Anatomy of a Speech: Dresden, 19th December 1989 – Chancellor Helmut Kohl

Dresden, Besuch Kohl, Rede auf Altmarkt

Chancellor Helmut Kohl delivered this speech in front of the ruins of the Frauenkirche, Dresden on 19th December 1989, five weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On 28th November 1989, Chancellor Kohl had presented his 10-point plan for German reunification, though he gave no timetable. This was a period of intense demonstrations against Communist rule in East Germany, as well as in other Eastern Bloc countries. The peaceful Alexanderplatz-Demonstration had taken place in Berlin on 4th November 1989, with between half a million and a million demonstrators: a milestone on the road to reunification. This speech, given just over a month later, must be seen in the context of the wider demonstrations and struggles for reunification. The situation, both in the square and in the wider society, was tense and delicate. Peaceful reunification was not certain.

It is a speech at a particular moment in history; a moment of intense disruption and instability. Earlier this day, Kohl had had his first official meeting with the Communist Premier of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), Hans Modrow. According to later reports, Chancellor Kohl had not planned to make a speech on this day, and only wrote it that afternoon. What makes this speech all the more remarkable, then, is the balanced tone Kohl strikes. In front of a passionate, volatile crowd of demonstrators, packed into the small square in Dresden, he understands that he must read the moment exactly. The world is watching. Any false word could jeopardise not only German reunification but the wider diplomatic efforts towards a peaceful end to Communist rule in other countries. Kohl responds to the pressures of the situation brilliantly.

This is, therefore, an intensely diplomatic speech. In a recent post, I wrote about the need for a new rhetoric for the networked age. That modern rhetoric must balance the ambiguous and often conflicting forces of power of any situation. Chancellor Kohl, speaking in the pre-internet age, understands that the success of his speech lies precisely in balancing two opposing forces: East and West; West German and East German; the past and the future. He understands both his immense power in leading the reunification, but also the limits of his power. He is part of a wider network, and he understands that, for reunification to be successful, all the political actors must work together. He stands before this crowd as a leader, a diplomat and a German citizen – something itself undergoing radical and uncertain change as he speaks. He puts himself on the line. He later said it was the most difficult speech of his career.

A Word about Translation

I have been unable to find an English translation of this speech. A video of the speech can be found here and a German transcript here (with a couple of tiny changes). I have, therefore, translated the German text and put the English quotes in brackets. They are my own translations and I have attempted to stay as close as possible to the original German – any mistakes or infelicities are my own.  

Balancing Act

I’m going to focus on three features that Chancellor Kohl is trying to balance in this speech and look at specific rhetorical tools for each feature:

The ambiguous identity of the two Germanys – and of Chancellor Kohl as both a leader and German citizen;

The exhilaration of unification with the struggle of achieving this;

The promise of a brighter future whilst recognising the darkness of the past.

The Two Germanys – PRONOUNS

In terms of identity, Chancellor Kohl faces a deeply ambiguous situation. He must strike a balance between recognising that he is, to all intents and purposes, a visitor in the DDR whilst also speaking to the crowd as a fellow German citizen. How can he create a sense of identity and commonality, both between him and his audience, and between the two Germanys? He uses pronouns throughout the speech as a clever diplomatic tool, recognising and respecting the reality of the continuing division between the two nations, whilst also tactfully moving them towards a common identity.

Let’s start with the crowd in front of him. ‘Meine sehr verehrten Damen und Herren,
meine lieben jungen Freunde, liebe Landsleute!’ (Ladies and Gentlemen, my dear young friends, dear fellow countrymen!) is how he greets them. ‘Landsleute’ (fellow countrymen) is an immediate recognition of the DDR citizens’ connection to the BDR (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) citizens.

He begins by telling the crowd that ‘… wir sollten ihnen gemeinsam demonstrieren, wie wir mitten in Deutschland eine friedliche Kundgebung durchführen können.’ (‘We should demonstrate how in Germany we can together peacefully demonstrate together’). After using ‘Ihnen’ and acknowledging that he is a guest in their country (which is soon be cease to be a country), he immediately addresses them as his fellow countrymen using ‘wir’ and ‘Ihnen’. Having praised the DDR citizens for their peaceful revolution, he says ‘Wir respektieren das, was Sie entscheiden für die Zukunft des Landes.’ (‘We respect what you decide for the future of the country’). Here he enacts the promise of ‘Selbstsbestimmung’ (self-determination) as a German citizen, not as a powerful Chancellor. And the pronouns he uses are vital to this. ‘Wir’ (we) the BRD citizens, respect what ‘Sie’ (you) the DDR citizens decide. When he uses ‘Ihnen’ or ‘Sie’, he is the Chancellor of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, recognising the space that still exists between the two countries. He uses these pronouns when he is trying to lead the DDR citizens towards reunification – when he is calling upon them to do something, or when he is setting himself apart from them as a leader of the Bundesrepublik. For instance, ‘Wir wollen, daß Sie in Ihrer Heimat bleiben und hier ihr Glück finden können.’ (we want you to be able to stay in your homeland and find happiness here). Here he addresses the fears of the crowd in simple terms.

