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Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler at the memorial ceremony in the Plenary Chamber of the German Bundestag marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe

 Berlin, 8 May 2005 Photo: Brigitte Hiss, bpa © Photo: Brigitte Hiss, bpa

"Talent for Freedom"

On 8 May 1945, the German senior medical ensign Wolfgang Soergel is sitting in a prisoner-of-war camp in Scotland. He writes in his diary,

"Adolf Hitler is dead. They're still fighting for Chemnitz. In tattered pieces of newspaper, I read of civil war in the place where I am looking for you. Will I ever see you again? In late April, National Socialist concentration camps were liberated by British troops (...). The reality is much worse than the whisperings and murmurings of recent months (...). It is not in gallant defeat that we went down, we are seen as a band of murderers whose masks have been torn off."

Harsh words, apt words. This was Germany sixty years ago.

On 8 May 1945, the Wehrmacht surrendered unconditionally. The guns fell silent. Most Ger­mans were relieved. Yet they were numbed by the force of the defeat and anxiously wondered what fate awaited them.

The nations and people who had suffered under the so-called Third Reich were overjoyed and satisfied at the downfall of National Socialist rule. But Europe had gone through horror before securing this victory. It had become a continent of mass graves, death camps and ruins. Millions of soldiers from all nations had fallen. Hundreds of thousands of uprooted and des­perate people were dragging themselves along the roads of Europe and in the devastated cities such as Warsaw, Caen and Kiev, the cellars were practically the only place to find shelter. Nor did the end of the War in any way herald the end of the suffering. In the liberated con­centration camps, in the military and civilian hospitals, people were still dying as a result of their deprivations and injuries. In the east, the displacements continued and the violent expul­sion of Germans had only just begun. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were to face decades under a new oppressive regime.

In fact, the misery Germany inflicted on the world reverberates to this day. Sons and daugh­ters continue to shed tears for parents who lost their lives, people continue to suffer from their experiences and countless men and women in many countries continue to mourn the loss of their homeland.

Here in Germany, everyone has relatives or friends who experienced and suffered from what happened at that time. Every German family has its own story to tell because all were affected.

It is with horror and shame that we Germans look back on the Second World War that Ger­many unleashed and on the Holocaust, the brutal perversion of all civilized values perpetrated by Germans.

We remember the six million Jews murdered with diabolical energy, often after years of being publicly humiliated. For all eternity, this horror will move every feeling heart and every thinking mind.

We remember the Sinti and Roma, the ill and the disabled, the political dissidents and the homosexuals who were persecuted and murdered.

We also remember the many millions of people who fell victim to the havoc wrought by Germany, above all in Poland and the Soviet Union.

We abhor and despise those who are guilty of these crimes against humanity and brought dis­honour upon our country.

We mourn all Germany's victims - the victims of violence perpetrated by Germany and the victims of the violence which fell back on Germany. We mourn all victims because we want to do justice to all nations, also to our own.

We remember the suffering of civilians in all countries. We remember the millions of soldiers who died in German captivity and the millions who were brought to Germany as forced labourers. We remember the more than a million of our own countrymen who died as prison­ers of other countries and the hundreds of thousands of German women and girls taken to the Soviet Union as forced labourers. We remember the suffering of the German refugees and displaced persons, the women who were raped and the victims of the air strikes against Ger­man civilians.

We bear the responsibility to keep the memory of all this suffering and its causes alive and we have to ensure that it never happens again. No final line shall be drawn.

So let us listen carefully to the victims' stories. The story of Meir Lau who was just eight years old, yet felt much older than the soldier who forced open the gate of the concentration camp and embraced him because this soldier was laughing and crying like a child. Let us think about the story of Hermann Matzkowski who as a German communist was appointed mayor in the seized city of Königsberg, as it was then called, and whose elderly mother died at Christmas 1945 having been raped by the occupying troops. Let us listen to Lew Kopelew, then a Red Army soldier who was imprisoned in a Soviet camp for more than ten years because he had shown "pity for the enemy", and the author Dieter Forte who experienced the bomb attacks on Düsseldorf as a child and still has nightmares, and Anne Frank who hid from the Gestapo with her family for years, yet ultimately died in a concentration camp. Let us listen to Erika Winter who tells how she and her sister caught camp fever as children and were saved by a Polish doctor who told the girls as he was leaving that his two little daughters had been killed by Germans.


Germany is a different country today than it was sixty years ago.

