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Many peoples today commemorate the day on which the Second World War ended in Europe. According to its fate, each people has its own feelings about it. Victory or defeat, liberation from injustice and foreign rule or transition to new dependency, division, new alliances, enormous shifts in power - May 8, 1945 is a date of decisive historical importance in Europe.
We Germans celebrate the day among ourselves, and that is necessary. We have to find the standards alone. Protecting our feelings by ourselves or by others does not help. We need and we have the strength to face truth as best we can, without glossing over and without one-sidedness.
For us, May 8th is above all a day of remembrance of what people had to suffer. It is also a day to reflect on the course of our history. The more honestly we commit it, the freer we are to face its consequences.
For us Germans, May 8th is not a day to celebrate. The people who have experienced it consciously think back to very personal and therefore very different experiences. One returned home, the other became homeless. This one was freed, the captivity began for the other. Many were just grateful that the nights of bombing and fear were over and that they had gotten away with their lives. Others felt pain over the complete defeat of their own country. Germans stood bitterly before shattered illusions, grateful other Germans before the new beginning that was given.
It was difficult to orientate oneself clearly immediately. The land was filled with uncertainty. The military surrender was unconditional. Our fate was in the hands of the enemy. The past had been terrible, especially for many of these enemies. Wouldn't they now let us reimburse us for what we had done to them?
Most Germans believed that they were fighting and suffering for the good cause of their own country. And now it turned out: all this was not only in vain and pointless, but it had served the inhuman aims of a criminal leadership. Exhaustion, perplexity and new worries marked the feelings of most. Would you still find your own relatives? Was there any point in rebuilding these ruins?
The view went back into a dark abyss of the past and forward into an uncertain dark future.
And yet it became clearer from day to day what we all have to say today: May 8th was a day of liberation. He freed us all from the inhuman system of National Socialist tyranny.
For the sake of this liberation no one will forget the grave suffering for many people that began on May 8th and followed. But we must not see the end of the war as the cause of flight, displacement and lack of freedom. Rather, it lies in its beginning and in the beginning of the tyranny that led to the war.
We must not separate May 8, 1945 from January 30, 1933.
We really have no reason to take part in victory festivals today. But we have every reason to recognize May 8, 1945 as the end of a wrong track in German history, which harbored the seeds of hope for a better future.
May 8th is a day of remembrance. To remember means to remember an event so honestly and purely that it becomes part of one's own inner being. That places great demands on our truthfulness.
Today we remember in mourning all those who died in the war and the tyranny.
We particularly remember the six million Jews who were murdered in German concentration camps.
We remember all the peoples who suffered in the war, especially the unspeakably many citizens of the Soviet Union and the Poles who lost their lives.
As Germans, we mournfully remember our own compatriots who perished as soldiers, in air raids at home, in captivity and in displacement.
We remember the murdered Sinti and Roma, the homosexuals killed, the mentally ill, the people who had to die for the sake of their religious or political convictions.
We remember the hostages who were shot.
We think of the victims of the resistance in all of the states we have occupied.
As Germans, we honor the memory of the victims of the German resistance, civil, military and faith-based, resistance in the working class and in trade unions, the resistance of the communists.
We remember those who did not actively resist but accepted death rather than bowing their consciences.
Beside the immense army of the dead rises a mountain of human suffering,
Sorry for the dead
Suffering from wounding and crippling,
Suffering from inhumane forced sterilization,
Suffering on nights of bombing
Suffering through flight and displacement, rape and looting, through forced labor, through injustice and torture, through hunger and need,
Suffering from fear of arrest and death,
Suffering from the loss of all that one had mistakenly believed in and worked for.
Today we remember this human suffering and remember it with grief.
Perhaps most of what was charged to man was borne by the women of the peoples.
World history forgets all too easily their suffering, their renunciation and their quiet strength. They feared and worked, supported and protected human life. They mourned fallen fathers and sons, husbands, brothers and friends.
In the darkest years they kept the light of humanity from going out.
At the end of the war they were the first and with no prospect of a secure future to lay hands on them again, the rubble women in Berlin and everywhere.
