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Fiftieth Anniversary of the Basic Law (May 28, 1999)

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I have continually sought this two-way exchange between Germans from East and West, and the experiences I have had in doing so are among the most moving of my term in office.

But the most important experience for me was always seeing how the path to mutual understanding was first opened through wholehearted openness and truthfulness on both sides. Catchwords that cloud the issues, whether they are well-meaning or not, are of no help at all. I wish everyone understood that – again, on both sides.

Many have contributed to the country that Germany is today. I would like to name just a few here: the will of Konrad Adenauer to anchor the old Federal Republic firmly in the Western community of states; the readiness of Kurt Schumacher to constructively follow this path from the opposition; the bridge to the East spanned by Willy Brandt, and finally, the achievement of political unification by Helmut Kohl. Remember the integration of millions of expellees from the East, and the creation of a social market economy out of the rubble of the war. Remember the historical reconciliation with Israel, the countless East Germans who obtained their independence under a system that became increasingly questionable, and the civil rights activists whose desire for freedom finally caused this system to totter.

The democratization of our society is also among the great achievements that have shaped the face of our country. This was not only the work of politicians. The self-perception of our society is also linked to many other names, from journalism and religious life, from the arts and the publishing world. A society never lives on state and politics alone. It brings about its greatest developments on its own, as a whole. We have experienced that, too, in East and West, and often in heated debate. But we are the better for it.

Before the Federal Republic was founded, we had, as I mentioned earlier, bitter experiences: the war, the Holocaust, the disregard for human dignity and freedom. We had looked into the deepest abyss of our history, and this experience was deeply branded into the thinking of the founding generation. But times change. Fewer and fewer people remember the war, much less the time before it. The architects of reconstruction are being replaced by younger colleagues. And this generational shift not only means that the voices of Holocaust eyewitnesses are dying down, it also means that the experience of persecution and genocide is fading, the experience of war and expulsion, of nights of bombings, of not being allowed to think and speak openly. These experiences, too, had a stronger impact on the thinking of an entire generation than today’s television images ever could. Therefore, we must pass these experiences on to the coming generations as best we can. That is our historical duty.

I know how difficult that is: as generations change, so do perceptions and memories. Even the ten years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is an infinitely long stretch of time in the life of someone who is now thirty years old, and, what’s more, the decades since the founding of the Federal Republic have certainly changed many things in the collective consciousness of the nation: the lived past is becoming history. The successor generation has long since assumed political responsibility, and an even younger generation is already waiting in the wings with its own, different, life plans, a different discursive culture, completely new issues, and different answers. This is part of human nature, and none of us from the older generation should get worked up about it. But we must demand that our experience, and not least what we learned from our mistakes and delusions, be acknowledged by those who come after us. Under certain circumstances, they might save themselves a lot of trouble by doing this. This is a task from which no one is exempt: neither parents nor teachers, neither textbook authors nor journalists, neither politicians nor churches. That is the only way to develop a collective memory – without which neither national identity nor national responsibility can exist.

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