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Steinmeier: History mustn’t be used as a weapon

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Tallinn, Aug. 22, 2017.
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Tallinn, Aug. 22, 2017. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

While Aug. 23 marked a low point in history with the signing of the pact in 1939 that would later bring so much destruction and death to Europe, with the Baltic Way in 1989 fifty years later it also stood for optimism and courage and the Baltic longing for freedom, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his speech at the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

On this day 78 years ago, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed the pact that divided the eastern part of Central Europe between them. Quoting Lithuanian poet and scholar Tomas Venclova, Steinmeier said that the political leaders of the Baltic states found themselves with an impossible choice. They could “choose between Hitler, Stalin, and death, with one choice not necessarily precluding the others”.

With the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the darkest chapter in the history of Germany had begun as well, Steinmeier said, eventually leading to the attack on Poland, the Shoah, and finally the war of annihilation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

But Aug. 23 also marked the beginning of something new, as in 1989 hundreds of thousands from Estonia through Latvia to Lithuania formed a human chain and embarked on the Baltic Way to freedom and national sovereignty, Steinmeier said.

The displays of the Baltic states’ longing for freedom had given courage to many in the Eastern bloc, even before the Monday demonstrations in the GDR had started, he added.

The non-aggression pact signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on Aug. 23, 1939, had marked the beginning of war, occupation and despicable crimes committed by Germans and on behalf of Germany. Ribbentrop and Molotov had paved the way for Nazi Germany, as it prepared for a war of aggression that would begin only a few days later with the attack on Poland.

All of this brought destruction and annihilation to the entire continent, and led to the murder of European Jews and a catastrophe that would ultimately claim the lives of more than 60 million people, the German president said.

For the Baltic states, this had also meant the end of independence and upheavals for the people living here, those who lost their homes in the deportations of the 1940s, but also for other groups, like the Baltic Germans, who before had lived here for centuries.

Today, Germany as well as the Baltic states were part of the European Union, which was conceived as the alternative to this catastrophe, the alternative to war and rampant nationalism, Steinmeier added.

From the German perspective, this meant that the Baltic states had also extended their hand to them, to the perpetrators of yesterday, confirming that they wanted them to be part of the same community, even in vital areas such as security and defense.

This achievement perhaps wasn’t noted often enough, Steinmeier said, and forgotten in a use of language that too often turned member states into “small” and “large” members of the union. But on this day, Steinmeier said, he as a German felt small, standing before the Baltic states and admiring their courage to forge a new future.

Steinmeier commended Estonia for the atmosphere of encouragement and innovation they brought to to the table in Brussels, also with their ongoing EU presidency. In a time where some were losing their faith in European integration and values, there were also many who were grateful for this enthusiasm of the Baltic states for the European project.

One of Steinmeier’s recurring points is that the strength of law needs to prevail rather than the law of the strong, a point he also made in his speech on Wednesday. While the pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union had been an expression of the cynical policy of zones of influence, this state had since been overcome in Europe. The EU had only equal members, none of them were given preference over the others. Beyond that, there was the common understanding of human rights, international law, and the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This was why Europe couldn’t recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea: internationally recognized borders couldn’t be changed unilaterally or forcibly.

Covert intervention using means of hybrid warfare could not be tolerated, nor could disinformation campaigns. But just as well, military threat scenarios needed to be rejected, like Estonia had experienced them along the eastern border in recent years.

Estonia’s security was Germany’s security, Steinmeier assured. This wasn’t just because of the country’s engagement in NATO, but also because of the experience of the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Anyone attacking this order put peace on this continent at risk, and Europe mustn’t revert to confrontation and escalation, Steinmeier said.

The president also pointed out what Estonia and Germany had in common in terms of their legal base. Not only was there a century-old history of connections in the laws of the countries, but one of his predecessors, Roman Herzog, at the time a justice at the constitutional court, had played a part in shaping the Constitution and laws of Estonia after it regained its independence from the Soviet Union.

The countries’ lawful constitutions were the foundation of freedom and diversity, the president said, though putting their principles into practice often remained a challenge, especially where the integration of minorities was concerned. Where this was the Russian-speaking part of the population in Estonia, in Germany the issue of integrating immigrants remained a major discussion, as hundreds of thousands of refugees were arriving. Germany was also concerned about the situation in Turkey, as it affected a large part of its population with Turkish roots.

There was no patent remedy to make integration successful, Steinmeier said, but the discussions surrounding the topic were necessary. Equal rights for everyone couldn’t be an abstract promise of a constitution, but needed to be lived and available to every individual in their daily life.

The desire for the rule of law was inextricably linked with the claim to sovereignty, Steinmeier pointed out. Self-appointed protecting powers of part of a country’s population couldn’t gain a foothold in society if a state did its duty to ensure equal rights and opportunities, and addressed discrimination against certain groups within the population.

But Steinmeier also expressed concern for the use of history in the current debates. It couldn’t be allowed to become a further front line, he insisted. Collective memory provided a sense of identity to entire nations, but it could also be abused as a weapon.

The more everyone in Europe addressed collective memory together, the faster misunderstandings and misperceptions between nations could be overcome. There was a danger to the increasing use of history as a weapon by politicians and governments, even in the European Union. The Russian leadership’s attempt at shaping its country’s self-image as opposed and different to the countries in the West was also worrying, Steinmeier said.

Escalation needed to be avoided, and this had to include the escalation of memory, he insisted. If a people defined its identity by stressing its differences from others, this played into the hands of agitators.

Steinmeier finally called on everyone to try and avoid smoothing over their history, but to instead accept its complexities and contradictions. This didn’t mean losing anything, or compromising in terms of one’s self-esteem—on the contrary, it brought the ability to shake off the shackles of the past, and to create a different and more peaceful future.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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