First and foremost, it is the cityscapes that tell the tale. We are worlds apart from the devas­tation after the war. Someone once calculated that ten million loads of rubble were cleared away. Architects such as Otto Bartning and Walter Gropius believed the reconstruction was impossible or would at best take a century. Millions of people had lost their homes and many froze to death in the winters of hunger after the War. In the bombed cities, hundreds of thou­sands of children were without proper shoes or their own bed. Most of the refugees and dis­placed persons had lost everything. There are worlds between then and now - and decades of hard work. It was a tremendous achievement by all of society, and the refugees, displaced per­sons and those who had been bombed out contributed so much. We should be thankful for and spurred on by what has been achieved. And we should not forget how quickly a heritage built by many generations can be squandered.

But it is not just on the face of it that Germany is a different country today than it was sixty years ago. Our country has changed from the inside out and that is surely a reason for joy and gratitude.

We owe this gratitude first and foremost to the nations who defeated Germany and brought liberation from National Socialism. They gave Germans a chance after the War. That was far-sighted, but it does not alter the magnitude of the gift. The other nations demanded and expected that Germans learn and change.

The occupying powers laid out the first steps. They took the key war criminals to justice, above all in the Nuremberg Trials, and forced millions of Germans to provide written account of their conduct during the National Socialist period. For some critics, this de-nazification went too far, for others, not far enough. But at any rate, the leading Nazis as a group were thus banished from political life.

In those days, there were many things Germans by tacit consent simply did not talk about. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the line taken by many, both innocent and guilty. Maybe they needed this to gain some psychological distance and start afresh. This aspect shows per­haps most clearly the journey our country has made since. Today, above all the younger gen­eration takes a closer look and asks how people conducted themselves at that time. They also question, by the way, how we are coming to grips with the dictatorship of the GDR regime. And today we Germans are adamant in our support for the International Criminal Court in The Hague which punishes genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In the Soviet occupation zone, grave injustice overshadowed the success in de-nazification. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in camps without due process, tens of thousands were to die there. But it was by no means only former National Socialists who were targeted. The idea was to oppress the opposition and anyone whose political views were deemed suspect. Nor was it only the East Germans who suffered such oppression, rather all peoples in the Soviet sphere of influence. In the divided Europe just like in the divided Germany, people's experiences were from now on to be entirely different. Only in one part of Europe were people able to work without hindrance at building free societies. In the other, the people first had to fight for their liberty and they did so time and again until they finally won it.


From miles around, we can read a quotation by Albert Einstein just across the way on the Federal Chancellery, "the state is made for man, not man for the state". These words embody the central message of the democratic re-orientation in West Germany. It was no longer the state or "the party" that were the focus, rather the dignity and freedom of the individual.

For this new start, the mothers and fathers of the Basic Law had much to build on: the think­ers of the Enlightenment such as Lessing and Kant, the ideas of the freedom fighters of 1848 and the Paulskirche Constitution, the development of law in the 19th century and the ideas of the German labour movement, the time-hallowed democratic culture in the cities and the legacy of German Resistance from Graf Stauffenberg to Julius Leber, from Hans and Sophie Scholl to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Before the Basic Law, West Germany was given a solid currency. Prices were unpegged and economic controls lifted. West Germans made enthusiastic use of the freedom and achieved prosperity through their own initiative and hard work.

This helped the fledgling democracy, too. It was accepted not least because it went hand in hand with an economic boom. But this did not happen overnight. Thus some asked in the early days, "What use is freedom and democracy if I'm unemployed?" A weighty question. Today the answer is clearer because our post-1945 history has shown that everyone needs freedom and democracy for their self-respect and dignity. After all, that is why there was no way to stop the peaceful revolution in 1989. And our nation, like all others, needs freedom and democracy because free self-determination is the only way to guarantee a bright future and social justice. But the sting in the question remains. Unemployment is humiliating. Creating jobs is there­fore a paramount task for all democrats.


Also in the Soviet occupation zone, many people rolled up their sleeves full of hope at first. Thomas Mann observed, "Among the Communist functionaries (...) there are of course some (...) power-hungry despots. But I have looked into other faces and seen resolute good will and pure idealism - the faces of people who work eighteen hours a day and sacrifice themselves (...) to create those social conditions (...) which, as they say, will prevent a relapse into war and barbarism."

