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Speech of Professor Heinrich August Winkler

Mr President, Mr President of the German Bundestag, Madam Chancellor, Mr President of the Bundesrat, Mr President of the Federal Constitutional Court, Members of the German Bundestag, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

In the whole of German history, there is no greater watershed than the date whose 70th anniversary we are commemorating today: 8 May 1945. It marks the end of the Second World War in Europe, the collapse of the Nazi regime which had unleashed that war, and the end of the German Reich founded by Bismarck three quarters of a century earlier. For twelve years, the Nazis had fervently evoked German national unity. As their regime met its end in an unparalleled inferno, it was unclear whether the Germans would ever live together in a unified country again.

In his historic speech marking the 40th anniversary of the German Reich's unconditional surrender, the Federal President of the day, Richard von Weizsäcker, warned the German people not to separate 8 May 1945 from 30 January 1933 – the date when Reich President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor. He argued that 8 May 1945 should, however, be recognised

"as the end of a wrong path in German history, an end that contained the seeds of hope for a better future".

The "wrong path" to which Weizsäcker referred did not begin in 1933. Much of the German elite, and indeed of society as a whole, regarded the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic, as a product of Germany's defeat in the First World War, as the type of state embodied by the victorious Western powers, as an un-German system.

During the First World War, well-known academics and writers contrasted the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity – with the German "ideas of 1914": glorification of a strong state with the military as its linchpin, the "Volksgemeinschaft" or "people's community", and an allegedly "German socialism".

When the Weimar Republic's parliamentary democracy failed in the spring of 1930 and Germany shifted to a semi-authoritarian presidential regime soon afterwards, Hitler was able to appeal successfully to the widespread hostility towards Western democracy, while at the same time exploiting one of the democratic achievements of Bismarck's Reich, now largely robbed of its political effect: general and equal suffrage in Reichstag elections, which had been extended to women as well as men since the revolution of 1918-1919.

The Nazis' electoral successes towards the end of the Weimar Republic cannot be explained without taking into account the long history of German reservations regarding Western democracy which preceded them. The same is true of the rapid surge in popularity that Hitler enjoyed after his so-called "seizure of power". His popularity reached such heights that, in the words of the British historian Ian Kershaw, Hitler himself became a "believer in his own cult" by 1936 at the latest. In the course of the Second World War, the "Führer myth" was diminished by the setbacks in the war against the Soviet Union from the winter of 1941-1942 onwards, and then in particular by the defeat at Stalingrad at the end of January 1943, but it did not die. In fact, it even experienced a brief renaissance of sorts after the failed assassination attempt on 20 July 1944. Many now believed that Hitler really might be allied with "providence" and only he could save Germany.

In The Myth of the State, his final work before his death in exile in the United States in April 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer interpreted Hitler's political career as a triumph of myth over reason, and this triumph as the result of a profound crisis.

"In politics we are always living on volcanic soil. We must be prepared for abrupt convulsions and eruptions. In all critical moments of man's social life, the rational forces that resist the rise of the old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves. In these moments, the time for myth has come again. For myth has not been really vanquished and subjugated. It is always there, lurking in the dark and waiting for its hour and opportunity. This hour comes as soon as the other binding forces of man's social life, for one reason or another, lose their strength and are no longer able to combat the demonic mythical powers."

In view of the eruptions of xenophobia we have experienced in Germany in recent months, and the anti-Semitic incitement and violence here and in other European countries, Cassirer's words still hold a truly disturbing relevance today. They warn us to heed at all times the real lesson of German history from 1933 to 1945: the obligation to respect, in all circumstances, the inalienable dignity of every human being.

(Applause)

Germany's second defeat in the 20th century was a total defeat, and it dealt a far greater blow to German self-confidence than the defeat of 1918. It was not the case that an overwhelming majority of Germans saw the Allies' victory in May 1945 as a liberation. Unlike the peoples for whom this victory brought liberation from German rule and tyranny, for many Germans the "collapse" of the Nazi regime meant the collapse of their faith in the "Führer" and their hopes of a "final German victory". The unconditional surrender was initially perceived as a liberation only by those Germans who had already – or always – realised the criminal nature of Hitler's rule.

