Speech by Bärbel Bas, President of the German Bundestag

[Check against delivery]

Mr Speaker,
Federal President,
Federal Chancellor,
President of the Bundesrat,
President of the Federal Constitutional Court,
Ms Auerbacher,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Eighty years ago, on 20 January 1942, fifteen high-ranking civil servants and National Socialist party officials met in a villa by the Wannsee lake. The topic of the meeting was “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. All those in attendance were aware of what this meant. The mass murder had commenced much earlier. The objective of the meeting was to discuss how to make this mass murder systematic, accelerate it and expand it to encompass the whole of Europe. To encompass eleven million Jews. None of the attendees registered any concerns.  

We remember the victims of the National Socialist crimes. The murdered Jews, the Sinti and Roma who died, the victims amongst the Slavic peoples. We remember the millions of people who were persecuted, dispossessed, humiliated, deprived of their rights, tortured, or left to die. Because they thought differently, worshipped differently, loved differently, or because their lives were classified by the Nazis as “unworthy”. 

The Wannsee Conference stands for a state in which injustice was legalised. For a state which planned, organised and administered the crime. This state was underpinned by people. People who became murderers and accomplices. 

Today is therefore also a day of shame, shame for what previous generations of Germans did. A shame never shown by the perpetrators. Far too few of them were held accountable by the courts. Far too many of them escaped with sentences so mild as to be an insult to the victims. Including participants in the Wannsee Conference. 

My dear Ms Auerbacher, 

You stand before us today as a witness of a time which, for most of us, is consigned to history. Far away and completely unimaginable. When you were seven years old, you were deported with your parents to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was the day on which your childhood ended.  

Approximately one and a half million Jewish children died in the Holocaust. You write in one of your books that you feel these “three million eyes” on you. You appeal for them not to be forgotten. Making this appeal has become your vocation. Over the past years and decades, you have told your story to numerous people, particularly children and young people. To ensure that what happened is not forgotten.

I would like to thank you for making the trip from New York under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic and for speaking to us in a few minutes. We are honoured to have you here with us.  

When Inge Auerbacher’s family received the so-called ‘emigration order’ to deport them, her birthplace, Kippenheim, had already been declared – in Nazi jargon – to be “free of Jews”. Almost all the Jews from Baden, the Palatinate and Saarland had been deported to the Gurs camp in the non-occupied part of France in October 1940. This was one of the first mass deportations of German Jews. All of this took place in broad daylight. And, as those responsible duly reported back, it went off, for the main, “without incident”.   

Today, the restored synagogue in Kippenheim is a remembrance, education and meeting centre which is run by citizens on a voluntary basis. It is also thanks to the dedication of a local group that the house of Inge Auerbacher’s grandparents in Jebenhausen was able to be preserved and is today part of a “path of remembrance” commemorating former Jewish life in Göppingen. As a representative of all the dedicated local people in Göppingen, I welcome the Mayor of Göppingen, Mr Alex Maier.  

Our culture of remembrance and commemoration is reliant on initiatives like this. It needs active citizens, associations which take care of remembrance sites, school pupils who embark on voyages of discovery about the past. A culture of remembrance is not something which can be imposed from the top downwards. And it is not confined to state rituals like this annual act of remembrance. At least not in a free and democratic society. 

Remembrance evolves: with the passing of time, the number of witnesses able to give first-hand testimony dwindles. More and more people living here do not have German ancestors; Germany’s horrific 20th Century history is not their history. This makes the work of schools, remembrance sites and museums all the more important. 

Our culture of remembrance, which has earned respect from many quarters, can only remain vibrant if we continually ask questions of our history and seek answers. This applies particularly to young people.

It also means being able to accept different perspectives and discuss reference points of the histories of others – as long as we do this in a sensitive, responsible and respectful fashion.  

I am therefore particularly saddened by the fact that we have had to postpone the German Bundestag’s Youth Encounter due to the pandemic. But of course we will reschedule it as soon as possible. The Youth Encounter brings together young people from different countries, with diverse life stories and experiences, who are united by one thing: their belief that what happened must never be repeated. Anti-Semitism, misanthropy and racism have no place in our society – neither today nor in the future. 

Our country bears a special responsibility: the genocide of the European Jews is a German crime. Yet it is also a past which is relevant to all. Not only Germans and Jews. That is why the Bundestag, together with other European parliaments, is participating in the #WeRemember social media campaign. Together with many others worldwide, we are taking a stance on remembrance of the Holocaust. A stance against xenophobia and anti-Semitism. 

But merely taking a stance is not enough. 

I welcome the President of the Knesset, Mickey Levy. It is a pleasure to have you with us. 

