Speech by Dr Wolfgang Schäuble on the Day of German Unity, 2018
28 years are a fairly brief moment in a nation’s history. But if we take a human lifespan as our benchmark, it is a long time.
The division of Germany, but also the years of unity that came afterwards, have left their mark – on people’s lives and work, in wishes fulfilled, dreams made real and disappointments suffered. Some people have experienced loss: their job, their sense of home, their trust in themselves and others. Above all, many new paths through life have been pursued – some towards success, others less straightforward.
Perspectives differ – in East and West, among young and old, urban and rural, optimists and pessimists. Each experience has value. And all these histories are part of German unity. It is a complex picture – multi-faceted and contradictory.
On 3 October 1990, we completed state unity. But what about a unified view of what unites us? This we have to re-establish again and again.
Do we know what it is, today?
This day, 3 October, is an opportunity to celebrate the good fortune that brought us unity, our freedom and the rule of law – the foundations of our democracy – and to remind ourselves that none of this is unconditional, and none of it should be taken for granted.
But history – the history of democracy – had been made in Germany on 3 October long before 1990.
Exactly 100 years ago, on 3 October 1918, a government was formed under Max von Baden which was no longer accountable solely to the Kaiser but relied on the confidence of the majority of Members of the Reichstag – in other words, on the representatives of the people.
At the time, in the fourth year of a senseless war, no one was in the mood to celebrate. And the parliamentarians’ success came at a high price: they were forced to take full responsibility for the military defeat – a fateful burden.
3 October 1918 is rarely remembered nowadays, for it was overshadowed by the history that was made soon afterwards, on 9 November, when Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the republic from a window of the Reichstag.
It was a fateful day in German history, the start of a new era – one which bore the hallmarks of democratic awakening throughout Europe and in international relations.
Some of our European partners are celebrating the centenary of their national independence and political freedom in 2018. The Poles are among them.
Their contribution – and that of all our other Central and East European neighbours – to the peaceful revolution in 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain remains unforgotten. This is why, despite all our differences of opinion, we should never jeopardise the greatest achievement of European integration: overcoming the division of Europe!
By the mid 1930s, however, most of these young democracies had ceased to exist. Many had collapsed into authoritarianism and dictatorship. Germany was not alone in that.
With hindsight, we have a clearer vision of what could have been, what should have been. Above all, we know what would follow – and its appalling consequences.
Today, all this is history, but it is our history. It is a bond of fate which unites us as a nation. It is part of our identity. Our country became what it is today because it found the courage to face up to its past. It was never easy. But we summoned the will and the strength to do so. And that built trust within the international community and bestowed upon us the good fortune of reunification, which historian Fritz Stern – forced to flee from Breslau at the age of 12 because of his Jewish heritage – called the gift of a “second chance”.
A “second chance”!
We have an obligation to use this wisely. That is why we must remain sensitive to any attempt to evade historical responsibility – or question liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy is fragile and must be nurtured. But on it rests our country’s success, which is the envy of so many others around the world.
This is not a cause for complacency, for nothing is certain. We must constantly reassert our commitment to continuing this success story – together.
Liberal democracy means that each and every one of us has the freedom to have a say – and it also means the freedom not to have another’s will imposed upon us. These are unalienable, fundamental freedoms.
Liberal democracy is grounded in the renunciation of violence, in freedom of expression, tolerance and mutual respect.
The majority rules. But the will of the majority is limited by the principles of the separation of powers and the protection of minorities.
This is the essence of the bond that unites us within our Western community.
Or should unite us.
The fact is that we can sense the old certainties becoming more fragile – as if we had lost sight of the connection between democracy and the rule of law.
All state authority is derived from the people – and that includes the making and the application of the law. It is a fine balance.
Both dimensions must make sense to the public.
However, the relationship between law and justice is a tense one. That became painfully clear to many people during their own internal unification process, in the clarification of property issues, in the process of dealing with past wrongs, and in the recompense for past suffering.
Even today, our sense of justice is often challenged. But feelings are not a matter for the law.
The law is there to protect the weaker members of our society. And the rule-of-law state has an obligation to enforce the law. That requires respect for its institutions and recognition of its monopoly of force. Anyone who tries to throw this off balance undermines our system of governance.
A majority is no guarantor of freedom. We see this wherever democracy is played off against the rule-of-law state – at the expense of the rights which protect the individual from the majority and from arbitrary governance. Yet it is argued that “the welfare of the nation is above the law”.
In Germany too, we face the populist pretension of putting the “people” in confrontation with their political opponents, against alleged and real minorities, against those who have been elected by the people.
