Timothy Garton Ash
On this year’s anniversary of the June 17, 1953, uprising in East Germany, Fritz Stern, the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, delivered the speech published here to a ceremonial session of the Bundestag in Bonn. The speech is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is remarkable in itself: a historian’s wise, original, and, not least, generous evocation of the rich, specifically German tradition of standing up for freedom. Here is a dimension of German history that is rarely recalled in foreign, political, or journalistic accounts, and perhaps also too rarely recalled in contemporary West German discussions of the relationship between the German past and the German future.1
Fritz Stern justly and eloquently places the June 1953 uprising against the Ulbricht regime in East Germany in the line of earlier, also frustrated, German demands for freedom—notably that expressed in the life and work of the nineteenth-century poet Ferdinand Freiligrath. But he also places it in the great line of postwar East Central European uprisings against Soviet-type regimes: the German uprising in 1953 is seen as a precursor of the Hungarian one in 1956, the Czechoslovak in 1968, the Polish in 1980. All these attempts were frustrated but none, he implies, was fruitless.
Yet the speech is also remarkable for the setting in which it was delivered, and for the reaction it provoked. The history of the occasion is as follows. At a time when the Ulbricht regime was thoroughly disoriented by Stalin’s death and the subsequent “new course” imposed on it from Moscow, while the populace was still suffering food shortages and severe economic hardships as a result of the earlier Stalinist economic policies, industrial and building workers were goaded into protest by the news that their production “norms” would be raised by a further 10 percent. The demonstrations that began on the Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin were echoed across East Germany. According to official estimates some 300,000 workers were involved before the revolt was finally crushed with the help of Soviet tanks. June 17 was the high point of the rising. A fortnight later, in Bonn, both the ruling conservative-liberal coalition and the opposition Social Democrats brought motions before the West German parliament proposing that June 17 should henceforth be a national holiday—“the German national holiday,” said the Social Democrats’ motion.
And so it became. The holiday was called “The Day of German Unity.” Every year there was a ceremonial speech in the West German parliament, which is still officially called “the German Bundestag.” The major parties took turns to invite the speaker. In recent years these ceremonies had perhaps become a little routine, although former Federal President Walter Scheel’s attempt last year to provide a universally acceptable interpretation of Deutschlandpolitik attracted some attention—if not universal acceptance.
Fritz Stern was invited by the Social Democrats. He is the first foreigner to have been asked to address the Bundestag on this solemn occasion. The word “foreigner” seems not entirely adequate for someone who—as he mentions in the speech—was born and grew up in German Breslau (now Polish Wroclaw), and fled Germany for the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews. Nonetheless, this was, uniquely, an American historian speaking in the German Bundestag, on “The Day of German Unity.” In the light of recent developments in West Germany the combination of these three ingredients—June 17, historian, American—was always likely to be explosive. The gradual but striking improvement in relations between the two German states—dramatically symbolized by Erich Honecker’s recent visit to West Germany—has once again raised in an acute form the question of what the Federal Republic’s line on “reunification” should actually be, and what, therefore, the June 17 holiday should be taken to “mean.” German historians have recently been tearing each other apart in a “Historikerstreit,”2 which is more about the present than about the past. Both arguments are bound up with the equally thorny question of the Federal Republic’s relationship with the United States or, more accurately perhaps,of the United States’ treatment of the Federal Republic—from Bitburg to the controversies over the installation and now the proposed withdrawal of Cruise and Pershing II missiles.
Two simple sentences in Professor Stern’s speech aroused fierce reactions: “It was not an uprising for reunification,” and “An undivided Germany brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself.” Both judgments, particularly in this apothegmatic form, might rationally be questioned. Although the June 17 rising started out as a protest against social and economic hardship and injustice, the demonstrators fairly soon started demanding “free elections” (which, it might be argued, if genuinely free, would surely have led to reunification). And some demonstrators, at least, ended up singing the “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” Although there must be very few Americans, or Britons, or French, or Belgians, or Dutch, let alone Czechs or Poles or Russians or Jews, who would argue with the second judgment, the apparent implication that it was the “undividedness” of Germany that was the key to this misfortune, and the further possible implication that keeping Germany divided is the best way to prevent the recurrence of such misfortune (as Professor Stern did not explicitly argue, but others have)—these implications may fairly be questioned, and indeed are questioned, not just by Germans but also by Poles and Czechs and Britons and Americans.
