Ladies and gentlemen,
This morning – and I believe I speak for everyone present – we witnessed a moving ceremony commemorating how, on 11 November at 11 o’clock in the morning, precisely 100 years ago, word spread swiftly along the Western front that an armistice had been declared. Trumpeters on horseback signalled the ceasefire. Soldiers celebrated. Earlier, we took a look at the many emotions of the day.
A new term needed to be coined for that war. It came to be called the World War. In France and Great Britain, it is referred to as the Great War. Mankind had never been engulfed in such a cataclysm. When the war began, there was great euphoria, along with celebratory cries and propaganda promising swift victory. When it ended, 17 million had died. How could something like this happen in developed countries – countries that claimed to be enlightened? Technological advances were misused. Weapons of mass destruction, poison gas, bombs and submarines were employed regardless of the consequences. Basic principles of civilisation were completely ignored. General de Gaulle is reported to have said that, although Germany was defeated, we all lost. This war, with its senseless bloodshed, shows where national arrogance and military hubris can lead. It also reminds us of the disastrous consequences of a lack of dialogue and compromise in politics and diplomacy.
Today, one hundred years on, we look back at this war. We commemorate the victims – the women, men and children. We commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives on the front. However – and for this, dear Emmanuel, I owe you gratitude – standing still is not an option. So we must ask ourselves: What does it mean for us today?
We all were requested to contribute a book to the peace library. I chose Briefe an den Sohn (letters to my son) by Käthe Kollwitz. In it, a great artist from Germany writes about her two sons. One died fighting in Belgium in the early days of the war, and she desperately hoped that her other son, a medic, would survive. “The heart is a heavy burden to bear,” she writes. “Why, oh why, do the most beautiful youths die, and the old live on?”
It is an honour for me to stand here today, as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. I also want to thank Emmanuel Macron for what we were able to experience yesterday. Until recently, in Compiègne, where the armistice was signed nearly 100 years ago, a commemorative slab bore the words “the arrogance of the Germans”. We have now replaced those lines with “friendship” and “partnership”. This sends an impressive signal. It is of course also an obligation. Because, today, this is anything but self-evident – especially in view of the suffering that the Germans brought upon their neighbours, Europe and the world in two world wars. It is an extremely generous invitation, extended to friends.
The peace that we have today, and that we sometimes take too much for granted, is anything but a matter of course. We must work to maintain it. That is why I, too, want to express the concern that I feel during our present commemoration. The concern, for example, that national blinkers will again be put on, which could once again lead to action that simply ignores our mutual interdependence, relations and ties. We see that international cooperation, the peaceful balancing of interests, and even the European peace project, are again being called into question. We see a willingness to push through one’s own interests – if need be, by using force.
Last year, Mr Secretary-General, there were 222 violent conflicts in the world. 222! According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people in the world reached 68.5 million. That is more than the population of France, for example. These numbers are even more striking when we look at who is hardest hit. More than one billion children are currently affected by conflicts. Children account for 52 percent of refugees. According to estimates, up to 250,000 girls and boys are being misused as child soldiers.
Considering what we have experienced, and that we think we’ve learned the corresponding lessons, we should be shocked – just as we are by the images coming out of Syria and Yemen. But this should not make us speechless. First and foremost, we must not be paralysed. That, too, is indeed a lesson from history. We must not simply resign in the face of these armed conflicts – no matter how removed the fighting may be from us in Europe. We must not write off any state, religion, ethnicity or single person.
This means we must work towards a political solution in Syria. Different groups are engaged, but so far they are not making a joint effort. We, Emmanuel Macron and I, recently met with the Russian president and the Turkish president in Istanbul to bring together various strands of activity. I want to thank Mr de Mistura and the United Nations for everything that is being done. Many obstacles remain on the path. But we must not give up.
During our joint work and commemorations here, we must bear in mind that what is probably the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe is currently unfolding in Yemen. We are not seeing many images, and this is the only thing keeping us from being shocked. Yet a lack of images must not lead to inaction. That is why Yemen was discussed in the margins of many meetings here – and I am grateful for that fact. I think the world must take action, so that a ceasefire and humanitarian access can be achieved.
