Speech on 20 July 2017 in the community of Imshausen
By Gerhard Rein
Dear listeners at the cross in Imshausen, dear family von Trott.
Eight years ago I was in Imshausen for the first time. I will never forget how surprised and extremely pleased I was that there is a Visser`t Hooft house in Imshausen. For me Willem A. Visser`t Hooft is the most important unknown person in Germany.
I have never had more respect for any other person than for him. The Protestant Church in Germany had appointed me as one of three youth delegates for the 1961 World Church Conference in New Delhi.
My life changed decisively in 1961. A rather naive, rather pious young man became a critical citizen. The discovery of the world. The end of confinement. Diversity instead of simplicity. The ecumenical movement became my place. My home. In New Delhi I consciously perceived Willem Visser`t Hooft for the first time. The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches was not a buddy, not only for closeness, sometimes also for distance. However, Visser`t Hooft made friendship with two young Germans in the 1930s.
With the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the lawyer Adam von Trott. For both he transported memoranda of the German resistance from Switzerland to the USA and England. Bonhoeffer and von Trott were executed by the National Socialists. Bonhoeffer at 39 years of age, von Trott at 35.
Adam von Trott visited Visser`t Hooft in Geneva again and again. He wanted to learn more about the ecumenical movement. He wanted to save world peace. He wanted to see Europe preserved between the USA and Russia. And he wanted to maintain the image of another Germany, the image of his friends and his own, which was so battered, so destroyed, so scarred by Hitler, by a racist nationalism, by crime.
A memorandum of the German resistance to the British government, co-authored by Adam von Trott, reached London in 1942 through Willem Visser`t Hooft. Winston Churchill read it and wrote „very encouraging“ in the margins. But the British government insisted that first Germany had to be defeated completely, the Nazis as well as German militarism, before there could be talks about the future of Germany. Willem A. Visser`t Hooft describes in his memoirs that Adam von Trott was close to despair when, on a warm summer night in his garden in the Geneva suburb of Chenebougeries, he explained the answer from England. After all, Adam had influential friends in England, the Astors for example, so why did they mistrust him?
The assassination attempt on Hitler, July 20, 1944, the attempted coup that was to save Germany, is now 73 years in the past.
We now live in a country with an open society. The predominantly tolerant basic attitude has given the Federal Republic a sympathetic face in recent decades. We are in danger of losing it. This Germany is now the world’s third largest exporter of weapons and armaments. Our Chancellor is behind the scandalous arms exports to areas of tension, just recently again to Saudi Arabia, and passes them off as part of German peace policy.
I deplore a creeping militarization of our country, a creeping militarization of our thinking, which hardly respects the peace obligation offered by the Basic Law. Germany should assume greater responsibility for military operations abroad. Our culture of restraint must come to an end, I hear. We are arming. Our arms budget is to increase by 14 billion euros. That’s all we needed, to develop a new fighter jet.
This change is turning everything that Germans painstakingly learned after the disaster of the Second World War upside down. Our society is changing dramatically. It has abandoned the concept of a global domestic policy. It is no longer guided by consensus but by conflict. A military component is accompanying economic and political decisions.
This change of era wants to persuade us that Bundeswehr missions abroad should be understood as peace policy. We are participating in the war in Afghanistan. Anyone who wants to call this mission something other than war is suppressing reality. What on earth are about a thousand German soldiers doing in Afghanistan?
We know, at least we suspect, that this is not at all about Afghanistan, but about consideration for the USA and its interests. Loyalty after 9/11, after the horrible attacks in the USA in 2001. So far, the military mission in Afghanistan has cost the Federal Republic and its taxpayers almost ten billion euros, and about 800 000 euros are added every day. An end to the war is not in sight. So far, some 150,000 Afghan refugees have come to Germany, the majority of them in 2015. Their home country is anything but safe. Nevertheless, there are planes that are supposed to fly rejected asylum seekers back. They are only stopped by new horror reports of the war in Afghanistan.