When the surviving men returned, women often had to stand back again. Many women were left alone because of the war and spent their lives in solitude.
But if the peoples did not break inwardly from the destruction, the devastation, the cruelty and inhumanity, if they slowly came to themselves after the war, then we owe it first to our women.
At the beginning of the tyranny there was Hitler's profound hatred of our fellow Jews. Hitler had never withheld it from the public, but made the whole people the tools of this hatred. On the day before its end on April 30, 1945, he had completed his so-called will with the words: "Above all, I oblige the leadership of the nation and the followers to scrupulously observe the racial laws and to relentlessly resist the world poisoner of all peoples, the international one Judaism."
Certainly, there is hardly a state that has always remained free in its history from culpable involvement in war and violence. The genocide of the Jews, however, is unprecedented in history.
The execution of the crime was in the hands of a few. It was shielded from the public eye. But every German could experience what Jewish fellow citizens had to endure, from cold indifference to hidden intolerance to open hatred.
Who could remain innocent after the synagogue fires, the looting, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the incessant desecration of human dignity?
Anyone who opened their ears and eyes, who wanted to find out more, could not escape the fact that deportation trains were rolling. The imagination of the people might not suffice for the type and extent of the annihilation. But in reality, along with the crimes themselves, there was an attempt by too many, including of my generation, young and uninvolved in the planning and execution of events, to ignore what was happening.
There were many ways of allowing one's conscience to be distracted, of not being responsible, of looking the other way, of being silent. When the whole unspeakable truth of the Holocaust came out at the end of the war, too many of us claimed that we had neither known nor even suspected anything.
There is no guilt or innocence of a whole people. Guilt, like innocence, is not collective but personal.
There is guilt of people discovered and hidden. There is guilt that people have admitted or denied. Everyone who has lived through time with full consciousness today quietly asks himself about his entanglement.
The vast majority of our population today was either born in childhood or not yet born at that time. They cannot confess their own guilt for acts they did not commit.
No feeling person expects them to wear a penitent shirt just because they are German. But their ancestors left them a heavy legacy.
We all, guilty or not, old or young, must embrace the past. We are all affected by its consequences and held liable for them.
Younger and older people can and must help each other to understand why it is vital to keep memories alive.
It's not about coming to terms with the past. You can't do that at all. It cannot be changed or undone afterwards. But whoever turns a blind eye to the past becomes blind to the present. Anyone who does not want to remember the inhumanity becomes susceptible to new risks of infection again.
The Jewish people remember and will always remember. We seek reconciliation as people.
Precisely for this reason we must understand that there can be no reconciliation without memory. The experience of millions of deaths is part of the heart of every Jew in the world, and not just because people cannot forget such a horror. Memory is part of the Jewish faith.
"The desire to forget extends exile,
and the secret of salvation is memory. "
This often quoted Jewish wisdom probably means that belief in God is belief in his work in history.
Memory is the experience of God's work in history. She is the source of belief in salvation. This experience creates hope, it creates faith in redemption, in the reunification of what has been separated, in reconciliation. Who forgets them, loses faith.
If, on our part, we wanted to forget what happened instead of remembering, then this would not only be inhuman. Rather, we would be too close to the faith of the surviving Jews and we would destroy the approach to reconciliation.
For us it comes down to a memorial of thinking and feeling within our own inner being.
May 8th is a deep historical turning point, not only in German, but also in European history.
The European civil war had come to an end, the old European world had collapsed. "Europe had fought its way out" (M. Stürmer). The meeting of American and Soviet Russian soldiers on the Elbe became a symbol for the temporary end of a European era.
Of course, it all had its old historical roots. The Europeans had a great, even decisive influence in the world, but they were increasingly unable to organize their coexistence on their own continent. For over a hundred years Europe had suffered from the clash of nationalist excesses. At the end of the First World War there were peace treaties. But they had lacked the strength to make peace. Nationalist passions had flared up again and linked to social emergencies.
On the way to calamity, Hitler became the driving force. He generated and he used mass madness. A weak democracy was incapable of stopping it. And the European western powers, in Churchill's judgment "innocent, not guiltless", contributed to the disastrous development through their weakness. America had withdrawn again after the First World War and had no influence on Europe in the 1930s.
