W. Michael Blumenthal: Laudatio for Chancellor Angela Merkel

Michael Blumenthal presents the Leo Baeck Medal to Chancellor Angela Merkel

On September 21, 2010, former US Secretary of the Treasury and current director of the Jewish Museum Berlin W. Michael Blumenthal presented Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Leo Baeck Medal.

In his laudatio to Chancellor Merkel, Blumenthal cited her committment to Germany’s partnership with Israel, her “unequivocal stand in the Sarrazin controversy against demagogic and racist language directed at any minority,” and her support of positive policies to integrate recent immigrants into German life as evidence of her willingness to exert moral leadership in the spirit of Leo Baeck.

Full Text of Speech by W. Michael Blumenthal, delivered at the Leo Baeck Institute on September 21, 2010

Madam Chancellor, Dear Dr. Merkel,

Almost exactly 20 years ago, on October 3rd, 1990, I was among a small group of Americans invited to Berlin to witness the historic ceremonies of the formal reunification of the two Germanys.

Standing there among our German hosts, we felt their deep emotion and shared their joy as the Federal President and the German Chancellor stepped to the microphone to proclaim a reunited single German nation.   The Peace Bell at the Schöneberg Rathaus began to chime, church bells all over the city joined in, and a giant German flag was being raised at the Reichstag.

Just then, with so much emotion enveloping us, one of the American guests turned to me with a question.  Twice before, a powerful German nation had pursued misguided, undemocratic measures at home, and a foreign policy leading to two devastating wars and much human suffering.  This time, he wanted to know, what were the prospects that the past would not be repeated, that this time the reunited Germany –again the major economic power on the continent of Europe – would nourish a strong domestic democracy, and be a force for peace in Europe and throughout the world?

As he whispered this question to me, he was not alone.  Others, some in high places in Europe and elsewhere with long historical memories, were asking the same question – openly, or by implication – even as they applauded the reunification miracle and wished their German friends well.  In some ways, their concerns were understandable.  Along with adapting to the rapid pace of change in a globalized world, the costs of reunification promised to be extraordinarily high.  Environmental degradation in the former DDR was formidable, its infrastructure in a deplorable state.  With 16 million East Germans inexperienced in democratic ideas clamoring for rapid change, could domestic tranquility, and would the adherence to democratic ideals, be preserved?  Difficulties and disappointments were sure to come.  And what would happen then, when the going got tough?  With an increasing number of ethnic and religious minorities in the land, might there again be a rise in intolerance, and a search for scapegoats?

How strong, in other words, was the reunited Germany’s commitment to European unity, Atlantic Partnership and Peace in the World, on the one hand, and to the dignity of the individual citizen, to liberty, justice, and freedom of religion embedded in the first articles of its Constitution, on the other?

The answer I gave to my American colleague that day was, as I recall it, that only the future would tell, but that I was hopeful.  That, above all, much in the years ahead would depend on the quality of German leaders: on their wisdom and courage in confronting the problems with steadfast adherence to democratic principles and the protection of the rights of all minorities at home, even in difficult times, opposing demagoguery and intolerance, and to the role of Germany as a force for peace with its partners in Europe and like-minded nations throughout the world.

Madam Chancellor, today the answer is no longer in doubt.  The early challenges have been successfully met, even as new ones arise and are faced under your leadership.  The Federal Republic of Germany continues to be a key force in the European Union and a reliable partner with other nations in the fight against intolerance and terrorism and in the search for peace in the Middle East and other world trouble spots.  Domestically, the commitment to the fundamental principles of dignity and justice for all German citizens remains as strong as ever.

Nor has the past been forgotten.  Widespread public support, under your leadership, of the many institutions of remembrance – from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, to the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, and many others – bears witness to your determination and that of the vast majority of today’s generation of Germans not to forget, but to learn from the past, to keep alive the memory of Jewish life in Germany and how it was destroyed, and to nurture and protect its rebirth, ensuring that neither anti-Semitism nor discrimination toward any religious or ethnic minority will again find a foothold in your land.

Those of us who were born in your country, and whose families lived there for many generations, are especially cognizant of the spirit of this new Germany, and we salute you as a strong leader and outstanding symbol of it.

The Leo Baeck Institute was established by former German Jews dedicated to keeping alive the centuries-old record of German Jewry.  Often, though regrettably not always, our ancestors were allowed to live peacefully side by side with their neighbors, and when they could do so, they proved their loyalty to their homeland many times over, contributing importantly to Germany’s march into modernity and to all phases of German economic, scientific and cultural life.  To maintain this historical record, with all its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies, remains the mission of this institution to this day.

