Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening ceremony to kick off the 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany Year of Celebration on 21 February 2021 in Cologne

When in the autumn of 1743, a 14-year-old boy came to Berlin, no one at the time could have guessed that he was to become one of the most important scholars of his day. Moses Mendelssohn, later friend to Lessing and Nicolai, came to the Prussian capital as a young Jew without rights or protection. This same Moses Mendelssohn is intricately woven into the history of 18th century German Enlightenment. He paved the way for the emancipation and equal rights of Jews. 

The Enlightenment era was undoubtedly a turning point, but still it took more than a hundred years for Jews to finally receive equal rights. Jewish life in Germany today extends even further into our history. It can be traced back 1700 years to when Roman emperor Constantine issued an edict here in Cologne – what a long period of time! And what better location to begin this Year of Celebration than here in the oldest Jewish community of our country! 

This Year of Celebration holds so much in store, so much to discover and rediscover. In philosophy, literature, the fine arts and music, in science, medicine, in the economy – Jewish individuals have helped shape our history and elevated our culture to what it is today. Judaism was a decisive force in propelling Germany into the modern age. Even in the countryside, in many smaller cities and villages, there is a testimony of Jewish daily life, a testimony that dates back to the early Middle Ages.

Yet our review of these 1700 years of history must be an honest one. That is the only way to learn lessons for our present and future. This is and remains our responsibility! Nearly without exception, Jews were viewed as foreign, as other. The history of Jews in Germany is a history of emancipation and flourishing. But is also a history of humiliation, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. 

“The age of Jews in Germany is over, once and for all.” Of this the great scholar Leo Baeck was convinced in the aftermath of the collapse of civilization with the Shoah, the murders of millions of European Jews, the decimation of Jewish culture. And yet, today there is again Jewish life; indeed, it has flourished again thanks to those who returned and thanks to immigration from former-Soviet states. And thanks to young Israelis moving to Germany. What an immeasurable blessing for our country! 

Indeed, Jewish life today is diverse, many-faceted, vital, full of momentum. And I am deeply grateful for it. But it is still under threat; in fact, the threat is growing in an age where antisemitism shows itself more openly, an age when hate-filled assailants attack a fully occupied synagogue – and on the most important Jewish holiday of the year. 

Prejudices, clichés, ignorance – I have listened to young people at the Jewish Community Day in Berlin as they tell me how often they are confronted by these evils day to day. They belong to a group that goes out to encounter others and explain what Judaism is. The dedication and openness these young people demonstrate impressed me. But they also told me how much they hope to embody what Jews in Germany have fought for over the centuries: to be seen not as foreigners, not as the other, but rather young people of Jewish origin in a diverse, tolerant society, here in Germany. 

If I as President of Germany may express my hope for this Year of Celebration, it would be not only the unmistakable affirmation that Jews in Germany are part of us, part of our shared identity. My hope would be that we more vigorously oppose those who again – or still – challenge this. The remembrance of 1700 years of our checkered history together teaches us: The Federal Republic of Germany can only be said to have entirely come into its own when Jews feel entirely at home here. Ensuring this is the mandate of 1700 years of history of Jewish life in Germany.