Hitler wanted rule over Europe through war. He sought and found the occasion for this in Poland.
On May 23, 1939 - a few months before the outbreak of war - he declared to the German generals: "Further successes can no longer be achieved without bloodshed ... Danzig is not the object that is at stake. For us, it is about expansion of the living space in the east and securing food ... So there is no question of protecting Poland, and the decision remains to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity ... Here, right or wrong or treaties play no role. "
On August 23, 1939, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed. The secret additional protocol regulated the forthcoming partition of Poland.
The treaty was made to enable Hitler to invade Poland. The leadership of the Soviet Union at the time was fully aware of this. It was clear to all politically thinking people at the time that the German-Soviet pact meant Hitler's invasion of Poland and with it the Second World War.
This does not reduce the German guilt for the outbreak of the Second World War. The Soviet Union accepted the war of other peoples in order to share in the proceeds. But the initiative for the war came from Germany, not from the Soviet Union.
It was Hitler who resorted to violence. The outbreak of World War II remains associated with the German name.
During this war, the National Socialist regime tormented and desecrated many peoples.
In the end there was only one people left to be tormented, enslaved and desecrated: their own, the German people. Again and again Hitler said: if the German people were not able to win this war, then they should go under. The other peoples were first victims of a war that originated in Germany, before we ourselves became victims of our own war.
This was followed by the division of Germany into different zones agreed by the victorious powers. In the meantime the Soviet Union had invaded all the states of Eastern and Southeastern Europe that had been occupied by Germany during the war. With the exception of Greece, all of these states became socialist states.
The division of Europe into two different political systems began. It was only the post-war development that fortified it. But it would not have come without the war started by Hitler. This is what the peoples concerned think of first when they remember the war that the German leadership started.
In view of the division of our own country and the loss of large parts of the German national territory, we are also thinking about it. In his sermon on May 8th in East Berlin, Cardinal Meißner said: "The bleak result of sin is always separation."
The arbitrariness of the destruction had an effect on the arbitrary distribution of the burdens. There were innocents who were persecuted and the guilty who escaped. Some were lucky enough to be able to build a new life at home in familiar surroundings. Others were driven from their traditional homeland.
We in what would later become the Federal Republic of Germany were given the precious chance of freedom. To this day it has been denied to many millions of compatriots.
To learn to endure the arbitrariness of the allocation of different fates was the first spiritual task that was placed alongside the task of material reconstruction. The human strength had to be tested in it to recognize the burdens of others, to bear them permanently, not to forget them. The capacity for peace and the readiness for reconciliation, both internally and externally, had to grow in it, which not only others demanded of us, but which we ourselves demanded most of all.
We cannot commemorate May 8th without realizing the overcoming the readiness for reconciliation required of the former enemies. Can we really put ourselves in the shoes of the relatives of the victims of the Warsaw ghetto or the Lidice massacre?
But how difficult it must have been for a citizen in Rotterdam or London to support the reconstruction of our country, from which the bombs came that had only fallen on his city a short time before! For this to happen, a certainty had to grow gradually that Germans would not try again to correct a defeat by force.
With us, the hardest was demanded of the displaced. Long after May 8th, they suffered bitter suffering and grave injustice. To meet their difficult fate with understanding, we locals often lack the imagination and also the open heart.
But soon there were also great signs of helpfulness. Many millions of refugees and displaced persons were taken in. Over the years they were able to put down new roots. Your children and grandchildren remain connected in many ways to the culture and love for the homeland of their ancestors. That is a good thing, because it is a valuable treasure in your life.
But they have found a new home themselves, where they grow up and grow together with the locals of their own age, speak their dialect and share their habits. Your young life is a testament to your ability for inner peace. Your grandparents or parents were once evicted, but are now at home.
The displaced persons committed themselves to renounce violence early on and in an exemplary manner. This was not a transitory declaration in the initial state of powerlessness, but a confession that remains valid. Renouncing violence means letting trust grow on all sides that a Germany that has regained its strength will remain bound by it.
