Almost 80 years ago, on 22 June 1941, National Socialist Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Thus began the bloodiest chapter of the “war of annihilation” in the East that had started with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The National Socialists wanted to conquer new “living space”. To this end, the enslavement and obliteration of entire states and peoples was not merely accepted as collateral damage, but was a declared military goal. The merciless war waged by Germany reduced countless towns and villages to scorched earth. Millions of civilians, including women and children, fell victim to the reprisals and terror of the German occupying forces. The Wehrmacht cast aside the rules of war that applied at the time and deliberately starved millions of Soviet prisoners of war to death. And it was German perpetrators who, predominantly in Central and Eastern Europe, committed the crime against humanity that was the Holocaust.
We now find ourselves stunned by this part of our history, by the fanatical racist doctrine and the total loss of all moral inhibitions which, not least on the Eastern Front, found such dreadful expression. And we bow our heads in grief and shame before the more than 30 million people who lost their lives in Central and Eastern Europe alone between 1939 and 1945, in the war that Germany planned, began and waged until the very end.
Ladies and gentlemen, the dimension of these crimes makes it almost a miracle, even 80 years later, that our Central and Eastern European neighbours have extended the hand of reconciliation towards us. We are deeply grateful to them for doing so.
This gratitude is bound up with a special responsibility, the responsibility to continue working with all our might on reconciliation between the people of Germany and the people of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, the Baltic, Southern Caucasus and Central Asian states and all of the other countries on which Germans inflicted terrible suffering during the Second World War. There will never be a time when we can draw a line under this reconciliation, dear colleagues.
I am therefore very grateful to the Bundestag for the decisions made in the last year to create sites of remembrance in Berlin for the victims of the war of annihilation in Poland and across Europe. We have been working relentlessly since then to establish these sites in partnership with researchers, political actors and civil society. And in very close liaison with our Polish friends.
We are likewise continuing our work to engage with the past in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We will be supporting the new Holocaust museum Babyn Yar which is planned in Ukraine, as well as the renovation of the History Workshop in the former Minsk ghetto in Belarus.
Dear colleagues, one thing that has been extraordinarily important to me was that, over the last three years, we have finally initiated a humanitarian gesture for the survivors of the Siege of Leningrad. The atrocious death of one million people in the city while it was surrounded by the Wehrmacht was one of the most appalling war crimes of the Second World War.
I most recently visited Saint Petersburg last August, when I spoke with survivors of the blockade. Anyone who has listened to the memories of these people, heard what happened there, what they suffered, what was inflicted on them, will never forget that. And anyone who has witnessed their desire for reconciliation has a duty to accept this gift by working to engage with the past in order to build a better future. We do indeed feel duty-bound to do so.
As we commemorate the date of 22 June 1941 this year, we also want to make it a particular priority to forge new ties among the younger generation. As part of the Peace Line project, young people from across Europe will travel together from Germany through Russia and Lithuania to Poland to commemorate the past and to enter into a dialogue, in particular about a shared future.
Dear colleagues, by committing ourselves to European integration we have drawn the most important conclusion in light of our past. But consciously engaging with this past also means respecting the different understanding that our Central and Eastern European neighbours have, for reasons rooted in history, of concepts such as “sovereignty” and “nation”. We must bear that in mind when we reach out to them to continue the process of ever-closer European integration.
Consciously engaging with our history ultimately means that we must place international law above the law of “might makes right” and must stand up for the universality of human rights. This is one reason why we in the European Union resolved to respond to the arbitrary and oppressive political acts with which Minsk and Moscow have, particularly in recent times, so flagrantly violated international rules and universal values. And it is why we maintain our firm stance on the illegal annexation of Crimea and on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This will also be my message in the talks which I will hold this afternoon with my Ukrainian counterpart here in Berlin.
Dear colleagues, politics cannot be divorced from history. And so it is all the more important that we draw the right conclusions from our own, very difficult history. Eighty years after 22 June 1941, this means that we must bring to bear all of our strength to support peace and freedom, cohesion and democracy, on our continent.
Thank you very much.