Navigation and service

Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler at the dedication of the Bundeswehr Memorial in Berlin

Bundespräsident Horst Köhler am Rednerpult vor dem Ehrenmal Berlin, 8 September 2009 Photo: Guido Bergmann, BPA © Photo: Guido Bergmann, BPA

The news and images from Afghanistan haunt us. We can see the tragedies this conflict brings. We mourn all those innocent people who lose their lives in Afghanistan. We know the responsibility involved, the dangers of the Bundeswehr mission for the soldiers.

On 23 June this year, German soldiers were attacked by insurgents near Kunduz. Three Bundeswehr soldiers, young men between 21 and 23 years of age, lost their lives. They were sons, brothers, grandsons, friends, partners and comrades. They are missed. Just like 78 other members of the Bundeswehr who have lost their lives in missions abroad, just like the more than 3100 men and women, soldiers and civilian employees who have lost their lives serving our country since the Bundeswehr was founded - whether in battle, attacks or accidents, during manoeuvres or air crashes.

Today we are dedicating the Bundeswehr Memorial. It reminds us of each and every one of them.

Our society finds thinking about death hard. It has its problems with terms such as serving and being devoted. It has difficulties with the idea of making a sacrifice or thanking others for theirs. That is why this Memorial is forcing us into something. It is forcing us to think about death and about what price we are prepared to pay for a life in freedom and security. It is forcing us to be honest. It forces those in political office to constantly remember that their decisions can cost human lives. And it forces us all to realize that "the citizen in uniform" is not an abstract concept but that our soldiers are our own sons, daughters, partners and friends.

They risk life and limb to defend our security and our values. For this, they deserve our gratitude and our solidarity. And all those who have lost their lives in service deserve to be honoured and remembered by us. We need to remember who they were and what they died for.

We know that in the past soldiers' deaths have often been misused and exalted for propaganda purposes - particularly in Germany. The Bundeswehr Memorial pursues no wrongful hero worship, it serves no cult of victimhood and glorifies no war. Nothing is being romanticized here. It is a place of mourning and a decisive call not to draw a veil of silence over or falsely adorn anything to do with the service done or the sacrifice made by the men and women who we are remembering here.

We owe this to the dead and their families and friends. Families and friends who often can barely understand what has happened; families and friends who wrangle with God, with fate and with politics and who find no answers to the questions they ask. This Memorial does not answer the questions or quell the desperation and speechlessness. I am moved and grateful that some of those who have lost a loved one are with us today. I bow in respect before you.

In democracies based on freedom like ours each and everyone of us counts. Each and every one of us is and remains irreplaceable. The Memorial lists the names of all those who have lost their lives in service. It is a long list of names. We all hope this list will not get longer. We hope for a world free of war and arms, a world which does not need memorials for fallen soldiers. But there are risks and threats to which we need to react and from which we need to protect our country. There are humanitarian disasters which require our help - for the sake of humanity and our own credibility.

We cannot choose the world we live in. But we can try to make it better and safer. Our freedom and security demand effort - on our side and from those of the many nations which share our values. That is why there is an army in our country. That is why we send soldiers, police officers and civilian reconstruction-aid workers on dangerous missions abroad. And that is why young people are ready to serve our country as soldiers.

The members of the Bundeswehr take on a duty that serves our whole nation. Their pledge to bravely defend the rights and freedom of the German people may initially sound abstract. But particularly twenty years after the peaceful revolution in the GDR we should remember that even in the days of the Cold War the price of freedom was eternal vigilance. We should be clear that the peaceful readiness for defence displayed by our country and its Allies helped sweep away the Iron Curtain. And even after it was gone, poverty, injustice and need have not been banished from our world. There are new, global threats to our rights and our freedom. International terrorism threatens our peaceful existence with murderous hatred; many armed conflicts bring refugees and insecurity to our shores. We Germans have also learnt the lesson from our history that we need to act to guarantee human rights. That is why both are important: our readiness to help shape international mandates for military missions and our readiness to support such missions with soldiers where we can.

This has dramatically changed the mandate and the reality of the Bundeswehr in recent years. Our Bundeswehr has become an army in deployment, an army in combat. The most recent news from Afghanistan shows how dangerous a task this is and how difficult the decisions demanded of each individual. And much as we expect the events of last week to be cleared up, we just as much oppose premature judgements.

Our soldiers who lost their lives in service did not die as conquerors or occupiers but to open the way for aid, protection and reconstruction. Their comrades are not doubting the aim of their mission. But they do sometimes doubt whether their fellow citizens at home see and recognize the importance of this mission and the personal commitment of our soldiers.

The Memorial does not answer this question. It is us that should give the answer by reaching out to the members of the Bundeswehr and their families, by recognizing their contributions, being sympathetic about their concerns and paying tribute to what they do to protect us and our country.

This includes looking critically at Bundeswehr missions. Helmut Schmidt assured the soldiers they would not be misused. We can be sure that the German Bundestag has a careful eye on things. And the more interest the public takes in what Bundeswehr missions are approved by parliament, how they are equipped and what aims and deadlines are set, the better. I hope there will be a public debate here marked by sympathy and respect, by concern and recognition of the Bundeswehr and its service. This is a responsibility we must not shirk.

This Memorial serves as a reminder. It reminds us that our Bundeswehr is an irremovable part of the positive democratic development of our country and that our soldiers are people from our midst who stand up for us all.

For you, the soldiers to whom I pay tribute today, I hope that this will be a place to remember treasured comrades, a place which expresses the purpose and the gravity of your service and a place which makes plain that the people in Germany stand by their Bundeswehr.

Minister Jung, thank you for taking the initiative to build this Memorial.

The Bundeswehr Memorial is a place of mourning and remembrance.

It is a place of gratitude towards and memories of those who gave their lives serving our country.

It embodies the values on which our country and the Bundeswehr are founded.

It is a symbol of respect for the service of our soldiers.

It is a place where the citizens will hopefully come together - both those in uniform and those not.

It is good that we now have this place.