Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the 13th charity dinner for the Room of Names: 60 x 6000 fund-raising campaign

29.10.2018 - Speech

Eleven innocent people were brutally killed in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The perpetrator’s motive was apparently nothing but sheer hatred of Jews. On a day when I am giving a speech like this one and here in this place, I cannot start without recalling this act and paying tribute to the victims. I sent a letter of condolence to my US counterpart today. The victims serve as a warning to us that hatred and anti-Semitism can still kill people today.

We hope that the injured and bereaved will find solace in these dark days and that their physical and emotional wounds will heal.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The street where I live in Berlin is around two kilometres long from north to south. It takes about half an hour to walk from one end to the other.

During this half-hour, you pass 52 Stolpersteine, brass plaques that commemorate the people of this city who were murdered by the Nazis. There is a plaque outside almost every row of houses or shops on the street.

The sheer number of plaques helps us to imagine what we can scarcely fathom through reason alone – the dimension of the Shoah, of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity.

One plaque that I often pass is dedicated to Elise Levinsky, who grew up in Odessa and moved to Berlin. She was poor and had to share a room with her landlady. As a Jew, she had to work as a forced labourer at Riedel chemicals factory in Britz and became seriously ill as a result.

When she was deported by the Nazis in 1941, the only thing of note she owned was her sewing machine, which was worth 20 Reichsmark.

Three days after her deportation, she was murdered near Riga. She was 44 years old.

That is almost all we know about Elise Levinsky today. However, the fact that I can speak about her at all is thanks to people who now live in her old neighbourhood. They researched her life story and arranged for the installation of the Stolperstein with her name. They saved Elise Levinsky from oblivion and added her story to our remembrance of the Holocaust.

The Israeli author David Grossman recently described this type of remembrance as “the attempt to get people to imagine themselves in a situation and to ask themselves what they would have done.”

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes requires us to change our perspective, as our view of the Holocaust is still often shaped today by the view of the perpetrators. The images of the transports of people, the Warsaw Ghetto and the ramp in Auschwitz were mainly taken from the perspective of the perpetrators, at least until the day of liberation.

However, a modern culture of remembrance must also provide space for the stories of the victims’ lives, as the Room of Names does. Every life story told there frees the victims from anonymity. Every name read out there is a late victory over the Nazi criminals for whom people were mere numbers.

Lea Rosh, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for your tireless efforts and your support for the Room of Names.

This room and the research on life stories become all the more important as the number of eyewitnesses who can still tell their story for themselves becomes ever smaller.

Life stories help to shed light on parts of history about which we still know too little today, such as the fate of 26 million forced labourers, of people like Elise Levinsky.

That is why the Association for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has focused on the life stories of murdered female forced labourers this year. It is important to fill in these gaps in our memory.

A form of remembrance that places the victims’ life stories at its heart will never run the risk of becoming mere lip service to the past because, as the Jewish writer Mirna Funk once said, this type of remembrance is “based on life and not only on corpses”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In a few days’ time, we will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the November pogroms.
The Federal Foreign Office will mark this occasion with an exhibition featuring reports from embassies in Berlin on the events of November 1938.

Most of these reports express sheer horror at the ever-growing brutality in society, while some express a business-like indifference and a few hint at support.

One sentence from the Embassy reports stands out in my mind because it is as valid as ever.

George Ogilvie-Forbes, chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy, summed up his verdict on the barbarism of 9 November in the following sentence: “Modern civilisation has certainly not changed human nature.”

This sentence encapsulates the sheer horror that the values of the Enlightenment and the supposed civilisation and modernity of a cultured nation do not in fact form an impenetrable bulwark against nagging resentments or blind hatred, let alone against uninhibited violence.

And now? Now we see Chemnitz, where right-wing radicals give the Nazi salute in public. We see our schoolyards, where “Jew” has become an insult once again. We see our streets, where men are verbally and physically attacked for wearing a kippah. And with horror, we see Pittsburgh and other places, where anti-Semitic hatred shows its murderous face.