When the Provisional Council of the Protestant Church of Germany spoke, in its "Stuttgart confession of guilt" in October 1945, of a "solidarity of guilt" between the church and the people, this met with widespread opposition, even within the church. One sentence in particular was seen as an inappropriate confirmation of the Allies' assertion of a German "collective guilt": "Through us, endless suffering has been brought down upon many peoples and countries."

The worst of all the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis, the murder of around 6 million European Jews, was not expressly mentioned in the "Stuttgart confession of guilt". Decades would pass before Germany came to recognise, not least due to the groundbreaking research of Jewish scholars such as Joseph Wulf, Gerald Reitlinger, Raul Hilberg and Saul Friedländer, that the Holocaust is the central fact of 20th century German history. At the same time, another realisation gradually dawned: the victory which had been won over Germany at immense sacrifice by Allied soldiers, not least by those of the Red Army, had, in a sense, liberated the Germans from themselves – liberated in the sense of giving them the chance to break free from political delusions and traditions which separated Germany from the Western democracies.

In cultural terms, Germany had always been a country of the old Occident, of Latin or Western Christian Europe. Germany had participated in and played a vital role in shaping the separation of powers in the Middle Ages, beginning with steps towards the separation of spiritual and secular power, followed by royal power and that of the estates, as well as the emancipatory processes in the early modern period from humanism, to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. However, some essential political lessons of the Enlightenment – the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, the ideals of inalienable human rights, the sovereignty of the people and representative democracy – had been rejected by influential German elites until well into the 20th century. It was only the experience of the German catastrophe of the period from 1933 to 1945, when German opposition to the West's political ideals reached its peak, which gradually eroded this hostility. The opportunity which arose after 1945 to build a second parliamentary democracy, this time one which would be functional and capable of defending itself, was only offered to part of Germany, however: the three Western occupation zones, which would later become the Federal Republic of Germany, and West Berlin. The Germans living in the other part of the country were denied political freedom for four and a half decades.

The Federal Republic's progressive opening to the political culture of the West and the emergence of a self-critical historical culture were inextricably linked. It took sometimes fierce academic, journalistic and political debates to drive these processes forward. The debate about the German Empire's key role in the developments which led to the First World War was of great significance in this context. It took time to overcome the still influential apologist interpretations of German history, and to counteract the widespread tendency to regard the German people as Hitler's first victims and for people to absolve themselves of any share of responsibility for the wrongs perpetrated in that period. Now there are markers, plaques and memorials in many German towns and cities dedicated to the Jewish and other victims of National Socialism – placed there not by the state, but by civic initiatives. Often it is school classes which devote themselves to researching the history of their local area during the so-called "Third Reich".

The process of addressing the war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, and in particular the Shoah, in the German courts was very slow to get off the ground; it began with the Ulm Einsatzgruppen trial in 1958.  As late as 1986, a public debate took place which has gone down in the annals of West German history as the Historikerstreit: a dispute among historians about the place in history of the Nazis' murder of the Jews – a genocide which led Britain's war-time prime minister, Winston Churchill, to observe in a letter to his foreign minister, Anthony Eden, on 11 June 1944 that:

"There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe."

Many Germans had to travel a long and painful road before they could, looking back, agree with this judgement from a former enemy. But if they hadn't been willing to face up to the unparalleled monstrosity of the Holocaust, to the murder of the Sinti and Roma, of tens of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities and countless homosexuals, if they hadn't been willing to accept responsibility for the terrible war crimes committed in the European countries occupied and ravaged by Germany, how could the Federal Republic of Germany ever have become a respected member of the international community again?

It was particularly hard for the millions of German refugees and expellees to recognise that their suffering was a consequence of Germany's use of military force and to come to terms with the loss of their homeland. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 – the symbolic event of the peaceful revolutions in East-Central Europe, and the culmination of a series of events stretching back to the founding of the independent trade union "Solidarność" in Poland in August 1980 – when the German question unexpectedly returned to the international political agenda, it was clear to the overwhelming majority of Germans, and of expellees, that there could only be a reunified Germany within its 1945 borders. In other words, the German question could only be resolved if another major problem, the Polish question, was resolved at the same time. That is exactly what happened with the Two Plus Four Treaty and the German-Polish Border Treaty of 14 November 1990: two treaties which recognised once and for all, in a form binding under international law, the existing German-Polish border along the river Oder and the Lusatian Neisse river.

