Remembrance. Responsibility. The Future!
Enlarge image Commemorative plaque marking the launch of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 (© dpa/picture-alliance) Article by Frank-Walther Steinmeier on the 75th anniversary of the launch of Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union
In the early hours of 22 June 1941, this day 75 years ago, all hell broke loose. At Hitler’s command, millions of German soldiers, hundreds of thousands of vehicles and horses, thousands of tanks, aeroplanes and artillery pieces swarmed eastwards, to attack the Soviet Union. Their mission – as frightening, crazy and megalomaniacal as it was – was to finally claim for the German ‘master race’ its rightful and destined dominion over all of Eurasia, and to subjugate and exterminate the people of the Soviet Union. In breach of all past agreements, out of the blue, the Germans marched against their Soviet allies, with whom they had just brutally divided up Poland and the Baltic states.
The consequences were dire, initially for those attacked, and ultimately for the aggressors themselves. The Soviets fought for their survival in the face of Germany’s war of aggression and unprecedented ferocity, which claimed the lives of more than 25 million people in the Soviet Union and left many more starving, destitute and displaced. The war left behind unspeakable destruction in many parts of the Soviet Union. A similar fate ultimately befell the aggressors, too, who came to face death, violence, imprisonment and hardship.
St Petersburg (the Siege of Leningrad), Volgograd (the Battle of Stalingrad) and the Battle of Kiev, and the massacres of Babi Yar and the Battle of Bialystok-Minsk are to this day remembered as symbols of heroic resistance and of the atrocities of a war that swept eastwards, wiping out all traces of civilisation.
In all the current debates on Europe’s peaceful order, we must never forget that the aggression, the war of destruction, the ideology of Slavic Untermenschen, descended upon the peoples of the Soviet Union from Europe, from the West, from Hitler’s Germany.
Anyone who, like me, is often in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, is aware of the extent to which the Great Patriotic War is still part of people’s conscience, not as a memory from the distance past, but as a present fact, with all its horrors, but also with pride for the participants’ stalwart defence in their enforced fight for their lives.
The price paid by the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Belarusians and the many other peoples of the Soviet Union is immeasurable and has not been forgotten to this day – not in the countries of the former Soviet Union nor here in Germany.
Acknowledging this does not in any way diminish Stalin’s crimes, the gulags, the forced collectivisation, and the famines in which millions of people died, above all in Ukraine.
We Germans are infinitely grateful for the fact that, considering the atrocities and crimes committed in Germany’s name, the people of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union have reached out to us in reconciliation. We are also grateful for the fact that common ground and partnership, and even friendship, have taken root once again following the traumatic experiences of the war and bitter enmity, of brutality and barbarity, of suffering and displacement.
Preserving the memory of the horrors of World War II and of Germany’s guilt, was, is and remains an indispensable and imperative prerequisite for reconciliation between our two countries.
Today, 70 years after the end of the War, we maintain thriving diplomatic, political, economic and cultural relations with all the states that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With all of them we foster a culture of intense commemoration of World War II and of the victims of Nazi barbarism.
We know that this is by no means to be taken for granted.
Looking back 75 years makes us shudder at the things people in a modern, sophisticated, progressive and civilised Europe could do to each other. And it serves as a most pointed reminder to us to do everything humanly possible to preserve the peaceful order in Europe which was built on the ashes of the worst war ever witnessed by the world.
Especially at times like this this, when Europe is at risk of splitting along new divides, we must again remind ourselves of the importance of this culture of joint commemoration.
Only together can we preserve a lasting and stable peaceful order in Europe. The unilateral shifting of borders in breach of international law and the failure to respect the territorial integrity of neighbouring countries – such actions take us back to the times from which we believed we had escaped, times that nobody can wish for. The Helsinki Final Act, the major disarmament treaties, the Charter of Paris, the process of European integration – all these achievements should be respected, preserved and jointly advanced.
Dialogue and joint commemoration, close ties between our societies, and in particular between the young people of our countries, can help and indeed must help to prevent us from gradually becoming strangers to each other.
We all face the great challenges of our time, and we will only master them together, in a world that has come loose from its moorings. We now have huge numbers of refugees in the world, more than ever before, at any time since the Second World War. Terrorism poses a threat to our liberty and our way of life. And, in the heart of Europe, in eastern Ukraine, people are killed and wounded on a daily basis.
Peace in Europe cannot be taken for granted – not even today! Peace will only last if we work for it – day by day! Wherever it is threatened, we, the leaders of today, have the duty to draw the right lessons from our common past.
I hope that we will never forget, even when dealing with the conflicts of our times, that there is far more that unites us Europeans than divides us.
If there is one thing we owe to the victims of the war, to the soldiers in nameless graves, to the murdered and maltreated old people, women and children, it is to remember their suffering and sacrifice, and to repeat every day: “Never again”..