Part of the horror of this war is that in mid-April 2017 the USA dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in eastern Afghanistan. The explosive device weighing more than 10,000 kilograms was intended to hit an enemy tunnel system. This was the first time the „mother of all bombs“ had been used. It is said to have been a retaliatory action. A few days before the drop, a Green Beret, a US soldier of a special unit, was killed in the region. If this information is correct: For the death of his own soldier the „mother of all bombs“ against the others.
I confess that I find it very difficult to contain my horror at the official name of this bomb. To tell me that this is war. Why are you upset? I have not read any critical remarks from the Bundeswehr, from the Minister of Defence. It is solidarity in the alliance, which also has its value, and which we are obliged to respect.
Willem A. Visser`t Hooft has reported that Adam von Trott’s concern was above all that his vision of a future free and democratic Europe, which he advocated, which he dreamed of, was reaching its limits, because consideration for the USA and the equally demanded consideration for Russia could not be ignored.
And now, seventy years later, and everything is different and nothing is comparable, our concerns, my concerns have to do with what? With the future of Europe, with the irritating developments in the USA and those in Russia. We too want to see Europe preserved between the USA and Russia.
My beloved USA, which, together with the Soviet Union, liberated Germany from National Socialism. Both literally saved my life. Children like me, half Christian, half Jewish, were planned by the Nazis for extermination in 1946/47. My beloved USA, with Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein, with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, with David Clayton Thomas and Chicago, with Janis Joplin and Bruce Springstein, with Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, who infected me with their expression of freedom.
And now I look at America every day, almost every night, irritated. And the so-called most powerful man in the world, the American president, attacks the media, insults especially women. He is damaging the office he was elected to by the white man’s majority. Also by Robert, my friend I grew up with near Bremen. An American who had a career at IBM. Not an impoverished, neglected, forgotten white man. On the phone from New Jersey, Robert, Bobby, wants to explain to me why he chose this man to be president. I want to understand Robert, but I don’t understand him.
And now I sit there with my beloved United States, ruled by a man who is an embarrassment to behold.
And Vladimir Putin is fighting an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine. He occupies the Crimea, flaunting his body. He too is a macho man. Who longs for the old strength of his empire. Who answers sanctions with sanctions. NATO military exercises with exercises of his own forces. Who against all reason supports and defends the Assad regime. Whether a regional cease-fire agreed in Hamburg will hold, remains to be seen.
And us in between, who want to see Europe preserved between the US and Russia. And we are worried and we will remain worried.
Twenty-seven years after the end of the Cold War, international security is again under threat. In itself a case for the United Nations. But the UN is failing, and is no longer playing a role in Europe. The Security Council is blocking itself with the veto rights of the older great powers. What can be done? Is there anything that can be done?
Two and a half years ago, an ecumenical circle of friends, of which I am a member – in the past one would probably have spoken of an East-West circle – proposed that a new, second eastern memorandum be written. The first, published in 1965 by the Protestant Church in Germany, dealt with the situation of the displaced persons and the relationship with our eastern neighbours, especially Poland.
Later it was repeatedly emphasized that this Eastern Memorandum gave decisive impulses for Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. It led to the recognition of the Oder/Neisse border and to a non-violence agreement between Poland and the Federal Republic. The situation 52 years ago cannot be compared with the current crisis. But if the 1965 memorandum formulated the idea of „realising a lasting peace order through a new beginning“, this must also apply to a new memorandum on the East. Why is a new beginning needed?
A new beginning is needed because we must stop equating Europe with the European Union. We must learn to rethink Europe. The worsening crises between West and East, between NATO and Russia, between EU enlargement and the annexation of Crimea, demand that we look for new ways of securing peace. We are going astray if we think we can build a front of the good against a front of the bad. And we are the good guys.
Rethinking Europe means not thinking Europe without Russia. The confrontational handling of political differences endangers security and peace in Europe. Political differences must be tolerated in Europe.
The goal must not be security from each other, but common security. A common peace order in Europe cannot develop against and in dissociation from Russia. The need for security of all European states must be recognised. This includes Russia’s need for security as well as that of its immediate neighbours.
