On 18 June 2021 the German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a remarkable, a moving speech. The occasion was the opening of the exhibition “Dimensions of a Crime. Soviet Prisoners of War in World War II” which can now be seen at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin Karlshorst. The museum is the building where on 9 May 1945 the German leadership of the Wehrmacht signed the Document of Unconditional Surrender. The speech by the Federal President was also the central commemorative speech on the 80th anniversary of the start of the German war of aggression against the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.
The Federal President not only recalled the suffering of the Soviet prisoners of war and the crimes against the peoples of the Soviet Union (see box). He also spoke about the importance of historical memory for our present and future.
Even today, the war and its consequences – the division of the world into hostile blocs – have an impact on our thoughts and feelings: “The war and its legacy have also divided our memory, a division that has yet to be overcome even three decades after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. It continues to be a burden for the future. Changing this state of affairs is our task, a task for which we urgently need to redouble our efforts beyond borders – for the sake of the past, but, above all, for the sake of a peaceful future for coming generations on this continent.”
“We should remember …”
And further: “We should remember – not in order to burden present and future generations with a guilt that is not theirs but for our own sake. We should remember in order to understand what impact this past has on the present. Only those who learn to understand the traces of the past in the present will be equipped to help shape a future which avoids wars, rejects tyranny and makes possible peaceful co-existence in freedom.”
“That after everything that happened Germans are received today with great hospitality by people in, of all places, Belarus, Ukraine or Russia, that they are extended a warm welcome – is nothing short of a miracle.”
For Germany and the Germans, this means: “On this day when we are remembering the millions upon millions who lost their lives, let us also recall how precious reconciliation is when it has grown over the graves of the fallen.”
Doing everything to work for peace
From the gift of reconciliation arose a great responsibility for Germany: “We want, and indeed must, do everything to […] strive for peace with and among the success states to the former Soviet Union. […] we remember not by turning our backs to the future. Rather, we remember by looking ahead and shouting out loud and clear: never again should there be such a war! […] I ask you to ensure, indeed let us all ensure, that we do not confront each other again as enemies; that we do not fail to recognise the human being in others. Let us ensure that those who propagate national hubris, contempt, enmity, and alienation do not have the last word. Remembrance should bring us closer together. It must not be allowed to divide us once more.”
At one point, the Federal President quotes a question posed by former Soviet prisoner of war Boris Popov, who had the great good fortune to survive German captivity – a question Boris Popov posed publicly many years after the war: “This raises the compelling question: is it not time for humanity to categorically reject wars and to resolve issues – no matter how complicated – peacefully and in a spirit of mutual respect?”
A path that led away from the logic of escalation
Steinmeier himself answers: “Europe was once closer to the answer than it is today. Decades ago, despite tensions and the confrontation between the two blocs, there was a different spirit on both sides of the Iron Curtain. I am talking about the spirit of Helsinki. In the midst of the mutual threat of nuclear annihilation, a process developed which was intended to avert, and did indeed help to avert, another war through the recognition of joint principles and through cooperation. This path, which led to the Helsinki Final Act, now lies almost half a century behind us. It was neither easy nor straightforward. However, it was a path which led us away from the logic of escalation and the threat of mutual destruction.”
Biden and Putin have met in Geneva
Two days before the speech of the German President, the US President Joe Biden and the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin met in Geneva – thanks to the good offices of the Swiss Confederation – for about three hours of talks. Both presidents commented on the content of the conversation and its atmosphere in separately held press conferences in the late afternoon and early evening; both are publicly available in pictures, sound and text.1
The meeting of the two presidents took place at a time of great estrangement between the governments of the two states and in an environment of massive enemy images. Enemy images that had been created and deepened for years, especially by the USA and its Western allies. The Western mainstream media had not only conveyed the image of Russia as an enemy, but had also added fuel to the fire. Factual reporting on Russia was practically non-existent. How things were on the Russian side is difficult to judge from here. From time to time I read the German-language Russian media and have by no means observed such propaganda about the other side as in the Western media.
No one should want to be a winner any more
Be that as it may, finding a way out of this impasse is not easy. This was evident in many Western media commentaries after the meeting of the two presidents, also in Switzerland. Here is just one small, rather harmless, but significant example among many. On 18 June, a major Swiss daily newspaper ran the headline: “Russia sees itself as the winner”. There is no evidence of this in the text that follows. Could it not be that the title mainly reflects the thinking patterns of the newspaper makers? Namely, that the meeting of the two presidents was about the question of who was the winner – and thus, of course, who was the loser. Such thinking is widespread, but it is fundamentally opposed to the search for peace. The fact that both presidents in their press conferences were not out to look like “winners” but as serious seekers of a peaceful solution to serious problems and conflicts is a good sign. The fact that even such a critical thinker as Willy Wimmer gave a positive assessment of the Geneva summit in an interview with the German edition of Russia Today (RT) on 18 June2 makes one prick up one’s ears.
