Remarks by German Deputy Director Brig. Gen. (ret.) Johann Berger
and Garmisch Mayor Dr. Sigrid Meierhofer at the Day of German Unity Celebration
George C. Marshall European Center German Deputy Director Brig. Gen. (ret.) Johann Berger and Garmisch Partenkirchen MayorDr. Sigrid Meierhofer delivered the following remarks at the Day of German Unity Celebration in the Garmisch Partenkirchen Kongresshaus, Oct. 3, 2016.
Berger and Meierhofer spoke in German and their remarks were translated by the George C. Marshall European Center.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, guests of honor, citizens from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and adjoining municipalities, tourists from far and wide, friends from all over the world, American friends and neighbors, and friends of the Marshall Center.
This year we are commemorating Germany´s reunification for the 26th time, which means that last year we celebrated the Day of German Unity as a quarter-century event.
This is the reason why this year we made a conscious choice to break from tradition and not celebrate in the Kongresshaus with invited guests only.
After a quarter of a century we no longer want to confine ourselves to reflecting on Germany´s difficult history and the political, historic and constitutional implications surrounding this day with an intellectually interested audience.
Rather, just like many other states in the world, we would like to celebrate this day with the entire population as well as with our guests as a national day of joy. We want you to enjoy this day with pride and without self-recrimination about the dark periods in our past, and with a feeling of gratitude for all those people that have helped provide a life in peace, freedom and prosperity.
The 3rd of October being the Day of German Unity is the national holiday per se for the Germans, a novelty in German history. It is the central national celebration of all Germans.
It is like the 14th of July for the French, the day that commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, or the 4th of July for the Americans, the day that commemorates the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Such a national day had not existed in Germany before.
The history of German national holidays is different in many ways as compared with the aforementioned national holidays.
For instance, before the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, the individual states commemorated primarily various coronation days.
Then, in recognition of the Battle of Sedan of the Franco-Prussian War, when the French surrendered in 1870, many Germans celebrated ‟Sedantag” on the 2nd of September.
On 31 July 1919 the Weimar Constitution was adopted, and the 11th of August was celebrated as national holiday to commemorate this event.
In 1934, after the NSDAP seized power, the 1st of May was established as national holiday.
From 1954 to 1990, the 17th of June was an official holiday in the Federal Republic of Germany to commemorate the East German Uprising of 1953, while in East Germany the 7th of October was celebrated as national holiday to commemorate the founding day of the GDR in 1949.
Only then in 1990, the 3rd of October was declared as Day of German Unity in Article 2 of the Unification Treaty and thus became the only legal holiday established by federal law. All other holidays fall within the remit of the individual states.
So this year, the local government and the German element of the Marshall Center decided to promote the idea of a joyous public celebration of the Day of German Unity.
We would like to share this day with all of you. To emphasize the joy and happiness, we have invited the renowned Mountain Music Corps to dignify this occasion visually and especially acoustically and to accompany our brief ceremony with music. After the official part, the Egerländer Brass Band of the Mountain Music Corps will delight us with lively and cheerful music on an afternoon of fun, relaxation, and good-neighborly nice conversations in the beautiful Michael Ende Park.
But before we join the light-hearted happiness of our national day, we should take a moment and reflect on our country and, as mentioned in the beginning, on those people that we are grateful to for helping shape our fortune and prosperity.
We should be grateful to those people in the West who for decades kept their belief in reunification alive, but even more so to those in the East that risked their lives by taking to the streets and demanding freedom and finally getting it, thankfully without bloodshed.
We should be grateful to those German politicians under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl´s leadership who applied skill, patience and sound judgment to unite the two long-separated parts of Germany in a successful way.
Our special thanks go to the former leaders of world powers and of former Cold War enemy states. It was Mikhail Gorbachev, former head of state of the Soviet Union, whose policies of perestroika and glasnost recognized that suppression of a people is not a good long-term strategy.
We owe much to another statesman who contributed most to the realization of German unity and to the acceptance of a reunified Germany in the international community.
So to this day, our special thanks go to the former American President George Bush. Without him, reunification would have been very different, if at all possible.
At this point, let us not forget that after the end of the Second World War we could not have reached such a level of prosperity and status without the help of our American friends – and our center being named after George C. Marshall reflects this to a special degree. Therefore, we should not keep complaining about certainly existing differences in interests or disagreements in our transatlantic relations but we should let gratitude, fairness and justice prevail.
Finally, we should also be thankful to our country, its citizen and its politicians that we are able to enjoy a life in peace, freedom and prosperity.
Human rights, human dignity, pluralism, freedom of the press, the rule of law, social welfare benefits, functioning infrastructures, and security are often taken for granted and may even pass unnoticed while we live in excellent conditions in our country.
If people from other continents and countries of our crisis-ridden and disaster-shaken world were to hear what we rant and complain about, they´d react with incomprehension since they´d probably consider themselves very lucky to have our ‟problems” instead of the experiences and givens of their regions.
There is no doubt that there are challenges, injustices, and shortcomings in our country as well. However, in comparison to the major part of the world, we live in a dreamland, and the wonderful unspoiled nature contributes to it.
So let us enjoy this paradise with a bit more community spirit, contentedness, nonviolence, altruism, and friendship. Let us go into the future with a bit more confidence, trust, sense of responsibility, and empathy. At the same time, let us not forget that we Germans should also offer our help and support to those that are unable to overcome their predicaments and helplessness on their own.