Friends, a lack of willingness and inability to engage in dialogue are exactly what fed mistrust and the logic of war that set in motion the violent juggernaut of 1914. Lack of communication. There is a book about the First World War that refers to “sleepwalkers” – this was the main reason behind the collective failure that led to crisis and catastrophe.
That was precisely the conclusion to which Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, came at the time. With his famous fourteen points, he among other things called for a great league of nations. He proposed that an institutionalised dialogue be established through which positive pressure would be brought to bear, with a view to preventing future conflicts. We all know that the League of Nations was set up – and failed. The world witnessed Germany unleash World War Two and commit the Shoah, whereby it betrayed all civilised values and shook faith in humanity.
Afterwards, nothing was the same. Granted, nothing could be. The answer was to create the United Nations. The international community established a legal order and a framework for international cooperation. The foundation for this was laid with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the UN General Assembly adopted 70 years ago. I often wonder if, today, we were again called on as an international community to adopt such a declaration of human rights – would we be up to the task? I fear not.
That is why we must protect and further develop what was achieved in the immediate aftermath of the horror. I know how difficult it is to adopt binding resolutions. But we did manage to agree to ban the use of force in the UN Charter, and to make the UN Security Council the sole body authorised to use it – although the Council is unfortunately often deadlocked. I often read and feel that many ask themselves: what does the United Nations do? Of course, on a day-to-day level, the organisation does not live up to its ideals. How could it be otherwise? But does this mean we should say that life would be better without the United Nations? To that, I clearly say no. Institutions can easily be destroyed – but building them up is incredibly difficult. We all know that most of the challenges and threats we face today cannot be addressed nationally, but only through joint effort. That is why we must accept this collective responsibility.
It is why you, Secretary-General, dear Antonio Guterres, deserve full support. Full support for your everyday work and for the UN reform. We must put prevention at the top of the agenda. We must keep conflicts from occurring in the first place. The 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals is a good roadmap. We know that we need to fight poverty and hunger if we want peace. We know that we must create access to education, protect the environment and improve economic and social justice. In Germany, we are aware of these challenges – and we look forward to being part of the effort to implement this agenda during our two-year tenure as a non-permanent member on the Security Council.
The First World War demonstrated how isolationism can be our undoing. If isolationism did not provide a solution 100 years ago, then how could it today – in a world as intricately interconnected as ours, with five times the population? That is why we chose “shaping an interconnected world” to be the motto of our G20 Presidency last year. We also will work closely with France’s G7 Presidency to achieve progress in this regard. Close international cooperation based on shared values that are laid down in the UN Charter – this is the only way to overcome the horrors of the past and shape a reasonable future.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends: After the dread that we spread above all with the Second World War, we Germans were extended a hand of reconciliation. Great trust was placed in the young Federal Republic. This was the only way that we were able to enter the fold of the international community. An essential part of this later became the Franco-German friendship. We have forward-looking and courageous women and men to thank for this, such as Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer. They paved the way, so that old rivalries could be thrown aside and policies of peaceful balancing of interests and cooperation pursued. Those with political responsibility need great courage to step forward and say: I must reach a compromise. But uncompromising attitudes are certain to lead to great discord.
Other neighbours, too, showed tremendous character and courageously promoted reconciliation. I want to mention Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of Poland, who already prior to 1945 gave thought to how Poles and Germans could reach out to each other in the future. Only a few representatives from Poland are among us here today, because Poland is celebrating the centenary of its independence – or, more accurately, its regaining of independence with the end of the First World War, because for much more than 100 years its territory had been divided up between Germany and Russia.
For too long, many people in Europe could not be part of the peace project. They had been divided by the Cold War. But in Europe, we saw that what was previously divided could also be reunited – and this is especially true for us Germans.
I want to thank Emmanuel Macron and the initiators of this Peace Forum for making sure that the event is not attended only by politicians, but also by NGOs, unions, associations, researchers, and private citizens. Because peace cannot be purely a political project. Peace must be earned by the people in our countries. That’s why work for peace is so multi-faceted. It is therefore my sincerest hope that this effort will not be short-lived – with the life expectancy of a house fly, as we say in Germany. We want it instead to become a process. We want this armistice centenary marking the end of the First World War to give rise to a process that leads to more peace. I am not under any illusions that a rocky road lies ahead. However, if we all are convinced that we need to work together, then we may just be able to build a better world. After what we have experienced, we must seize this opportunity.
Thank you very much.