detainees were crammed into a cell – and hid the precious plant under his mattress. But soon the flower was discovered by one of the prison warders, who were officially known as “educators” – what a perfidious term! – , and, simply for possessing that little flower, the prisoner was thrown into the cellars for several days. “Tiger cages”: that was the name given to the one-man cells in the cellar. Unfortunately, it was a terribly apt word for them: a tiny cell, hardly bigger than this podium, enclosed by iron bars. The pastor was caged like a tiger, simply because he had plucked a little green shoot of hope.

Years afterwards, sometime after the collapse of the GDR, the weeping willow began to grow wild. Who knows why. It was probably sometime during the wilderness years, when the prison was becoming increasingly dilapidated; certainly before a courageous group of former political prisoners took the incredible decision to acquire their former prison, the place where they had suffered so much, to renovate it and to turn it into a place of remembrance, a place for reconciliation and a centre for human rights. What an amazing idea!


“The Brandenburg Freedom Award is presented to outstanding figures or institutions who have shown dedication and commitment in working in an exemplary manner in the fields of culture, religion, business or politics to realise the idea of freedom.” So says the official announcement of the Award, which is being presented for the first time today.

An award for freedom – what a grand concept, ladies and gentlemen!

Too much, perhaps? Too pompous? After all, as I keep hearing, here in my Brandenburg constituency as well: aren’t our acute problems far too pressing? Wars and conflicts on all sides on Europe’s doorstep, forces that are undermining the very cohesion of the European Union, and tensions, divisions even, within our society in Germany. With all that to think about, who has the energy for grand concepts? This is a time in which people want to see tangible solutions, not to hear speeches about freedom, certainly not from politicians like me.

And so I thought to myself: how can I get started talking about freedom tonight? How can I do our wonderful winners justice?

I could have quoted philosophical writings on freedom, or recalled the great freedom fighters of history. Or I could have reminded you of the history of this cathedral, Brandenburg Cathedral, which has always been and shall be today a political cathedral. All of that is relevant.

But when I saw the tree and heard its story, I knew: nothing makes the value of freedom clearer than the lack of it!

I have a request to make of you. Next time you walk heedlessly past the tree in your own yard, take a moment to imagine what it would be like if it weren’t there, if there were not a spot of green in your life.

Just because something is vital doesn’t mean it can be taken for granted. Not by most people, and definitely not now.

Hardly any of us have had such a painful reminder of that as the political prisoners held in Cottbus prison. Deprived of their freedom precisely because they wanted to live in freedom: freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly and – as essential as it gets – freedom of travel. Thousands of these so-called “deserters from the Republic” were locked up in prison. I would like to extend a very warm welcome to those of them who are here with us today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot think of a worthier or more compelling recipient of this, the first Brandenburg Freedom Award. The Centre for Human Rights and Memorial Prison Cottbus embodies the value of freedom through the experience of lack of freedom!


However, the former prisoners and initiators of the Centre for Human Rights are here today not only out of respect for the experiences they and other victims of GDR injustice were forced to undergo, but also because of the lessons they have learnt from them.

Lacking freedom, they realised that freedom is vital – for everyone. Freedom for a minority, lack of freedom for the majority – no-one can be satisfied by that. Freedom is a reality only when it is a reality for all. Freedom is a human right.

And that’s why this former prison, this place of remembrance, is at the same time a centre for work for society in the here and now. Guided by these principles, the Centre for Human Rights is achieving tremendous things, both within society here in Germany and abroad.

It’s impossible to list its many activities here, and I know that Mr Dombrowski and Ms Wähling will be talking about some of them later.

But I would like to stress one aspect of all the Centre’s activities: community involvement. Working through and coming to terms with GDR injustice is difficult, as we in Brandenburg know only too well. But that is precisely why it must not be left to just a few. It should be done not in the corner, but right at the heart of society.

