Speech by Minister of State Annen, MP, at the opening of the exhibition “150 years of the Federal Foreign Office”

08.01.2020 - Speech

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today, before the start of an important anniversary year, indeed before the official launch event in March, in this – if I may put it this way – almost family group of friends, family members and members of staff of the Federal Foreign Office.

Because it is the members of staff who make this ministry what it is. Who have written and continue to write its 150‑year history, difficult as it has sometimes been.

Here in Berlin, but of course also at our 227 missions abroad, all around the globe, and in Bonn.


There is one crucial difference between an individual’s milestone birthday and the anniversary of an institution such as the FFO.

150 years of the Foreign Office – this is no cause for huge celebrations. German diplomacy has lost its moral compass too often over the years for that.

Anyone who examines the Foreign Office’s role during the Nazi era, who sees that diplomats knew about and were complicit in the Nazis’ crimes against humanity, would actually have to put a question mark after “150 years of diplomacy”.

So why didn’t we wait a year? In 2021 we could have celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment after the Second World War of the new Federal Foreign Office.

A Federal Foreign Office which, it is true, did long retain the culture and personnel of the past – a fact we have known at the latest since the Commission of Historians and the book “Das Amt und die Vergangenheit” (The German Foreign Office and the Nazi Past). But which was nonetheless characterised by democracy.

And which, to this day, is guided by the exhortation in the Basic Law “to promote world peace in a united Europe”.

I expect you would agree with me that it would be easier just to celebrate this part of our history. But the Minister and I believe that to do that would be to make things too easy for ourselves.

Because little as there is – apart from the name – that links us with the authoritarian agency Bismarck established 150 years ago, and certainly with the agency that collapsed in the firestorm of the last days of the war in 1945 – still, those parts of our history cannot be erased, ladies and gentlemen.

The Federal Foreign Office did not rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Second World War. Our democracy and its institutions were built on ruins for which the Nazi dictatorship was responsible.

And we cannot deny that fact without denying ourselves.

So if we commemorate the 150‑year history of the Foreign Office this year, then it is not in order to look for continuous, unwavering traditions. Such a search would take us down dangerous paths.

It is a matter of taking responsibility for and in the light of our history. And it is a matter of drawing the right conclusions in the here and now from its highs and lows.

“Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection,” said Richard von Weizsäcker in his famous speech on 8 May 1985. And he was right.

In a world of rapid change and disappearing certainties, however, it is no longer enough merely to ward off the danger of repetition. We must also be prepared to question the status quo and thus question ourselves – especially if we want to preserve our values. That we can only do if we learn from our mistakes as much as from our successes.

To put it another way, if we want to build the Federal Foreign Office of the future, then we cannot avoid taking a critical look at our past.

And that is why history is and will remain an important part of training at the FFO.


The multifaceted and often contradictory nature of this history is reflected in the 150 objects on display on pillars here in the Atrium. These objects have been selected and prepared by our colleagues in the Political Archive from the kilometres of documents available in their holdings. I would like to extend my warmest gratitude to all involved, especially Ms von Boeselager, as well as the Policy Planning Staff and Division 607, for their outstanding work on this exhibition.

The pillars and documents will be on show at key points in the building over the course of the year, and also on the anniversary website, which goes online today.

They bear witness to courage and passivity, to work to rule and extraordinary commitment, to false ambition, but also to honest empathy.

  • For example, we see the only remaining copy of the protocol of the Wannsee Conference, with its frighteningly bureaucratic lists, by country, of the number of Jews to be dispatched in the so‑called “Final Solution”. Today we know that it was more than 11 million.
    And the protocol’s very existence makes it clear that the accomplices at their desks in the Foreign Office knew what they were doing.
  • However, there is also, ladies and gentlemen, the resignation letter of Ambassador von Prittwitz in Washington, who, when Hitler seized power, did not want to work for a regime whose contempt for democracy and human rights was so totally at odds with his own personal attitude. True, unlike the very few resistance fighters in the Foreign Office, he did not risk life and limb. Even so, his resignation deserves the respect of each and every one of us, because his example proves that sincere and decent behaviour was possible, even under those circumstances.

In this our anniversary year, we want to highlight not only the Nazi era, but also other less well‑known chapters of our history – the colonial era, for example, the foreign policy of the Weimar Republic or the history of diplomacy in the GDR.

And of course, 30 years after German unification, we will also be recalling the happy moments of 1989 and 1990:

  • when history truly was written at our embassies in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw,
  • and when we succeeded in adopting the 2+4 Treaty, a diplomatic masterpiece to which we owe our country’s unity.

The Federal Foreign Office’s more recent history, too, raises questions.

What does it say about our ministry’s ability to learn from the past, for instance, when even into the 1980s German diplomats in Chile ignored the crimes being committed in Colonia Dignidad? Where was the moral compass then?

In our anniversary year, we want to and we must ask how we can ensure that such things never happen to us again.

Let me say this quite clearly here: this question affects each and every one of us:

  • the clerk in the visa section who actually listens when an applicant talks about torture or political persecution;
  • the desk officer who reports frankly and without glossing anything over about the human rights situation, freedom of the press or the rule of law in the host country and thus rouses up those in positions of responsibility in Berlin;
  • the head of division who not only reports successes but also admits and seeks to remedy mistakes – and of course that goes for us in the leadership as well. So that we can learn for the future.


We are all playing a part in writing the history of the Federal Foreign Office.

It is a vibrant history, a “history of human stories”. And I believe every single document in this exhibition is proof of that.

So, alongside the numerous commemorative events, conferences and symposiums already planned, we should take some time in this anniversary year to talk to each other even more.

To discuss

  • how the FFO can remain one of the most attractive employers, despite the increasing dangers at many postings and in spite of the national competition for the best minds;
  • how we can make better use of the opportunities afforded by digital technology in our work, which depends absolutely on rapid communication – something that certainly isn’t always easy;
  • how we can involve our missions abroad, which often work under extremely difficult conditions and in crisis areas, more effectively in decision‑making at head office here in Berlin; and how we can accomplish this together in a world where the boundaries between internal and external are becoming ever more blurred;
  • and, last but not least – and I know this is still a controversial topic – we should give some thought to how we can create an in‑house culture fit for our century: team spirit rather than authoritarian hierarchy, collegiality rather than knowledge as a power base, and (as a man I can take the liberty of saying this here) feminism rather than patriarchy – that, too, is a conclusion of a responsible approach to our history.

Esteemed colleagues,

Basically it is a question of how we can shape foreign policy for our country in an open, flexible, knowledgeable, responsible and values‑oriented way, not despite our 150‑year history, but precisely because of it.

Answers to this question will require us all to have the courage and resolve to tread new paths at times. A glance at our history suffices to show that the FFO and its staff possess both these qualities.

So let us regard our history in two ways:

  • as a lesson that teaches us to see, to act with determination, and to take countermeasures, wherever there is injustice;
  • but also, and perhaps above all, as encouragement to do this every single day.

Thank you very much.

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