Nonetheless, these rational objections hardly explain the vehemence and—one is bound to say—the venom of some of the reaction to Professor Stern’s remarks. Such reaction was best followed in the pages of the highly respected and serious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (the “FAZ”), which is—almost—to the West German political establishment what the London Times once was to the British. It started with an editorial declaring that the issue of German unity is once more on the table, that it must be discussed, otherwise Gorbachev will catch us unawares by playing his German card, and it added, en passant, in the rather convoluted style characteristic of the FAZ:
It hardly matters that in the German Bundestag this year’s official speaker, who came from the United States, tried desperately to divert attention from it [i.e. the question of German unity], although on this day and in this place that was scandalous.
Subsequent readers’ letters accused Professor Stern of “historical ignorance” and “anti-German manipulative designs” (anti-deutsche Manipulationsabsichten), and even suggested that the fact that Chancellor Kohl applauded at the end of Professor Stern’s speech is an indication of how the Federal Republic has become a “satellite” (of the United States). To be fair, these statements were partly answered by other readers’ letters: for example, a member of the Bundestag wrote to say that no June 17 speech had impressed him more than Stern’s, and strongly objected to the shabby way in which Stern, without being named, was referred to in the editorial as simply one “who came from the United States”—as if that fact in itself somehow disqualified him.
Reactions like this prompted Theo Sommer, the editor of the leading left-liberal weekly Die Zeit, to write a major article frankly endorsing the main arguments of Stern’s speech, and identifying the exaggerated reactions as symptoms of a “deep identity crisis” in West Germany. “So what’s new?” you might ask. “Germans Worried About Identity” is a headline that could truly have been written at any time over the last forty years—if not one hundred and forty. Indeed, it is quite difficult to say what precisely is new in all these recent discussions. Often it seems more a matter of tone than of content, of rhetoric rather than of policy. But somewhere near the heart of the matter there is surely an intensification of what Sommer describes as “the unresolved conflict between the aspiration to German unity and West European integration.” Further measures of practical, realistic Deutschlandpolitik may moderate the conflict, but it would be foolish to believe that, for the foreseeable future, they can finally resolve it. Yet one powerful aid to coping successfully with that irreducible part of the conflict might perhaps be a clearer memory, a richer appreciation, even a more conscious carrying forward, of that specific tradition of freedom—at once authentically German, unmistakably European, and indubitably Western—that Fritz Stern so vividly evokes in this speech.
THE SPEECH TO THE BUNDESTAG
Three years ago, Federal Minister Gerhard Schröder spoke on this occasion of an “understandable reluctance to speak openly and without embarrassment on this day.” There were, so he said, among the invitees those who willingly accepted, and many who, having half-accepted, sent their regrets. I also feel this reluctance.
This holiday commemorates victims of German history whose memory should be neither forgotten nor misused. In the course of time, each great event is interpreted anew: our historical perspective changes and, with it, our understanding. That is also true for the 17th of June: our assessment of it has fundamentally changed in German postwar history. The holiday touches on taboos, in which German history is rich, on historical processes that remain unclear or repressed. It was established in the time of the cold war; today it honors the victims, and their demands, and reminds us of changes in consciousness and in politics, but also of the power and duration of the purely provisional.
You also think today of the division of Germany. I come from a Germany that no longer exists and that will never exist again. In the fall of 1938—I was twelve years old—my parents and I left their old home of Breslau, not voluntarily but under duress, and at the last minute. My political education had begun during the previous five years, when I lived under National Socialism; it was continued in a free America. Persecution and loss, the survivor’s feelings of accidental good fortune and guilt, are not unknown to me. Experiences that, in my youth, were not unusual have nevertheless marked my life extensively, and my professional work as well. I experienced the unique contradictoriness of German history, and as a historian I have tried to understand that contradictoriness in the context of Europe’s development. In your invitation and in my presence there remains much that is unarticulated; it cannot be otherwise.