Yet these hopes were dashed. The GDR regime subordinated society to state control. Every aspect of life was forced into the same mould and was soon militarized. The GDR cut itself off from the West and forbade anything that threatened the party line. More and more farmers, tradesmen, entrepreneurs and scientists left the country because they felt they had no future there. The list of artists and intellectuals who had hoped to find the better Germany in the GDR and then turned their backs on it in disappointment became longer year by year. East Germany lost more and more of its vitality and creativity to the Federal Republic which in turn helped the latter flourish. The GDR saw walls and barbed wire as the last resort and yet even that did not save it.

For the yearning for freedom remained alive, in the GDR and in the nations of Central and Eastern Europe - from the uprising on 17 June 1953 to the Hungarian revolution in 1956, from the Prague Spring in 1968 to the strike by Gdansk's shipyard workers twelve years later.


Things were much easier for West Germany - in part because it had fewer reparations to make and received more reconstruction assistance. But above all because ideas were able to develop unfettered and because a society that is free can respond to new challenges more quickly.

The defining feature of this political system was - perpetual controversy! There were heated debates on all the central questions both in the public sphere and in parliament: on the social market economy and rearmament, on accession to NATO and membership of the European Communities, on the new Ostpolitik and nuclear force modernization. Looking back, there can be no doubt that all these decisions were the right ones. After a while, the vast majority of the population and the respective parliamentary opposition always saw this, too. And thus each of these major debates strengthened the political culture of the Federal Republic and the confidence in its democratic system. This, too, is something we only realize with hindsight. It is a success in which all German governments and parliaments since 1949 share, and of course all the citizens.

So for the West Germans, there were more and more compelling reasons to hold their country in high esteem. Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer impressed them with his wisdom and leadership. But it was just as important to see the smooth transition to new chancellors and governments in their democracy. In the so-called "Spiegel"affair, there were signs of arbitrary use of state power but the scandal ended in a victory for the freedom of the press. The fight against the terrorism of the Red Army Faction troubled the country but the Federal Republic remained a state based on the rule of law. The needs of the environment were neglected but because many were committed to the cause and founded a party, they quickly gained political influence and pushed ahead with environmental protection, and the other parties followed suit.

All these political developments were inextricably linked to the seismic shift in the country's intellectual and cultural climate. There, too, honest self-examination, the confession of one's own guilt and attempts at reconciliation were the first steps to be taken. The two major Churches made a lasting contribution and gave many people a solid foundation once more. The Protestant Church's "Ostdenkschrift", a memorandum on relations with Eastern neighbours, and the correspondence between Polish and German bishops with the sentence from Poland "We forgive and ask forgiveness" will never be forgotten. The then young Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, made a decisive contribution to the impact of this message. As Pope, he lived out the maxim that truth alone can make people free. Now with Benedict XVI, he is followed by a Pope from Germany and people all over the world are delighted by his election. Does this not also show how our country is seen today?

After the War, many artists and intellectuals also laboured to clear away the legacy of National Socialism and this was certainly not always easy on them or their contemporaries. Their works changed the country. A fresh breeze blew through society. Germany regained its intellectual breadth. The Nobel Prizes awarded to Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass - after the Nobel Prize for Nelly Sachs who had fled National Socialism - the success of German film, exhibitions by German artists in the world's most famous museums: All this shows that Ger­many is again a respected cultural nation.


From the outset, it was the younger generation that provided much of the momentum. For them in particular, Western lifestyle was a big hit. They thirsted for jazz and rock 'n' roll and for foreign books, films and plays. They were keen to learn foreign languages and travelled as far as their money would take them. They were good ambassadors for the Federal Republic.

The Franco-German friendship and a united Europe were not only the concerns of the great statesmen such as Churchill, Adenauer, Schuman and De Gasperi, rather they also evolved into a real youth movement. I was there myself when Charles de Gaulle visited Ludwigsburg on 9 September 1962 and called upon the German and French youth to build Europe's future. Our enthusiasm knew no bounds.

It was above all the younger generation that asked the searching questions: Are Germans really facing up to their Nazi past? Do we not need to finally end racial discrimination in the world? Was the Viet Nam War justifiable? Are the dangers of nuclear power not too great? In grappling with these topics, countless young people learnt to think politically and to show democratic commitment. Their role models were Albert Schweitzer, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and then later, Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela. That too is part of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany and did it good.

For the young people under communist rule, many things were similar. There, too, jeans and rock music had an irresistible attraction, but the authorities found them politically sus­picious. That is why there were literally street battles to attend rock concerts in Warsaw and East Berlin, that is why Klaus Renft Combo performances were banned due to their critical lyrics and that is why long hair was so much more than just a hairstyle.