The own home has meanwhile become home to others. In many old cemeteries in the east there are already more Polish than German graves.
The forced migration of millions of Germans westward was followed by millions of Poles and, in turn, millions of Russians. They are all people who have not been asked, people who have suffered injustice, people who have become defenseless objects of political events and to whom no offsetting of injustice and no confrontation of claims can redress what has been done to them.
Renouncing violence today means giving the people where fate drove them after May 8th and where they have been living for decades, a permanent, politically undisputed security for their future. It means subordinating the conflicting legal claims to the requirement of mutual understanding.
This is where the real, human contribution to a European peace order lies, which we can make.
The new beginning in Europe after 1945 brought victories and defeats to the idea of freedom and self-determination. For us it is important to use the opportunity to draw the line under a long period of European history, in which peace seemed only conceivable and secure for every state as the result of its own superiority and in which peace meant a period of preparation for the next war.
The peoples of Europe love their homeland. It is no different for the Germans. Who could trust the love of peace of a people capable of forgetting their homeland?
No, love for peace shows itself precisely in the fact that one does not forget one's homeland and that is precisely why one is determined to do everything in order to always live in peace with one another. A displaced person's love of home is not revanchism.
The last war aroused the longing for peace in people's hearts more than before. The reconciliation work of churches found a deep resonance. There are many examples of how young people can communicate. I am thinking of the "Action Reconciliation Marks" with their activities in Auschwitz and Israel. A community in the Lower Rhine city of Kleve recently received bread from Polish communities as a token of reconciliation and community. She sent one of these breads to a teacher in England. Because this teacher from England had stepped out of anonymity and wrote that he had destroyed churches and houses in Kleve during the war as a bomb pilot and wanted a sign of reconciliation.
It helps immensely for peace not to wait for the other to come, but to approach him as this man did.
As a result, the war brought old opponents closer to one another both humanly and politically. As early as 1946, in his memorable speech in Stuttgart, the American Foreign Minister Byrnes called for an understanding in Europe and for helping the German people on their way to a free and peace-loving future.
Countless American citizens supported us Germans, the vanquished, with their private means in order to heal the wounds of the war.
Thanks to the foresight of the French like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman and of Germans like Konrad Adenauer, an old enmity between the French and the Germans ended forever.
A new stream of will to build up and energy went through their own country. Many old trenches were filled in, denominational differences and social tensions lost their sharpness. They went to work in partnership.
There was no "zero hour", but we had the chance to start over. We used them as best we could. In the place of bondage we have put democratic freedom.
Four years after the end of the war, on May 8th, 1949, the Parliamentary Council passed our Basic Law. Across party lines, his democrats gave the answer to war and tyranny in Article 1 of our constitution:
"The German people are therefore committed to inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every human community, of peace and justice in the world."
It is also important to remember this significance of May 8th today.
The Federal Republic of Germany has become a globally respected state. It is one of the most highly developed industrialized countries in the world. With its economic strength, it knows that it is jointly responsible for fighting hunger and misery in the world and contributing to social equilibrium among the peoples.
We have lived in peace and freedom for forty years, and we have made a great contribution to this ourselves through our policies among the free peoples of the Atlantic Alliance and the European Community.
There has never been a better protection of the civil liberties on German soil than today. A dense social network, which need not fear comparison with any other society, secures people's livelihoods.
At the end of the war, many Germans tried to hide their passports or exchange them for someone else. Today our citizenship is a respected right.
We really have no reason to be arrogant or self-righteous. But we can gratefully remember the development of these forty years if we use our own historical memory as a guideline for our behavior in the present and for the unsolved tasks that await us.
- If we remember that the mentally ill were killed in the Third Reich, we will understand the care of mentally ill citizens as our own task.
- If we remember how racially, religiously and politically persecuted people who were threatened with certain death often stood in front of the closed borders of other states, we will not close the door to those who are really persecuted today and who seek protection with us.
- If we remember the persecution of the free spirit during the dictatorship, we will protect the freedom of every thought and every criticism, however much it may be directed against ourselves.