Driven from Breslau—at a time when no one could have imagined the later sequence of horrors, including the flight of Silesians as Poles, themselves expelled from former Polish lands by the Soviets, took possession of the eastern provinces at the end of the war—I had many dreams and hopes; but I doubt that it would have occurred to me that I would one day address a German parliament, particularly this great House. It is one of the towering achievements of the Federal Republic that Germany’s ancient antiparliamentarianism has been overcome, that today—for the first time in German history—it is generally accepted that, all practical criticism notwithstanding, a freely elected parliament is an indispensable component of a free polity.
Today is no easy holiday—just as there has scarcely ever been an uncomplicated national holiday in German history. You commemorate the victims of the day on which hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets to resist an ever harsher exploitation by an insecure and impoverished Stalinist regime. Herbert Wehner, a leading figure in the Socialist Party—and before that a longtime Communist—in his speech of July 1, 1953, as the establishment of this holiday was being debated in this House, said:
I found it deeply stirring that over and over again the cry arose: We are workers and not slaves! What consciousness of human dignity, what consciousness of their caste!
Perhaps some of you are also mindful that the people of the German Democratic Republic have had a much harder life than their more fortunate compatriots in the West.
The uprising of that day must take its place in German history as one of those great moments in which people resisted violence and inhumanity. This uprising pointed to the future, even if many of the interpretations offered immediately after the event were misleading. It was not an uprising for reunification. From today’s perspective one can see that those who fought then achieved much more—of what they sought and what they could not anticipate—than could have been expected following their suppression by Soviet tanks. June 17 became the harbinger of uprisings and reforms. Peoples in the neighboring countries of the GDR—Poles, Hungarians, Czechs—attempted in their own magnificent way to realize their demands against intransigent regimes. The old Prussian saying, “Only soldiers can deal with democrats,” has proven false; instead it is Talleyrand’s pronouncement that has stood the test: “One can do everything with bayonets except sit on them.” The 17th of June began a process in which constantly reiterated demands forced reforms. The demand for justice and popular sovereignty is inextinguishable. Long ago, Thucydides said:
Mankind resents injustice more than violence, because the one seems to be an unfair advantage taken by an equal, the other is the irresistible force of a superior.
An undivided Germany brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself. Shortly after the Second World War, the German historian Ludwig Dehio wrote:
The prerequisite for any really creative German response after the period of the two World Wars is the unconditional recognition of the terrible role that we have played in this period. We were the last, and the most demonic, power to exercise hegemony over the declining old continent of Europe.
We know of the cruel acts committed in that epoch by Germans and upon Germans; President von Weizsäcker, in his speech of May 8, 1985, recalled the memory of those victims of National Socialism in an unsurpassable manner. I believe virtually everyone abroad received his speech with admiration and gratitude, and many of us hoped that his was the authentic voice of the Federal Republic, perhaps even of the silent suprastate nation. It would be presumptuous on this day to add to that evocation or do more than express thanks, from someone who also lost close relatives at Auschwitz.
The uprising in June 1953 belongs to the ever nascent demand of Germans for freedom. In the early nineteenth century, it was the great poets and writers who carried this appeal for freedom to the public and who aroused enthusiasm for it. This struggle has been neglected in historical consciousness and it is, I think, an until-now unnoticed and for me, therefore, an all the more welcome coincidence that on this very day, June 17, in the year 1810, the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath was born, the first German poet to address the working class, the class that had the courage to revolt on June 17, 1953:
We are strength! We hammer anew
poemtab that old,
rotten thing, the state,
we, who of God’s wrath, are as yet
Freiligrath’s life reminds us that for both German states there is one German past that, if not distorted by official dogmas, could contribute to a common self-understanding. And his work had a unique meaning to the German struggle for freedom. In today’s divided nation—divided also in his time—he is often cited and seldom read, but more than almost anyone else he offers himself as a kind of witness to the meaning of the 17th of June. He dedicated the most important part of his life to the victims of his time, and we encounter themes in his work that occupy us even today. In the 1830s and 1840s, as the great poets Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne, and Georg Büchner became radical opponents of reactionary Prussia, Freiligrath also found his way to political engagement. The tension between the life of the spirit and the life of politics, between the freedom necessary to the thinker and poet and the common struggle for freedom—all this we find in Freiligrath, just as we later find it in Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and others. In all his complexity he was a representative figure of German history—with special relevance for the present.
