Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the exhibition Beyond Duty - Diplomats Recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”

29.01.2018 - Speech

Ambassador Issacharoff,


Ladies and gentlemen,

We intend to open a very special exhibition here today that pays tribute to the courage of people in diplomatic situations that were genuinely dangerous. We sometimes experience difficult situations also today, sometimes even dangerous ones in certain countries. But the situation in this country at any rate is not as dramatic as the period from 1933 to 1945, when Germany tried to impose its ideology throughout the world and to kill people, especially Jews. At the same time, not many people, but nevertheless a few, opposed this back then.

“I may have to disobey the government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.”

These are the words of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania at the time.

In 1940, shortly before his own departure, he helped thousands of Jews to leave the country with Japanese visas.

You really must have great respect and admiration for his courage.

He acted decisively against the instructions of his government and refused to obey the orders he received. In 1984, he was recognised by the Yad Vashem memorial as Righteous Among the Nations for his contribution.

Yad Vashem defines the award “Righteous Among the Nations” thus:

“In a world of total moral collapse during the Holocaust, there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations.”

It has been awarded, among others, to 36 diplomats from over 20 countries to date.

It is an honour for me to open the exhibition Beyond Duty – Diplomats Recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” today, which was curated by Yad Vashem.

I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the Embassy of the State of Israel, which took the initiative to present this exhibition in Germany in collaboration with the Federal Foreign Office.

The exhibition will also be displayed concurrently at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a memorial wall for these diplomats will be unveiled. Moreover, the exhibition will also be shown in other countries, including Azerbaijan.

More than 70 years after the Second World War, this is not a matter of course and is a great gesture of unity between our two countries. Especially when dealing with our difficult past, which proved deadly for so many millions of people, this shows how close Germany and Israel are once again.

The exhibition illustrates how individual diplomats showed courage to act and to uphold human values in the face of the suffering and plight of the Jewish population.

Courage to go against the grain and to disregard the regulations of their respective governments.

What are regulations when measured against human lives?

Courage to bear the consequences of their actions.

Courage to put their status, livelihoods, and sometimes even their lives on the line.

Among the diplomats honoured are six members of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and I am delighted that the Swedish Ambassador is with us here today.

The most famous of them was Raoul Wallenberg, who was seconded to Budapest in 1944 to issue passports and visas for Jews with links to Sweden.

Wallenberg’s efforts went way beyond his mandate. He built shelters, helped get supplies to thousands of Jews in the Budapest ghetto, and saved hundreds from death marches to the Austrian border.

His fate after the invasion of the Red Army has not yet been definitively established.

The courage shown by a German diplomat is also honoured in this exhibition with the example of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who was a maritime attaché at the German Legation in Copenhagen during the Second World War.

In October 1943, the National Socialist regime was planning the deportation of Denmark’s Jewish population. Duckwitz was able to prevent the worst possible outcome by informing his contacts in Denmark at an early stage and mediating with the Swedish Government.

The majority of the Jewish population was transported across the Öresund by boat and saved.

The part he played was an act of resistance to a criminal system.

And yet Duckwitz was one of the very earliest members of the NSDAP. His biography makes it clear that his courageous actions also required a critical and certainly difficult examination of his own life.

Only a few, far too few, trod this path in the foreign service, however.

For all of the praise for one of our diplomats, we must remind ourselves time and again that the Federal Foreign Office actively participated in implementing the heinous policies pursued by the National Socialist regime. It was informed about the scale of these crimes from an early stage and was involved in the systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe.

If I remember rightly, then the last original protocol of the Wannsee Conference on the final solution to the Jewish question is stored here in the Federal Foreign Office’s Political Archive.

For a long time after the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Federal Foreign Office cultivated the self-image that it had been a “refuge of resistance”, or at least of “inner emigration”. Attempts to challenge this perception met with only limited success.

It was not until the 2005-2010 period that an Independent Commission of Historians investigated the history of the Federal Foreign Office in the Third Reich in a systematic manner.

This does not mean that we have reached the end of this process, however. Since then, research on the topic has gained new momentum. This is both right and important. We must all continue to confront our own past because we have seen that it is still, unfortunately, part of the present in our country. The available data and empirical research on anti-Semitism in our country shows us that this phenomenon has by no means disappeared and that memory is by no means so vivid that everyone is aware of this crime against humanity. Attacks against Jews in our country are always attacks against ourselves –they are not an attack on only part of our society, but strike at the heart of our society and target us all.