Peace is the most ardent wish
It is always risky to make statements about the future. A single meeting does not create peace. It remains to be seen what the working groups to be set up will come up with. The will of the political leaders to reach an agreement will be decisive. It will be clear to all participants that unspoken geopolitical calculations (for example, in the triangle between the USA, Russia and China), i.e. questions of power, will also play a role. Nevertheless, if the meeting in Geneva is a step towards more peace, it was a great success. The first result of the meeting of the two presidents, a “Joint Declaration on Strategic Stability” (see box), which was put on paper, is certainly to be welcomed. Both presidents recall that, even in times of tension, both states have managed to make progress in “reducing the risk of armed conflict and the threat of nuclear war”. More than that, they reaffirm the “principle that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be waged”.
The people and peoples in every country of the world have one most ardent wish: to be able to live in peace. This peace was very much at risk until 16 June. Not for the first time since the Second World War. For years, there have been regions of the world where the new confrontation – as in the Cold War – is also being fought with weapons. In the bloc confrontation, a correct conclusion was drawn in 1962 after the Cuban Missile Crisis: an ever-widening spiral of escalation is a dead end and brings the world to the brink of destruction. An escalation of the conflict between the USA and Russia today is no less a dead end in which there can only be losers.
In an article for the German weekly Die Zeit on the 80th anniversary of the German war of aggression on the Soviet Union3, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again called for overcoming dividing lines on the Eurasian continent together and on an equal footing; because “we simply cannot afford to carry with us the burden of past misunderstandings, grievances, conflicts. A burden that prevents us from solving current problems”.
The EU summit of heads of state and government on 24 and 25 June showed how difficult it is for those in positions of responsibility in the NATO and EU states to leave the dead-end street once it has been reached. Instead of engaging in dialogue with the Russian government again after seven years, as proposed by the French President and the German Chancellor, they “agreed” on tougher sanction threats against Russia. Truly not a step towards détente.
So, the question of the Soviet prisoner of war Boris Popov should be repeated at the end: “The question arises compellingly: Would it not be time for mankind to reject wars in principle and to solve even such complicated questions peacefully in a relationship of mutual respect?” •
1 as video with German translation:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdubWvLsCow (Vladimir Putin’s press conference), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZlbcywRpHs (Joe Biden’s press conference); as texts in English: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/06/16/remarks-by-president-biden-in-press-conference-4/ (Joe Biden’s press conference), http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/65870 (Vladimir Putin’s press conference)
2 https://de.rt.com/international/119263-willy-wimmer-gipfel-von-putin/ of 18 June 2021
3 https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2021-06/ueberfall-auf-die-sowjetunion-1941-europa-russland-geschichte-wladimir-putin/komplettansicht of 22 June 2021
We, President of the United States of America Joseph R. Biden and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, note the United States and Russia have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.
The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control. Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust. Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.
cc. The German-Russian Forum and the International Peace Bureau (IPB) publish the appeal “Let’s bring about peace ” on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The appeal was initiated by Antje Vollmer, former Vice President of the German Bundestag, Adelheid Bahr, educational scientist, Daniela Dahn, writer, Peter Brandt, historian, Reiner Braun, Managing Director of the International Peace Bureau, Martin Hoffmann, Executive Member of the Board of the German-Russian Forum, Michael Müller, former State Secretary and Chairman of the Friends of Nature, and Matthias Platzeck, former Prime Minister and Chairman of the Board of the German-Russian Forum.
The more than 1,300 signatories recall the victims of German atrocities in the East and call on Europe’s politicians to overcome Cold War patterns of thought and to make conciliatory moves towards each other.
The appeal, published on 22 June 2021 in the “Berliner Zeitung” and the Russian newspaper “Kommersant”, sets out a sign of commemoration and reconciliation in the context of the severe tensions in German-Russian relations.
In Germany, this appeal has been almost ignored so far.
22 June 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazi German invasion of Russia and the peoples of the Soviet Union. For us, the signatories, this day is a day of grief, shame and reflection on our own historical guilt. From German soil emanated an unprecedented war of extermination, driven by political hubris and racism against the people of the Soviet Union, especially the Jews and other minorities. It brought endless suffering to the people and claimed more than 27 million victims in the Soviet Union alone, mostly from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
It is part of the responsibility of our generation that no one should be allowed to forget or relativise these atrocities. For the history of Europe also includes the fact that the Soviet Union defeated fascism at the cost of great sacrifices and liberated Germany from this ideology. The history of German-Russian relations also includes the fact that the Soviet Union and its legal successor Russia had been playing a decisive role in the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War.
We know: Peace in Europe can only be achieved together with Russia and not against Russia.
That is why we call on Europe’s politicians in East and West: Get moving! Move away from the sphere and logic of the Cold War! It is not the number of tanks or arms that must grow, but the willingness to approach each other. Do it as people in Russia, Germany and Europe are doing through their concrete initiatives in town and city partnerships, in youth exchanges, in economic and scientific cooperation. Leave the mental prisons of enemy images, resentments and fears! Let us finally make peace! The people of Europe have been longing for it for a long time.