Freiligrath’s father was an impoverished teacher; the family’s penury forced Freiligrath at the age of fifteen to earn his livelihood as an apprentice in a banking and mercantile business. But as a young man he discovered his creative gift and began to publish his first poems—mostly about exotic and imaginary places. Thus began a career that intermittently—to his chagrin—combined commerce and poetry. By the time he was twenty-five, he had an established reputation as a poet; he also became an avid translator of French and Anglo-American verse. He had a particular passion for Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, and even more for Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Walt Whitman. His translations attest to the then still unquestioned commonality of European culture and anticipated the deep ties of American culture to European life. A sense of nationality ran strong in those years that was not yet disfigured by a narrow nationalism. The intellectual and political borders were open. France held a particular attraction for radical thinkers, a France that was liberating itself; and many had a special enthusiasm for Napoleon, for the self-crowned genius of the nineteenth century. At any rate, Heine was correct that in those years it was not national differences but the difference between parties and social ideas that created the true rift.
In 1842, when Friedrich Wilhelm IV, at the suggestion of Alexander von Humboldt, granted Freiligrath an annual allowance, there was great hope for the new monarch. But it was also the time of politicizing the German spirit; liberal and radical parties and journals were attacking political subservience and social injustices. At first Freiligrath rejected the thought of political engagement, and this brought him into vehement disagreement with the radical poets. But his works were representative of a lasting attitude in Germany. “The poet,” so he wrote,
stands atop a loftier post
than the party’s battlements.
But ever greater repression and a strict censorship, which caused two of his poems to be banned, shook Freiligrath’s apolitical attitude. From a third poem he was forced to eliminate two lines referring to a tormented Poland, lines that the censors rightly regarded as hostile to Prussia’s reactionary friend, Russia:
Before our eyes the vulture of the
plucked the rose of Poland,
wildly, to bits.
In 1844 Freiligrath joined with the poets and writers who were attacking social and political injustices. He gave up the royal allowance and published his “Creed.” This described his political education and his advance to political consciousness as a kind of schooling that
the nation as a whole, in its struggle for political consciousness and political development, had to pass through and, in part, is still passing through…. Firmly and unshakeably I join the side of those who set their heads and hearts against [all that goes by the name of] reaction. For me there is no more life without freedom.
p class=”initial”>In retrospect we see that Freiligrath’s “Creed” appeared in a historically significant year: a short time before this, Silesian weavers had attempted an uprising to bring an end to their misery. In January 1844 Heine’s “Germany: A Winter’s Tale” appeared, a poem of disillusioned love of homeland and hatred for repression of all freedoms. And how fiercely Heine castigated the Prussian state and particularly its censors, the Prussian customs officials on the border, for the wall that then existed between freedom and the fearful state:
They sniffed through everything,
Through shirts and shorts for hidden
Needle-point laces and undeclared
And for books that were forbidden.
You fools, to search for them in my
There everything’s law-abiding!
I take contraband along with me
But it’s in my head it’s hiding.
I’ve needle-points finer than Brussels’
Enough to needle-and-pin you,
And once my points are bared to
You’ll feel them sticking in you.
The people enjoyed real freedom of
The masses’ rights were respected;
The few who insisted on publishing
Were the only ones affected.3
Heine’s and Freiligrath’s books were immediately banned. In the same year, Karl Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts with the famous words:
Let us assume man to be man, and his relationship to the world a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust.
