What do you think about when you hear the phrase “a cosmetic measure”?
I bet the fall of the Berlin Wall is the last thing that springs to mind! And yet – at least in the eyes of the GDR leaders – what happened at the border between Hungary and Austria in the early summer of 1989 was merely “a cosmetic measure”. Reporting to his boss Erich Honecker on the dismantling of the border fence, the East German Defence Minister said “this is part of the plan for European détente”. The fence disappeared. However, the border was still there and it was guarded even more closely – for a while, anyway.
Things continued that way until 10 September 1989, exactly 30 years ago, when the Hungarian Government opened the border against the wishes of the GDR leadership, which reacted by banning people from travelling to Hungary. But by then, there was no way to halt the flow of refugees. The “cosmetic measure” would soon change the face of the entire continent.
Ladies and gentlemen, when we think about the peaceful revolution of 1989, images of 9 November in Berlin are what first come to mind – images that are still extremely moving, not only for me, but probably for many other people who were there at the time or watched the events unfold on television.
Strangers fell sobbing into each other’s arms as if they hadn’t seen each other in decades. And at the same time, they laughed with joy. Motorcades of Trabis, with German flags fluttering from their windows, made their way down the Ku’damm.
After 28 years, the Berlin Wall fell in a tumultuous night. But cracks had quietly appeared in it months earlier, just somewhere else. Before people in the GDR took to the streets to demonstrate for freedom of travel and democratic elections, tens of thousands of their fellow East Germans had risked their lives and liberty by fleeing to the West via Hungary. No one cracked open the sparkling wine or showered them with confetti when they made it over the border. Instead, their long-awaited freedom began with food stamps in overcrowded reception centres.
Ladies and gentlemen,
These images and stories are older than most of you here in this room. But the fact is that none of us would be here in the first place without these images and without the events of summer 1989.
During the GDR dictatorship, this building, now the Federal Foreign Office, was home to the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. Erich Honecker once worked in what is now my office. In other words, the GDR was ruled from here. This was a high-security zone for the regime. And then the Wall fell. Here in this very room, the former congress hall of the first free People’s Chamber, the Treaty on the Establishment of German Unity was approved on 20 September 1990. The battle for democracy, freedom of travel and free elections was won, once and for all, here in this room.
Ladies and gentlemen,
None of this would have been possible without Hungary. Hungarians demonstrated solidarity with the refugees from the GDR. Hungarians granted official approval for all GDR citizens to travel to “a country of their choice”.
Hungarians broke ‘the first stone out of the Berlin Wall’.
And we Germans will never forget that. The path to perhaps the happiest moment in our country’s history led through Hungary. And perhaps we should talk about this more often. People in Hungary, who were still fighting for freedom themselves, paved the path to liberty for refugees from the GDR. As a German and a European, I want to express my enormous gratitude to you for that. We want to thank you.
The stone that Hungary broke out of the Berlin Wall became the cornerstone for Europe as we now know it – a Europe based on solidarity; a peaceful Europe; a free Europe; a Europe where it is completely normal for young people like you to study and travel abroad and to discover new cities and make friends in other countries; and a Europe where our countries face up to the political challenges of the future together. The EU safeguards democracy, freedom, tolerance and human rights. In order to understand just how much this means, we only need to look at other places in the world – particularly at the moment. But none of these achievements are a matter of course. People sometimes need to be reminded about that. And I include myself in this, as I was born in West Germany in 1966. Everything I enjoy today – peace, freedom, civil rights, the rule of law, relative prosperity – fell into my lap. I didn’t have to fight for any of it myself because others had done so before me. But we still need to keep reminding ourselves that these things cannot be taken for granted. They are not only things we put into practice. Sometimes – and I think this is increasingly the case – we need to stand up for them. They need to be defended and constantly reaffirmed.
Rule of law, freedom of the press and academic freedom are cornerstones of our European society that were achieved with difficulty over the course of many decades. They now define how we live and how we see ourselves. And they are non-negotiable.
Our recent history has taught us Germans and Hungarians this. Walls and barriers are not a solution. When some people in the world turn to isolationism and nationalism, we need to stick together, particularly here in Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
According to a Hungarian saying, good fortune brings friends and bad fortune puts them to the test.
The happiness and joy at the opening of the Iron Curtain brought Germans and Hungarians together. When the Berlin Wall fell, we Germans felt our happiness was all but complete. But today we know that German unity only became European unity when Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Romania and other former Eastern Bloc countries joined the EU. Only then were we happily united for our mutual benefit in a Europe where we work together as equals and where there can be no first-class and second-class members.
But in recent years, ladies and gentlemen, this Europe has faced several severe trials such as the financial crisis and the dispute on the distribution of refugees. Old rifts reappeared. And so too did borders, barriers and border controls. The achievements of the past are suddenly being called into question again. Brexit is taking this to the next level. Most importantly, Brexit has shown us where constant EU-bashing leads, what happens when Brussels is used as the scapegoat for other people’s shortcomings.
That’s why, ladies and gentlemen, we need to resist this and to make the EU’s achievements tangible for people once again, the way the German-Hungarian Youth Forum is doing by bringing together young people who want to find out about the world they live in and to make a positive change.
And that’s why I am happy to see so many of you here today. After all, you are the future of Europe. You are building bridges at a time when fences are going up in other places. And we need you to build these bridges! From my talks with some of you, I know that building bridges is how you want to live together in Europe. That gives me and many other people hope. We don’t need any “cosmetic measures” in Europe. Instead, what we need are courageous steps forward and perhaps a little more optimism. We also need humanity and solidarity. And it will be up to all of us to take these steps. It would be best if we did so together.
Thank you very much indeed!