And that is why I admire how those engaged in the Centre for Human Rights keep on drawing attention to their work both in Cottbus and throughout Brandenburg, talking to and involving as many different people as possible. I could give you countless examples. First of all, of course, the varied programme of educational work with children and young people from all over the region, for which my special compliments go to education officer Ms Hlaskova. Or the wonderful production of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio”, a hymn to freedom, in cooperation with Cottbus State Theatre in the prison courtyard in 2014. Or the classic car rally on the Day of German Unity, which – so I’m told, Ms Wähling – has become something of a tradition. Or that ever so symbolic climbing wall in the courtyard, brightly painted, literally a climb up challenging bars across borders, fences, prejudices, persecution and barbed wire all the way to freedom. The Centre for Human Rights built the climbing wall in cooperation with an organisation for single mothers in Cottbus. And it’s right next to the weeping willow I was telling you about. So, if you go to Cottbus some day, you can test your love of freedom as you climb...

Those of you not planning a trip to Cottbus soon who would like to get an impression of the Centre for Human Rights and its impact on local society should watch the regional TV channel RBB: not because they’re filming there at the back just now, but because they have a programme called “96 Stunden” (96 Hours) where grassroots initiatives and projects can apply if they need support or a few helping hands. RBB puts out a public call for helpers for the chosen projects, and then sends a film team to follow things for 96 hours. Ms Wähling applied to the programme on behalf of the Centre for Human Rights. Makes sense. I mean, if you acquire a huge, dilapidated old prison, there’s a lot to renovate. What happened? The RBB cameras filmed as no less than 489 people from near and far turned up to help: to sweep, muck out, tear down, sand, lay tiles and pipes, paint and – as one elderly lady proudly says in the film – to do the most important job: bake a lot of cakes for all the volunteers. Watching what happens over those wonderful 96 hours, you will see that remembrance, reconciliation and human rights work are not a niche issue in Cottbus, but that many, many people are involved. Thus, and only thus, does freedom have a future!


Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to finish with an observation in my guise as German Foreign Minister. I said a few moments ago that the Centre for Human Rights and Memorial Prison Cottbus embodies the value of freedom through the experience of lack of freedom! When I was considering what to say in this speech, I thought to myself: doesn’t this apply perfectly to Germany, as well? Didn’t our country, too, learn the value of freedom by the experience many of its citizens had of a lack of freedom?

That at least is the vision the Centre for Human Rights applies in fighting for the human rights also of those beyond our own borders who are not free and who are suffering oppression: refugees fleeing from war and violence, or those sticking it out in crisis regions, such as the Yazidis in northern Iraq, who are being persecuted by IS and for whom the Centre for Human Rights provides medical care on the ground. Ms Wähling will be talking about this.

We all know that over the ups and downs of our history, Germans have repeatedly denied other Germans their freedom, and Germany has robbed other nations of their freedom. I believe that a country like ours should treasure the value of freedom in a very special way, and defend it all the more resolutely today. That at least is the “German self-assurance” I would hope for. Not a stupid “new German self-assurance” which blots out history and is based on enemy stereotypes – somewhere between “We are something again” and “Germany for the Germans” – like some people shouted, called and whistled for in Dresden, on the Day of German Unity no less. Rather, a self-assurance in the real sense: awareness of ourselves coupled with awareness of our special history. When it comes to freedom and human rights, Germany is by no means in a position to preach to others. But nor does our history allow us to stand back and ignore things either. Our task today is to tell of our experiences of the lack of freedom, to use our late-won freedom to work for others. The Centre for Human Rights Cottbus gives us hope and inspiration, and shows that such a vision is possible.

If any of you find all this a bit too abstract, let me advise you to visit the former prison. Find the weeping willow that used not to be there, sit down in its shade and soak up the atmosphere of the prison yard.

“Oh what joy in the open air freely to breathe again!” sings the Prisoners’ Chorus in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, “Up here alone is life! The dungeon is a grave.”

Thank you very much.

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