All of these works were still a sign of confidence, of a universal European hope for emancipation. People still believed in the power of the spirit to fulfill the hopes of the oppressed. Women, workers, Jews, all were to be liberated and emancipated. “Assume man to be man.” The battle between reaction and opposition was a hard one. There existed an excellent radical and liberal press, threatened but never totally conquered by government force. Freiligrath left Germany in 1844, giving up the prospect of financial security, and went into exile, at first in Belgium. In February 1845 he met Marx; a temporary, close friendship began. From Belgium he emigrated to Switzerland, then to England; from England, where he lived in poverty, he almost went to America.
For many Germans in the 1830s and 1840s exile was not unusual. It was an often painful but also inspired flight to freedom. Exile is usually an uncertain state, a borderline situation between an alien country and a forbidding homeland, as Paul Tillich once defined it, between love and hatred of fatherland; also, new worries, the loss of one’s mother tongue and community, often feuds with fellow exiles. In a certain sense, Heine, Börne, Marx, Freiligrath, and many others were all troubled “guest workers.”
But in those days emigration was also something splendid, something wholly European: the right of freedom of movement, the right of asylum, though never absolute, were still counted on by those in the opposition. Without this almost generally accepted freedom of movement, Marx could never have worked out his life in exile—a legacy of Marx’s life that should be remembered today.
Emigration was also dominated by an almost intoxicating hope for freedom, social justice, a burning hatred of any instrument of oppression, whether it be called state, nobility, Church, or censorship. Taking part in this emigration nurtured a pure patriotism. When Heine was criticized as a “nest-fouler” at that time—as well as later—he could respond:
Calm yourselves: I love the fatherland as much as you do. Because of this love I have lived in exile for thirteen years, and because of this same love I return to exile, perhaps forever, in any case without whining or screwing my face into martyred grimaces.
These emigrants took a special path (Sonderweg) in the hope that their own country would emulate the liberal states of Western Europe.
Freiligrath became increasingly radical in exile. He was surely the first poet to write admiringly about the worker solely from direct feeling, without relying on ritual slogans. In 1846 his poem “Up from Below” appeared, describing the ship that carried the King of Prussia to his fortress on the Rhine, a ship whose power came from below:
There works in soot and burning
heat the soul
of all this splendor;
there he stands and stokes and runs
the proletarian machinist.
For Freiligrath, as for many others, the Revolution of 1848—it, too, a European event—was an irresistible call to return from exile. In that springtime of nations, as it has been called, when radical opponents threatened or toppled reactionary regimes almost everywhere in Europe, the hopes for a liberal unification of a divided Germany ran high. Freiligrath’s best poems date from this period—when the entire opposition was inspirited by hope. He saw himself as a scribe of greater forces: “History writes the poems—the demos write the poems.”
In July 1848 appeared his most famous poem, “The Dead to the Living,” an admonition to keep memory alive. It is a timeless poem, and has particular resonance for the 17th of June:
The anger must remain with you—
who are dead
It stayed with you! yes, and it
It shall and must awaken!
To make a half revolt a whole!
It awaits the moment: and then will
The thrones go up in flames, the
flee to the sea!
The eagles flee; the lions flee; the
and also the bite!—
And its future is shaped by the
He addresses those who sacrificed their lives with the words: “You victorious in defeat!” The fight for freedom in 1848 was not in vain—it was not in vain in 1953—but was both warning and admonition: a warning to the oppressive power, an admonition to the survivors. The pathos in Freiligrath’s verse may put us off, and it may be fair to say, as a recent writer has put it, “Freiligrath was more a versifier than a poet.” Politically he was important and celebrated, and his evocation of those “victorious in defeat” can touch us with his sense of commitment even now. The poem became an immediate sensation and the poet, drifting no longer, joined the staff of the radical Neue Rheinische Zeitung and became a member of the Communist League. By the fall of 1848, the revolution was everywhere in retreat; Freiligrath’s hopes faded. On the occasion of the decisive hour of the Revolution in Vienna, he wrote:
If we could still kneel, we would be
on our knees;
If we could still pray, we would pray
But the reaction triumphed everywhere and Freiligrath, notorious as the “trumpeter of the Revolution,” was held in Prussian custody for a month for “inciting to riot.” In what probably was the first political trial in Prussia before a jury, and supported by much of the populace, he was set free. A year later he again faced arrest and fled to Holland; turned away there, he returned to Prussia, disguised as a sailor, and in—by today’s standards—a mild climate, he found it possible to live openly and yet at times serve the remaining underground as a kind of courier.