The historic significance of 3 October 1990, the date when the German Democratic Republic acceded to the Federal Republic of Germany under Article 23 of the Basic Law, was summarised by Richard von Weizsäcker at a ceremony in Berlin's Philharmonic Hall as follows:

"The day has come on which, for the first time in history, the whole of Germany takes its lasting place in the circle of Western democracies."

Unlike the German Reich which met its end on 8 May 1945, reunified Germany was, from the very start, integrated into supranational organisations such as the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance. It is a post-classical nation-state which, within the association of states that is the European Union, exercises some of its sovereign rights jointly with other Member States or has transferred them to supranational institutions. Germany's reunification in 1990 was only possible because it had credibly broken with those parts of its political tradition which had stood in the way of the development of a Western-style liberal democracy. That was the basis for Germany's "second chance", as it was put in July 1990 by Fritz Stern, the German-American historian from Breslau (now Wrocław) who was forced to emigrate by Hitler.

Germany has not finished the process of confronting its own past, nor will it ever do so. Every generation will search for its own way of understanding a history as contradictory as Germany's. There are many achievements in this history, not least since 1945, about which the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany can be glad and of which they can be proud. However, accepting ownership of this history must also include a willingness to face up to the dark sides of the past. No one expects later generations to feel guilt for crimes which were committed by Germans in Germany's name long before they were born. That said, an essential part of assuming responsibility for one's own country is the determination to be conscious of the country's entire history.

(Applause)

This applies to all Germans, regardless of whether their forebears lived in Germany before 1945 or did not emigrate here until later, and it applies to those who have chosen to become Germans, or who make that choice in the future.

(Applause)

Even if the Germans were to give in to the temptation of no longer wanting to remember the guilt Germans incurred after 1933, and especially during the Second World War, they would still be constantly confronted with the fact that the victims' descendants cannot forget this history so easily. The SS and the Wehrmacht committed crimes in many places, crimes which will never be erased from the collective memory of the peoples affected. These include the siege and deliberate starvation of Leningrad, which lasted almost 900 days and cost at least 800,000 people their lives; acceptance of the deaths of more than half of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war, as the Federal President reminded us yesterday; the destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw following the uprising in the spring of 1943; and the systematic destruction of the Polish capital after the second Warsaw Uprising in October 1944.

The names of places such as Oradour and Lidice are better known in Germany than Kragujevac in Serbia, Distomo in Greece and Marzabotto in Italy. Yet these names too, and there are many more, stand for massacres which still cast a shadow today. There is no moral justification for not keeping the memory of such atrocities alive in Germany

(Applause)

or for forgetting the moral obligations arising from them. The same is true of the inhuman treatment of millions of forced labourers, particularly the so-called Ostarbeiter or "eastern workers", and especially the Jews, for whom forced labour was almost invariably followed by their murder. It is impossible to draw a line under a history of this kind.

(Applause)

In addition to the danger of forgetting, there is, in fact, another risk regarding how we address the darkest chapter in German history: the danger of it being deliberately raised in the present for political purposes. When Germany participates in attempts by the international community to prevent an imminent genocide or another crime against humanity, there is no need to invoke Auschwitz. On the other hand, neither the Holocaust, nor other Nazi crimes, nor the Second World War in general have given Germany the right to look away. The Nazis' crimes against humanity are not an argument which justifies Germany remaining on the sidelines in cases where there are compelling reasons to take joint action with other countries under the international community's responsibility to protect.

(Applause)

Any instrumentalisation of the murder of the European Jews motivated by day-to-day politics amounts to the trivialisation of this crime. A responsible approach to history seeks to facilitate responsible action in the present. This means, firstly, that the Germans must not allow themselves to be paralysed by contemplation of their history. Secondly, political decisions must not be built up to be the only true lesson of Germany's past. Any attempt to justify a special German morality by citing National Socialism leads us down the wrong path.

