On 1 September 1939, Poland experienced the worst that it had suffered in all its history, as Willy Brandt described the German invasion of the country. Thus began the madness of the Nazis’ war of annihilation, driven by their racial ideology, which by 1945 had cost the lives of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe.
The German occupiers were not simply pursuing military subjugation. The destruction of entire cities, relocations and mass murders were intended to permanently wipe Poland off the map. The memory of these crimes still haunts many people in Poland today – this has been palpable on many of my numerous visits to the country.
And yet the suffering of the civilian population of Poland was largely overlooked for many years in Germany’s collective memory of the Second World War. This is what makes last year’s decision by the Bundestag, to create a forum in Berlin for remembrance and exchange with Poland, so utterly crucial.
As a gesture to the Polish victims – and as a step to help bring our two countries’ cultures of remembrance closer together.
In recent months, the Federal Foreign Office has taken over responsibility for implementing this Bundestag decision. It is, as we have seen, a deeply personal matter for many Members of the German Bundestag – as it is for me. Early this year we set up a German‑Polish expert commission, which has now presented a concept for the planned forum for remembrance and exchange.
I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all of the members of this commission and of the political advisory council, and of course to you, Ambassador Nikel, for this extraordinarily dedicated work, work that is far from easy.
The concept combines the two core elements of the decision by the Bundestag – remembrance on the one hand, and education and exchange on the other. At the heart of the future forum will stand a memorial to the victims of the war and of the Nazi occupation of Poland. It will honour their lives, their resistance and their courage. In addition, exhibitions will shed light on the German occupation and on German‑Polish relations since the eighteenth century. Because remembrance depends on historical knowledge. Alongside these exhibitions, we want to bring together people from Germany and Poland – both in person and online, through educational events, conferences, and discussions with survivors.
I am certain that this approach will make the future forum for remembrance and exchange with Poland a focal point – physically, in the heart of Berlin, and figuratively, in our society’s culture of remembrance.
I have passed the concept on to the President of the German Bundestag, President Schäuble. It will be presented to the new Bundestag after the upcoming elections. The Members of the Bundestag will then be invited to promptly make a new formal decision on the concept and its recommendations. Finally, the foundation stone for the memorial and the exhibition rooms should be laid before the end of the coming legislative term, following an architectural competition.
I expressly support the expert commission’s proposal to include this goal in the next coalition agreement, whichever parties are involved, as a sign of commitment to a future‑oriented culture of remembrance.
Ladies and gentlemen,
After the crimes of the Second World War and the division of the Cold War, Poles and Germans today live together in a free and peaceful Europe. Our countries could not be more closely intertwined – in political, economic and cultural terms. And we are bound by our responsibility for a European Union united by human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This is embodied in the German‑Polish Treaty on Good Neighbourliness. In June we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty, and we must continue to breathe new life into it time and again.
Because we all know that, no matter how close Germany and Poland are, there are still certain differences of perception and memory; the scars of the past remain.
We cannot undo this past. And many wounds will likely never heal. But we can do justice to the dead, and honour them, by candidly addressing and reckoning with this past. And, united in shared remembrance, we can forge new paths into a shared future. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the aim that we are pursuing with the forum for remembrance and exchange with Poland.
I am exceedingly grateful to everyone who has contributed to and supported this idea, not just in recent weeks and months, but over the past few years. And I am certain that many of those whom I have met in this time and with whom we have collaborated will continue to support us in the future – because the work will continue, and it will be no small task. I once again wholeheartedly invite you all to participate – and thank you for everything that you have already done.