In 1851, threatened by two Prussian warrants of arrest, he decided to return to exile for good. He fled to England, where he had great difficulty finding a job. At first he remained on friendly terms with Marx and lent him money, Marx being constantly in financial difficulties. Life was not easy for Freiligrath. He bemoaned his “unbearable amphibian existence, half clerk, half writer.”
Life among exiles in the 1850s was even more divisive than it had been before the revolution. In his heart, Marx broke with Freiligrath because of a poem Freiligrath wrote in 1858 on the occasion of the burial of the poet Gottfried Kinkel’s wife:
You lie upon this foreign bank
As if felled by enemy fire;
a battlefield is exile, too—
On it you fell,
your eyes held fast one single goal.
The single one for us all.
Exile truly was a battlefield. Marx detested Kinkel personally and politically; it made no difference to him that during the revolution Kinkel had been sentenced to death as a liberal fighter, saved only by being rescued from prison. Marx hated him as a “bourgeois” poet, a “vulgar democrat,” who had become a kind of cult figure in London exile life. In his letters to Engels, Marx reviled Kinkel—and eventually Freiligrath too—in the usual scatalogical terms.
Marx was uncompromisingly dogmatic, and his polemical intolerance has created havoc in the movements that still claim his name today. In 1860, when Marx was involved in a legal suit in which he wanted Freiligrath’s testimony, there was a further contretemps, yet another disagreement. Marx attempted both to bully and to flatter Freiligrath. He threatened him with barely disguised blackmail; “on the other hand,” he wrote, “I will say to you frankly that I cannot make the decision to lose one of the few men I have loved as friends, in the highest sense of the word, due to irrelevant misunderstandings.” (At the same time, in his letters to Engels, he referred to Freiligrath as “the fat philistine.”)
The break was irreparable—and was sealed in the final phase of Freiligrath’s life. When Freiligrath, who had become an English citizen, lost his job in a bank in 1865, a group of German, English, and American supporters collected the considerable sum of 60,000 taler as a donation to the poet. Freiligrath then returned to Germany; he never made his peace with the victorious Bismarck, but he briefly yielded to the fervor that gripped most Germans during the Franco-Prussian War. At the end of July 1870, after the war with France had broken out, he wrote “Hurrah, Germania” and followed this with a few other patriotic effusions. But his elation soon faded and he reproached a cheerfully chauvinistic poet with the statement, “Humanity over patriotism!” He died on March 18, 1876, the anniversary of the Berlin Revolution of 1848, which he had always celebrated.
The 17th of June, 1953, produced no Freiligrath; only the characteristically ambiguous Bertolt Brecht, who wrote a poem, published only a few years later, entitled “The Solution”:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalin-
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it
not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
By his political poetry, by the personal risks he took, Freiligrath won a place among those who fought injustice. His life reflected German history when that country’s spirit—among some of its leading citizens—was open, optimistic, European. In the beginning he belonged to European Romanticism; he made his way to politics by means of ideas rooted in the Enlightenment and inspired by his outrage at contemporary social injustice. He believed that spiritual forces had to be joined with political forces in order to create a new Germany. He belonged to that generation of poets and writers of which Shelley said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
In the days before the 1848 Revolution, poets and writers aroused popular passion for humane goals. The defeat of 1848 brought about a new sobriety: many thought that spirit and politics were separate realms, and a new style, so-called Realpolitik—came to dominate. The liberal bourgeois contribution to the founding of the Reich in 1871 was deliberately covered up under an exultant celebration of military triumph and military prestige. After Bismarck’s dismissal of the liberals, Realpolitik became a politics of power and, worse yet, of prestige; and the German spirit, so eminent in so many activities, retreated further and further from politics. The apolitical came to be venerated, and yet contributed to the uncritical servility toward the state, often determined by class attitudes, that burdened the country—a newly unified country already being redivided under Bismarck by yet more internal differences. One thinks of the Kulturkampf—the struggle under Bismarck between the state and the Catholic Church—and his outlawing of the Socialists. The nation that once had identified itself as a Kulturnation turned into a dangerous and endangered political power. In December 1870, at a time of understandable exultation over victory in a nation often defeated in the past, Nietzsche already perceived the internal threat:
My sympathy for the present German war of conquest is gradually waning. The future of our German culture appears to me more endangered than ever.
