Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel

on receiving the Leo Baeck Award in Berlin on 6 November 2007


Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel

on receiving the Leo Baeck Award in Berlin on 6 November 2007

Madam President, dear Frau Knobloch,

Dear Wolf Biermann,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to begin with three words of thanks:

My thanks go to you, Frau Knobloch, for your kind, warm and very personal welcome.

I thank the Central Council of Jews in Germany for its decision to present me with the Leo Baeck Award.

And I thank you, Wolf Biermann, for your remarks, made as only you could make them, so beautifully. Thank you very much. Now he just has to tell me how he knows that I liked listening to Bulat Okujava.

To all of you I say frankly and sincerely: it is a great pleasure for me to receive the Leo Baeck Award. However, I regard it also as a personal obligation. Yes, it is a great responsibility to accept a prize named after one of the most important Jewish scholars of our age, a person who stood up courageously during the National Socialist dictatorship for the Jewish community and for many individuals, who suffered deportation and captivity in a concentration camp, who after the Second World War devoted all his energies to securing and preserving for the future the spiritual foundations of Judaism.

I am fully aware of the responsibility incumbent upon me in accepting this award. For me it means three things above all:

Firstly, to work ceaselessly to ensure that racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism never again take root in Germany and Europe.

Secondly, to do everything in my power to promote the partnership with the Jewish community.

Thirdly, to stand up today and in the future for the security of the State of Israel and for our shared values of democracy and the rule of law.

It is with these three obligations in mind that I accept the honour of the Leo Baeck Award.

Ladies and Gentlemen, during the time of National Socialism and the Second World War, Germany brought endless suffering to the world. The collapse of civilization caused by the Shoah is not even a lifetime ago. Even today we feel the effects of this the darkest chapter in German history. Scarcely any Jewish family was not torn apart or destroyed by deportation and murder. Scarcely a Jewish life was not ravaged or destroyed.

Again and again I am shaken to hear the stories of the survivors – like those, for instance, of Saul Friedländer, when he read from letters written by his family at the award ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade a few weeks ago.

But I am also shaken by the realization that, despite all the contemporary reports, we are seeing how quickly the horrors of the National Socialist regime period can be forgotten, how thoughtless some discussions can be, how words and phrases from the period are bandied about today in order – wittingly or unwittingly – to try to give arguments weight. Does it always have to be comparisons of this kind?

Again and again I am distressed by all of this. And it leads me to a question which is, I think, crucial: how will we meet our historic responsibility when the generation which experienced and survived the Shoah is no longer among us?

For me, Ladies and Gentlemen, one thing is absolutely clear: the foundation for a good future can be found only in an acceptance of Germany's past. Only if we admit a perpetual responsibility for the moral catastrophe of German history can we shape our future in a humane manner.

Perhaps some of you will be thinking: fine words. But how are things in everyday life? What do we do when a rabbi in Frankfurt is physically assaulted? How decisively will we act when the Iranian President wants to destroy Israel and plays down the Holocaust? How will we behave if a player of Iranian extraction in the German national football team does not want to play in Israel? How will we react when foreigners are hunted through German streets?

When I think about these and other questions and problems in our everyday life, then I can tell you quite frankly: there have been too many fancy speeches already. Sometimes one would wish never to hear them again. Please do not misunderstand me: ceremonies like this one are very important. Yes, they are indispensable. But equally let there be no misunderstanding now: the real impact of such events can only be seen afterwards, in everyday life. That is the moment of truth. Then it becomes clear whether the fancy speeches are followed by action. Concrete action. For example, in the conflict about Iran's nuclear programme by depending not on the principle of hope, but on determined resolve and unity. Or by not looking away when foreigners are attacked. In short, by regarding an upright stance against anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia as an everyday obligation – both in government action and in the part played by every individual.

Leo Baeck should be our model. He issued signals: signals for tolerance and signals for civil courage. Leo Baeck knew that the one – tolerance – could not be had without the other – civil courage. If we have both, then we are able to see the world through others' eyes as well. Because it is that which makes our lives rich: being able to see the world through others' eyes.

There is a good tool for enabling us to do so: dialogue, democratic formation of opinion. This includes, as I have already said, two things: tolerance and civil courage. There must be both. They are in a manner of speaking two sides of the same coin, because tolerance must not be allowed to mean an absence of rules. That would lead to misery. Tolerance must not be silent. Tolerance must stand up for its own values.

