Celebrating the Liberation: Taking Responsibility

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Celebrating the Liberation: Taking Responsibility


Each year on 5 May, the Netherlands begins commemorating its liberation with a morning event held in one of its twelve provinces. This event forms a bridge between the more subdued character of the national commemoration of Remembrance Day the evening before and the exuberance of Liberation Day. Each year on this occasion, a prominent public person holds a lecture in which he or she reflects on freedom and human rights while responding to the annual theme as formulated by the National Committee for 4 and 5 May. The theme for 2012 is ‘Pass Your Freedom On’.

The National Committee for 4 and 5 May considers it a tremendous honour that the brand-new German president, Joachim Gauck, accepted its invitation to give the Fifth of May Lecture for 2012 – especially so soon after taking office. He will deliver his address in the Grote Kerk in Breda in the presence of Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, and many hundreds of invited guests.

Born in 1940, Joachim Gauck grew up on the east side of the Iron Curtain and worked for many years as a pastor. In the final years of the DDR, he co-founded the anti-communist opposition movement known as Neues Forum. During the 1990s, he was director of the archives of the former Stasi, the secret service of the DDR, and as such he was entrusted with researching the crimes committed by or on behalf of the DDR regime. On 18 March 2012 he was appointed the eleventh president of the Federal Republic of Germany. He has been writing for years and has published many works. A collection of his essays has been published in the Netherlands as Laat je niet regeren door angst, maar door moed [Let Courage, Not Fear, Be Your Guide].

Joachim Gauck

Celebrating the Liberation: Taking Responsibility
I stand before you today a grateful man, a man moved and truly elated by the fact that the National Committee for 4 and 5 May has invited the German president to give a lecture here in Breda. The year I was born, 1940, was the year the Netherlands fell victim to German superpower politics and racism. As a German – and particularly in my own case – it was hardly a foregone conclusion that I would be here with you today, let alone that I would be asked to speak to you. With its invitation, the National Committee has shown a great deal of trust in my country and in me. It is a gift that we shall not forget.
Inherent in my gratitude is also the joy in the fact that for dozens of years now our countries have been working as partners – bound together by our mutual respect for human rights, freedom and democracy.

I belong to a generation of Germans who have learned – for the most part in a painful way – that the old saying ‘my country, right or wrong’ can no longer hold. We have learned that one must make a distinction between a fatherland and an unjust regime, that resistance fighters are not guilty of high treason or traitors to their country, that emigration need not be a sign of cowardice and that desertion is not always wrong. We have learned that one cannot and may not give one’s undivided loyalty to a government that tramples on people’s lives and dignity. On the contrary, when faced with an unjust regime, we need to stand on the side of those who – as the German president Theodor Heuss put it in 1954 – endeavour to deprive the state of its murderous malice and to save the fatherland from destruction.

Precisely because we Germans have taken upon ourselves the burden and the blame of history, we can honestly say – and this holds for me as well – that we celebrate, together with everyone else, the liberation from the yoke of National Socialism; we celebrate along with everyone who regained their independence and freedom in those days. And we also sympathise with all those people in other parts of the world who are only just now discovering or rediscovering freedom.

Germany and the Netherlands are not only partners in the European Union and NATO; despite the suffering that Nazi Germany brought upon your country, among others, we have both become part of the great project that has joined nations together into a unified whole without regard to borders or traditions. We are part of a project in which the different peoples are no longer incited to despise each other, but rather will be united in their mutual respect for human rights. It is an affirmation of the freedom that the Dutch nation once created and that now forms the basis for our community. We are more closely bound by this ‘yes’ to freedom than by any of the treaties that bind us.

But we also feel connected in sadness here in Breda today as we commemorate the more than one hundred thousand Dutch Jews who fell victim to the politics of extermination in Hitler’s Germany. The Netherlands had initially been a place of refuge for many German Jews, including Anne Frank and her parents. But then came the deportations. Three-quarters of the Jews living in the Netherlands in those days were either murdered in concentration and extermination camps or died of cruelty, starvation and disease.

I am thinking also of members of the resistance such as Max Kohnstamm, later a champion of European unification, who had been interned in the prison of Haaren, not far from here.

I am thinking of the Sinti and the Roma, whose fate was so movingly described by Zoni Weisz in his speech last year before the German Bundestag.