A pan-European peace order recognises social differences and does not deny them. However, it is based on a rational co-existence that can do without friend-foe patterns. This could also help to counteract the alienation and isolation that has arisen. A concept of common security recognizes the autonomy of the other and hopes that peace will be achieved through cooperation and the balancing of interests.
With these last ten sentences I have roughly summarised what is now in a memorandum that has emerged from our initiative. Does it in any way approach the vision that Adam von Trott had of Europe? That is what remains to this day quite astonishing, that Adam von Trott, in the middle of the catastrophe, looked beyond it and thought beyond it. Together with Willem A.Visser`t Hooft he wrote a memorandum about a post-war Europe.
„The question on life and death for Europe is that this continent can rediscover its own and special historical mission“, Willem A. Visser`t Hooft writes after the war and gives his text the title:
„We call Europe.“
There is not much that is new that we perceive as a new development. I would like to give you an example of this, and it will not surprise you that it comes from the environment of my affinity with the USA.
In February 1946 the American diplomat George Kennan sent a telegram from Moscow to Washington. He described the situation at that time as follows:
„Russia’s foreign policy has always been and always will be characterized by fear and anxiety about the outside world, a mixture of insecurity and paranoia. As a result, Russia will always try to infiltrate the West.“
It’s part of the nature of the Kremlin.
You’re saying this analysis is from 1946? It sounds just like today. In this legendary telegram, George Kennan urgently advises his own government in Washington not to burden the necessary, self-interested policy with moral categories. In the struggle for power and influence, one cannot trust one’s own morality. And when I read such clever sentences again today, I think of the USA’s mendacious Iraq war, of drone attacks, of NSA bugging orgies, which simply cannot be reconciled with a policy that wants to pass itself off as a fight for democracy and civilisation and human rights.
Many of you will know a saying attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
„Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian.“
There is a saying by Willem A. Visser`t Hooft that wants to express something similar, but sounds much more complicated. A sentence that rejects the separation of the individual’s faith and his political world responsibility.
When I heard this sentence for the first time, in 1968 at the World Church Conference in Uppsala, not only I, but also some others who heard it, such as Helmut Simon, the former Federal Constitutional Court judge, were quite excited.
Had we correctly understood what Visser`t Hooft had said? The sentence was:
„It must become clear to us that church members who in practice deny their responsibility for the needy somewhere in the world are as guilty of heresy (heresy) as those who reject one or the other truth of faith.
To deny the responsibility for the needy somewhere in the world is, according to Willem Visser`t Hooft, heresy.
I know of no sentence that challenges one’s own Christianity more than this sentence. To forget it, to repress it is much easier than to admit it and try to follow it.
When I asked Willem A. Visser`t Hooft very much later if he saw this sentence of his and Bonhoeffer’s in a connection, he answered briefly and clearly:
That was July 1, 1985. A sultry, warm summer day. We had arranged to talk. At his house in the chemin de Voiron in Geneva. The mailbox at the garden gate was overflowing. The telegram announcing my exact arrival is lying in the street. The house looks deserted, but when I ring the bell, I see a hand pointing me through the garden into the house. Surrounded by books and magazines, Willem Visser`t Hooft lies in an armchair, protected by a blanket. He is breathing heavily, his lung disease is not compatible with the warm and humid day. His skin looks like parchment, his body exhausted. His eyes are lively and alert, interested as always. I put a tray of leftovers in the kitchen. Visser`t Hooft says: „I have prepared a text for our conversation, and in it I have answered a question that I am sure you want to ask: Why is the ecumenical movement not on the move?
Three days later Willem A. Visser`t Hooft dies on an even sultrier day. He answered the question he had asked himself in this way:
„In ecumenism, giving is much easier than receiving. The churches say to each other: I have so much to give you, instead of saying: „Please, I am actually quite poor, I need your help“.
When I interviewed him, we always talked about Germany, even three days before his death, and Willem A. Visser`t Hooft, at the end of his life, now vividly and with almost shining eyes, remembered his two German friends, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adam von Trott zu Solz.
- Willem A. Visser`t Hooft – Wikipedia
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Wikipedia
- Adam von Trott zu Solz – Wikipedia
- Further contributions by Gerhard Rein