Throughout this anniversary year, the history of the post-war period in Germany has been featured in countless publications, often with well-known or powerful images. I recently came across a photo from 1982 of three politicians on the government bench in the Bundestag. The caption reads: “1982: After several hours of debate about policies related to Poland, Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, tired on the government bench”. The foreign minister seems particularly “tired” (exhausted)..
I’m very pleased with this picture because it does away with the notion that Poland is not especially important to Germany. Nobody who looks at this photo can claim that our relations have been among the world’s least complicated. And yet, since 1989, we’ve been living in an era in which good news for Poland is necessarily also good news for Germany, and vice versa. Our then-foreign minister, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher called this situation – which was for some, in historical terms, a miracle – a “German-Polish community of interests”. For me, it is an honour and a gift to speak today about the architect of this “miracle” from the Polish perspective.
In June 1989, after the region’s first fairly free elections, it became clear to us in Warsaw that there could be no sovereign Poland without a reunified Germany. And the Germans, in turn, understood that Polish support could greatly smooth the path to reunification. By the end of June, many Solidarność politicians – and especially Bronislaw Geremek – were openly discussing this idea. It was still somewhat controversial in Solidarność circles, though it had actually already been in the air for some years. I remember an international conference in Warsaw at which Geremek was criticised from all sides for his stance. The still-ruling Communists described his position on our western neighbour’s reunification as “irresponsible”. French and German journalists were more polite, though, and spoke of a typically Polish lack of political reason.
Much hard work – in terms of both serious politics and society – was still required before the “irresponsible parties” in all countries could come together in 1989 to change the world. In both cases, you can only recount the history of the period in a reliable way if you take into account Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s extraordinary role in it. The Polish narrative, in particular, emphasises his very early recognition of Solidarność’s distinctive feature as a “self-limiting revolution”. It stresses the fact that the foreign minister was the first top-ranking German politician to meet Lech Wałęsa. And it underlines that, in 1984, the minister had previously cancelled a proposed visit to Poland after the Communist authorities had refused to allow him to make a gesture in support of the democratic opposition. Enormous difficulties were encountered in arranging the high-profile meeting with Wałęsa and his advisors in January 1988 because Wałęsa, an electrician by trade, couldn’t get any unpaid leave – not even for a day. In the end, things came to a positive result because Genscher kept at it. For this persistence, for his steadfast friendship in our times of trouble, and especially for his early recognition of the role of the citizens’ movement, Hans-Dietrich Genscher was awarded the Solidarność medal. (…)
With Hans-Dietrich Genscher, we naturally also associate his legendary policies for reconciling East and West and the Helsinki Accords. For many citizens from the eastern part of Europe, this brought about a considerable expansion of civil-society links with the West and opened up new travel opportunities. The democratic opposition could now cite the “basket” of Helsinki, in which human rights had been introduced into international relations. (…)
When Hans-Dietrich Genscher made us aware of the closeness our two peoples shared in 1989, he was also saying that we had a unique chance to create a new kind of “us” feeling, a community that wouldn’t need enemies and would function without excluding “others”. (…)
For this reason, our particular understanding of 1989 is important when we talk about and commemorate it. Can we break out of the national-heroic perspective? Of course, the Wall didn’t fall by itself. The political rupture is the product of the fascinating history of opposition movements across our entire region. This is also a story about how you can try to ideologically disarm authoritarian power. (…) Many in the region have mutually supported each other and begun to develop a feeling of community, which Herr Genscher has rightly emphasised so often and insistently. For example, there were the demonstrators in Leipzig with their slogans “We are the people! No violence!” And, in this anniversary year, this is precisely the story we should be telling. How else can we possibly explain the “peaceful” in the Peaceful Revolution? And if the Peaceful Revolution finds its way into Europe’s collective memory, we will have an important basis for collective, European policies. It’s not just about oil or gas; shared values also have the capacity to keep people together. (…)
For today’s award winner, 1989 was “the most European year of the 20th century”. Today, everything depends on responsible global policies. According to Mr. Genscher, this demands arms control and disarmament and, especially, “disarming ourselves of our conceptions of the enemy, rejecting illusions of supremacy and a regional or political sense of entitlement and possessiveness, opening instead of excluding”. This reminds me of journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, whose literary dispatches about distant societies, especially the Islamic world, sought to instil in us exactly that. To understand ourselves, we must learn to understand others. His entire literary oeuvre is like a patient positioning of the cultural mirror of others. In this mirror, we should also look at ourselves, unadorned.