- Anyone who judges the conditions in the Middle East should think of the fate that Germans prepared for their Jewish fellow human beings and that triggered the establishment of the State of Israel under conditions that still burden and endanger the people in this region today.
- If we think about what our eastern neighbors had to suffer in the war, we will understand better that reconciliation, relaxation and peaceful neighborly relations with these countries remain central tasks of German foreign policy. It is important that both sides remember and both sides respect one another. They have human, they have cultural, and in the end they have every reason to do so historically.
The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, announced that the Soviet leadership on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war was not interested in stirring up anti-German feelings. The Soviet Union advocates friendship between peoples.
Especially when we have questions about Soviet contributions to understanding between East and West and respect for human rights in all parts of Europe, then we should not overhear this signal from Moscow. We want friendship with the peoples of the Soviet Union.
Forty years after the end of the war, the German people are still divided.
At the memorial service in the Kreuzkirche in Dresden in February of this year, Bishop Hempel said: "It is a burden, it is bleeding that two German states have emerged with their difficult borders. The abundance of borders is burdening and bleeding in general. The weapons are burdening."
Recently, an exhibition entitled "Jews in Germany" opened in Baltimore, United States. The ambassadors of both German states accepted the invitation. The host president of Johns Hopkins University greeted them together. He pointed out that all Germans are based on the same historical development. They tied a common past with a bond. Such a bond could be a joy or a problem - it was always a source of hope.
We Germans are one people and one nation. We feel we belong together because we went through the same story.
We also experienced May 8, 1945 as the common fate of our people, which unites us. We feel that we belong together in our will to peace. Peace and good neighborliness with all countries should emanate from German soil in both states. Others should not let it become a danger to peace either.
The people in Germany want a peace that includes justice and human rights for all peoples, including ours.
It is not a walled Europe that can be reconciled across borders, but a continent that takes away what divides its borders. This is precisely what the end of the Second World War reminds us of.
We are confident that May 8th will not be the last date in our history that is binding for all Germans.
Some young people have asked themselves and us in recent months why forty years after the end of the war there were such lively arguments about the past. Why livelier than after twenty-five or thirty years? What is the inner need for it?
It is not easy to answer such questions. But we shouldn't primarily look for the reasons for this in external influences, although these undoubtedly also existed.
Forty years play a major role in the time span of human life and the fate of people.
Here, too, allow me to take another look at the Old Testament, which holds deep insights for everyone, regardless of their faith. Forty years play a frequently recurring, essential role there.
Israel was to remain in the desert for forty years before the new chapter in history began with the entry into the promised land.
Forty years were necessary for a complete change of the then responsible generation of fathers.
But elsewhere (Book of Judges) it is recorded how often the memory of experienced help and rescue lasted only forty years. When the memory broke, the rest was over.
Forty years always mean a major turning point. They affect people's consciousness, be it as the end of a dark time with confidence in a new and good future, be it as a danger of being forgotten and as a warning of the consequences. Both are worth thinking about.
A new generation has grown into political responsibility here. The boys are not responsible for what happened then. But they are responsible for what becomes of it in the story.
We older people owe our youth not the fulfillment of dreams, but sincerity. We need to help the younger ones understand why keeping memories alive is vital. We want to help them to enter into historical truth soberly and without one-sidedness, without fleeing into utopian doctrines of salvation, but also without moral arrogance.
We learn from our own history what man is capable of. That is why we must not imagine that we have now become different and better as human beings.
There is no finally achieved moral perfection - for no one and no country! We have learned as humans that we remain at risk as humans. But we have the strength to constantly overcome threats anew.
Hitler always worked to stir up prejudice, enmity and hatred.
The request to the young people is:
Do not get carried away with enmity and hatred
against other people,
against Russians or Americans,
against Jews or Turks,
against alternatives or conservatives,
against black or white.
Learn to live together, not against each other.
Let us, as democratically elected politicians, take this to heart again and again and set an example.
Let's honor freedom.
Let's work for peace.
Let's keep the law.
Let us serve our inner standards of righteousness.
Today, May 8th, let's face the truth as best we can.
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