Mr Secretary, dear Tony,
Ladies and gentlemen,
“My relationship with this nation’s poignant, painful, and powerful history is hazy. I will never forget how much I loved the medieval city of Nuremberg, a city that was also the birthplace of the horrifying Nazi racial laws. I cried privately at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and rejoiced after the fact in Germany’s World Cup victory.”
The US student Avi Colomonos wrote these lines in 2014, when he was 20 years old. He had come to Berlin with the transatlantic programme Germany Close Up, along with other young Jewish people, to learn more about today’s Germany.
What Avi Colomonos describes is the inner conflict that goes hand in hand with remembrance. We are conflicted between tears and joy. Conflicted in the face of a history that pains and divides us just as it moves us and can once again unite us in our shared humanity.
And yet understanding where we come from is – despite this sense of conflict – the best compass to determine which direction we want to go in. To borrow the words of James Baldwin, writing in the New York Times in 1962: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The 2710 concrete stelae that make up this Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe behind us show us where we Germans come from and what we are responsible for: the history of murder, horror and suffering inflicted upon millions of people – incomparable, incontrovertible in its man-made monstrosity. Here, between these stelae created by the great US architect Peter Eisenmann, feelings of profound unease, solitude, grief, responsibility become almost palpable for all of us. Yes, remembrance can be painful. And remembrance should be painful. Because remembrance is also a test of our mettle.
And yet we stand here today, side by side – Americans and Germans, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – united in shared remembrance. United by our belief in values such as freedom, democracy and tolerance. United, too, in our determination to build a better future on this foundation of values. That is what Europe is based on. That is what our transatlantic friendship is based on.
I know how much your family’s personal experiences of the Holocaust shape what you do every day. You have just talked about that. On your first day in office as US Secretary of State, you said: “I’ll remember that the nation’s power isn’t measured only by the size of its military and economy but by the moral choices it makes.”
The field of stelae behind us is proof of this statement, cast in concrete. America’s power, Germany’s and Europe’s power, does not come from glorifying history or glossing over the wrong turns of the past, of which none led into such a terrible abyss as the Holocaust.
Our strength lies instead in accepting the burden of historical responsibility – unconditionally, unceasingly. Our strength lies instead in joining forces as we search for the best path forward, something best done together.
And so I am delighted, dear Tony, that we are here today in this unique place, in the country of the perpetrators, to launch a Dialogue on Holocaust Issues between the United States and Germany.
One of our most pressing tasks will be to prepare our culture of remembrance for changing times. The Foundation Memorial, under its Executive Director Dr Uwe Neumärker, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum do excellent work in pursuit of this goal every day. The American Jewish Committee, with our friend David Harris, as well as the Leo Baeck Institute with William Weitzer also work alongside us to foster a vibrant culture of remembrance.
I am profoundly grateful for these different approaches and all of these efforts, because future generations will no longer be able to benefit from personal relationships with contemporary witnesses. What a great loss!
But at the same time, what a great undertaking for us, to find new forms of remembrance which do not allow the stories of individuals to fade from our consciousness. Ever. That is something we owe both to those who were murdered and to the survivors – and it is a great delight and honour to have you here with us today, Margot Friedländer, Mr Gardosch, Petra and Frank Michalski. And we owe it to our children and to our grandchildren, whom we must save as far as we can from repeating the errors of the past.
In recent years, we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic how antisemitism and racism can eat into our societies.
Just think of the Nazi-era yellow star badges seen at demonstrations against COVID measures, of the torrent of antisemitic conspiracy theories on the internet, of the attacks on synagogues and on Jewish people, of the hooligans in front of the Bundestag or the rampaging mob in the US Capitol.
The US philosopher Susan Neiman, President of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam and one of the sagest transatlantic voices in this country, gave us a piece of advice some years ago that I believe to be very wise. Namely that we must refuse to give evil – and racism and antisemitism are nothing other than that – any justification and any weight.
Only through this refusal – and not through inaction, silence or relativisation, or worse yet through indifference – can we subdue the forces that seek to divide our societies.
What we are doing here today will help. Of course, remembrance is no panacea; people and societies cannot make peace with their past as easily as that. It remains and it must remain a test of our mettle, a source of inner conflict.
But sharing in remembrance with friends – as we are doing here today – unites us as we face up to this conflict. It strengthens us. And, above all, it strengthens our societies for the future.