Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Saarhundert (Saar 100) anniversary celebration

10.01.2020 - Speech

My Saar background is presumably not the only reason why I have the honour, and that is certainly how I see it, of taking the floor here today.

I expect it also has something to do with the fact that Saarland, or the Saar region as it was once known, would a century ago have been within my remit as Foreign Minister. Hundreds of volumes of files at the Federal Foreign Office, we had a look again, testify that, for decades of these one hundred years, Saarland was a case for international diplomacy.

There is another more specific Saarland connection with the Federal Foreign Office. Those of you who know the Federal Foreign Office at Werderscher Markt in Berlin will be aware that the building is in the former East and was used after the Second World War as the SED’s headquarters. It was home to the Politburo of the SED. Today, my desk is in the office previously used by Erich Honecker. I didn’t want Erich Honecker to be the last person from the Saarland to have their office there. I don’t know if I will stay as long as he did but time will tell!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Although it is very tempting, I don’t want to talk about global politics this evening, nor about the crises which are keeping us busy round the clock. No doubt, the last four days would give us enough to talk about. I’m just back from Brussels, I’m flying on to Berlin this evening, tomorrow I’m in Moscow, on Sunday in Paris, on Monday in Jordan and I haven’t checked yet to see where I am on Tuesday. To be honest, I don’t even want to know.

A while ago a journalist in Berlin asked me, “Where is your favourite place to fly to?” I replied, “Hemm” (home in one of Saarland’s dialects). He didn't understand. I explained it to him and then he got it. “Hemm” for me is here and so, Tobias, I would like to thank you again for inviting me. I really am delighted to play my part when we celebrate what we have built up in the last 100 years in Saarland. And, to my mind, it is a lot.

I don’t want to give a lecture whether historical, chronological, sociological or anything else. I would like to start with a story which is relatively simple but which, for me, is typical of Saarland. A story which shows what every child here in Saarland knows, namely: “mighty oaks from little acorns grow”.

It was in 2004 that the two football clubs FC Habkirchen and US Frauenberg amalgamated – something that can happen when a team can’t rustle up enough players. Many of you who are involved in voluntary work in the sports sector will know that. But the team that emerged was not just made up of two neighbouring communities. The team was in fact one that spanned national borders. This idiosyncrasy meant that the club was on the agenda of the German Football Association and the world of politics. No‑one really knew what league the Franco‑German football club should play in and what rules should apply.

The fact that the pilot project was discontinued at some point is, for me, immaterial. I like the story nonetheless because there are several things about it that are typical of Saarland.

  • Firstly, the pragmatism of its people. It is always better to join forces rather than flounder.
  • Secondly, the courage to try something new, even if it means leaving familiar structures.
  • And thirdly, the awareness that borders are a human invention and, therefore, one which humans can overcome.

These experiences are mirrored all through the history of Saarland. After all, Saarland was time and again an experimenting ground also for the multilateral order so hotly debated these days. In its fledgling years, the Saar region was placed under a League of Nations mandate.

Thereafter, as the Treaty of Versailles laid down, it was to be for the citizens themselves to decide which country Saarland was to belong to.

Back then, the idea of letting the people of Saarland take a democratic decision of this nature was breaking new ground internationally. This special status also gave the people who had previously lived in the Prussian or Bavarian provinces a shared identity as Tobias Hans outlined. It made them people of Saarland. Yet, the desire for self-determination grew. What people were denied under the League of Nations mandate – namely participation – they sought in clubs, political parties and trade unions.

People stuck closely together during this period because it wasn’t clear where they slotted into the bigger picture. So people were quite inward‑looking and that helped build this special identity. People were very close – both in terms of space, but above all else at the personal level. And that is true to this day.

Looking at what this created – and this certainly also had something to do with industrialisation here – it is clear that the sense of community is an important factor in Saarland. The people of Saarland did not just experience solidarity and comradeship down mines and at the furnaces.

What is more, ladies and gentlemen, this experience is important when we think about where today’s society is heading. Sometimes, I have the impression that we live in a society where people have more friends on Facebook than on their doorstep. I’m really not sure if that is a good thing. Despite all the opportunities the digital world creates, I keep seeing the same pattern. Where people are afraid, where populists or nationalists are abusing people’s fears for their own ends also in political discourse, it is often connected to the fact that fear has its roots in uncertainty and a lack of knowledge. And the easiest way of combating this fear is to bring people together. I know that there are many people, above all people from other places, who laugh a bit about the thousands of village fairs, local fêtes, street festivals, town festivals, you name it. It can cause problems for politicians because they can’t be everywhere at once. Some people just don’t understand. But these are places and occasions where people come together. And for me that is important at a time in which the digital transformation is driving individualisation forward, sometimes even to the extreme. And when I look at how people today interact on so-called social media, I wish that instead of just posting something they would maybe look each other in the eyes at a street festival, at a village or town fair. So sometimes these days in the society in which we live, I wish for less Facebook and more Saarland.

Ladies and gentlemen, cohesion builds trust, also in difficult times. And we have certainly had enough of those in the last century. Saarland has felt the pinch of structural change more than almost any other Land.

But, people are more prepared here than elsewhere to face up to the challenges and above all else to tackle them together. The Saarland way! And to be honest, who has seen and coped with more turmoil – both political and economic – in this short time than Saarland?

