When German Ambassador Martin Schäfer gave a speech at the Annual Conference of the De Klerk Foundation on 31 January, to celebrate the historic speech of President de Klerk in the National Assembly in 1990, he did not anticipate that the issues he touched on were to become so topical just two weeks later.
Here is an edited extract of Ambassador Schäfer’s speech:
I would like to start with a disclaimer.
What was done in the name of Germany in the years between 1933 and 1945 is singular in human history.
The atrocities were committed in the name of my country, by Germans, and cannot be compared to anything else.
I want to talk about the way we have dealt with that past.
8 May 1945 may have seemed like a day of defeat when Field Marshal Keitel signed the unconditional surrender in Berlin. Actually, it was a day of liberation.
The world helped us to liberate ourselves from the scourge of racism, of Nazism, of the intolerable idea of racial superiority.
The Shoah, the killing of six million Jews; the crimes committed by Germans against Poles, people from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, the French, Dutch, Greek and so many more; the war we waged on the entire world that cost 60 million people’s lives.
We needed the entire world, including so many South Africans, who were willing to give their lives to free us from the scourge of fascism.
We were at a moral ground zero.
Since then, we have had 75 years to cope with this history.
For the first two decades after 1945, silence reigned, nobody wanted to touch the recent history.
We started to face our past slowly by signing reparation agreements.
We established diplomatic relations with Israel. But we weren’t ready yet to collectively face our own demons.
It was only in 1968, about a generation after the end of the war, when the children of the generation of the perpetrators were fed up with their fathers’ unbearable silence.
Since then, painfully but consistently, we have learned to face our own history – its good and its dark chapters.
Whoever visits Berlin can witness that: in the heart of the city, we have built impressive monuments commemorating the best and the worst parts of our history.
People in psychology talk about traumas of the victims and traumas of the perpetrators.
Since the 1960s, we have tried to tackle our own trauma – the trauma of the guilt and responsibility we carry as a people, a nation that committed those crimes.
We have come to accept responsibility and I think that has been the morally right thing to do.
But it has also been the reasonable thing to do.
How can you expect to reemerge from the ashes as a leading industrial and trading nation when you refuse to engage with your friends and partners who are your former foes?
I consider it to be a miracle that the country that committed the Shoah is now, for quite some time again, fully accepted as a responsible and respected member of the international community.
But we are not here to talk about German history.
We are here to talk about South Africa’s present and future.
Allow me to make a careful attempt at drawing some conclusions from what I just said about the German experience.
The first one concerns the process of nation-building – in any country, any nation, but certainly in South Africa where inequalities and divides between population groups are so huge.
What’s needed in this process is trust and empathy.
Empathy means an honest willingness to try to understand one another: To ask where the other person comes from, what his or her traumas are, what happened to the other in the past and to show compassion for their pain.
The second thing needed is a common vision – to build a prosperous nation, to have a common understanding of where you want to go.
With the Constitution of 1996, South Africa has a clear, progressive document that paves the way along clear values.
We share these values in Germany and Europe. But in order to have a common vision of the future, it’s also important to have a common understanding of the past.
That might be quite different to the experience we have had in Germany, but I believe it is as important.
On my third point, I would like to quote a Holocaust survivor who said that “remembrance does not have an expiry date”.
Never must we draw a final stroke under the way we deal with our past.
That is certainly true for Germans but I think that it holds true universally.
In the context of South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was put in place very courageously at a moment when the Apartheid past was still a raw and open wound.
But it was not meant to be a final stroke, but a beginning of healing.
I believe that even today, for many in this country, the past continues to be a painful scar. It needs courage to look at the past, to face one’s demons, to talk and try to understand.
I believe the acknowledgement of our past is crucial for determining our present and our future. Often, the first step is an honest attempt at understanding.
I think it would be a great step forward if those who were part of the government at the time or who benefited from those times of Apartheid were willing to express their empathy for the continued grief and sorrow of compatriots who suffered and lost loved ones during Apartheid.
The case of Neil Aggett would be a good start.