The History Place - Great Speeches Collection

Gerhard Schroeder "I Express My Shame"


Chancellor Gerhard Schröder
Upon the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz by Russian soldiers, a commemoration was held in a Berlin theater. Organized by the International Auschwitz Committee, attendees included Holocaust survivors and various political functionaries including German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Standing before a film screen depicting a photo of Auschwitz, Schröder gave this remarkable speech containing some of the most forthright sentiments regarding the Holocaust yet expressed by a leader of postwar Germany.

Survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the International Auschwitz Committee for the invitation to speak to you here today.

In my estimation an invitation of this kind is still not something that can be taken for granted. It would be fitting for us Germans to remain silent in the face of what was the greatest crime in the history of mankind. Words by government leaders are inadequate when confronted with the absolute immorality and senselessness of the murder of millions.

We look for rational understanding of something that is beyond human comprehension. We seek definitive answers, but in vain.

What is left is the testimony of those few who survived and their descendants.

What is left are the remains of the sites of these murders and the historical record.

What is left also is the certainty that these extermination camps were a manifestation of absolute evil.

Evil is not a political or scientific category. But, after Auschwitz, who could doubt that it exists, and that it manifested itself in the hate-driven genocide carried out by the Nazi regime? However, noting this fact does not permit us to circumvent our responsibility by blaming everything on a demonic Hitler. The evil manifested in the Nazi ideology was not without its precursors. There was a tradition behind the rise of this brutal ideology and the accompanying loss of moral inhibition. Above all, it needs to be said that the Nazi ideology was something that people supported at the time and that they took part in putting into effect.

Now, sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, I stand before you as the representative of a democratic Germany. I express my shame for the deaths of those who were murdered and for the fact that you, the survivors, were forced to go through the hell of a concentration camp.

Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau are names that will forever be associated with the history of the victims as well as with German and European history. We know that.

We bear this burden with sadness, but also with a serious sense of responsibility.

Millions of men, women, and children were gassed, starved, or shot by German SS troops and their helpers.

Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, POWs, and resistance fighters from across Europe were exterminated with cold industrial perfection or were enslaved and worked to death.

Never before had there been a worse breakdown of thousands of years of European culture and civilization. After the war it took some time before the full extent of this breakdown was realized. We are aware of it, but I doubt that we will ever be able to understand it. The past cannot be "overcome." It is the past. But its traces and, above all, the lessons to be learned from it extend to the present.

There will never be anything that can make up for the horror, the torment, and the agony that took place in the concentration camps. It is only possible to provide the families of those who died and the survivors a certain amount of compensation.

Germany has faced this responsibility for a long period of time now with its government policies and court decisions, supported by a sense of justice on the part of the people.

The young men and women in the photo we see here were freed in the summer of 1945. Most survivors went in different directions after their liberation: to Israel, to North and South America, to neighboring European countries, or back to their countries of origin.

However, some of them stayed in or returned to Germany, the country where the so-called 'Final Solution' originated.

It was an extraordinarily difficult decision for them, and often enough it was not a voluntary decision, but rather the result of total desperation. However, hope did return to their disrupted lives, and many did remain in Germany, and we are grateful for that.

Today the Jewish community in Germany is the third-largest in Europe. It is full of vitality and growing rapidly. New synagogues are being built. The Jewish community is and will remain an irreplaceable part of our society and culture. Its brilliant as well as painful history will continue to be both an obligation and a promise for the future.

We will use the powers of government to protect it against the anti-Semitism of those who refuse to learn the lessons of the past. There is no denying that anti-Semitism continues to exist. It is the task of society as a whole to fight it. It must never again become possible for anti-Semites to attack and cause injury to Jewish citizens in our country or any other country and in doing so bring disgrace upon our nation.

Right-wing extremists, with their spray-painted slogans, have the special attention of our law enforcement and justice authorities. But the process of dealing politically with neo-Nazis and former Nazis is something we all need to do together.

It is the duty of all democrats to provide a strong response to neo-Nazi incitement and recurrent attempts on their part to play down the importance of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime. For the enemies of democracy and tolerance there can be no tolerance.

The survivors of Auschwitz have called upon us to be vigilant, not to look away, and not to pretend we don't hear things. They have called upon us to acknowledge human rights violations and to do something about them. They are being heard, particularly by young people, for instance by those who are looking at the Auschwitz memorial today with their own eyes. They are speaking with former prisoners. They are helping to maintain and preserve the memorial. They will also help to inform future generations of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

The vast majority of the Germans living today bear no guilt for the Holocaust. But they do bear a special responsibility. Remembrance of the war and the genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime has become part of our living constitution. For some this is a difficult burden to bear.

Nonetheless this remembrance is part of our national identity. Remembrance of the Nazi era and its crimes is a moral obligation. We owe it to the victims, we owe it to the survivors and their families, and we owe it to ourselves.

It is true, the temptation to forget is very great. But we will not succumb to this temptation.

The Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin cannot restore the lives or the dignity of the victims. It can perhaps serve survivors and their descendants as a symbol of their suffering. It serves us all as a reminder of the past.

We know one thing for sure. There would be no freedom, no human dignity, and no justice if we were to forget what happened when freedom, justice, and human dignity were desecrated by government power. Exemplary efforts are being undertaken in many German schools, in companies, in labor unions, and in the churches. Germany is facing up to its past.

From the Shoa and Nazi terror a certainty has arisen for us all that can best be expressed by the words "never again." We want to preserve this certainty. All Germans, but also all Europeans, and the entire international community need to continue to learn to live together with respect, humanity, and in peace.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was a direct effect of the Holocaust on international law. It requires people of different cultural, religious, and racial origins to respect and protect life and human dignity throughout the world. You in the International Auschwitz Committee support this with the exemplary work you are doing in the interest of all people.

Together with you I bow my head before the victims of the death camps. Even if one day the names of the victims should fade in the memory of mankind, their fate will not be forgotten. They will remain in the heart of history.

Gerhard Schröder - January 25, 2005

(Photo credit: Press and Information Office of the German Federal Government)

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