I am thinking – and not in the last place – of the hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens who were deported to Germany as forced labourers; of so many who suffered famine or endured forced evacuation and the loss of their native region; but also of all those – especially in what was then the Dutch Indies – for whom the war had not yet ended on 5 May and for whom the suffering and death would continue.

As we commemorate the end of the war today, 67 years later, we should not only recall the outrages and crimes such as the bombardment of Rotterdam; we should also remember the acts of disobedience, sabotage and resistance by both soldiers and civilians.

Here in Breda you commemorate the Polish general Stanisław Maczek, who managed to liberate your city without any loss of life among the civilian population. That liberation could well be a symbol of the liberation of every country in Europe that had been oppressed by Hitler and also for Germany itself. General Maczek had fought against the occupiers ever since the very beginning of the war – first in Poland and later in France; in 1944 he took part in the invasion of Normandy. The city of Breda made this war hero an honorary freeman and gave him a worthy final resting place in the war cemetery.

Our memory looks for examples like him that can serve as guides for our own lives. Those include people such as Bernard IJzerdraat, who took the initiative to establish a resistance group immediately following the German bombardment of Rotterdam, being the first to do so in the Netherlands. After a show trial in Scheveningen, he was executed by firing squad, together with 17 others, including three communists who had organised the 1941 February Strike.

I must confess: before this trip I had never heard of this general strike, which spread throughout the whole of North Holland. With incredulous astonishment and deep admiration, I read of how businesses remained closed, how dockworkers and factory workers laid down their tools and how students played truant, all in response to the (illegal) Dutch Communist Party’s call for a strike in protest against the initial deportation of 400 Jews from the Netherlands to the Mauthausen concentration camp.

I was struck by how deeply the latter information touched me. Once again, I realised how such examples can be important in two ways. Naturally they are important for the peoples to which the various resistance fighters belonged. But they are also important as examples for other peoples and for other generations who face other challenges and other crisis situations. For in times of war and persecution, we learn just what humans are capable of – in terms of evil, but also in terms of good.

I would like to call to mind the publisher Emanuel Querido, who set up a publishing company in Amsterdam for persecuted writers in exile from Germany. Before the Gestapo confiscated his property in 1940, he had managed to publish 110 books in the German language. Later, while Querido and his wife were in hiding, he was betrayed, and both were murdered in the Sobibor extermination camp.

I would like to call to mind Corrie ten Boom, who with her family members hid Jewish families in her home for a year and a half. She, too, was betrayed by a collaborator and brought to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. After the war, Corrie ten Boom dedicated herself to helping victims of the National-Socialist terror and to reconciling former enemies in the war.

We praise these individuals because it was anything but normal for them to not simply resign themselves to the inevitable, let alone to commit such acts of resistance. We praise them because they offer us a glimpse of a truth that we are not always aware of – and that we often prefer not to be aware of. We always have a choice. Our range of choices may be limited in times of war and terror, but even in those circumstances – as history shows – people can save the humanum, human dignity.

In that connection I would also like to call to mind Hans Keilson, a German-born Jew who found refuge in the Netherlands in 1936 and joined the Dutch resistance after 1940. Although he was at great risk himself – his parents were murdered in Auschwitz – he dedicated himself to Jewish children who had gone into hiding with Dutch families. Drawing from his knowledge of medicine and psychoanalysis, Keilson knew that the suffering of the persecuted does not end when the actual persecution ceases. After the war, too, Keilson dedicated his life, both as a person and as a therapist, to those who had been traumatised, and in particular to Jewish children. He passed away in Hilversum exactly one year ago, at over 100 years of age.

But attitudes are rarely as unambiguous as those of the avowed opponents of a dictatorship. Nor are opinions and actions by any means undivided in every family. Harry Mulisch once formulated the shocking sentence: ‘I am the Second World War.’ With that image, he sketched the fact that his parents were both victim and perpetrator. His mother was Jewish, while his father managed ‘Aryanised’ assets at a bank. It was thanks to his father’s position that Harry Mulisch and his mother survived; but it was that same position that led to his father’s being punished as a collaborator once the war had ended.

The symbol of 4 and 5 May in the Netherlands is a burning torch, the flame of which has the contours of a dove. Last night that flame was lit in Wageningen so that it could be brought to various places throughout the entire country, including here in Breda.

