Federal President Johannes Rau before the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), 9.11.1999
Mr. President, Members of the High Synod,
I spent the morning of 9 November 1989 in Berlin and the evening in Leipzig. Today, it’s the other way round. Today, I’m spending the morning in Leipzig and then going on to Berlin, and both are connected.
I felt it was important for me to extend a word of welcome to the Synod of the EKD on this of all days, because I do not want to – indeed, cannot – brush aside the memory of 9 November 1989.
There had been an exhibition of GDR art in North Rhine-Westphalia, where I was prime minister at the time. We had been arguing for several years about whether we from North Rhine-Westphalia would be allowed to reciprocate by staging an exhibition here. And indeed this exhibition, entitled ‘Time signals’, opened on 9 November 1989 in Leipzig’s opera house. The ‘Capella Coloniensis’ provided the musical accompaniment.
I was delivering a speech on matters of cultural policy when a slip of paper was handed to me, and there must be many of you here today who have been passed slips of paper at some time or other: “Remember to greet the mayor!” or that sort of thing. Sometimes it will say, “Please be more emphatic as your argument is weak!”
On the slip of paper I was handed during the speech – I was just referring to the peculiarities of the Lippe region in terms of cultural policy – were the words, “The Wall is open.” I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I wasn’t sure if I should complete the speech, wind it up, read out the note? I will never forget it. I would have liked to have heard Brother Magirius addressing you today, because we spent the period between 9 and 12 November here together.
Even today, I can’t help but continue to be amazed at how the people in Leipzig responded at that time; they hugged you, wept, asked what it meant and where it would lead. I hoped that we’d be able to keep alive some of that sense of expectancy about what the new situation could bring to us Germans.
The 9th of November 1989 made me very aware that history can still have a positive outcome for us Germans in this, the second half of this century. We have just been hearing in Bible study about other 9th of Novembers, such as the horrific 9th of November 1938, which I can still remember. I recall as an eight year-old asking the taxi-driver why there were fires burning. There are other 9th of Novembers too. For instance, the 9th of November 1918, when Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the Republic, followed five years later by the 9th of November on which Hitler marched on the Feldherrnhalle and attempted a putsch. If you go further back in time, you will discover other 9th of Novembers too which have been important dates in the history of both the German and the European freedom movements.
But I do not want to invest this day with too much symbolism, for some dates were of even greater importance to the people of the former GDR. The 7th of October for instance, or perhaps the 4th of December, when the Round Corner of the Stasi building was stormed. Let us dispense with false symbolism then, but instead be prepared to remember, for remembering can bring about renewal.
I wish that we would be more clear about this nowadays: that it is not all just about the condescension of the West, the self-pity of the East. That it is about more than just the joy engendered by the words of Willy Brandt: “Now grows together what belongs together.” Willy Brandt said at the time that, “The pan-German train is on the move, and we will have to take care that no-one falls under the wheels.”
When I think about these words, I am very soon reminded of the social mission statement issued by the two churches two years ago, and of the question of how we should explain today, and how we should remind people, that freedom without justice leads to arbitrary acts, and that it is only justice which can provide cohesion for the people who make up our nation.
One Federal President who was relatively liberal was the very first Federal President of Germany. He was the only one to end the speech he delivered on entering office with a quotation from the Bible. Theodor Heuss concluded this speech in 1949 with the words, “Righteousness exalteth a nation”. I believe we should all remember that justice never describes a status quo, but always something which is not yet within our grasp, but which we continue to pursue.
I hope – even in my present office – that we never forget how to be amazed. I am currently visiting the 16 states of the Federal Republic in turn, as well as Germany’s new neighbours. We are one of the nations with the most neighbours in the world. It is only once you become aware of the friendliness and lack of prejudice which characterises our current relationships with our European neighbours and which we are learning to develop with the French and the Poles, in spite of our history – and particularly that of the first half of the century – that you realise that we have no reason to go around looking glum or to gloss over problems, and that neither do we have any cause to think only in terms of a vale of tears as opposed to a future we can help shape.