But no one has the right to claim that they alone represent the people. Sovereignty is not a uniform entity: it is an array of conflicting forces. The popular will, insofar as it exists, crystallises through the process of debate. It is the product of majorities – and they can change.
A nation only proves its democratic maturity when it is sure of its foundations, embraces diversity and yet still manages to move forward together, doing so by making compromises and reaching decisions that are workable for everyone but are not meant to last for ever.
Accepting difference – recognising the diversity of legitimate interests, standpoints and opinions and not declaring one’s own views to be the measure of all things: conceptually, this is the key to establishing more commonality.
However, that will not work unless we are willing to listen to each other and to attempt to understand the other person and their arguments.
This is becoming more difficult in a society that is increasingly individualised, in which the pursuit of personal gratification, the desire for something out of the ordinary, overrides concern for our wider community.
The rapid development of digital communications gives us new kinds of freedom. We are connected to the entire world – and often, we fail to notice the person sitting right in front of us. We see it everywhere: at the railway station, in the lift, at the dinner table, at the heart of family life, every day.
With these endless possibilities, the sense of commitment begins to fade. Freedom can be overwhelming. We find ourselves tending to extremes. We need to impose some limits on ourselves; we need moderation, a happy medium. People are reliant on their bonds with others. We are social beings. And one person’s freedom can limit another’s.
Our system of governance builds on the pledge that everyone is granted equal rights to social and political participation. That is why the widening divisions within our society are such a serious concern. We are talking about social schisms, about worlds of life which, culturally, no longer have any point of contact.
Dispute is a necessary part of life. The test of a democracy’s cohesion is how it deals with conflict. But the real risk arises when we have nothing more to say to each other. The democratic will is formed out of conflicts of interest, dialogue and compromise. And if that no longer happens, the legitimacy of our political system is called into question.
Today, our society is more diverse, more complex, than before. As a result, it is also more conflictual, so rules are even more important – particularly the enforcement of these rules.
Diversity is not just a word to describe social reality. It is a value. It means being curious, being interested in other people, engaging with them – also in order to take away the threatening dimension of diversity that some people feel is there. It means taking an interest in where others come from, but not reducing them to that aspect alone. A person’s origins should never be misused to denigrate or exclude. And if hate is incited and aggression brought onto the street, no matter by whom, we must take firm action and ensure that they face the full force of the law.
Wherever there is diversity, the question of what connects us becomes more important. How we choose to live together and relate to others is also about education. The family is where we experience the happiness of human relationships – and, sometimes, find that others’ wishes and interests can be a burden.
A sense of community cannot be imposed by the state. However, policy-makers can create incentives – and they should ask themselves this: how do we maintain – how do we create – new places, time and opportunities for people from diverse sectors of society and walks of life to come together, where they have to cooperate?
It takes a sense of community.
And it also takes an understanding of the growing complexity of our own society – and of the wider world.
Ours is a world in which the Western model of society, our model, must prove its worth. Others elsewhere are pushing themselves forward, keen to set the tone. They promise growth and prosperity, but without giving people a say and without protecting individual freedoms.
Our system focuses on the individual – on their freedom, but also on their imperfections and their dignity.
This is what connects us.
An open society proves its worth through its ability to recognise and admit mistakes, and to correct them and thus respond to change. We have proved this time and time again.
So we do have cause for self-confidence. And we can make an effective contribution to shaping our world, to preserving freedom and the rule of law – as long as we do so together with others.
That is why we Germans are reliant on a Europe with the capacity to act – just as the European Union relies on a strong Germany.
The nation can reduce the world’s multidimensionality to a manageable framework. It has evolved historically, and we feel part of it. It is a safe haven from the changes wrought by globalisation – changes that seem to pile in on us every day. We cannot manage without it. Nor would we want to.
Even so, we cannot avoid contact with the rest of the world.
The prosperity that we have created through our economic power and our will to succeed is based on global free trade. We profit from global development, partly because we have adapted to these challenges better than others.
However, the increasing pace of change is stressful. Globalisation exposes us all to experiences that were daily occurrences for East Germans after 1989. And it creates a sense of unease.
The world has also moved closer to us politically, with its wars and conflicts, terrorism and the impacts of climate change. Then there is immigration, with the growing concerns about the impacts on social cohesion.
In the era of globalisation, however, we cannot keep the world at bay.
We must take on more responsibility. In meeting our need for stability, we must start from our own position of affluence and reach out to the regions around Europe. Precisely because we are in a much better position, we must engage more, provide effective assistance, and help to create more prospects. This is the only way to work towards a good life for ourselves now and in future.
