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Fiftieth Anniversary of the Basic Law (May 28, 1999)

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Basic Law, Federal President Roman Herzog briefly recapitulates its successful history and then concentrates on present-day challenges; he stresses, in particular, the principles of freedom and individual responsibility.

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Speech by Federal President Roman Herzog on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Federal Republic of Germany

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of our state, we are gathered together in the newly renovated Reichstag building, which embodies the history of German democracy like no other structure. It was here that decisions about the First World War were made (to the extent that they were made in Germany at all). It was here that the First Republic was proclaimed. And, in 1933, when the Reichstag was set on fire, everyone sensed that German democracy was destroyed along with it. After the Second World War, the Reichstag served for decades as a placeholder for the long awaited joint parliament. And now, after unification and the Bundestag’s move to Berlin, may there be a continuation of everything that this site stands for: freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all. And if we can manage that, then people will no longer speak of a “Berlin Republic” that differs fundamentally from the one of the first fifty years.

Germany has come a long way in the past fifty years: at the end of the Second World War, it wasn’t just the cities that lay in ruin. Our country was in moral ruins as well and was ostracized by the rest of the world. But the German people to whom this building is dedicated learned from the lack of freedom, the inhumanity, and the dictatorship they experienced. Our fathers wanted to do things differently and better, and they succeeded. Today, Germany is a stable liberal democracy, an economically strong partner in the world, and a country of great prosperity. Above all, for the first time in its history, it is living in friendship with all its neighboring countries, and it considers itself a driving force of a Europe that is growing together in peace.

I have never attempted to sugarcoat existing deficiencies. But we can truly claim to have become a tolerant, cosmopolitan, and successful country. That is also how others view Germany; I have experienced that time and again. On many of my foreign trips I have been asked: How can we share in your experience? How did you manage to reconstruct so rapidly after 1945? How did you create a stable and prosperous country so quickly? How did you meet the challenges of unification? Of course, we should not place too much emphasis on all of this, but sometimes an outside view can put our own domestic problems into proper perspective.

No one even dreamed of all this fifty years ago, when the Federal Republic of Germany was founded as a Western state. And even ten years ago, when GDR citizens started confronting the ruling dictatorship, it was still not a given. However, we achieved reunification not in spite of the community of states, but rather with its approval and in friendship with it.

The Basic Law, which took effect fifty years ago yesterday, and its basic premises – freedom, justice, tolerance, and peaceableness – stood at the beginning of this process and were its driving forces. We have every reason to celebrate its anniversary.

Fifty years of the Federal Republic of Germany also means forty years of a divided past. To be sure, during these years we never stopped being a nation and of course we are one nation today. But we are a nation with distinct experiences and, consequently, with distinct perspectives. In these forty years, despite all the euphemistic speeches, we grew farther apart than we had hoped in the initial euphoria of regained unity. That is the hard reality, but we should neither repress nor overstate it. We must continue to confront it again and again. But we will only succeed if the people in both East and West are fair enough to want to understand and respect the different memories and life experiences that emerged from our divided past.

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