But then he subtly shifts to ‘unser’ (our) when he addresses his audience as citizens of a (soon-to-be but not-yet) unified nation: ‘Landleute’ – fellow citizens of the oneland. This subtle shifting continues throughout the speech, a constant  to and fro between recognising that the past of the DDR cannot be erased, that these citizens are still separate, that they need space to create their own future, and drawing the two countries towards reunification.

Kohl also uses the word ‘Wir’ to shift between different spheres of power.  ‘Wir’ (‘We’) can stand for all BDR citizens; and it can stand for the leaders who are shaping the collective German future. People power and the power of leaders.

Kohl shifts between the two verbs ‘wollen’ (want) and ‘möchten’ (would like) to signal a nuanced position as leader. For instance, early on in the speech he uses the more direct ‘wollen’ to speak, not as a political leader, but as a fellow citizen: ‘Das erste, was ich Ihnen allen zurufen will, ist ein herzlicher Gruß all Ihrer Mitbürgerinnen und Mitbürger aus der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.’ (‘First, I want you to call out a heartfelt greeting to all your fellow citizens from the Bundesrepublik Deutschland’).  But then, as he shifts into his role as political leader, he switches to ‘was ich sagen möchte’ (‘what I would like to say’).  He then very subtly switches to ‘wollen’ – still in political mode – but in a conciliatory sense, explaining what he (and, by implication, the government he represents) wants not to do: ‘Wir wollen und wir werden niemanden bevormunden.’ (‘We don’t want to and will not patronize anybody.’) The alliteration between ‘wollen’ and ‘werden’ offers a very careful sense of negative power.

The word ‘wir’ shifts its sense once again as the speech progresses to describing his meeting with President Modrow (then leader of the DDR). He first draws attention to their conversation as the basis for this shared identity. ‘Es war ein erstes Gespräch, es war auch ein ernstes Gespräch, und es hatte gute Ergebnisse.’ (It was a first conversation, it was a serious conversation, and it had good results) The subtle echo of ‘erstes’ (first) and ‘ernstes’ (serious) reinforces both the difficulties and the realities of the conversation to come, with the added assonance on the letter ‘e’ in ‘Ergebnisse’ (results), drawing his audience through the process of the conversation towards a hopeful conclusion.

And so he prepares for another, carefully repeated, rhythmic litany of ‘wir wollen’ phrases. Indeed, he uses the phrase four times:

‘… wir wollen eine enge Zusammenarbeit auf allen Gebieten…’ (‘We want a close cooperation in all areas…’)

‘Wir wollen vor allem auf dem Felde der Wirtschaft eine möglichst enge Zusammenarbeit mit dem klaren Ziel’ (‘We especially want the closest possible cooperation with clear purpose in the field of the economy.‘)

‘Wir wollen, daß die Menschen sich hier wohl fühlen. Wir wollen, daß sie in ihrer Heimat bleiben und hier ihr Glück finden können.’ (‘We want the people to feel good here. We want you to be able to stay in your homeland and find happiness here’).

Even here, with the use of the one verb ‘wollen’, he is balancing the political and social aspects of reunification. He wants the close cooperation, in fact the closest possible cooperation, but then balances this by saying that he wants the citizens to stay in their homeland (Heimat) and find happiness here.

He then goes on to repeat ‘Sie werden’ (you will) three times, linking his goals and actions as a German leader to the practical outcomes the DDR citizens will actually achieve. ‘Sie werden’ subtly echoes the ‘wir werden’ he used previously – what ‘we’ will not do is balanced by what ‘you’ (in the polite, respectful form) will do.

At the very end of the speech he greets ‘alle unsere Landsleute in der DDR und in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.’ (all our fellow countrymen in the DDR and in the Federal Republic of Germany). Having used pronouns carefully throughout the speech to balance the excitement for the future and the delicate complex present, he ends with a message of hope and unity from the historical city of Dresden. He situates this unity in the people and land, not in politics. He has become part of this ‘our’, a fellow countryman, not a distant politician. This message of history, of hope and of unity is reinforced by his final ‘Gott segne unser deutsches Vaterland!’ (God bless our German Fatherland!).

The difficult road to reunification – METAPHORS

Chancellor Kohl also understands that he must balance the exhilaration of revolution with a sense of proportion. He wants to rally the citizens, but to make them realise this is only the first step on a very long road. His repetition of a few key words throughout the speech balances the promise with the difficulty of achieving it.