(Applause)

Nonetheless, Germany does still have obligations arising directly or indirectly from German policy in the period from 1933 to 1945. Among the foremost obligations that should be mentioned in this context are the special relations with Israel which have developed over the past five decades. Yet within Europe as well, the Nazi era still casts a shadow, a past that will not pass. Not only did the German Reich, under Hitler's leadership, trample on the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of many European countries. By entering into the Hitler-Stalin Pact, invading Poland and attacking the Soviet Union, it also paved the way for Europe's division into two blocs, one with freedom, one without, a division which lasted four and a half decades. As a result, Germany has a special obligation of solidarity with countries which only won back their right to internal and external self-determination in the course of the peaceful revolutions of 1989-1990.

(Applause)

On 21 November 1990, seven weeks after German reunification, the Charter of Paris was signed in the French capital. All 34 participating states of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe undertook "to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations". At the very moment when Europe stood on the verge of a new era, the signatories, including the Soviet Union, made a commitment to settle disputes by peaceful means. They reaffirmed the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, signed 15 years earlier, which included respect for territorial integrity and political independence, and a pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force. If there is any date which symbolises the definitive end of the post-Second World War era, it is the date of the signing of the Charter of Paris, 21 November 1990.

Some of the hopes held as the new era dawned from 1989 to 1991 were fulfilled; others were not. The old European Occident, divided as a result of the agreements reached by the "Big Three" – the US, the UK and the Soviet Union – at Yalta in February 1945, has grown together again. Unlike in 1918, no new "in-between Europe", no zone of economic, political and military instability, has emerged in East-Central and South-East Europe. In fact, most of the region's democracies are now part of the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance. However, the vision of a community of peace spanning three continents, stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok, a great alliance of liberal democracies, has not become reality. 2014 marked a major watershed: the illegal annexation of Crimea has dramatically called into question the continued validity of the principles of the Charter of Paris – and with them the peaceful European order on which the former Cold War enemies had once agreed.

(Applause)

During the still ongoing conflict over Ukraine, Germany has done everything in its power to safeguard the cohesion of the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance. At the same time, it has sought in its dialogue with Russia, in close consultation with its allies and with Ukraine, to rescue or restore as much as possible of the policy of constructive cooperation on which East and West had agreed after the end of the Cold War. There is one thing which it was and is always essential to bear in mind in this context, and it too is a lesson from German history: our neighbours in East-Central Europe were the victims of German-Soviet aggression due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939-1940, and are now our partners in the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance – and Poland and the Baltic republics must never again be given the impression that Berlin and Moscow are taking decisions over their heads for which they will pay the price.

(Applause)

In late May 1945, just a few weeks after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Thomas Mann, who had been an eloquent advocate of the German "ideas of 1914" during the First World War, set out his thoughts, in English, about "Germany and the Germans" at the Library of Congress in Washington. This speech, which he himself said was intended as a "piece of German self-criticism", contained a sentence which neatly encapsulated the conclusion of his reflections:

"The Germans yielded to the temptation of basing upon their innate cosmopolitanism a claim to European hegemony, even to world domination, whereby this trait became its exact opposite, namely the most presumptive and menacing nationalism and imperialism."

The hegemony of any one country is incompatible with the way an association of states like the European Union sees itself. Given the size of its population and its economic strength, reunified Germany already has a special responsibility within the EU for the cohesion and further development of this supranational community. This is reinforced by the responsibility arising from German history. It is a history rich in highs and lows, one which cannot be reduced to the period from 1933 to 1945 and which did not make the transfer of power to Hitler inevitable, but which did make this event and its consequences possible. Facing up to this history is both a European imperative and the dictate of an enlightened patriotism. As Gustav Heinemann, the third Federal President, put it in his inaugural address on 1 July 1969:

"There are difficult fatherlands. One of them is Germany. But it is our fatherland."

Thank you very much.

(Applause – Audience rises to its feet)

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