Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the opening of the exhibition Divided Memories at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki

04.12.2016 - Speech

– Translation of advance text –

“This period of civil war

is not a time for poetry.

When I attempt

to put down words

it is

as if the other side

were writing obituaries.

That is why my poems are so bitter

and why – most importantly –

they are so few.”

Dear Nikos Kotzias,

Minister Koniordou,

Mayor Boutaris,

Organisers of the exhibition,

Honoured guests,

Memory can be painful. That is something we Germans know. In Greece, people are aware of this, as well, especially here in Thessaloniki. I have just read you a quote from a poem that was written by Nikos Engonopoulos in 1948. It gives us a sense of how difficult it is to put the past into words, to create ways in which the past can be remembered.

We are today opening an exhibition titled Divided Memories. This exhibition attempts to do the same thing that our poet struggles with: unearthing the past, especially regarding events that we do not remember, or of which our memories are blurred or contradictory.

It is into our blind spots that it shines the light of history.

The exhibition focuses on the so‑called “dark decade” of Greek history, from 1940 to 1950. It contains representations of the past that overlap and at times also compete with one another.

From Germany’s perspective, one memory clearly stands out, namely that of the years of the occupation of Greece by the German Wehrmacht. We Germans are aware of the political and moral responsibility for the atrocities in Greece. They have left deep traces.

We can find these traces, too, here at this museum. On the wall directly behind me, you see a series of images, black‑and‑white photographs, with black cardboard frames. On the photographs there are children, and the closer you look, the more unbearable the images become. The children are suffering, to the point that they can hardly stand upright. They are just short of dying from starvation. The pictures were taken during the great famine in Greece during the years of the occupation from 1941 to 1942. These images give a face to the horrors of the famine, they dispel the fog of anonymity. That is only possible because brave Greeks documented the atrocities with their cameras. The most important of these was Voula Papaioannou, who took her photographs despite such activity being strictly prohibited by the German occupying forces, and even though there was a lack of photographic material, since the local Kodak factory had been destroyed. What is more, Mrs Papaioannou smuggled the photos out of the country, to alert the world to this plight. After the war, she assembled the photographs in a black cardboard album, her black album that you see here today.


Giving a face to memories. That also applies to another chapter of history, the extent of which we can hardly grasp by merely looking at the numbers. 96%. 50,000. These two plain numbers contain all of the hatred and madness with which the Nazi regime wreaked destruction on this city of Thessaloniki. 96% of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki was murdered in Auschwitz and in other extermination camps. 50,000 people. 50,000 individuals with stories, dreams and fears. This exhibition wants to give some of them a face, as well. Here, we are reminded of these people. We see where Jewish life existed back then in Thessaloniki, and what it was like. Let me mention one last figure: 1200. That is the size of the present‑day Jewish community. I am very happy that, right after this opening event, I will be able to visit the synagogue of Thessaloniki, where I will see for myself that this city today again has vibrant Jewish life.


Ladies and gentlemen,

You may ask: what is the connection between all of these memories and the present day? Why do you see two Foreign Ministers here, the Greek and the German, who have come to open a history exhibition? Don’t they have pressing, present‑day issues to attend to?

Yes, of course, there are pressing issues, especially in connection with our European Union.

Europe is threatened. It is facing forces of disintegration, both from within and from without, originating from conflicts in its immediate neighbourhood. As if with a giant magnifying glass, these threats are being focused on your country. Whether it be the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, or difficult relations with Turkey, there is not a single European crisis in recent years that has not directly affected Greece. I sometimes think that, back in my country, not everyone has understood that fact. More importantly, during all this time, the citizens of Greece have always staunchly sided with Europe. In recent years, there has been too much light‑minded talk, also in my country, of excluding Greece from the single currency or from the Schengen area. Conversely, I wish that quite a few of my other European partners would today support the European project as unflinchingly as you, Greece, are doing!


We are living in times of crisis. And at times like these, existential questions arise that are hidden well below the surface when things are quiet. Questions related to our identity, worries and fears – as well as the long shadows of the past!

How long these shadows are, also in the relationship between Greece and Germany, will be apparent to all, especially in recent years.

I remember the arguments that raged during the financial crisis, when German newspapers printed diatribes about “lazy Greeks”, and when Greek newspapers more or less accused German politicians of being Nazis. History bears much explosive potential, and it is only through a conscious and serious effort to examine the past that this can be defused. Yes, it is hard work.

I am happy and grateful that the makers of this exhibition put in that hard work. Greeks and Germans jointly planned and put on this exhibition.

Mr Zacharopoulos, Ms Flacke, Mr Hekimoglu, Mr Panes: I think that with this work of remembrance you are doing a great deal to promote our relations. I am certain that encounters between Greeks and Germans are different if they occur with an awareness of the history we share. If they develop a sense of where the historical sore and blind spots are located. By the same token, they will also discover positive connections that all too often are also concealed: for example, the centuries‑old longing of many Germans for your country’s ancient culture, for your beaches and islands, and for your sunshine (which, today, is visible neither here nor in Berlin). Or I think of the innumerable links that have been forged by Greeks with Germany, during the difficult times of the military dictatorship, especially from this northern region of the country. One example is seated in the front row: For many years, my friend Nikos Kotzias lived and studied in Germany, in the same city and at the same university as myself. Ultimately, we of course have a friendly and close working relationship not only because we sat in the same student bars, but because we in our present‑day functions know full well that we have a shared responsibility. It is precisely because our countries are linked by tragic historical events that we must work to forge a common future for Germany and Greece, one that never again will permit alienation or even hostility between our peoples to take hold.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Europe has a rich history – and it has just as promising a future! In these times of crisis, when emotions run high, I wish that Europe would do a great deal more joint commemoration work precisely like that which is presented in this exhibition. Because if Europe’s political culture makes a conscious effort to be aware of and interact with history, then it is better equipped to weather the turbulence of our age.

My country, Germany, fought long and hard after the Second World War to become aware of its own history, and of its guilt. There are still many chapters that remain in the dark – but this exhibition at least shines more light where it is needed. And that is a good thing. For along with the willingness to assume greater responsibility for our own history we also gain strength for taking our future into our own hands. We thereby refuse to be an object, and instead become an agent, of history.

I consider Greece to be such an agent; a partner who is willing to assume responsibility. For example, in a very specific and current case, when it comes to resolving the Cyprus question. We will discuss this tomorrow in Athens, dear Nikos. On this issue, there appears to be an opportunity to achieve historic progress. Greece plays a key role in these efforts – with a keen awareness of history, but also with its sights set squarely on the future. In Germany’s view – and I want to say this loud and clear – Greece is an indispensable actor in, and promoter of, Europe!


Ladies and gentlemen,

I began with pain and memories. I want to end with hope. In Nikos Engonopoulos’s poem, we sensed the difficulty with which he must have written each and every line ... today, we can be grateful to him for having written them! With his poem, he, and all the creators of artworks and collectors of memorabilia in this exhibition, gave us, those of later‑born generations, a gift. They have given us the opportunity to interact with each other with heightened awareness and in a more sensitive way, and above all to have a clearer idea of what unites us.

I would be very pleased if this exhibition, which was born out of such wonderful cooperation between Greeks and Germans, could promote this better mutual understanding.

Thank you very much.

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