No tolerance of intolerance. That needs to be our guiding principle, for instance in the dispute with Islamist fundamentalists over caricatures and opera productions. Freedom of art, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech – these are all inalienable values of our country. To enter into compromises here would be tantamount to capitulating our order of values. And so there cannot and must not be any compromises on this.

What exactly that can mean, what can be demanded of a person in extreme cases under the pressure of terror and persecution, Leo Baeck was forced to experience for himself under National Socialism. Untiringly and without concern for his own fate he stood up for the Jews in Germany. He helped countless victims of persecution to leave Germany. That is true civil courage put into practice at the risk of one's own life.

Ladies and Gentlemen, after all the terrors of that time it seems to me to be something close to a miracle that we again have a vibrant Jewish community here in Germany: growing Jewish congregations, the ordination of the first rabbis since 1945, the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.

That this is possible is due first and foremost to those people who, after the War, stayed in or returned to Germany. Two of them were the father of President Knobloch and the father of the late President Paul Spiegel. Today we owe people like them profound gratitude. Without them, Jewish life in Germany would not be flourishing today.

It is, then, all the more important that we do our utmost to strengthen all the visible signs of Jewish life: the many new synagogues, Jewish kindergartens and schools, the Jewish Museum, which is a fixed and outstanding feature of our capital, or the Holocaust Memorial, which has rapidly become an important place for remembrance and reflection.

The interaction between Jews and non-Jews in our country is more lively and more intensive than we could ever have imagined even in our wildest dreams just a little while ago. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is true also of the interaction between Germans and Israelis. Next year the State of Israel will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. By the way, I spent the first 35 years of my life – as has already been mentioned – in a country which did not recognize Israel. The former GDR also believed that it had little or no part in the responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism. That was a matter for the Federal Republic alone. And so it was more than 40 years until Germany as a whole, following reunification, could admit its past – and its responsibility for Israel's security.

60 years of Israel – that will be a day to celebrate with pleasure, but not without concern. Because the security and the existence of the State of Israel are still at risk. I expressly recognize Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security and existence. I am aware that, given the threat to Israel from Iran's nuclear programme, these must not remain hollow words. Action must follow these words.

My Government does follow its words with action. Together with our partners we are seeking a diplomatic solution. But if Iran does not give way, Germany is resolutely willing to take further, stronger sanctions. I made this clear in my speech to the United Nations at the end of September. I say it in all my political talks, and I repeat it here today.

At the same time, in the Middle East peace process Germany is committed to the vision of two states living within secure borders and in peace – both for the Jewish people in Israel and the Palestinians in Palestine.

The peace conference which will probably take place in Annapolis at the end of November offers a great opportunity to bring movement back into the peace process. Anything the Federal Government can do to support this process, it will do. The Foreign Minister is holding many talks in this regard. During my visit to Texas this coming weekend I will be talking in some detail to President Bush about the matter and, of course, about further moves in relation to Iran.

When we are celebrating 60 years of the State of Israel next year, I have another wish too: the focus should not only be on the threat to Israel's security, or on the Middle East peace process, important as these two issues are. No, I would like to see the focus also on many joint projects in bilateral relations between Germany and Israel – for example, in the field of science policy, youth and education policy or economic relations.

I am therefore very pleased that, to mark the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel next year, we will be holding the first official German-Israeli intergovernmental consultations. Prime Minister Olmert and I announced this during my visit to Jerusalem in April. Now we are working on the actual realization of this project. Next year it will become reality.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Central Council of Jews in Germany is today presenting the Leo Baeck Award for the 50th time. The list of people who have received this award is impressive. However, Leo Baeck once said: "Yes, the person should be forgotten so that the substance lives on even more in our hearts."

I know that this sentence is nothing more than an expression of his modesty. But I do have to contradict him slightly. Because I am convinced that person and substance cannot truly be separated. More: young people in particular can discover inspiration and orientation in Leo Baeck. They can find in him a model, as a person and in his attitudes, in his spiritual and moral strength, his practised tolerance, his civil courage and his profound humanity.

Humanity must be at the centre of things. We must always see the person opposite us as a person first, and only afterwards wonder where he comes from or what group he belongs to. What did the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi call his famous 1947 book? "If This Is A Man?" That was the fundamental issue for him.

The people persecuted, deported and murdered by the National Socialists were denied their humanity. Primo Levi's question therefore takes us to the heart of our thinking and action: the highest concern must be the unique dignity of the individual person I see before me and can sometimes even see as he would see himself.

In this spirit I accept the award of the Central Council of Jews in Germany with great respect and profound gratitude.

Thank you very much.