Speech by the President of the German Bundestag, Professor Norbert Lammert, on the Day of German Unity 2016, Dresden

President of the Bundesrat, our host Minister-President Stanislaw Tillich,

Federal President,  

Madam Chancellor,

President of the Federal Constitutional Court,

Excellencies, distinguished representatives of the Churches and faith communities,

Honoured colleagues from the European Parliament, the German Bundestag and the Land parliaments, Mr Mayor, guests, ladies and gentlemen,


Now that more than a quarter of a century has passed since the restoration of German unity, we no longer have to feel excited that the celebrations are taking place – for the second time – here in Dresden. But we can certainly be happy that we are now able to take for granted a situation which, for decades, seemed far beyond our reach: unity in freedom.

And of course, people are quite within their rights to voice their opposition. But those who are here today, shouting and blowing their whistles the loudest and giving vent to their astonishing levels of indignation at no cost to themselves, plainly have the most faded memories of the state that this city and this country were in before German unity was possible.

I should like to express my profound respect for all those people in Dresden, Saxony and Thuringia, in Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Berlin, who know what they achieved during those years and who have not forgotten the support they received from others.

The first celebrations of German unity here in Dresden in 2000 were described by one of Germany’s leading newspapers, in an article entitled “Bratwurst and Baroque”, as an event “at which, in this 10th anniversary year, the Germans are less than successful in joyfully celebrating their regained unity.” Since then, much has changed – in this respect, but also in others. Yet joyful in every sense is not how I would describe Dresden this year, and the same applies to Germany as well.

This year, 2016, has clearly revealed some of the interconnections, but also the tensions, that Europe and its neighbours have to deal with in the 21st century.

In a referendum in the United Kingdom, voters opted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. The young generation, who will have to live with the consequences of this decision for the longest time, was least likely to turn out to vote, resulting in a majority that is detrimental to their interests.

In Turkey, factions within the army staged a coup in an attempt to forcibly overthrow the democratically elected government, but failed due to the resistance of the public, who are now faced with the bitter realisation that it is not only the military challenging the constitutional order.

In Syria and neighbouring regions, for the fifth year in succession, people are experiencing the ruthless application of brutal military force, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions out of their ruined towns and villages. At the weekend, the only hospital still in service in Aleppo was bombed in an air strike.

On Europe’s eastern border, too, the military clashes between Russia and Ukraine are continuing, as is the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law.

These conflicts alone clearly show that the European peace order to which the European CSCE members, the US, Canada, the Soviet Union and Turkey made a formal commitment in the 1990 Charter of Paris cannot be taken for granted; nor is it secure for all time.

At the time, the signatories expressly stated that they recognised the right to national self-determination, the principle of non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs, and the inviolability of existing borders. It was a promise of a positive future – and it was addressed to a continent whose history was one of conflict, a continent which, like our own country, had long been divided and where – again, like in Germany – unity and democracy were now to be made permanent.

The triumph of democracy across Europe was not “the end of history”, as some overhasty observers claimed. History was open-ended – as it is today. We Germans were given a new opportunity and we made use of it – with the energetic support of our neighbours and friends. We built bridges, at home and abroad. All have helped to shape our country in the awareness of our specific German history.

Ladies and gentlemen,

One hundred years ago, in December 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the main entrance to our Parliament in Berlin was enhanced with a striking new inscription – a dedication “Dem Deutschen Volke” (“To the German People”). By then, the Reichstag building was already 22 years old.

In the German Empire, however, the process of reaching agreement on the inscription was beset with conflict, much like Parliament itself. The inscription proposed to the Kaiser – who would have happily dispensed with Parliament and its purpose-built Reichstag altogether – was “To the German Empire”. Kaiser Wilhelm II preferred “To German Unity”. He distrusted Parliament, seeing it as a place of conflicting opinions and interests, and invoked the principle of national unity.

But that’s just history – or is it? The dedication “To the German People”, agreed one hundred years ago, reflected the initially heightened self-confidence of most parliamentarians of the day as the war progressed. The inscription was mounted just before Christmas 1916. It was the year of brutal battles between Germany and France at Verdun and the Somme, which ended with the front lines largely unchanged and no territorial gains but left more than a hundred thousand dead on each side. The letters of the inscription were cast from French cannonballs, captured during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon and melted down.