Like George Ogilvie-Forbes, we are forced to realise that our modernity and the sheer infinite amount of knowledge available to us in a world of digital technology are in fact no safeguard against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.

I do not want to make overly simple comparisons here. But if history can teach us something, then it is that every red line that is crossed must force us to take action.

Shimon Stein recently put it like this: “Those who want to warn about the erosion of liberal democracy cannot simply act as if they have the process under control so long as no new Auschwitz is on the horizon. Instead, we need to focus our attention on the cumulation of everything that causes concern, such as taboos being broken or radicals having the last word in debates in society.”

For us that means – and can in fact only mean – that we need to be more vigilant and to show more civic courage. We need to be more vigilant in order to recognise attacks on our open, tolerant and humane society early enough. And we need to demonstrate more civic courage in order to defend this society against such attacks, as you did, Ms Levy, when you stood up to the man who hit a young Israeli wearing a kippah here in the centre of Berlin in April. Your determination was exemplary and that is why it deserves this prize. I am very grateful indeed to you for your courage – not only does it encourage me, it also encourages many other people in our country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Not only is civil society called on to act – the political sphere also has a role to play – because those who disparage the Holocaust memorial as a “Memorial of Shame” and write off our culture of remembrance as a “guilt cult” have become a reality in German society.

Since yesterday, they are represented in all of our parliaments, where they are also spreading their hate-filled ideology. Democrats must take a stance on this, starting by loudly and unmistakeably contradicting false information and false promises by populists and nationalists. Sometimes that isn’t so hard to do. Moreover, those who support populists and nationalists ultimately play a part in shifting the basic consensus in society in our country ever further to the extreme – at a cost to everyone.

Politics – and this is something else we must not forget when we are talking about polarisation in society – must also provide answers to people’s justified concerns. Yes, concerns that appear banal at first glance – rising rents, the chasm between cities and the countryside, or issues concerning pensions, childcare and care for the elderly.

That is why we would all be well advised to concentrate all our work – and today and after recent weeks, I mean those active in politics with the word “our – on strengthening the forces of cohesion in our country. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a project that would be a truly worthy one for a grand coalition of democrats.

A glance towards Europe and the world suffices if we want to see the alternatives. Populism and nationalism are certainly not German phenomena. They are advancing around the world – the election in Brazil yesterday was just one more piece in the mosaic.

And that is why German foreign and European policy has to do everything to defend the liberal global order from attacks by populists and nationalists.

After all, the route chosen by populists is one that is both wrong and dangerous.

Those propagating that the answer to globalisation, climate change, demographic developments and migration is to be found in a return to the nation-state are endangering our country’s future. After all, going it alone we are now simply too small to make our values and interests prevail in a globalised and increasingly borderless world.

Paul Henri Spaak, a former Prime Minister of Belgium and one of the forgotten founding fathers of the European community and later 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 is why, ladies and gentlemen, only as ”Europe United“ will we be able to uphold the very elements for which Europe is today respected and admired around the world: peace and security, freedom of opinion, religion and the press, the protection of minorities and a social and sustainable market economy.

That is why I say quite clearly, also thinking back to various debates in the German Bundestag in which I was hounded by accusations and catcalls from the far right: Yes, the German Foreign Minister is bound by Germany’s national interest. Germany’s national interest has a name and it is Europe.

Together with France and other member states, we have for some time been working to make the European Union into a strong and confident actor on foreign policy, something we need to be if we are to take on this challenge. Despite all the laments on Europe and the EU, much progress has been made on the Common Security and Defence Policy, on civilian crisis prevention and in many other fields. We are currently working on bringing the EU’s civilian crisis response to a whole new level by the end of the year. It was the initiative we launched here in Berlin that set the ball in motion.

At the same time, there is no denying that the shared values and interests in the transatlantic relationship are unfortunately shrinking. And I use the world unfortunately quite deliberately. This is a trend we must not turn a blind eye to. In the future, we Europeans must stand ready, and here we need to agree, to take on more responsibility for our future, for our security and for many other things.

