Letter from Jean-Yves Le Drian to Heiko Maas on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November 2019)


Jean-Yves Le Drian wrote to his German counterpart on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dear Minister, Dear Heiko,

In the name of all my fellow citizens, I would like to share my emotion on the occasion of this 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On that day, resilience, courage and aspiration to freedom overcame totalitarian isolation. So my message to you today is one of joy and pride from one European to another. It is also a message of admiration and humility, as I think of the hundreds of East Germans who were murdered by their own government as they sought to leave the GDR for freedom and flee their own country and what it had become in the Soviet empire.

One year ago, leaders from around the world came to Paris to commemorate the end of the First World War. Unfortunately, the 1918 Armistice only marked the end of Europe’s divisions – and even then, only some of them – for a very brief period. In contrast, this year we are celebrating the lasting reunification of Europe, with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

This reunification has seen many tribulations. The idea of a bright future and inevitable convergence came up against over reality. There are political and economic disappointments and frustrations. We need to acknowledge our share of responsibility, for example when we believed that access to our prosperity would suffice to fulfil expectations. We should have understood this situation sooner. In 1991, the war in former Yugoslavia, among others, demonstrated the uncertainty, the fragility and the violence of the new world, including in Europe.

In failing to understand, we exposed ourselves to some of the problems we have faced since, both in Central and Eastern Europe, where frustrations explain certain political developments, and in Western Europe, where populism and nationalism are present. Personally, although I believe that Europe needs reform, I am not nostalgic of a twelve- or six- member Europe.

Nor do I believe that a single and unambiguous memory should be used to challenge the memories instrumentalized by our adversaries. On the contrary, Europe should be a place of shared memories that are both different and harmonious. When he talked about the “Tragedy of Central Europe” in 1983, Milan Kundera was not speaking only of Soviet domination. He regretted most of all that Central Europe no longer existed in the eyes of the West other than as part of the Soviet empire. Political differences should not hide what unites us, our community of destiny and the universal enlightenment principles, any more today than in the past.

I therefore agree with what you wrote in “Le Monde” on 2 November: that the reunification of Europe is still incomplete, and that we need to work further, “building a Europe that lives up to the values and dreams of those who took to the streets in 1989”. Some of the hopes of that watershed year have been dashed. But while these disappointments should be the end of our naivety, they should not be the end of our hopes. That is our responsibility.

I also agree with you that “the close cooperation between France and Germany has a specific role to play in this regard”. That is the meaning of our joint work, in an initiative that goes well beyond Europe. It is no accident that it is with you that we are promoting the Alliance for Multilateralism, in an effort to defend the idea of a rules- and cooperation-based international order, to renew it and to extend it to fields where governance remains insufficient. But this Franco-German cooperation must not be exclusive. It is important to continue listening to and speaking with all our partners if we are to advance together, and have an impact beyond Europe.

This anniversary is a watershed for all Europeans.

Firstly because, before falling, the Wall had cracked thanks to the courage of thousands of citizens. Today, we celebrate the courage of the tens of thousands of East Germans who protested peacefully in autumn 1989. But we cannot pay tribute to their memory without also thinking of the Gdansk shipyard workers and the members of Solidarność, the Czech Charter 77 dissidents, the Hungarian and Czech citizens who sought to defend their freedom and dignity in the face of the advancing Soviet tanks in 1956 and 1968, and the immense human chain of citizens in our Baltic partners who, in late August 1989 marked their aspiration to freedom, as well as so many others, both known and unknown, and those in the West who supported them.

Secondly because, after the fall of the Wall, all of Eastern Europe recovered its freedom. In hindsight, we know today, unlike those who lived through this exceptional time, that it was a process that was underway – one that would lead to the end of the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union. The vision of the Soviet leaders of the time, and Mikhail Gorbachev in particular, should also be commended, as should the irreplaceable role of North American leaders, in enabling and supporting this peaceful reunification. I know how much the reunification of the European continent owes to our North American allies, the United States and Canada.

Next year, we will celebrate another anniversary: that of the Charter of Paris which resumed the Helsinki Principles in 1990. As we know, these principles played a role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain, for, as historian Mary Elise Sarotte has written, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, the Wall fell gradually and then suddenly. Among these principles, supposed to govern the mutual relations of the participating States, was the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. What was sowed in 1975 began to germinate at the end of the next decade, and 1989 is a lesson on the resilience and courage of individuals and societies. I say that without seeking to exonerate the responsibilities of governments – on the contrary.

In 1914, like in 1939, when Europe tore itself asunder, it dragged the world in with it. At a time when there is a risk of further tears in the world, including violent ruptures, that could drag us along, our reunification is an asset. It is particularly important for Europe to take care of its cohesion, not because its unity would suffice to preserve it, but because that unity is the essential condition to guarantee our ability to act and influence events which, otherwise, will decide our common destiny – without and despite us.

Jean-Yves Le Drian