The lettering for the inscription was manufactured by the Loevy Bronze Foundry, owned by a German-Jewish family, whose son had renounced Judaism. He was baptised and, in 1918, underwent adoption, taking the new name of Erich Gloeden in the belief that this would ensure his safety. Such optimism proved to be false: Gloeden was arrested by the National Socialists for assisting the persecuted, including a general involved in the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. Gloeden’s wife, his mother-in-law and he himself were guillotined at Plötzensee in November 1944.

History. The national history of any country is the sum of the countless personal stories of ordinary people, which often go unnoticed or are soon forgotten. Stories like Erich Gloeden’s are part of our heritage. His story is an example of how, only a few generations ago, people in our country were excluded from the nation to which they belonged as a matter of course, and were stripped of their rights and protection, leaving them exposed – at a time when the Weimar Republic had collapsed, the Reichstag was a burnt-out shell, Parliament had been deprived of its powers, and the lives and physical integrity of members of the political opposition were in jeopardy.

These lessons of history create an obligation, particularly on this Day of German Unity, to reflect on all that has changed, has changed for the better, over the past one hundred years and how these changes have come about. They oblige us to reflect on who and what is German and who is encompassed by the German legal order today – in other words, to consider for whose benefit the elected Members of the German Bundestag debate and enact laws beneath the dedication “To the German People”.

In view of the many changes that have taken place, the objective difficulties and the “mountains” of problems complained of - sometimes without good reason - which preoccupy us today, there is no doubt in my mind that the task which presents itself “to the German people” is this: we must ask ourselves what kind of country we want Germany to be, and what kind of Germany is appropriate, for the 21st century. At the moment, we do not seem to know the exact answer to these questions. It is a contentious issue which can and must be discussed. But in that debate, anyone wishing to defend the West against actual or supposed threats must also adhere to the minimum standards that our Western civilisation requires. They must show respect and tolerance, with proper regard for freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the rule of law.

Today, Germany is different from how it was a century ago, thankfully, and different again from the Germany of 26 years ago. Germany is changing, not only because of the transformation taking place in the wider world and in our own neighbourhood, but also because the people of Germany are changing. Our diverse life stories tell who we are and where we come from, what shapes us and what we expect from the values and rules that apply here, whose purpose, incidentally, is to enable everyone living in Germany to seek and, I would hope, find personal happiness and fulfilment here. And wherever immigrants’ customary patterns of behaviour conflict with the laws of the land, it is, of course, our rules which apply – to everyone, without exception.

The following comes from a letter about displacement and expulsion, seemingly a recurrent experience:

“Our boat is hopelessly overloaded. The basket has already swung out over the sea but I seize the man’s arm and pull it back towards me. I lift out my daughter. I lay her on my breast and bind her to me. She’s only two days old. I gave birth to her at the waterfront, and the very next day, we set out on the boat. She rarely cries. (…) As for myself, I am completely numb. The sense of relief doesn’t come until later, as we sit in the barracks which are our makeshift accommodation. We have escaped with our lives, but we still have a long way to go before we reach our destination." Escaped; reach our destination – the text might be describing the fate of a refugee from the Middle East. In fact, it is the story of a young woman who fled Königsberg with her family in 1945.

This year, once again, we are repeatedly confronted with events, images and reports that we would never have imagined were possible in the 21st century.

“A quarter of an hour after we cast off, the engine failed. Everyone started screaming. (…). My sister jumped into the water and started pulling the boat. After a while, I jumped in after her. At that moment, I couldn’t think. I just saw my life passing before my eyes.”

This young woman escaped across the water as well. Yusra Mardini, born in Syria, has been living with her family in Germany for just over a year. In summer, the 18-year-old swimmer took part in the Olympic Games in Brazil, competing as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team. “Sometimes, life throws you opportunities when you least expect it,” she says.

Our country, whose unity we are celebrating today, and our society can and will offer opportunities to live in peace and freedom – to the German people, to those born here and to immigrants, to young and old, to women and men, to Christians, Muslims and Jews, to rich and poor. Diversity is not empty rhetoric. Saxony, where we are celebrating today, has long been home to people born in Swabia, but also to Czechs and Poles. Women from Brandenburg have married men from Bremen with Turkish roots, and Berliners whose freedom was once bought from the GDR and who went to live in the Rhineland have now moved back to their home city on the River Spree. Westphalians have found happiness in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and people from Lower Saxony have made a life for themselves in Thuringia – the Minister-President is an example. And for years, an actor from Dresden has kept millions of viewers on the edge of their seats in the TV crime show “Tatort” set in Münster.