My aspiration is not for some kind of joyful optimism; rather, I would like to see a society which exudes confidence. And the churches have a part to play in this. Anyone who has read Erich Loest’s book about St. Nicholas’ Church will remember the words of the Stasi member who said, “We were ready for anything, just not candles and prayers.” A bloodless revolution, non-violent change in Germany, non-violent change throughout Europe.
On Sunday evening I was sitting at home with Gerhard Schröder, who originates from here, Richard von Weizsäcker and Mikhail Gorbachev, and we were discussing what a miracle it was that the transformation of Europe over the last ten years came about without a shot being fired, without violence, and without any bloodletting.
As I see it, the churches have, however, experienced the occasional setback during this period. They used to be a single entity, to exert magnetism. Then elements began to break away, and their small central bodies became defining in a completely new way: “Dearest Jesus, we are four”, to paraphrase Bach. We have all seen this happen. And yet I would like to say – and this is not a universally held view – that I am grateful that the two churches continued to cooperate and to present a united front throughout the many, many years before the Wall came down. I know from my own parish of Gemarke, and from the partnership with Oranienburg, and I know from many regional churches too, that without the contribution made by Christians in the GDR, 9 November 1989 would never have come about. I think we should be grateful for that, rather than grumbling that the bells aren’t ringing out.
Allow me to take the liberty of expressing another thought, which is also a very personal one – as indeed is everything I am trying to say to you this morning. I became Federal President after four decades of playing an active part in politics. You sometimes feel you are holding yourself back. You’re itching to say something, but you are not allowed to and oughtn’t to and are not prepared to either. This is true for both the political and the church spheres which one inhabits. President Kock, in January I shall be resigning my membership of the synod in the Rhineland after 35 years. I would so have liked to have completed a 40-year term, with the Biblical allegories in mind. But I have weighed up both sides of the argument and come to the conclusion that it is better if I leave now.
And yet of course one retains one’s bonds with one’s church and has certain hopes for its future. My wish is that churches might recognisably remain churches, and not mutate into a social force, a public ‘philanthropist’. Such things are necessary, but not as vital as for both churches to send out a distinctive message. This distinctive message may partly take the form of a social mission statement, but not to the exclusion of all else.
I hope that this message will remain distinctive in the face of an ever more diffuse range of religious options, which encompasses parts of the world in which globalisation discussions are taking place: last Sunday, we conducted just such a discussion with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Andrew Young and Hans Küng in Wittenberg.
Hermann Hesse once said that, “Shapeless mists never meet.” One has to maintain one’s profile so that the dialogue of cultures and world religions can progress and we can learn together that world peace and world religion are connected; this connection is not always easy to perceive because of the various differences, some substantive, which exist between the world religions. Fundamentalism is, in truth, not unique to Islam; it is a problem for all major world religions.
I wish for a church whose message is distinctive, and which asserts that although the world is in chaos, it should not remain so because it has been saved, that tells us that this world is not a lost cause, but is loved. If people were to realise this more clearly, then we would be able to exert more power. I wish this as someone who is retiring from church office, but who only too naturally enquires where this world will find the energy to continue in the years to come, when a young generation is growing up in completely different circumstances to those of my own youth, and when many are so overwhelmed by the flood of information that it is no longer a question of ‘where can one get information from?’, but rather, ‘how can one become informed in a world of disinformation full of mere soundbite journalism?’ It is my urgent request that we present a clear profile on these issues. That is my wish. And I believe it is vital.
I should like to thank Brother Magirius for allowing me to speak before him, although I would actually have preferred him to speak first. But that’s just the way it is; I have a plane to catch. The pilot has given me my instructions.
I greatly appreciate your patience. I hope you will enjoy worthwhile discussions on an exciting subject, that of ‘Mission’. I have read with great interest about what has been achieved thus far with Jüngel’s lecture and the discussion. As Eberhard Jüngel once said, “The Holy Spirit tells us to remain here!”
I agree. We will be called away when the time is right.