The constitution of our country was written with, for instance, the Nuremberg doctors’ trial in mind. It is imbued with the intention never again to combine genetic and social issues. This concept of “never again” is at the heart of our constitution. And anyone who takes issue with this “never again” launches an attack on the heart of our constitution and not only, what would be bad enough, an attack on a particular religion or ethnic minority in our country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On 27 January we mark the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism. This day serves as a warning to us but, also in view of current events, it at the same time reminds us of our duty. Especially now that there are ever fewer living witnesses on both sides – victims and perpetrators – remembering the atrocities of the National Socialist regime is something which we have to actively foster and address time and again. Whether we are the descendants of perpetrators or victims, whether we grew up in Germany or elsewhere, we are all called upon to fight to keep these memories alive and, above all, to refute any suggestion that anti-Semitism is a peripheral phenomenon. I believe this is absolutely essential if we are to live up to our responsibility towards the past – both today and tomorrow.

Naturally, this gives rise to questions about the current situation: the idea that anti-Semitism has possibly not been addressed with sufficient vigour. I have always regarded the fact that police officers have had to stand guard outside our country’s synagogues for decades as truly disgraceful. Today many people are worried about globalisation and about the many conflicts raging around Germany and Europe, our island of privilege. That is why anti-Semitism is able to grow again in the fertile ground provided by xenophobia and nationalism, while parties and movements which propagate such sentiments are gaining ground again. However, not even personal difficulties can excuse anyone becoming an anti-Semite or an enemy of our constitution. We should definitely be concerned about that. I also find it disquieting that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are widespread among refugees and migrants.

The Ambassador and I will be travelling to Israel tomorrow night for a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies, where one of his predecessors, Shimon Stein, is a Senior Research Fellow.

We thought it would be a good idea to have talks again with the Israeli Government, even though we have different views on many issues. You will remember that I felt it was right to meet representatives of civil society, including Breaking the Silence, during my last visit. That then led to the cancellation of my talks with the Israeli Prime Minister. I openly admit that although I remain convinced that it is right not to shy away from meeting representatives of Israeli’s civil society, I was deeply unsettled by how much applause I received in Germany. This is one of the reasons why I am glad that we are travelling together tomorrow and that we will also be meeting the Israeli Prime Minister on Wednesday.

Of course, this applause was not only an expression of approval for a steadfast German Foreign Minister who did not allow himself to be intimidated. I probably also received praise from some people who were actually concealing an anti-Semitic stand behind their anti-Israel stand. I was reminded of this once more by these reactions. But that does not change the fact that both Mr Netanyahu and I are convinced that we did everything right during my last visit. However, I believe that we were both applauded by the wrong side: he in his own country and I in mine. I am therefore grateful that we have another opportunity tomorrow to show that our countries will not allow themselves to be driven apart by political differences. This means taking an openly critical stand when necessary as well as remembering time and again that we have a special responsibility; or at least we Germans do. We must prevent what, in the final analysis, amounts to anti-Semitism being concealed under some kind of guise, even when the views expressed on the matter in hand seem reasonable to some people. At any rate, we must not allow anti-Semitism to hide and garner approval in a political controversy which has nothing to do with the real motives of anti-Semites.

It is very clear to me that we have a task here, and no small one. Many of the people who have come to live in our country imbibed anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk, as it were, due to a serious conflict in their countries of origin. However, we should not pretend that this is a migration problem, for the majority – indeed the overwhelming majority – of extreme right-wing violence and crimes against Jewish people or institutions are not committed by migrants but in increasing numbers by “organic Germans”, as we say here in Germany today, who developed their anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing radicalism in our country and did not import it.

This exhibition is intended to serve as a warning to us not to look away but to be courageous. Much less courage is required in our country today than that shown by those portrayed here.

Especially here in this ministry: in our commitment to peace and security worldwide, we are challenged each day anew to make decisions of conscience and to demonstrate humanity and courage.

That goes for our active commitment to human rights within the scope of our work. In our daily lives, too, however, every one of us is called upon to take a stand against racism, anti-Semitism, intolerance and hate.

So, where does our duty lie? I believe that this exhibition shows us. We can be grateful that we today need much less courage than those spotlighted here.

I am glad that nowadays diplomats very seldom have to act against the instructions of their government in order to stay true to their conscience. For today humanity is a guiding principle of our constitution and indeed guides the conscience of members of the government. Thank you very much once more to everyone who made this exhibition possible.


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