ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders met in Gdansk, Poland, to commemorate the German invasion that began exactly seventy years before, touching off the Second World War in Europe. Merkel’s speech received an extremely positive response and was widely quoted in the press. Since I wanted to post her comments here to show just how far Europe has come since then, I searched for the text online and was surprised that there is still no official English translation of the entire speech. So I went ahead and translated it myself and have posted it here for free distribution.
The German attack on Poland seventy years ago today marked the beginning of the most tragic chapter in European history. The war Germany unleashed brought immeasurable suffering to many peoples – years of oppression, humiliation, and destruction.
No country has ever suffered as much suffering in its history as Poland under German occupation.
Particularly in this dark time, which we are talking about today, the country was laid waste. Towns and villages were destroyed. After the crushing of the uprising of 1944, no stone was left standing in the capital. Random cruelty and violence permeated everyday life. Scarcely a single Polish family remained untouched by it.
Here at the Westerplatte, as the Chancellor of Germany, I commemorate all Poles who were subjected to unspeakable suffering due to the crimes of the German occupiers.
The horrors of the twentieth century culminated in the Holocaust, the systematic persecution and murder of the European Jews.
I commemorate the six million Jews and all others who suffered a cruel death in German concentration and extermination camps.
I commemorate the many millions of people who lost their lives in battle and in the resistance struggle against Germany.
I commemorate all those who died in innocence as the result of hunger, cold, illness, the violence of war, and its consequences.
I commemorate the sixty million people who lost their lives because of this war that was unleashed by Germany.
There are no words that could even come close to describing the suffering of this war and the Holocaust.
I bow my head before the victims.
We know that we cannot undo the atrocities of the Second World War. The scars will remain forever visible. But we have our own task: to shape the future in the consciousness of our enduring responsibility.
In this spirit, Europe has transformed itself from a continent of horror and violence into a continent of freedom and peace. That this has been possible is nothing more nor less than a miracle.
In the process, we Germans have never forgotten this: That Germany’s partners in the East and West have smoothed this path through a willingness for reconciliation. They have extended the hand of reconciliation to us Germans. We have clasped it in gratitude.
Yes, it is a miracle that in this year we need not only think back to the abysses of European history seventy years ago. It is a miracle that we can also think of the happy days that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the unity of Europe twenty years ago. After all, Europe’s path to freedom was only made complete with the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Back then, in the tradition of Solidarnosc in Poland, people everywhere courageously pushed open the gate to freedom. We Germans will never forget
- the role played by our friends in Poland, Hungary, and former Czechoslovakia,
- the role played by Mikhail Gorbachev and our Western partners and allies,
- and the role of the moral power of truth that no one embodied more convincingly and credibly than Pope John Paul II.
It was thus also an issue of Germany’s special responsibility to smooth the path of Poland and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the European Union and NATO, and to stand alongside them.
Yes, it is a miracle, it is a blessing, that we Europeans can today live in freedom and peace. Nothing symbolizes the difference to 1939 better than the close, trusting cooperation between Germany and Poland and the multitude of friendly relations between our two countries.
The unity of Europe and Germany’s friendship with its neighbors owes its strength to the fact that we face our history. The chairmen of the German and Polish Bishops Conferences summed this up in their recently published statement on today’s anniversary. I quote:
”Together we must look to the future, which we would like to approach without ignoring or playing down the historical truth in all its aspects.”
When, in my country, we today also recall the fate of the Germans who lost their home regions as a result of the war, then we always do so in the spirit described by the bishops. We do it in awareness of Germany’s responsibility, with which everything began. We do it without trying to rewrite anything in Germany’s enduring historical responsibility. This will never happen.
And it is precisely in this awareness that today – seventy years later – I have come to Gdansk. To this once sorely afflicted, but now gloriously restored city.
Mr. President, Mr. Minister President, your invitation to me to attend today’s commemoration as Germany’s Federal Chancellor touches me deeply.
I understand this as a sign of our trusting neighborliness, our close partnership, and the true friendship between our two countries, between the people of Germany and Poland. I would like to express my profound thanks!