Germany is a vibrant country – a good place to do business, with a diverse and colorful society and public figures who embody the successful blending of tradition with innovation.

In Germany, a Lieutenant-Colonel who was born in Bangkok leads the Bundeswehr’s Big Band. A Chinese woman is the Vice-President of a Bavarian university. A Syrian was crowned this year’s Wine Queen in Trier. A Muslim of Turkish origin was the champion marksman in a traditional Catholic shooting club in Werl, Westphalia. And a TV anchorwoman whose family comes from Iraq defends freedom and the rights and responsibilities of the German media against attacks on democracy. Germany’s football, Olympic and Paralympic teams are successful not least because, regardless of their origins or the colour of their skin, their members aim for the same goals and compete together – under one flag.

Nowadays, we are in the happy position of being able to shape the unity that we are celebrating today, unlike the Germans of previous centuries. Long out of reach, the dream of “unity and justice and freedom” was first encapsulated in this phrase in 1841, 175 years ago, on the windswept cliffs of an island in the North Sea. That island was Heligoland which, at the time, belonged not to Germany, which did not yet exist as a nation-state, but to the British Empire.

The dreamer was Hoffmann von Fallersleben, a Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Breslau. In his Lied der Deutschen [“Song of the Germans”], he gave expression to his longing for national unity and liberties. Within a year, he was dismissed from his post for writing his political poems. The law of the day was not on his side, unity was a long way off and freedom was still very much a work in progress.

Like the Reichstag inscription, this song’s story mirrors the turbulent events of German history. During the First World War, the German troops would sing the first verse – “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” – of this same song with emphatic and aggressive nationalism. With diabolical simplicity, the National Socialist leaders then twisted the meaning of this first verse for their own propaganda purposes, first against their own and later against other nations. So it was only logical that the same regime should ban the second and third verses, for justice and freedom had become alien concepts in that Germany, and national unity did not survive the ensuing war.

Today, we take for granted the rights which were denied to Hoffmann von Fallersleben and his contemporaries. We live in a unified state, in justice and freedom. We live in peace with our neighbours. Germany is a democratic country, by no means perfect, but certainly in a better state than ever before. It is not paradise on Earth, but for many desperate people, that paradise is assumed to be here rather than anywhere else. And if that is so, we have all the more reason to insist that in terms of its basic direction, this country should stay as it is.

In a survey of 16,000 global citizens – opinion leaders from business, academia and government – unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Germany was ranked the “best country” on Earth in terms of political stability, economic prosperity, social welfare, education, science and infrastructure.

That might be overstating the case, but it does show that we are succeeding in many areas – more so, evidently, than other countries. And yet compared with other countries, we do not stand out for our high levels of satisfaction. In the virtual Happiness Atlas compiled by the US company Gallup, which measures perceptions in 138 countries, the Germans are ranked 46th – between Senegal and Kenya. In a new survey, we have worked our way up; we now rank right behind Vietnam. I am not convinced that this is purely down to the proverbial German modesty.

In my view, we can and should show rather more optimism and self-confidence. Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (now Gdańsk) and died in Frankfurt am Main, so he never experienced the first united Germany in 1871 nor the second in 1990. But he lived in many German and European cities, Dresden among them, and gained a wealth of experience. One of his observations still seems apposite today: “The problem with Germans is that they look in the clouds for what lies at their feet.” It’s a talent that all Germans seem to have in common, where “Ossis” and “Wessis” have long been of one heart and mind.

We live in circumstances which are the envy of almost the entire world. And, partly as a consequence, we are faced with challenges which we can and must overcome, if we are so minded.

German unity makes demands of all of us, the satisfied and the dissatisfied alike, but today of all days, despite all the setbacks, the obstacles and the fears for the future, we should allow ourselves a measure of satisfaction and perhaps even a moment of joy. We are one people and we are now living together in a way which entire generations before us could only dream of: in unity and justice and freedom.

So we have three good reasons at once to celebrate – at least three. In that spirit, let me conclude by wishing everyone here in Dresden and across the country a pleasant and peaceful Day of German Unity.