Carlo Schmid, one of the great figures of German Social Democracy after 1945, once noted that in great moments of history, politics was always the “extension or the mirror of the great battle of ideas.” But there were regimes, and there are regimes still today, in which the battles of ideas could be waged only under most extreme difficulties. During the Third Reich many spoke of an “inner emigration,” of a withdrawal from poisoned public life, a withdrawal often involving material sacrifice as well as personal danger.
In a free state such as the Federal Republic this type of emigration, if it leads to categorical withdrawal, is dangerous: the spirit cannot be principally and constantly apolitical; it must also inform the citizen and play a challenging, critical, uncomfortable role. We must be grateful that the Basic Law of the Federal Republic—in imitation of much older constitutions—guarantees protection for all opinions, and therefore to those often perceived as public nuisances.
To recall the first years of the Federal Republic—to remember Theodor Heuss, for example—is to remind oneself that intellectual and moral authority can have a decisive bearing on political development; certainly this was true of the founding of the Federal Republic after the moral devastation of National Socialism. Today, by contrast, many countries are threatened by provincialism, by a spiritual narrow-mindedness that, in the end, can also engender a dangerous ennui or national sullenness. A society that exists solely in prosperity does not live well; there are too many injustices for that.
It is an understandable paradox of human nature that in states that are not free, human rights are often valued more highly than in states where rights are anchored in a constitution and a free judicial system. On this day we should honor the clear, courageous voices from the other German state that demand human dignity and human rights. These voices often come from the Church, a Church for which the teachings and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are still very much alive; and this name alone is a reminder of the victims of another never-to-be-forgotten moment of German resistance. In the countries of repression, of official subjugation, there is a kind of personal and also political solidarity that is bound up with danger, but that also has something that is humanly enriching. I believe that there are many in the GDR who, quietly, keep alive the meaning of the 17th of June. They deserve our respect.
It is not for a foreigner to judge the present relations between the two German states. To explore the possibility of greater closeness, of greater commonality, is a process whose outcome is uncertain, a process that is not only dependent on the wills of the two states. One hopes that the Federal Republic will never forget that history has sentenced it to be a model of a liberal polity: in order to preserve itself, to honor the victims of the past, and to give hope to people in the other Germany. The Federal Republic also bears the quiet responsibility of doing everything possible to lighten the load of those others, to defend and strengthen human rights.
The outside world looks at the Federal Republic with respect, even with a certain fearful admiration: the developments of the last forty years have evoked the respect of former times, admiration for German achievements in culture, science, technology; and yet, for all the Federal Republic’s steadfastness and skills, there remains a trace of worry about this land, about its power and its political responsibility. Today, for example, people abroad are following the intense debate about the German past that is now taking place; they see it as a kind of seismograph of German consciousness in general. The temptation to unburden oneself is great, as was already recognized by Nietzsche: “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields. “Restless Germans” trouble the world; just as an anxious world that can never completely free itself of memories of the perversion of great German achievements through technically organized barbarism arouses worry, distrust, and impatience in you.
This unease concerning the political capacities of the Germans is, by the way, not entertained solely by those abroad. Nietzsche mentioned “the deep, icy distrust that the German arouses as soon as he comes to power.” Bismarck was full of distrust of his own people, Konrad Adenauer was hardly confident of the political reason or maturity of the Germans, and Helmut Schmidt, in his farewell address before this House, issued a warning:
We Germans remain an endangered people in need of political orientation. The pain of partition always brings with it the danger that the German tendency to emotional excess, which has always existed, will break through in a dangerous way. Because of this, we Germans are in need of judicious reason.