They needed courage to be active in the "Junge Gemeinde" youth organization or to wear "Swords into Ploughshares" badges, and ever more young men and women proved they had precisely that. Others worked for environmental conservation and civil rights, often under the protective roof offered by the Churches.

There was even an initiative to which young East Germans and young West Germans alike were committed - albeit separately: Action Reconciliation. Lothar Kreyssig from Saxony founded it in the 1950s. To this day, it helps victims of the German campaign of war and destruction and works for peace and reconciliation.

And finally, in both East and West, young people were enthused by Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform course.


All across central Europe the will for freedom prevailed in 1989: peacefully, far-sightedly and resolutely. The East Germans wrote one of the best chapters in German history. It all began with people like Herbert Belter who handed out leaflets against oppression at Leipzig University in 1950 and was thereupon executed. At the end, there was the democratic victory of the Monday demonstrators and the civil rights activists at the Round Tables, the only freely elected Volkskammer in the GDR and the Government it formed.

The most recent example of the thirst for freedom of European nations was given to us by the people of Ukraine. We Germans share in the joy of the Ukrainian democrats.

Today, Europe is marked by freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. From day one, all the governments of the Federal Republic of Germany have worked to promote these fun­damental values and European unification. Today, presumably for the first time in its history, Germany is surrounded by friends and partners. War between us is now impossible.

We recognize the value of the transatlantic partnership and do not forget the debt of gratitude we owe particularly to the United States of America. We share good relations, even friendship, with the State of Israel. Who would have thought that possible in 1945?

The borders to the east are now open once more and people are meeting again along the former trade routes. Particularly for us Germans, there is a whole world to discover in Central and Eastern Europe. In Prague and L'viv, in Gdansk and Vilnius, in Tallinn and Wroclaw, we sense the wealth of cultural and ethnic diversity of pre-war Europe and the creativity and maturity this brought. All this richness fell victim to racism and nationalist insanity. Germany lost part of its very being through its own fault.

In the united Europe, we can finally be a free community of good neighbours. This can also help us look together at history and the often bitter truths it brings.

We are seeking real friendship with the nations of Central and Eastern Europe and want to build with them the free and peaceful Europe. The joy of the new member states on gaining their freedom and the spirit of new departures are a source of enrichment for European policy.


Looking back today over the past sixty years, we have a deep sense of gratitude towards all those who helped us build the Federal Republic of Germany. But we also know that it was our talent for freedom that guided us on the road to our free and democratic society.

We will not forget the twelve years of National Socialist dictatorship and the terrible suffering Germany brought upon the world. On the contrary, particularly with distance, we can see many details in even sharper relief and better recognize many links in the chain of injustice. But we see our country against the backdrop of its whole history and this means we recognize how much good we Germans could rely on to emerge from the moral ruin of 1933 to 1945. Our whole history determines the identity of our nation. Those wanting to suppress part of it are committing a grave offence against Germany.

Looking at the journey we have made since 1945, we also recognize the strength we can muster. This gives us courage for the future.

Sixty years after the Second World War, our country faces some difficulties - as, by the way, do many others. But Germany is a stable democracy. Our country is more multi-faceted and outward-looking than ever before. We have found ourselves again as a nation. There can be no doubt as to our sense of belonging in unity and right and freedom. Germany's citizens seek social justice and they stand together when it really matters.

Unfortunately there are also the incorrigible who want to go back to racism and right-wing extremism. But they will not succeed. This is the will of the overwhelming majority of true citizens and this is the will of our strong democracy.

Our country knows its bounds and has its weight. We are respected and needed in the world. The German Armed Forces are helping secure peace and implement human rights all over the world. Our development cooperation is held in great esteem. And no matter where they are, people in need can count on the Germans' readiness to help.

Today we have good reason to be proud of our country. What we have achieved is unthinkable without the lessons we learnt and is the fruit of relentless endeavour. We must continue to take these lessons to heart and continue in our endeavours. Then we will be able to keep using our strengths for the good of the world.


Each generation has to rise anew to these challenges. Gradually the younger generation is shouldering this responsibility. In them, I have great trust. They cannot be fooled or taken in by false promises. They are struggling to find their own answers and mistrust those who main­tain they have them all. They are open-minded and stand by their country. They know what their parents - the generation who grew up in the war - have built and want to play their part.

The younger generations in Germany know there will soon be no-one there who experienced war and destruction at first hand. They accept responsibility for keeping the memory of what happened alive and passing it on. It will be them, together with their contemporaries all over the world, who will ensure that such terrible injustice and suffering is never repeated.