From the very beginning, the fire of freedom had been a decisive element for the peaceful unification of Europe. At the conference of the European Movement in May 1948, your fellow countryman Hendrik Brugmans said that Europe is the philosophy of the non-conformists, the place of those ‘who are constantly in conflict with each other, where no certainty is accepted as truth, unless it is constantly rediscovered. […] The flag of Europe will one day be the flag of freedom everywhere.’ But freedom needs to be gained and regained, each time again.

In that respect, the city of Breda is an excellent place for commemoration. The so-called ‘Compromise of Breda’, in which noblemen declared their opposition to the Inquisition in the year 1566, marked the beginning of the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule. Later, the so-called League of the Beggars (Geuzen) demonstrated to their European neighbours which forces the love of freedom can stir within us.

We see that before freedom can become a reality at the level of society, it must win the hearts and minds of solitary individuals and small groups. An idea that everyone will eventually rally round, is initially brought forth by a few. Before there is a free society, there are free individuals; before there are free states, there are free cities.

The 17th-century United Provinces of the Netherlands shaped our concept of a freedom-loving, federalist and tolerant republic. Its citizens were allies, not subjects. It was there that freethinkers such as Spinoza and Descartes could develop their ideas and that various different faiths could thrive. It was there that Hugo de Groot – who died in my birthplace, Rostock, while on his way back home from Sweden – could formulate the idea of the mare liberum, the freedom of the seas, which forms the basis for modern international maritime law.

What Immanuel Kant referred to as the ‘step forward to maturity’ is one that the Dutch managed to take very early on in Europe. That was one of the things that helped encourage the Germans in the 19th century to join the freedom movement, which was beginning to gain popularity at the time. And although the revolution of 1848–1849 failed in the German lands, the ideas continued to live on. Various shrines of freedom such as Hambach Castle in the Palatinate and St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt bear witness to that even today.

In our joint project, Europe, it is no longer an internal affair of the individual states when countries curtail freedoms and fail to respect the constitutional rights of their citizens. We can be proud that the citizens of practically every European state can call upon the European Court of Human Rights to scrutinise potential infringements of their individual constitutional and human rights. We can be proud that charges can be brought against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Perpetrators should not be able to hope for impunity for their crimes. The road is long and difficult, but our goal is clear: not the rule of force but rather the rule of law must prevail around the world.

The Germans and the Dutch are well aware – not least due to their joint military efforts in Afghanistan and Kosovo – just how long that road is and which kind of sacrifices it can entail. But still, if violations of individual human rights are now condemned and in many cases prosecuted all over the world, and if people are helped along the way towards more autonomy, more respect and more self-respect, that in itself is a valuable thing.

It is on days like this one that we become aware of just how much – following a long struggle – freedom and the constitutional state have become the prevailing pillars of the European social order. There are large portions of the world where people can only dream of having the rights and freedoms that we enjoy. In recent years, the longing for freedom and human rights has broken through in northern Africa and in the Middle East. These movements show us that freedom and human rights are not merely inventions of the imperialistic West.

Human rights are universal: their language is understood everywhere – whether in Asia or in Europe, in the Americas or in Africa. All over the world, people are waking up and demanding their rights, even if they have yet to take to the streets in their thousands and chant as they did back then in East Germany: ‘We are the people!’

But while other peoples are becoming inspired by the spirit of freedom, many Europeans do not yet fully appreciate the blessing of freedom. They mistakenly see freedom as the absence of rules, as the promise of a hedonistic lifestyle, as political or ethical arbitrariness or as a call to forego participation in society. Their concept of freedom lacks those elements that spur so many young people in particular to take to the streets in protest: responsibility and reliability, but also a sense of community and solidarity.

We see not only that freedom must always be gained and regained each time, but it also constantly needs to be shaped and reshaped. Every generation faces the challenge of filling in the idea of freedom – which at its best must be seen as responsibility ­– once again for itself and its own circumstances.

Sixty-seven years ago today we could only have experienced our current situation as paradisiacal. For three generations now, the Dutch and the Germans have shared their values and worked hard to promote those in Europe and in the rest of the world. We can be proud that our countries have been part of the unified Europe from the very start and that we are valued in many parts of the world as being honest and reliable. Together, we benefit from the freedom, the peace and the prosperity that go along with a stronger European and international cooperation. I hope that this unique success will give us the strength to tackle the current challenges, too, and to work towards the future.

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