Members of the German Bundestag,
“Never was Europe stronger, richer, more beautiful, more fervently convinced of an even brighter future”.
Hard to believe but these are the words Stefan Zweig used in his book “The World of Yesterday” to remember the time before World War I.
Brimming with confidence, Zweig, together with his comrades-in-arms, including the French writers Georges Duhamel and Romain Rolland, had fought for a united Europe.
When Stefan Zweig penned these lines, he however already knew of the momentous watershed that was 1914, the barbarity of World War I and later also of World War II. His previous confidence in the world had yielded to absolute desperation.
Today, 100 years after the end of World War I, his vision of a united Europe has long become reality. From a Europe of wars, a Europe of peace has been born. This is by no means something we can take for granted.
It is thus my great pleasure to welcome you here today, also on behalf of my French colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian.
We, the French and the Germans, were once called arch-enemies. But today we come together as close friends. This wouldn't have been possible without the readiness of the French to engage in reconciliation.
Today, we can say that we won the peace.
Yet the path to get us here was long and in part calamitous.
That is what we will be focusing on for the next two days and asking ourselves: How do you end conflicts in such a way that peace is not just made but above all else is going to stand the test of time? That a situation is created that does not contain the seed of enmity? This is a topic that will stay with us for some time.
I am therefore delighted to be able to welcome so many renowned figures from academia, the media, politics and practice to this conference to discuss these topics with us.
My particular thanks extends to the Freie Universität Berlin who are hosting this event and to all the other members of the steering group who have helped prepare this conference over the last few months and have provided valuable support.
And I would like to thank you, Carl Bildt, for being here today and taking the floor to address us in just a moment. In your many different diplomatic functions, you have played a pivotal role in overcoming difficult international conflicts some of which remain on our agenda to this day.
After all, that is also a lesson from World War I. This was not a “war to end all wars” as the English author and historian Herbert G. Wells wrote as the war broke out. No, it became the Great War, the first globalised mass war waged in industrial terms in the history of humanity.
More than 17 million people lost their lives, many millions more were injured, maimed or displaced. Immeasurable suffering that we will never forget and that we above all else must never forget.
At the end of the fighting, the peace that took hold was ultimately only superficial. It was simply not possible to create a peace in the hearts and minds of the people. And only a few years later, Germany started an even more horrific war that plunged the world into the abyss once more.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There were and remain voices in our country who believe that a line can be drawn under the past.
They believe one can cast off the shackles of the past as one would a tiresome burden. This is a stance we must resolutely oppose.
The future needs remembrance. The past is an indelible part of our identity. It serves as a reminder and teaches us, for today but also for tomorrow.
A century may be a long time but the impact of World War I are to this day palpable all around the world.
New countries emerged as empires collapsed. Former trouble spots were assigned to history as new ones emerged, also in conflict regions which pose a challenge to this day, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or the Caucasus.
Even today when we analyse the war in Syria or present-day Islamist terrorism, we cannot avoid focusing on the past.
One hundred years ago, it was not just new territorial borders that were being drawn. Processes to modernise society were being launched and for the first time, key elements of today’s liberal world order were being drafted.
The lesson that the American President Woodrow Wilson learnt in 1918 remains valid to this day: only a stable multilateral order to which the community of nations subscribes can guarantee peace and reconciliation worldwide.
Yet we are seeing today that old certainties are crumbling. Long-standing principles and foundations of our international relations are once more being called into question: multilateralism, international law and the universal validity of human rights.
We are also currently seeing how history is being instrumentalised. As nationalistic thinking takes hold, the past has become a more important factor when it comes to legitimising political decisions also here in Europe. Such populist thinking is being used again to build fences and incite nationalism.
We cannot allow that to happen! We need to stand up for freedom, for tolerance and for justice.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Remembering is in this way also always a duty. Even though we live in a constantly changing world to which we need to adapt:
The knowledge of our fateful past, the knowledge also of Germany’s responsibility for the suffering of millions should guide our political work.
After all, this, too, is a lesson learnt from World War I, a war ultimately rooted in failed diplomacy: The line separating us from a return to the gloomy past has today perhaps become thinner than some would like to believe.
And we must not stand idly by. We must actively uphold what we have built. Put simply, we have to show responsibility and take a stance.
That is why we, Germany, want to use our seat on the United Nations Security Council from next year to shoulder the responsibility we have taken on, what is more, for all to see – also, incidentally, coordinating closely with our French friends.
Ladies and gentlemen,
“After this war, there must be no more war! Yes, enough is enough!”
The French writer Henri Barbusse penned these words as early as 1916, shocked by the horror and brutality of World War I.
Today, we know his wish did not come true.
However, for young people and also for my generation, peace in Europe is something we take for granted. But it is also clear that peace is only there because we have learnt together from our shared history.
In times when populist propaganda is again on the rise, a shared European culture of remembrance is more important than ever.
That is why I am delighted that young people from 52 countries will come to Berlin next month to attend the Franco-German Youth for Peace meeting. Here we are linking back to and building on the bilateral youth meetings held at Hartmannswillerkopf in 2014 and in Verdun in 2016.
Next week, several hundred young people from all across Europe and from our neighbouring countries to the south and the east will come together and engage with one another in Berlin as part of the Crossroads of History festival.
They are the future to uphold that of which Stefan Zweig could only dream: a Europe United.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have come together today to remember the millions who died, were wounded and traumatised by World War I. They serve as a stern reminder.
They are a reminder not to regress to old thought patterns. Not to see pulling up the drawbridge as an answer to the challenges of our time.
Not to remain indifferent when people preach a return to nationalism and protectionism.
The European Union is a unique example in world history for successful conflict resolution.
We can be truly proud of the lessons we have learnt from our shared history, of what we have achieved. And protecting them and moving them forward - fully aware of what has gone before, is an important task for all of us, not just for those of us working in politics. It is in fact, ladies and gentlemen, something which affects our entire society.
With this thought to the fore, I hope we have a meeting full of intensive talks but which also helps ensure that not just the experts but also civil society in both our countries get involved in what we believe we need to do, that is, to remember and draw the right conclusions.
Thank you – and a very warm welcome to you all!