Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin

08.11.2016 - Speech

“For groundbreaking discoveries you need the freedom to see things as they really are and … not as others think they are or should be.”

So said Stefan Hell, Nobel laureate in Chemistry.

Professor Mlynek,
Professor Schäfer,
Ladies and gentlemen,

To my mind, that sentence is a tremendous plea for the very thing that brings you here today: unfettered exchange, free engagement across all walls and borders. It is a plea for free thinking, for the courage to tread new paths in search of knowledge and insight.

That’s what the Falling Walls Conference is all about. And I am very happy to welcome so many of you here to Berlin today!

But I think there’s something else in that remark by Stefan Hell too. And it’s something that gets me thinking and worrying – particularly on a day like today, when not only I, but doubtless many of you too, look across the Atlantic with great expectations at the elections in the United States.

“See things as they really are,” Stefan Hell says, “and not as others think they should be”.

Hell is giving voice to the absolute desire for truth, the search for new answers on the basis of solid facts and insights. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the basis of your research, your day‑to‑day work.

At the moment, though, I think this desire for truth is too often missing in the political debate. We see this not only in the US election campaign, but also in the tone of the debate here in Europe and Germany.

Because instead of arguing with each other on the basis of facts to arrive at the best responses, fear is being instrumentalised in policy‑making. The truth is no longer merely being deliberately distorted. Far worse, it seems to no longer count.

The reawakening nationalism in many parts of the world seems to satisfy a new desire – a desire for allegedly simple, clichéd answers. And in the words of the populists, the answer is “Batten the hatches! Don’t bother us with the world’s problems! Everyone for himself!”

And it’s true: the world around us just now really can get you worried. Crises and conflicts seem to be the norm. And with the thousands and thousands of people seeking refuge here in Europe, fleeing war and violence in the Middle East, these crises have long since arrived on our doorstep.

But the answer cannot be to put up new walls! And here I do not only mean the physical walls, the new barriers and barbed wire fences we are seeing in Europe. No, I also mean the walls the populists and nationalists are trying to build in people’s minds, walls of ignorance, fear and separation. They try to con us into believing we can only safeguard our own identity by shutting ourselves off.

Our history, ladies and gentlemen, reminds us Germans of the dangerous and terrible consequences such thinking can have. As does this building, Professor Schäfer, your museum, which is graciously hosting us today.


Ladies and gentlemen, you scientists show us a different way – how to demolish walls rather than build new ones. How to build bridges with openness, curiosity and sound engagement, how to arrive at new insights and concrete solutions to the major problems we are facing together.

And for that, ladies and gentlemen, I would like expressly to thank you. You are all leaders in your field. You are researching highly complex subjects. But you do not shut yourselves away in your labs and libraries! You share your knowledge and thereby give important impetus to debates in our society. And precisely by doing so, you provide the alternative to the clichéd answers and counter the lost urge for truth and reason so often seen today. For that, too, I thank you.

Whether in the refugee issue, HIV research, cyber security or any of the many other topics under discussion at the conference tomorrow, we will make progress only if we engage on the basis of facts rather than playing with people’s fears. And if we work together across specialist and national borders.

During one of my trips to South Africa, I recently had the opportunity to experience one format of the “Falling Walls labs”. It was fascinating to see how young talents from the scientific, business and social communities were networking. And how they strikingly presented innovative new proposals in just three minutes, unfettered by hidebound patterns of thinking.

Believe me, I know how hard that is. I mean, I’ve already overrun my allotted time...


The principle of free dialogue and exchange which you put into practice here at the Falling Walls Conference is an essential part of German research and academic relations policy. It is a matter of bringing together people with very different cultural backgrounds and very different experiences. For we know one thing: dialogue produces understanding. And exchange produces knowledge.

That’s why we do so much to promote scientific and academic exchange, international research networks and close cooperation between the scientific, business and cultural communities. Only yesterday we were talking with German companies and foundations, with the German Academic Exchange Service and higher education institutions about building up a university of applied sciences in Kenya. And I can assure you that there is a great desire to engage there, to help bring prosperity and peaceful development to Africa, also in the field of education.

Not least in the light of the crises around the world, we need to help ensure access to education and research in places where war and violence have put it in jeopardy. We can do this, for instance, through scholarship programmes like the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund, or by working with the Philipp Schwartz Initiative to help persecuted scientists and academics to continue their work in Germany.

There is no doubt in my mind that we must create scope for education and research, exchange and dialogue. Only in this way will we find responses to the major challenges of our age.

Only in this way will we understand how things really are.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you and all of us every success with that goal.

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