Speech by the Federal Minister Joschka Fischer at the ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen concentration camp

Speech by the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs at the ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen concentration camp on 17 April 2005 at the Sachsenhausen Memorial

Today we remember the last days of April 1945, when Polish and Soviet soldiers reached the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and liberated the surviving prisoners. Only 60 years have passed since the horror was brought to an end.

I am grateful that so many of the survivors and relatives of former prisoners are participating in this ceremony and would like to extend a special welcome to you. We can hardly begin to imagine the effort it must have cost you to come here. Many of you have travelled long distances to be present. But above all, you are revisiting a horrific past.

You and your fellow prisoners endured appalling barbarity behind these walls and fences. Between 1936 and 1945 the Nazis incarcerated more than 200,000 people here. Initially these chiefly comprised political opponents of the National Socialist regime: communists, socialdemocrats, liberal and conservative politicians. Later the SS also brought homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews to Sachsenhausen. They, too, suffered a terrible fate.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, they were joined by thousands of prisoners of war and civilians from more than 40 countries, until eventually nine out of ten prisoners came from outside Germany, most of them from the former Soviet Union and Poland.

Sachsenhausen played a pivotal role in the deadly system of the Nazi concentration camps. Here, only a few miles out of Berlin, which was then the Reich capital, the Nazis systematically developed their instruments of torture and tested their murderous implements, the tools of mass murder. In his perverse and inhuman language, SS leader Heinrich Himmler described this place as "a modern concentration camp perfectly in keeping with our times". What a corruption of the term "modern"! Here, in this laboratory of cruelty, the Nazis investigated how they could commit murder on an industrial scale.

The ruins of the notorious Station Z, before which we are now standing, still bear witness to this evil. Here, members of the SS, Germans, killed thousands of people in an execution facility. Here, the barbaric, deadly effectiveness of gas vans and gas chambers was put to the test. Here in Sachsenhausen tens of thousands of prisoners starved or froze to death. Many more succumbed to disease or became the victims of torture and pseudo-medical experiments. Others, predominantly Jewish prisoners, were deported by the Nazis to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Numerous lives were also claimed by the infamous death marches, on which the prisoners of Sachsenhausen were forced to set out in April 1945.

To this day vast numbers of those who died have no grave to which their families can come to mourn them. We do not even know the names of many of the victims. Today, in this place, we remember them all, the victims of Sachsenhausen. We also remember the victims of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor and the many other extermination and concentration camps. I bow before them in humble respect and deep sorrow.

The instigators, organizers and perpetrators of the Shoah, the ultimate crime against humanity, were Germans. We must constantly face up to this most bitter truth about our own history. We must never forget the consequences of the Nazis' deluded racial insanity and murderous ideology in our country – the nightmare of the extermination camps and the suffering and destruction caused by a racist war of aggression against our European neighbours. And it was National Socialism which destroyed Germany itself and plummeted our country into a moral abyss.

The name of our country will always be linked to the despicable crime of the Shoah. We Germans cannot, should not and will not ever abdicate this responsibility.

The responsibility we bear also compels us to do everything within our power to keep the memory of the horrific crimes of National Socialism alive for subsequent generations. As people who still have the opportunity to listen to the survivors, we have a duty to pass on their painful history to the younger generation. Only in this way will it be possible to preserve the memory of the truly unimaginable evil which was perpetrated here in Sachsenhausen and the other National Socialist camps.

The Talmud expresses this principle in the following way: "Forgetfulness prolongs the exile. Remembrance is the secret of redemption." We and all subsequent generations must shape our future through remembrance of the past. Only by so doing can we fulfil our obligation to those who suffered and died.

We must also remember those who offered resistance to the Nazi regime. Many of them were imprisoned here in Sachsenhausen. In 1937 the Berlin pastor Martin Niemöller was incarcerated in the cells at Sachsenhausen because he had spoken out against the exclusion of Jews from the church and public life. Before his execution the carpenter Georg Elser was held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp after his failed assassination attempt on Hitler. Hans von Dohnanyi and others whose names are associated with 20 July 1944 were also imprisoned here.

To this day the courage and sense of responsibility demonstrated by these people confront us with an obligation, as does the fate of all the other individuals who were tortured, abused and murdered here. They oblige us to take a decisive stand against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism in our country and to fight them with the full force of the law. Wherever members of minorities or those with different beliefs face intolerance and violence, our entire democracy is harmed. That is something we must never forget, and we must actively oppose such tendencies at all times.

The historical and moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazi dictatorship has also been indelibly imprinted on German foreign policy. This is particularly evident in our country's relationship with Israel. German-Israeli relations will always have a special status. The state of Israel's right to exist and the security of its citizens will remain a fundamental, non-negotiable component of German foreign policy in the future. The people of Israel will always be able to depend on this.

The horrific experience of the concentration camps also forms the background to the project of European integration. From the outset the European project was also intended to be a response to nationalism, war, racism and persecution. For, as François Mitterrand said before the European Parliament in one of his last speeches before his death in 1995, "Nationalism means war!" And he warned us, the younger generation, not to forget, by observing, "War is not only our past, it could also be our future!"

Our response to this threat is and remains a peaceful Europe, a Europe which perceives its variety of cultures, religions, nationalities, languages, histories and lifestyles as an asset rather than a stigma.

The eastwards enlargement of the European Union almost one year ago was a milestone on the way to overcoming the destructive nationalism which spread from its hotbed in Germany and inflicted so much harm on Europe. The European Constitution with its Charter of Fundamental Rights also constitutes a clear pledge to respect human dignity, protect minorities and uphold freedom and democracy.

We are also indebted to those who risked their lives to fight the Wehrmacht and the SS so that in Europe today we can live in freedom and democracy. I am referring to the Polish and Soviet soldiers who came to the assistance of the prisoners in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and liberated them in April 1945, and all the others who fought on the side of the Allies against the Nazi reign of terror. Many of these people lost their lives at a young age in the fight against dictatorship and oppression. Today we also wish to remember them.

Open and honest confrontation of the past will continue to be crucial in future. This confrontation is often painful, especially for Germans, but it is essential, and it does us all a vital service. For this reason I particularly thank you, the former prisoners and their families, for coming to Sachsenhausen today in an act of remembrance, commemoration and reconciliation.

The magnanimity this requires is shown by the story of a fifteen-year-old boy from the Polish town of Ostrow. This boy was arrested by the Gestapo in March 1940 on the absurd pretext that he was part of a conspiracy against the German Reich, simply because the grammar school was no longer open and a group of students were meeting to continue their education. After spending two months in Gestapo prisons, he came to Sachsenhausen concentration camp with the first load of Polish prisoners. Here he was subjected to the capricious tyranny of the SS henchmen for five years. Upon his release in 1945, aged 20, he had every reason to hate the Germans.

This man is here today. His name is Zdzislaw Jasko, he is Vice-President of the International Sachsenhausen Committee and he has dedicated the whole of his adult life to promoting remembrance and reconciliation.

Mr Jasko, former prisoners, Mr President,Your commitment presents us all with both a challenge and an obligation to strive for an open, tolerant and democratic society in a united Europe. We owe that to you and your suffering, and we owe it to those who died and their memory.

[Source: Federal Foreign Office official website, 17Apr05]

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