In Flanders fields: remembering for the future

31.07.2017 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Gabriel to commemorate the Third Battle of Ypres, which began 100 years ago today on 31 July 1917. Published in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” on 31 July 2017.

Otto, an unknown German soldier, wrote in September 1917, “Dear Mother, you can’t imagine what Flanders means: endless suffering, blood, shreds of human bodies, heroic courage and doing your duty to the death.” Otto was one of more than half a million soldiers who did not return home from the Third Battle of Ypres – among them men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, France and Germany. It began on 31 July 1917, 100 years ago today. Months of brutal trench warfare to gain just a few kilometres of territory. Ypres, a charming medieval cloth‑making town, razed to the ground. Entire swathes of land laid waste. Only poppies still bloomed on the churned‑up battlefield.

The poppy, pinned to the lapel, is the symbol of a vibrant culture of remembrance in the Commonwealth countries. There, the ceasefire of 11 November 1918 is still a highly significant day of national remembrance, and the memory of the horror of the First World War remains very much alive. In Germany that was not the case for many years. For us Germans, the memory of the First World War was soon overshadowed by the experiences of an even more brutal Second World War in which Nazi Germany swarmed across Europe, knowing no bounds, targeted cities, villages and Europe’s civilian population and ultimately transformed its own country into a heap of rubble and brought our continent to the brink of total destruction. The attempt to create a stable peace in Europe after 1918 had failed. The seeds of hate sown on the battlefields of Flanders made lasting peace impossible. The peaceful order following the First World War was built on the precarious foundations of revenge and nationalism.

Only after 1945, following a National Socialist dictatorship, another war and the crime against civilisation that was the Holocaust, did “the unreserved opening to the political culture of the West”, as Jürgen Habermas put it, happen, in the western part of the divided Germany. This was conditional on this “West” stretching out a hand of reconciliation to us Germans amid the ruins of the war unleashed by Nazi Germany. On the integration of the vanquished into the new order, unlike in Versailles. On our recognition that unbridled nationalism and eternal rivalry between states stood in the way of peace in Europe. How courageous and farsighted must those men and women have been who invited Germany, of all countries, back to the European table shortly after the end of the war.

Europe has kept its promise of peace. For more than 70 years, almost an entire lifetime, no other war on this scale has been fought on European soil. Today, just an hour’s drive away from the vast military cemeteries in Flanders, the seats of the European Union and NATO can be found in the teeming Belgian capital Brussels. The goal of European integration was the peaceful balance of interests and prosperity. That goal has been achieved to a degree which the founding fathers and mothers of European unification could not even have imagined.

And yet we cannot afford to sit back and rest on our laurels. Despite all farsightedness and courage shown by the fathers and mothers of our European peaceful order, the European Union was not conceived as a political actor on the international stage. Yet in order to preserve peace in Europe in the 21st century and to defend our European values, we need a Europe that is strong and united also in the outside world, as well as being a global player. In a world in which the balance of power is shifting, we will only have a voice if it is a single European voice.

We know that an increase in military spending does not mean greater security. We know that the major conflicts and crises of our time can be resolved only by political and not by military means. That is why we have put the issue of disarmament on the international agenda, while others in both the East and the West are again focusing solely on rearmament. That is why we will maintain our persistent and patient efforts to overcome the conflict in eastern Ukraine by diplomatic means and continue to appeal to our partners to support this task.

Our strength lies in the fact that our approach to crises and conflicts is not exclusively military. The use of military force is the last resort. We have many tools at our disposal which have been further strengthened as a result of recent decisions: we intend and are able to make coordinated use of diplomatic and military, civilian and police resources. We take crisis prevention and post‑conflict peacebuilding seriously and are ready to make available even more resources to this end.

The military graves in Flanders are both a warning and an incentive for us to work with determination and courage to build a resilient European Union and a common European security and defence policy. If any meaning is to be found in the immeasurable suffering wreaked by two World Wars, it is the recognition that the fates of all of us in Europe are inextricably linked and that only by working together can we look forward to a good and peaceful future.

At the end of the day we owe it to all those buried on the battlefields of Europe, those described by the Canadian soldier John McCrae in probably the most famous lines of poetry about the horrors of the First World War, to do everything in our power to achieve this:

“Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”

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