Politics must provide clarity on complex issues, but without promising simple solutions where none exist. And it must also resist the temptation to engage in purely symbolic debates, for they cannot do justice to the wealth of issues that concern us. How can we safeguard pensions in an ageing society? Where can I find affordable housing? Who will care for my relatives today and for me in future? What prospects do my children and grandchildren have in a digitalised world?
It is easier to find policy responses to social than cultural polarisation. For that reason, we should not allow every routine policy issue to become a debate about values.
Of course, in democratic debate, disputes between people with differing views on values are quite normal. Everyone must accept that their arguments will be judged in light of their moral claims. However, rushing to judgement does not serve rational debate.
The ethics of conviction versus the ethics of responsibility: 100 years have passed since Max Weber placed politics within this field of tension. Is a purely ethical motive more important than the outcome? Or is it the other way around?
These are awkward questions. We deal with them every day.
Humanitarianism demands that we help people. This is the essence of our Western, our Christian culture. It connects us. It is the core of our social welfare principle. It applies to our own citizens in crisis – and also to people who come to us in search of protection.
However, there is a limit to what we can do.
Precisely because we want to preserve the right to asylum, we must tell migrants who come to Germany for other reasons that this is only possible as far as is compatible with social stability and to the extent required for our country’s future viability.
We must save people from drowning – but at the same time, we want to end the criminal smuggling of people across the Mediterranean.
We face a constant dilemma.
That is something that we, as a society, have to deal with. And individually, each of us must find their own inner compromise that goes some way towards reconciling the ideal and the reality.
This is the only way to ensure that we maintain our policy-making capacity.
And although this is not intended to justify cynicism, nor is it a licence to act unethically. On the contrary, we cannot move forward without a clear position, a standpoint, a roadmap that guides our action.
And we need to re-learn how to live with the less-than-perfect, with the not-quite-good-enough.
For that is the nature of humankind and human society. Anyone striving for perfection ends up with a dictatorship.
A more relaxed approach is needed.
Politics cannot always provide quick or easy answers. Politicians should be honest and admit that they cannot resolve all the dilemmas. This is essential to guard against the unrealistic expectations that only lead to disappointment.
However, this does not give us a free pass to do nothing.
We have grown accustomed to describing the present, the times we are living through, as a crisis. And there is nothing wrong with that. After all, experience has shown that we are more likely to move forward in times of crisis.
But instead of only ever talking about what we need to guard against and what we might lose, we should be looking at the opportunities and thinking about what we want to achieve.
Instead of fostering a sense of unease at modern life, we should broaden our horizons. This is how to shape the future.
The future is wide open. It is unpredictable. Just like the protesters in 1989, we have no idea what lies ahead. No one would seriously have predicted that the Berlin Wall would come down on 9 November. And who would have predicted, that night, that the unity of the two German states would be achieved within a year?
But the opportunity was there and we Germans seized it!
Are we truly conscious of our good fortune? Never before in our history have we Germans lived through such a long period of peace, freedom and – at least statistically – growing prosperity.
What lessons should we learn from this?
Viewed objectively, our country has never had it so good. Most people would agree, and yet many are worried that our children and grandchildren face a less prosperous future. There is a prevailing mood of pessimism about what lies ahead.
Economic success does not engender self-confidence. If anything, it seems to incite fears of decline and loss. There is talk of a desire for a “present continuous” – for fear that what lies ahead might be worse.
This unease about the future reflects a lack of confidence in our capacity to act. And yet we are in a position to influence social developments, and to do so successfully. But we do not talk about this enough, and we are surprised when academics remind us that absolute poverty in the world is on the decline, that many diseases have been eradicated, and that life expectancy and educational and living standards are rising.
None of these developments came about by chance. Nothing happened of its own accord. They are all the result of people’s decisions. Nonetheless, feeling optimistic about progress does not obscure the fact that change is needed. But it does counter the sense of paralysis, the feeling that nothing can be done.
This confidence is essential – along with the willingness to believe in success, the courage to face up to the challenges of the future, and respect for those who take them on.
The way forward is challenging, just as it was after 3 October 1990. And it was undoubtedly more difficult after 1945 or 100 years ago. But no one looked to the future with resignation.
The future is wide open. But there is one thing which we should not lose sight of in our open society, and that is cohesion. If we are successful in combining individual freedom and a sense of community, our country will continue to prosper. And we will flourish as well.
Self-confidence – a relaxed approach – a positive attitude: these are the three elements of a patriotism that is fit for our times: a patriotism for a nation that is self-confident and self-aware in the true sense of the word, a patriotism which will make the Germany that we have the good fortune to live in an even better place than it is today.
I wish each and every one of us a pleasant and enjoyable Day of German Unity – here in Berlin and wherever people are coming together today to celebrate our wonderful country.