There have been many other German witnesses who worried about the political capacity of their people; one need only think of Max Weber or Thomas Mann. Respect for German competence and achievement on the one hand, an easily evoked unease about German strength on the other: one cannot blame German patriots or foreigners for these impressions.
The uprising of June 17th was an uprising for a better, a freer life. From our vantage point, I believe it would be false to maintain that this uprising has not achieved some success. The Federal Republic itself has contributed to making the life of the people of the GDR somewhat easier, and it will continue to respect this obligation. The most important progress in this regard has to do with human rights, with freedom of movement, with true openness. The Federal Republic has also discharged its obligation arising from the 17th of June in another way. This uprising for increased humanity must be seen in the larger context of our time, as a kind of prelude to the gradual liberation of various peoples from dictatorial regimes. I am thinking here of the liberation of Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The Federal Republic played a benevolent role in the happy, unforeseen transition from dictatorship to democracy in those countries. The events in Spain had their echo in the struggle for liberation in Poland. We should remember, despite our warranted mood of crisis, that Europe today enjoys more freedom than it has for a long time—and freedom is wonderfully seductive!
And yet there are signs of discontent and mistrust, particularly in the Federal Republic. An enticing wind from the East comes at a time of disillusionment with the West, which for some has become a source of disenchantment. The US is going through a new public crisis, is being underestimated—just as, or perhaps because, it was previously overestimated. I’m not talking about the ritualistic invocations of the Atlantic alliance, about relations between governments that remain close. I am talking about the political consciousness of the Federal Republic, about the spontaneous feeling of solidarity with the West. There exists a culture that can properly be called European and that has always been recognized, particularly from an American perspective. This consciousness of a common European culture, one hopes, will contribute to overcoming the politically conditioned alienation within Europe.
But one needs to remember that there is also a common political culture of the West, where values of a free and pluralistic society are anchored constitutionally. This political culture, which had already established itself in eighteenth-century America, is far from a state of perfection; the dangers and existing injustice are grievous. But this political culture, in its openness to reform, to change within recognized, democratic rules, is more resourceful than the system that believes that perfection is to be attained through dogma and party superiority.
It is in the West—following terrible sacrifices—that the hopes of the young Marx are most likely to be realized. I believe that the anti-Western sentiment, so deeply nestled in the German soul and politics of an earlier time, has largely disappeared. But it could, in the present situation, be revived—if in a new form and from opposing political sides. It is a time of dangerous disappointments and of new temptations. I believe it is the duty of the political leadership of this country—as it is in all countries—to deepen political education and the understanding of basic political values. The history of the Federal Republic marks perhaps the most successful period in modern German history; in this history the return to Europe and the reconciliation with the West—and I’m not thinking here solely of the confidence in military assistance—have played an essential role. It is a necessity for maintaining the peace and for future development, particularly with regard to the German question, that this reconciliation be upheld.
My last words—and I hope they are appropriate—should be those of Freiligrath; they are closely bound to the meaning of today’s commemoration. In February 1860 he wrote to Marx:
The party is also a cage, and one sings—even for the party—better outside it than inside. I was a poet of the proletariat and of the revolution long before I…was a member of the [Communist] League! And so I will continue to stand on my own feet, answer only to myself and plan only for myself!
On the day before he was murdered, Karl Liebknecht quoted once more from the song by Freiligrath so loved by German workers, reworked from a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns:
For a’ that and a’ that
for stupidity, trickery, and a’ that
still we know: humanity
shall remain victorious, for a’ that.
—translated by Edna McCown and the author
December 3, 1987
Some explanatory details have been incorporated in the published text for foreign readers. ↩
See Gordon Craig’s article on “The Battle of the German Historians” in The New York Review (January 15, 1987). ↩
The translations come from Hal Draper, The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version (Suhrkamp/Insel, 1982). ↩
For the revision of this speech I found Rosemary Ashton, Little Germany: Exile and Asylum in Victorian England (Oxford University Press, 1986) a useful study; see p. 92. ↩