The possible end of the INF Treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles that is currently under debate highlighted this quite clearly once more just a few days ago.

Here we are talking about Europe’s existential interests, about peace. And that is why Europe needs to speak with one voice at such a juncture to prevent our continent again providing the backdrop for a global arms race.

Europe must be a guarantor of the rules-based international order, an order that will otherwise crumble. For some time now, the writing has been on the wall. A rules-based international order is based on trust and reliability. The knowledge we can rely on one another and rely on treaties and agreements that have been concluded.

We are now working with many other countries on ”an alliance for multilateralism“ – a network of partners relying, like us, on the strength of the law not the law of the strong.

There is huge interest here – from Japan and Canada to Latin America, Africa and Australia. After all, people all around the world are sensing that we are at a crossroads. Either we together uphold and reform the international order or we have to sit and watch nationalists and populists demolishing this order piece by piece.

One hundred years after the end of World War I, we must not repeat the mistakes that were made in the period after 1918. After that time, trade wars, isolationism and the weakness of international organisations paved the way to the next disaster which unfolded just a few years later.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I owe my firm belief that we as democrats are ultimately stronger than the nationalists and populists and my ability to voice this belief with confidence despite the worrying state of the world to the people that I get to know all over the world. To close, I would like to share with you three of these encounters. Encounters which for me and hopefully also for others inspire hope and confidence.

The first such encounter happened just under three weeks ago in the Beth Zion Synagogue, not far from here in Brunnenstrasse. For the first time since the Shoah, three Orthodox Rabbis were ordained there.

I was deeply moved by the trust in our state based on the rule of law and in our democracy that the people and the congregations expressed through this ceremony. Defending this trust against all animosity must be the maxim of what we do – as politicians but also as citizens.

The second episode takes us to Yad Vashem which I had the opportunity to visit again at the start of the month. It is not easy to draw confidence from this place of mourning. Yet when I think back to my last visit I remember first and foremost the many groups of young Germans. Passing through Yad Vashem and being spoken to time and again by German pupils, students and young people is to a degree a strange experience but also one which gave me much hope.

These young people obviously felt the need to confront the history of the Holocaust and German responsibility for it. I feel this inspires hope and confidence as it contradicts the widespread fallacy that we are dealing with an indifferent self-centred generation of millennials.

That is why we, the Federal Government, want to support this process to confront the past even more and and will launch the specially designed programme called ”Jugend erinnert“ (Young people remember) to this end.

The idea is to bring together young people from different parts of Europe and Israel to learn more about each other and their differing angles on both past and present. And to build bridges to a shared future.

The last encounter I want to share with you happened in Santiago two weeks ago. The 93-year-old David Feuerstein and his wife, Sara Zucker, 90, received their certificate of naturalisation in the German Embassy.

Both survived the Holocaust in Germany experiencing the most horrendous personal humiliation and unimaginable suffering.

Yet despite all this, they worked in post-war Germany to promote reconciliation between the German perpetrators and Jewish victims. Their dedication lasted their whole lives.

When the two submitted an application for German citizenship at the start of the year, they wanted to send a further signal of reconciliation with our and with their country. With the country that declared their passports invalid 80 years ago, that stripped them of their German citizenship and inflicted upon them the most heinous of crimes.

”Modern civilisation has certainly not changed human nature“ the British chargé d'affaires reported to London in November 1938. What else could he have written in the shadow of burning synagogues?

The gesture of David Feuerstein und Sara Zucker, however, epitomises another aspect of humanity:

  • It strengthens our belief in the good in People.
  • In the good sense of human kind which lets us learn from the past.
  • In the strength of reconciliation which builds peace.

Both sides are part of human nature.

Populists and nationalists are appealing to one side. They are playing with fear. They are fuelling resentment and prejudice.

Let's make clear that we are on the other side. On the side of tolerance, respect and empathy. As politicans, as democrats, but above all else as people.

Thank you very much.


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