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Reception in the German Embassy in Washington D.C.

Federal President Joachim Gauck holds a welcoming speech at the reception on the occasion of the German Unification Day at the residence of the German ambassador in Washington Washington/USA, 6 October 2015 Federal President Joachim Gauck holds a welcoming speech at the reception on the occasion of the German Unification Day at the residence of the German ambassador in Washington © Guido Bergmann

I am absolutely delighted to be here with you this evening to celebrate such a happy event as Germany’s unification 25 years ago.

What happened back then, from 1989 to 1990, from the autumn of freedom till the autumn of unification – the opposition groups’ campaigns, the demonstrations in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, the first free elections in March 1990, and finally the day on which divided Germany once again became one country – for me, these are not just historic events. No, for me these were all personal experiences, experiences which changed my life. This new departure, first groping for and then grasping freedom and responsibility, was like a fresh spring in autumn, the most cheering time of my life.

Just a few months later, in the night of 2/3 October 1990, when the Flag of Unity was hoisted before the Reichstag, Berlin’s Liberty Bell rang out. Many of you probably know that this bell, modelled on your Liberty Bell, was a gift from the American people. When Berlin’s bell rang out to welcome unity, I was standing on the steps in front of the Reichstag building. Yesterday in Philadelphia, a quarter of a century later, I saw the original Liberty Bell. For someone like me, who experienced first-hand for decades what it meant for the promise of freedom to be denied, standing in the Liberty Bell Pavilion was a very moving experience.

After all, we in the GDR had none of those things which go to make citizens, which go to make civil society. Without political rights, without a free economy, without free science and culture, personal engagement withered away, confidence in one’s own abilities wilted, and the courage to dare to do new things died away. We were shut in, inmates who bent to the state until – yes, until we East Germans realised that "We are the people!" The hundreds of thousands of people who chanted this slogan in 1989 had discovered for themselves the message which has characterised the United States Constitution and American national identity for over 200 years: "We the People". It is the people, the citizens, in all their number and diversity, who decide. Each and every individual feels a responsibility for society.

To illustrate just how powerful a message this is, I would like to tell you about something that happened in my home city, Rostock. For our new democratic beginning we needed nothing less than a new order – for example, for schools, the police force or the administration. So people in Rostock, and elsewhere, set up working groups. And some of these citizens said: "You know what else we need? A state constitution." So they thought about what they could base it on. And suddenly, ladies and gentlemen, someone laid a copy of the United States Constitution on the table! A miniature edition which a citizen of Rostock had kept all through the years of SED rule. It’s at moments like this that one truly realises what "We the People" means.

I myself have always wanted to see the original Constitution of the United States. And I finally got the opportunity when I came to the States for the first time in the 1990s. Even the time I spent waiting in line at the National Archive here in Washington was an experience I will never forget. All those people – young, old, people with every colour of skin, foreigners, but primarily Americans, from Texas, or Missouri, or Oklahoma – were standing there in that line because they identified with the United States Constitution and its fundamental principles, and because the original therefore meant something to them. They were all attracted by the power of that phrase "We the People"; that was why they were lining up there, on a perfectly ordinary working day. I remember I was speaking German with my companion, Dean Claussen. The 11 year-old boy in front of me in the line immediately turned round and asked: "Where are you from?" "Germany," I replied. "Great!" he said. Then I asked him where he was from and why he was there. He told me he came from a small town in Texas. Right, and what was he doing here? "I’m visiting my Constitution." Wow! I had encountered an America I had previously known nothing about. I began to daydream: one day I want to have an encounter exactly like that in Germany. To be on familiar terms with one’s own constitution, with one’s own country – quite simply, quite naturally.

This means being profoundly convinced that the people are the sovereign. It was because of this fundamental conviction that the United States took a positive view of German unity and expressed its support as a matter of fact, firmly and early on. In particular, I thank the US President who became something of a patron of German unity, George H. W. Bush. He was instrumental in driving reunification. And from the outset President Bush also thought in terms of Europe. "A Europe Whole and Free", the title of his pathbreaking speech in Mainz in May 1989, perfectly sums up the goal to which we remain committed today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You all know that Europe is facing difficult tasks, problems which touch on its awareness of values and on its identity and which at the same time go far beyond European borders, as the refugee crisis depressingly shows. It is all the more important, then, that we join together and use the energies inherent in our transatlantic partnership and in the German-American friendship. After all, German unity and the end of the Soviet dictatorship in Eastern Europe show what a willingness to get involved politically can achieve. Without a clear picture of a better future, however, there will be no future. This will also be true if those in positions of political responsibility demonstrate no courage. Equally, though, we need the citizens to display courage and commitment as well. This reminds me of the young African American woman I met years ago in a small town in the southern United States who told me about her work for a civil rights group, and about how hard it was to get her message across. Not even the mayor was really interested in her work, she said, and Congress was a long way away. I wanted to try to console her, but unfortunately my English was rather limited. While I was still searching for the words, the woman cheerfully clapped me on the shoulder and said: "But that’s my country and I love it!" It was completely clear to this civil rights activist that she and her colleagues would have to change things for the better themselves. Despite all the difficulties, she was determined to change things for the better. We East Germans discovered this civic mindset, which has so markedly characterised America from the outset, for ourselves in the course of the Peaceful Revolution.

And now, as Federal President, I am delighted to see how strongly the sense of bearing responsibility for society is anchored in the German population. And I am happy to be accompanied on this trip by people from Germany whose activities in cultural life, science, civil society and politics reflect the diversity of the ties between our two countries.

My wish for the future is that we focus on our strengths, including those that derive from our transatlantic partnership and from our German-American friendship. This confidence in our own ability to shape the future is, to my mind, the message at the heart of the phrase "We the People".