I would like to wish you all a nice and joyful Day of German Unity. We will conclude this short ceremony with the Bavarian hymn and the German national anthem and I would kindly like to ask you to please rise.
Together with Madame Mayor Dr. Meierhofer I would like to thank you for your attention and for attending today´s celebration.”
Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. In statistical terms that means that in the meantime a whole generation has grown up in united Germany. What belongs together, has grown together, just as Willi Brandt predicted when the wall came down. He did not live to witness the process of “growing together”, but his prediction has come true. 25 years later we can say: yes, Germany has become a united and a truly reunified nation.
For us – the Marshall Center with its German element headed by General Berger and the Garmisch municipal administration – this occasion has brought the realization that the time has come when our national holiday should no longer be celebrated behind closed doors, but all citizens should join in. And I am very pleased that so many of you have accepted this invitation.
For all the ups and downs, the sometimes sad, and sometimes extremely gruesome and shameful episodes of our history - we have come to terms with the past and may now be proud of our nation and celebrate. Which is what we are doing today.
Germany has accomplished a Herculean task over the last 25 years. What we have learned this year, the 26th year of the existence of reunited Germany, is that solving domestic problems is not enough, but that our country is part of the international community and therefore also responsible for solving global problems.
Neither IS terrorism nor the influx of refugees – in part a consequence of terrorism – could be predicted, at least not the enormous scale and drastic impact. But we will have to face this challenge. Let me make one thing clear: we have a wonderful constitution that makes us the envy of many states. Article 1 is of particular importance: “Human dignity shall be inviolable”. Dignity is more than food and drink and shelter. Dignity involves respect for others. But if the rude language many people are using – and I am not talking about extremists, but about average citizens – is anything to go by, then article 1 is in danger of being undermined.
I would also like to point out article 16 of our Basic Law. It reads: “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum”. Pictures of the war in Syria and other crisis regions such as North Africa or the Middle East are shown on TV and in other media. And while they are truly gruesome, they reflect just a small part of all the horrors that people in those regions have to endure. Talking about limiting migration to 200,000 refugees per year: who is going to explain to refugee no. 200,001 from Syria who has barely escaped with his life if nothing else and who is now knocking on our door that for the time being – too bad – that door is now closed? Is that the spirit our constitution?
Of course, we here in Germany cannot carry the burden of the world’s misery on our shoulders. At the moment 65 million people worldwide are refugees. This is a problem that the international community needs to do something about. This involves asking awkward questions, about arms deliveries, export subsidies, ownership of natural resources and the responsibility for the protection of the environment. The last point has been the subject of various summits and conferences, so far, however, without much success.
At the last meeting of the association of Bavarian cities and towns in July, Dr. Gerd Müller, federal minister for economic cooperation and development, gave an impressive speech. He mentioned how important it is to differentiate between political and economic refugees. Politically persecuted persons have a right of asylum. But how can we possibly stop economic refugees when they do not even have the slightest chance of a decent life? Who risk drowning in the Mediterranean because dying from hunger in Africa is worse? Sure, among those refugees there are people who are not trying to save their lives but who are planning to commit crimes. This is a problem, true, but it can be solved by using the means available under the rule of law. And I am convinced that we will manage to do so. Reasons other than political persecution and war which make people leave their home countries can only be solved by those countries themselves. Which costs a lot of money. Including our money. Gerd Müller says: “We need to learn how to share”.
We are one of the richest countries in the world, of the world’s export champions, which means that we owe our prosperity also to those people and states that buy our goods and services. So we will have to give a certain share of the money we are making to others. Learn how to share. Not only for the sake of justice, but in order to secure peace. And one more quote by minister Müller: “If we do not solve problems where they arise, they will come to us.”
Times are changing, there is less certainty. Many people are afraid of what the future might bring. We need to reassure them, but also to admit that there are no simple solutions. We need to explain things in a way that helps stop the spread of populism. The slogan “Keep refugees out!” is not a political program and certainly no solution to anything. This is something that politicians, in particular those of the well-established political parties, need to explain to anxious citizens by using solid arguments and showing a lot of patience. One such argument would be that so far nobody has been deprived of any state benefits because of the refugee crisis, another would be that the per capita crime rate has not gone up. And the reason why old-age pensions are now a few percent less in relation to the wages people used to earn has nothing to do with refugees and everything to do with an aging society. Today fewer wage earners need to finance the pensions of an increasing number of retired persons. I think that the pension scheme is in urgent need of reform, but regardless - we need immigrants.
Germany’s population continues to shrink. It is true that the birth rate has gone up slightly for the first time in 35 years and women now have an average of 1.56 children, but still, that is not enough to keep the population stable. But a shrinking population puts our prosperity at risk. And retired people will be the first to feel the consequences. So de facto Germany has already become an immigration country. Even if we are still waiting for the laws and regulations addressing this issue.
To successfully integrate refugees into our society, we need a wide consensus. Many people here in Garmisch-Partenkirchen do volunteer work in all areas of life. Their achievements demonstrate and guarantee that we can reach that consensus. A heartfelt thank you to all of you! We need you, and it is thanks to your efforts that we can look ahead with confidence.