Your visit underlines the close and special ties between the parliaments of our countries – seventy years after Konrad Adenauer and Ben Gurion signed the Luxembourg Agreement. Reparations for something which cannot be repaired. 
Looking back, reconciliation between Germany and Israel seems miraculous. A precious gift, which must be cultivated. 
Germany and Israel do not agree on everything, but they are nevertheless “true partners”, as emphasised by then Israeli President Rivlin two years ago when he spoke here. We are united not least by the shared values to which we are committed – partly grounded in the lessons learnt from history. This applies particularly to the battle against anti-Semitism. 

We in politics and society have been engaged in this battle for many years. We have created commissions and commissioners to deal with anti-Semitism. We have innumerable civil-society initiatives and associations. We have tightened up provisions under criminal law.   

We warn of the dangers and we make unequivocally clear that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. Full stop. No matter how it is expressed. No matter where it comes from. Never again must anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudice be allowed to take hold. Never again must Jews be made responsible for the evils of the world. Never again must anti-Semitism pave the way for exclusion, hatred and a fanatical ideology of extermination. 

This Ceremony of Remembrance is one part of our commitment. For we remember in order to “counter any threat of repetition”, as stated in the original proclamation on the Day of Remembrance.

Yet remembrance and commemoration do not create immunity to anti-Semitism. Nor do they safeguard against racism and right-wing extremism. They did not prevent the murderous terrorism of the NSU, nor the anti-Semitic attack in Halle, nor the right-wing extremist murders in Hanau.

Knowledge of history has not prevented one third of the German population from holding the view that the Jews might indeed have too great an influence. Has not prevented seventy per cent of people from agreeing, or partially agreeing, that Israeli policy in the Middle East is “as bad as that of the Nazis in the Second World War”. And it has not prevented the pandemic from further stoking the hatred of Jews which was already rife.

Anti-Semitism is there. It is to be found not only on the extreme margins, not only amongst intransigent diehards and a few anti-Semitic trolls on the Internet. It is a problem of our society. Of society as a whole. Anti-Semitism is to be found in our midst.   

We must ask ourselves honestly – including those of us who identify as committed anti-anti-Semites: how free are we really from anti-Jewish clichés? Do we always manage not to hold Jews responsible for Israeli policy? Do misguided notions of tolerance lead us to be overly indulgent towards the anti-Semitism which some immigrants have brought with them from their own home countries?  

And do we actually notice the multifaceted Jewish life which – fortunately! – once again exists in Germany? The diversity of contemporary Jewish life, encompassing Jewish Germans and German Jews, Orthodox and liberal Jews, young Israelis and Jewish families from the former Soviet Union.

For the Jews do not exist. Just as the Germans, the refugees or the Muslims do not exist. 

And, incidentally, anybody who incites hatred of Muslims and their faith undermines their own credibility as a friend of Judaism. Anybody who rejects people amongst us because they are different – or simply because they have not always been here – should certainly not use the word ‘freedom’ in this context.

Human dignity is inviolable. The dignity of every human. The lessons drawn from history shaped our constitution. We know from experience that free societies remain vulnerable on the inside. That is why “courage to show intolerance towards those who want to use democracy to destroy it” is needed. These are not my words. They are the drastic words of Carlo Schmid, one of the architects of the German constitution, the Basic Law.  

Our liberal democracy must be able to defend itself against those who repeatedly invoke ‘democracy’, but actually only mean their own freedom. Who emphasise their own right to tolerance, whilst showing contempt for pluralism. Who spread lies in order to sow the seeds of doubt. Who incite hatred and violence – only to later distance themselves with expressions of outrage.    

The majority in our country have no time for this. They will not allow themselves to be enticed into violence. They vote and debate democratically. They are often passionate in these debates, sometimes even fierce. 

In our approach to the others, we need more “courage to show intolerance”. The resolute use of all means at the disposal of a resilient democracy. When right-wing extremists, historical revisionists and ethno-nationalists celebrate election victories, it is not a warning sign.   
It is a sign that is high time to take action.

High time to stand together to defend the values and institutions of our free democratic society. 

For democracy bears no eternal seal. It is reliant on citizens who value it and bring it to life.

One of the lessons of which we are reminded on this day and by German history is that:
It is up to all of us.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

A diverse culture, which had grown over centuries, was destroyed by murderous German fanatical racism. This impoverished Europe: scientists, intellectuals and artists were forced out, went into exile, lost their lives. 

One of them was the composer Hans Krása from Prague. His children’s opera “Brundibár“ was misused by the Nazis for their perverse propaganda in Theresienstadt concentration camp. It was there that Hans Krása also wrote the string trio piece that we are about to hear. He died in 1944 in Auschwitz. 

I would like to thank the musicians from the Prague opera houses, as well as the other artists involved in this Ceremony of Remembrance. 

After the music has finished, you have the floor, Ms Auerbacher.