In 1978, during a journey to the former Soviet Union, I met a World War veteran of the Soviet Army for the first time in my life. We visited a dam with an electric power station in the Ukraine, there he showed me – in his army uniform with numerous medals – the museum, which documented the construction of the dam. At that time he was already an old man whose son had died in the war against the Germans.
Although Hitler’s Germany had covered his country with a campaign of annihilation unprecedented in this dimension, he did not hold a grudge, anger or hatred against me, but met me with great warmth. To him I was a young German who was not directly responsible for the crimes of the fathers. This touched me deeply, for it showed me what strength can grow out from reconciliation and forgiveness.
The Second World War cost the lives of more than 60 million people and was the cruellest in the history of mankind. Now, when the end of this war in Europe is celebrated for the 75th time on 8 May, the commemoration will be very different from what was planned – without official events such as the commemoration of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, without the state act planned by Federal President Steinmeier in Berlin and without the traditional military parade in Moscow. And in Asia, too, where the war did not end until September 2, 1945 with the capitulation of Japan and left no less terrible traces, there will be no commemorative events.
We have an enduring moral and political commitment
Today the world is once again threatened in its entirety. This time, everyone has a common enemy in the Corona pandemic. It is not war we are facing, but it is a threat for all of us. And it is a challenge. But despite this current challenge, we should take a moment and remember why commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is so extremely important right now: It remains our task and responsibility to commemorate the unprecedented crimes of the National Socialist tyranny that came to an end at that time. The German campaign of annihilation and the Holocaust were a crime against humanity beyond human imagination. Never before has there been such a deep rift in European cultural history.
My generation grew up in the shadow of this war: my family only found the grave of my father, who fell as a soldier in Romania, about 20 years ago. I was born a year before the end of the war and never got to know my father. When we keep the memory of this war alive, we do so not out of nostalgia, but because a lasting moral and political obligation has arisen from this terrible crime. The democratic Germany must not allow injustice and violence, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia to ever have another chance.
In 2004 and 2005, as Chancellor, I participated in commemorative events such as the 60th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied landing in Normandy –, the commemoration of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, and last but not least the parade in Moscow to celebrate the official end of the war. At that time, 15 years ago, more contemporary witnesses of the war were alive than today. For some of them and for parts of the political class and the media in these countries, the participation of a German chancellor in these commemorative events was not a matter of normality yet. It became very clear: The wounds of the war had not yet healed.
Germany can and must assume more responsibility
But a lot of positive things have developed in the past 75 years: Franco-German relationship has grown from open hostility into a fundamental friendship, being for decades the core element of a united and free Europe, also the formation of the transatlantic partnership as well as reconciliation with Russia. These positive developments are reasons for me to envision a great opportunity in today’s crisis, marked by the global spread of the corona virus. Nowadays Germany, economically and politically the strongest country in the centre of Europe, has to assume even greater responsibility to help our continent grow together as well as helping the poor and particularly affected countries globally. We all have the responsibility to rise up to this challenge.
Long-term aid for the suffering neighbouring countries and their populations is a matter of urgency: Italy and Spain have been hit particularly hard by this pandemic through no fault of their own. The consequences are devastating. If there is one country that should be sympathetic to pan-European reconstruction after an existential crisis, it is Germany: we were helped back on our feet after the Second World War, although it was us being the cause of this terrible war.
In these times, marked by national egoisms and a return of nationalism, this 75th anniversary reminds us to learn from past experiences. Therefore we should overcome barriers, let hostilities rest and develop partnerships. For together will we be able to overcome the economic crisis that now lies ahead of us. The USA is and will of course remain an important partner, even though the current president is a burden on international relations.
Intensifying cooperation with Russia and China
We should also deepen our cooperation with other states. Russia is an important partner for Europe not only for political reasons. We need the mineral resources that the country has in large quantities. This applies above all to rare earth elements, but also to natural gas and oil, which we will need in the coming decades until a climate-neutral European economy is achieved in 2050. Russia is also an important market for technological products from Europe. So it is time for us to end the sanctions against the country. These sanctions are not working. The commemoration of the end of the war reminds us that we Germans in particular must have a great interest in good relations with Russia.
This also applies to China. Europe must not allow itself to be drawn into a trade conflict between the USA and China. That would be a serious mistake for both economic and political reasons. Of course, Europe must ensure its self-sufficiency, for example in personal protective equipment in health care. We must also safeguard our interests in the field of digital security and the protection of intellectual property. This does not, however, argue against closer cooperation with China and its technology companies. We should not close ourselves off, but rather allow investments for mutual benefit. This also applies to the expansion of the 5G mobile communications standard. It is now important to conclude the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, so that fair market access is made possible for both sides.
This pandemic is a challenge that no country in the world can meet alone. Only in working side by side and in a strong sense of togetherness can we defeat the virus. By exchanging sound knowledge about its origin, sharing research findings on an effective vaccine and making these findings available to the poorest countries and their inhabitants as well. In this sense I hope and I do expect that this global crisis will lead us all to think anew and out of the box: We should recognise that we can only succeed together. This does not only apply to the fight against the corona pandemic, but also to the commonly important topic of solving climate change as well as to tackling other vital global problems. Instead of a growing desire for confrontation, we need more cooperation in international relations. This should be our guideline for the future while we remember the victims of the Second World War and their great sacrifices.