This is the lesson of 22 June. And this is what we stand for.
Abendroth, Elisabeth; Bahr, Adelheid (educationalist); Hanne, Magret (peace researcher); Brandt, Peter (historian); Braun, Reiner (International Peace Bureau); Bruch, Thomas (shareholder GLOBUS GmbH); Claußen, Angelika (Chairperson IPPNW); Dagdelen, Sevim (Member of the German Bundestag); Dahn, Daniela (Writer); Dehm, Diether (Member of the German Bundestag); Enkelmann, Dagmar (Chairperson of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation); Erdmann, Torsten (German-Russian Forum); Ernst, Klaus (Member of the German Bundestag); Falk, Thomas (German-Russian Forum); Frantz, Justus (conductor); Gornig, Hans-Joachim (German-Russian Forum); Hänsel, Heike (Member of the German Bundestag); Hahn, André (Member of the German Bundestag); Hermes, Oliver (Chairman of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations); Hoffmann, Christine (Pax Christi); Hoffmann, Jelena (Chairwoman of the West-East Meetings Foundation); Hoffmann, Martin (German-Russian Forum); Hunko, Andrej (Member of the German Bundestag); Joas, Hans (Social Philosopher); Kaiser, Kerstin (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Moscow); Krone-Schmalz, Gabriele (Publicist); Kumm, Uwe (German-Russian Forum); Müller, Michael (Former State Secretary, Nastic, Zaklin (Member of the German Bundestag); Neu, Alexander (Member of the German Bundestag); Platzeck, Matthias (Chairman, German-Russian Forum); Rahr, Alexander (Eastern Europe expert); Raiser, Konrad (former General Secretary of the Council of the Ecumenical Church); Rösch-Metzler, Wiltrud (Cooperation for Peace); Schröder, Gerhard (former Federal Chancellor); Silly (band); Sommer, Jörg (Chairman, German Environmental Aid); Teltschik, Horst (former Foreign Policy Advisor of Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl); Thierse, Wolfgang (former President of Parliament); van Ooyen, Willi (Federal Committee Peace Council); Vassiliadis, Michael (Chairman Trade Union, Mining, Chem, Energy); Vogler, Kathrin (former Member of the German Bundestag); Vollmer, Antje (former Vice-President of the German Bundestag); von Knoop, Andrea (Honorary President of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce Abroad); von Weizsäcker, Ernst-Ulrich; Wahl, Peter (Scientific Advisory Board Attac); Werneke, Frank (Chairman ver.di); Wiese, Heino (Former Member of the German Bundestag); Wohlfahrt, Harald (Managing Director Käthe Wohlfahrt KG).
(Translation Current Concerns)
“What now came to pass, what began on 22 June 1941, was an unleashing of hatred and violence, the radicalisation of a war that culminated in the madness of total annihilation. From day one, the German military campaign was driven by hatred, by antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism, as well as by a fanatical racist doctrine against the Slavic and Asian peoples of the Soviet Union.
Those who waged this war killed people in every imaginable way, with an unprecedented degree of brutality and cruelty. Those who were responsible for it, who in their national fanaticism even invoked German culture and civilisation, Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Beethoven, betrayed all civilised values, violated all principles of humanity and law. The German war against the Soviet Union was murderous barbarity.
As difficult as we may find it, we must remember that. And when if not on anniversaries such as this. Remembering this inferno, this absolute enmity and the act of dehumanising the other – remembering this continues to be an obligation for us Germans and a memorial for the world.
Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers fell, starved to death or were shot dead during the first few months of the war alone, in the summer of 1941.
Immediately after the invasion by the German troops, the murder of Jewish men, women and children by the firing squads of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the SS and their auxiliary troops got under way.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians in Ukraine, in Belarus, in the Baltic States and in Russia fell victim to bombing attacks or were relentlessly hunted down as partisans and murdered. Cities were destroyed and villages burned to the ground. Old photographs show only charred stone fireplaces rising in a devastated landscape.
At the war’s end, the death toll of the peoples of the Soviet Union numbered some 27 million. Twenty-seven million people were killed, murdered, bludgeoned, starved or left to die as a result of forced labour by National Socialist Germany. Fourteen million of them were civilians.
No one had to mourn more victims in this war than the peoples of the then Soviet Union. And yet these millions are not as deeply etched in our collective memory as their suffering and our responsibility demand.
This war was a crime – a monstrous, criminal war of aggression and annihilation. Those who go to its theatres today, who encounter people who bore the brunt of it, will be reminded of 22 June 1941 – irrespective of whether there is a day of remembrance or memorial or not.Traces of this war are to be found among the elderly who experienced it as children, and in the younger generation, in their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
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