So when HR staff – to use the modern term – are looking for “experience with transformation”, as the jargon goes, I can only say: that’s our bread and butter. At the end of the day, we always had to be sure to keep our economy fit for the future. And that, too, was a source of conflict and controversy. But also at the end of the day, a success story we can be proud of – not that we can rest on our laurels because we also know that the challenges we face right now in our industrialised society are huge. At the same time, as a border region, we know all too well what damage protectionism, for example, can cause. Close the borders, up the tariffs – we know from our own experience that that doesn’t work.

The future of Saarland is closely linked to its European identity.

Saarland is an industrial region highly dependent on exports. Germany is an industrial country highly dependent on exports. We must have an interest in ensuring that the discussions currently underway around the world are not won by those who want to use protectionism to further their own interests. I have always seen us as a part of the free world and free world means free trade and free markets. If that no longer exists, an economy structured like the economy in Saarland will experience major problems and that is something we need to prevent.

Saarland also benefits from the European internal market. Given the challenges we currently face, structural change can only work in an open and social Europe. And as there is much debate about Europe, let me say this: I am firmly convinced that all of us in Europe will only have a bright future if we above all else do one thing with our future: give it European contours. Currently, many are engaged in debate. What is the right approach? Do we need to take a more national approach, take more national decisions to represent our interests? You might be able to do that in the United States, or in Russia and China. If everyone starts doing that in Europe, we all stand to lose out. Paul‑Henri Spaak, a former Prime Minister of Belgium and one of the forgotten founding fathers of the EU, once said: “There are only two types of state in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realised they are small”. And that’s how it is.

The four major international challenges – climate change, globalisation, digitalisation, migration – are all very different phenomena. But there is one thing they share: they know no borders. They are all destined to spill over borders. Thus, a return to national thinking can hardly be a reasonable alternative, certainly not in Europe. On the contrary, what we need to do is find European solutions to the challenges we face. Otherwise we will become a pawn in the hands of other global players. Thus, we are living in an era in which we do not need less Europe but more Europe!

Ladies and gentlemen,

All that is anchored in Saarland’s DNA. I have never seen anything like it in the world and I really do get around. My grandmother lived her whole life in the same town, the same street and the same house. In the course of the last century, she could have had five different passports without moving house due to Saarland’s changing status under international law. Sometimes, there is something random about nationalities. Javier Solana, former NATO Secretary General and EU High Representative, whom I once told this story, answered, “your grandmother is Europe!” I retorted, “wait a minute, you’ve never even met her!” But the place she comes from, where I come from and where you all come from, that is, for me, Europe.

“Europe is my home” is an ambiguous sentence, as my home is here and it is here that I have a keener sense of Europe than anywhere else in Germany. This is something quite unique and an advantage Saarland has compared to the other Länder.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This brings me to another point which is especially important to me when celebrating such anniversaries, when celebrating one hundred years of history. I was born in 1966 in Saarland. I was given what I needed to make my life worth living. I didn’t have to fight for peace, freedom, the rule of law, relative prosperity. Today, I sometimes have the impression that what the generations before us built up and fought for throughout these hundred years – in conditions which were much worse than those in which we conduct politics today – is today all taken for granted. Because people like me don’t know it any other way. But in times like these, we don’t need to look to far‑flung shores, we need only look around us in Europe to see that what makes life worth living in free and liberal democracies is certainly not something we should take for granted. It is in fact under threat from various quarters, not just on distant shores but also in Europe itself. That is why I believe that we are living at a time in which we should not simply enjoy these values but also do much more to defend them. And that is also something that is happening in Saarland because the way in which people co‑exist here, the way in which people embrace each other is different than in many other regions of Germany.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our relations with France have always played a key role throughout Saarland’s history. I am thus delighted that the French Ambassador is with us today. My experience of Franco-German cooperation is that it is extremely intensive and close, more so than with any other country, despite all the discussions every now and again. I know of no other two countries that work together as closely and cooperate all over the world as Germany and France. For that I am profoundly grateful.

When I started university in Saarbrücken, Professor Meiser who was the university professor at the time, told all the students at the opening lecture in the main lecture hall, “You can do what you like but there is one thing I expect from you if you study in Saarbrücken. Someday take the time to travel on your own to Verdun. Spend a day wandering across the fields of Verdun and think about the meaning of war and peace”. I did precisely that and there are few days in my life that left such a deep impression and influenced the life I went on to lead. As a Land sharing a border with France we are topping the table with the France Strategy. We further developed the Elysée Treaty a few months ago with the Treaty of Aachen. It governs Franco‑German cooperation, not however exclusively but inclusively: we invite others in Europe to join us on this path. The day on which I was able to sign this Treaty which we negotiated with our French friends, together with Emmanuel Macron, the Federal Chancellor and my French counterpart Jean‑Yves Le Drian, was surely one of the best days I have experienced in politics. I don’t know if that can be topped and to be honest, I think it is pretty good that the Treaty building on the Elysée Treaty was signed also by a man from Saarland. For this reason, I took the Treaty with me and put it in a display case just outside my office. Anyone coming into my office can’t avoid seeing it.

That is why, in conclusion, I would like to say: If the past one hundred years of Saarland have shown us anything, then this. There is no contradiction in being a Saarländer, a German and a European. In fact, it is a wonderful and historic stroke of luck that we can be all three at the same time. That is what we want to be.

So, with this in mind, Glück auf! (Good luck!)


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