Mister President, dear François Hollande,
Presidents of the Regional Councils, Minister-Presidents, Your Eminencies, representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities,
Mister President of the European Parliament,
Mister President of the European Commission,
Ladies and gentlemen,
and, last but not least, dear young guests,
The French lieutenant Alfred Joubaire was hardly older than you when he lay in a trench near this very spot. He wrote in his diary that “not even hell could be as horrific as this”. With these words, the young lieutenant was attempting to describe the horrors he had witnessed – they were written by a person who should have a long life before him. Only shortly afterwards, Alfred Joubaire was dead – one of the countless casualties of the battle of Verdun.
Behind us is the ossuary, which houses the mortal remains of more than 100,000 unnamed soldiers. Here, we are surrounded by an ocean of graves. To this day, the earth holds remnant bones of young Frenchmen and Germans who were robbed of their lives. The entire landscape still bears the scars of that battle. Here, history is uncomfortably close. Verdun still has us in its grip. Verdun can and must remain in our consciousness. Verdun stands for the sheer horror and senselessness of war.
At the same time, however, Verdun is a symbol of yearning for peace, of overcoming enmity, and of Franco-German reconciliation. Even in the heat of battle, there were moving and humane gestures. Wilhelm Ritter von Schramm witnessed near Verdun how German and French soldiers waved and threw rations to one another – I quote: “The French were more generous than we were. Most importantly, they handed us what we urgently needed, namely water. That’s how much fraternisation there was; it was the first fraternisation I had ever experienced, and it was not recorded in any war diary, because we made sure knowledge of this would not spread.” It is hardly possible to find a more convincing description of the absurdity of war – not only because even in the hellish environment of the battlefields of Verdun humanity could not be completely extinguished, but also because war still is possible, even though, in most people, everything bristles at the thought of it. We must always keep our eyes open for, and be alerted by, the first signs of war, so as to nip it in its bud.
After the First World War, efforts were made to create long-term peaceful coexistence in Europe. Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann, the foreign ministers of both countries, were even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 for their endeavours. And yet, in the long run, the voices advocating reason and mutual understanding were still too weak to make themselves heard. We all know well which dark years would follow. National Socialist Germany brought indescribable suffering to Europe.
After the Second World War and the Holocaust, it was more or less a miracle that the door to rapprochement and reconciliation was opened by the signing of the Élysée Treaty in 1963. The bonds of trust established by French President Charles de Gaulle and Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer are invaluable, and they have been passed down to us. More than two decades later, French President François Mitterrand and Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood, side by side and holding hands, at the graves of Verdun. This gesture says more than any words could express. It was and still is an expression of deeply-felt solidarity.
And today, again, we jointly commemorate the many who died at Verdun. All of them fell victim to the same aberrations: to bigotry and nationalism, to delusion and political failure. The best way for us to honour the memory of the victims is to time and again recall the lessons that Europe has drawn from the cataclysms of the 20th century: These are the ability and the willingness to realise how vitally important it is to not cut ourselves off, but to remain open-minded in all our encounters.
Of course, it may sometimes require great effort to extend a hand to others and to familiarise ourselves with their points of view. But only by opening up to one another can we also learn and benefit from each other. That precisely is the key to Europe’s success. It is particularly apparent these days, when we are also witnessing weaknesses in our community. Still, I maintain that the 21st-century challenges we face can only be tackled together.
With European integration, we have left behind us the trenches of enmity. We have gained peace and prosperity. We have overcome quite a number of crises during which we feared the many things we’ve accomplished through integration may forever be lost. After the recent Franco-German Council of Ministers, President François Hollande said: “We have always managed to overcome the obstacles in our path”. That is exactly why today, as well, despite numerous difficulties and setbacks, we can confidently set our sights on the future.
In the European Union, we will at times different opinions on certain issues. That is only natural. However, all sides will benefit if, in the end, we always prove that we are able to reach compromises and adopt common positions. Thinking and acting as pure nation states would set us back. We would not be able to successfully defend our values or promote our interests, neither internally nor abroad. This is true for overcoming the European sovereign-debt crisis, for dealing with the many people who have come to Europe seeking refuge, and for all other great present-day challenges.
We must visibly demonstrate on a daily basis our shared commitment to the fundamental values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. France and Germany have a special obligation to uphold these values in the heart of Europe. French and German soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder in NATO. They are also engaged in joint operations: in Mali, in the Mediterranean and as part of international coalition efforts to fight the Islamic State terrorist organisation. The Franco-German Brigade, which is participating in this commemoration ceremony, embodies our close cooperation based on trust.
Ladies and gentlemen, during the battle of Verdun, Europe’s heart appeared to stop beating. By contrast, does it not fill our hearts with joy to see how, today, on this former battlefield, so many young women and men from France and Germany have gathered as a symbol of how enmity has been overcome and replaced by the present-day friendship between our two countries? This is a place of remembrance, and at the same time it is a place of hope for a bright common future.
Dear François Hollande, I want to express my heartfelt thanks for inviting me to this joint commemoration ceremony. We in Germany were deeply touched by the French Republic’s invitation to share a moment of remembrance at this historically significant and highly symbolic site. Three flags fly over this memorial: the French Tricolour; the German black, red and gold; and our common European flag. We are no longer separated by trenches. As friends, we together commemorate the past and jointly shape our future. Luckily, we now stand united. May this never change.