The Institute, and the medal we are proud to present to you this day, bears the name of a person who symbolizes the best of that history.  Educated as a Jewish theologian, Leo Baeck was at the same time a philosopher and scholar.  The graduate of a German university, he was a leader respected both for his Judaism and his Germanism, who believed in the Kantian concept of loyalty to the State and individual morality.  As a patriot, he was one of the first to volunteer for duty as a military chaplain in the Great War.  And throughout his life, he was a builder of bridges – between Christians and Jews, Zionists and non-Zionists, and Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed practitioners of the Jewish faith.

As a theologian, he taught that the dignity of the individual and individual morality were the essence of the central meaning of Judaism.  He was a man of great integrity and quiet courage, even in the darkest days.  A fierce opponent of the Nazi dictatorship, he worked with its opponents when he could, and met its outrages with quiet dignity when nothing else was possible.  Even in the worst of times, he was a leader with the sense of responsibility and courage to do his duty as best he could.  Fighting to save as many Jews as possible, he traveled to England to plead their case as late as 1939 yet, offered a place for himself, chose to return and remain at their side in their hour of greatest need.  ‘As long as there is a single Jew left in Germany, this is where I belong,’ he said.

And even at the very end, when the war was over but a deadly typhus epidemic cost the lives of many more of his fellow Theresienstadt prisoners, he refused early rescue and stayed at their side till the worst had passed.  And always, he remained a builder of bridges.  When finally leaving in 1945, after the horrible crimes against his people, he had the courage to remind his fellows of for many then a virtually unacceptable truth – not to forget those Germans, albeit all too few, who had helped the Jews, and, as he put it, “to record their name in a Golden Book.”

Leaving to rejoin his family in 1945, in despair over what had happened, Leo Baeck would say that he thought “the history of German Jewry is definitely at an end.”  Today we know that in this he was not correct, and in later years in his various visits to the early postwar Germany he himself began to change his mind.

The real miracle of a rebirth of Jewish life in Germany, however, has occurred in more recent times, and especially since reunification.  Today, over 200,000 Jews again call Germany their home, a number that continues to grow.  Jewish life flourishes, there are synagogues in all the major cities and many smaller ones, Jewish schools, even a rabbinical seminary, and an active Jewish cultural life.  Germany’s Jews are full citizens with equal rights, and their special needs and concerns are respected, protected and honored.

You, Madam Chancellor, are a worthy successor among Germany’s postwar leaders who have followed the policies to make all this possible.  Indeed, you are an especially fitting symbol of it.  As Chancellor of Germany in complex times, you face many challenges.  Yet as a former East German, you understand more clearly than most the need to counter the arbitrary power of dictatorial regimes in opposition to freedom of thought and spirit, and to be resolute against those who would stoke the flames of populist resentments against the rights of any religious or ethnic minority at home.  For this we thank you.

We followed your visit to Israel two years ago with admiration, and were gratified by the words you spoke there: recognizing Germany’s responsibility for the past, pledging to make amends where possible, and reiterating Germany’s position as Israel’s friend and supporter in the difficult quest for a durable peace in the region.  And at a very human level, we salute your recent personal encouragement for the private joint efforts of Jewish and Palestinian families in search of that peace.

Your unequivocal stand in the Sarrazin controversy against demagogic and racist language directed at any minority, and your support of positive policies needed to integrate recent immigrants into German life, we see as further proof of your willingness to exert the moral leadership of your position as a builder of bridges, a leadership that is in full accord with the spirit of Leo Baeck.

At difficult moments, when there may be those tempted to exploit the popular resentments of some against a minority for political gain, your principled stand in their defense – be they Jews, ethnic Turks or Roma, is especially gratifying.

As the Leo Baeck Institute pursues its mission to serve as a repository of the history of German Jewish life – here in New York, and in partnership with the Jewish Museum in Berlin – we hope to do what we can to support your efforts.  It is a partnership we expect to be further strengthened when the Museum’s new education building, financed with your approval partly with federal funds, and partly by contributions from German and American friends, opens next year.  For the history of Jewish/non-Jewish relations in Germany is an excellent paradigm for what can be accomplished when things go well, and what is at risk when they fail.  We intend to utilize these new resources to work with young Germans of all ethnic background and faiths, using that history to show that rejecting anti-Semitism and working for tolerance for all minorities and their integration into German life will benefit all.

In your remarkable career, Madam Chancellor, there have been many firsts:  first German Chancellor born after the Great War; first woman; and first to have grown up on the eastern side of the Wall that divided Germany.  And it took a special resolution of the Knesset for you to become the first German Chancellor to speak there, an honor normally reserved only to heads of state.

Today, Madam Chancellor, we would like to add another modest first to that long list.  In presenting the Leo Baeck Medal to you, expressing our thanks for what you have done, and are doing, on behalf of Jewish life in Germany, on behalf of all minorities, and for peace – you will be the first German Chancellor to receive this award.

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