Your Majesties, Presidents, Prime Minister, colleagues, Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
On 4 August this year the impressive international ceremony in Liège showed the whole world how Belgium commemorates the First World War: by mourning the victims and paying homage to their suffering, by uniting in commemoration all the nations that were involved and by taking an open-minded approach to the future. You have gathered us to continue that commemoration today in Nieuwpoort and Ypres.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks for your kind invitation. As German Chancellor I consider it a special honour to have been asked to speak to you. Considering all that has happened, all the suffering inflicted on Belgians by Germans in two World Wars, starting with the invasion of Belgium by troops of the German Reich in 1914 – after all that, this invitation is by no means something to be taken for granted.
In August 1914 the Reich government and the German generals were driven only by a soulless military logic. The standards of civilisation were suddenly rendered null and void. Nationalism clouded all judgement.
The Belgians, led by King Albert I, put up resistance. The flooding of the fields of Flanders, which halted the German advance, remains a potent symbol of that resistance to this day. It also illustrates what an immeasurable sacrifice the war demanded. Soldiers and civilians alike were affected, not least in the martyred towns of Belgium.
With the first-ever use of chemical weapons by German troops in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915, the threshold to a new level of cruelty was crossed. Those who survived these atrocities of war were left in a state of despair, fearful and speechless.
Ladies and gentlemen, all that was 100 years ago. As we commemorate these terrible events today here in the fields of Flanders, we cannot be grateful enough for how much has changed since then. After the Second World War, which Germany had unleashed, Belgians were among the very first to extend the hand of reconciliation towards their German neighbours. Since that time, for more than six decades, Belgians and Germans have fostered a friendship that is unparalleled. For that, too, I would like today to express my sincere thanks to the people of Belgium.
It is particularly appropriate that Brussels is the seat of the European Union. The EU stands for freedom, democratic values and respect for international law. The victims of those terrible wars enjoin us to honour that achievement of civilisation, to safeguard it and to stand up for it throughout the world. To do anything else would be to deny them the homage they are due.
Thank you very much.