Early in the speech, he repeats the phrase ‘dieser/diesen Weg’ (this path), setting up the contrast between the difficulty of the path and the thrilling possibility of a common future. ‘Und wir wissen – und lassen Sie mich das auch hier, angesichts dieser Begeisterung, die mich so erfreut, sagen – wie schwierig dieser Weg in die Zukunft ist. Aber ich rufe Ihnen auch zu: Gemeinsam werden wir diesen Weg in die deutsche Zukunft schaffen!’ (‘And we know – and let me say this in the face of all this enthusiasm, which has so delighted me – how difficult this path to the future is. But I also say to you: together we will create this path to the German future!’).

Later in the speech, he returns to the metaphor of a journey. ‘Es ist ein schwieriger Weg, aber es ist ein guter Weg; es geht um unsere gemeinsame Zukunft.’ (‘It is a difficult path, but it is a good path; it leads to our common future.’). The balance between difficulty and achievement is expressed in concrete terms. Notice, too, how ‘wir’ and ‘Sie’ have given way to ‘unser’. All German citizens are now travelling the path together. This simple word stands for the whole reunification: its beginning, its struggles and its future.

Another short word closely linked to ‘Weg’ is ‘Ziel’ (goal or purpose), which he also repeats to emphasise the importance of reunification. And the goal is expressed in a deeply domestic and practical image. ‘Das „Haus Deutschland” – unser gemeinsames Haus – muß unter einem europäischen Dach gebaut werden. Das muß das Ziel unserer Politik sein.’ (‘The “German house” – our common house – must be build under a European roof. That must be the goal of our politics.’) Later in the speech he returns to this metaphor: ‘Von deutschem Boden muß in Zukunft immer Frieden ausgehen – das ist das Ziel unserer Gemeinsamkeit!’ (‘In the future, peace must spring from German ground – that is the goal of our unity.’).  The building of a house stands for the building of a common politics and, thus, to the building of a common future.

Near the very end of the speech, Chancellor Kohl brings all these separate strands together. It’s worth quoting the whole paragraph in full:

‘Jetzt kommt es darauf an, daß wir diesen Weg in der Zeit, die vor uns liegt, friedlich, mit Geduld, mit Augenmaß und gemeinsam mit unseren Nachbarn weitergehen. Für dieses Ziel lassen sie uns gemeinsam arbeiten, lassen sie uns einander in solidarischer Gesinnung helfen.’

(‘Now it is important that we go along this path that lies before us peacefully, with patience, with a sense of proportion and together with our neighbours. Let us work together for this aim, let us help each other in the spirit of solidarity.’)

In this climactic moment, Kohl brings the simple words Weg, Zeit, and Ziel together with another word that draws on the house-building metaphor and extends it to a sense of community: the word ‘Nachbarn’ (neighbours). And the rousing anaphora – two phrases beginning ‘lassen uns’ (‘let us’) – is carefully tempered with simple, homespun words associated with domestic construction and community: ‘gemeinsam’ (‘together’),  ‘arbeiten’ (‘work’) and ‘helfen’ (‘help’).  The sentence is bound together musically with the subtle half-rhyming between ‘gemeinsam’, ‘einander’ (each other) and ‘Gesinnung’ (attitude) – not to mention the slight echo between ‘arbeiten’ (work) and ‘solidarischer’ (solidarity).  He has led the crowd to his point, now he ends by urging them, including himself, to go forward, but also urges a sense of proportion. These simple words encapsulate the dauntingly complex task that lies before them.

The Past, Present and Future – UNITIES OF TIME AND PLACE

As a counterpoint to this carefully crafted domestic imagery, Kohl places himself, his speech and his audience in the wider historical context. The reunification, of course, stands on its own terms as a moment in history, but through situating this history (past, present and future) in specific images and metaphors, he makes this moment historical.

In part, this evocation of a wider perspective is achieved rhetorically by synecdoche. Kohl sometimes places himself in the historical moment, standing for the BDR. He then enacts solidarity with the DDR in a similar way by referring to his meeting with Modrow (‘Wir beide’ – ‘we both’): the synecdoche is now two leaders standing for a new, united Germany.

The geographical sense is mirrored by placing the moment of his meeting on a longer historical continuum. The day of the speech – the kairotic moment when he speaks to his audience – is historical because ‘Es war dies heute meine erste Begegnung mit Ministerpräsident Hans Modrow’ (‘Today was my first meeting with Prime Minister Hans Modrow’).

And then, having created this image of him and Modrow as the two Germanys, it is as if they have no choice but to seize a ‘geschichtlichen Stunde’ (‘historical hour’), ‘ungeachtet unserer unterschiedlichen politischen Herkunft’ (‘irrespective of our different political pasts’). It is ‘unsere Pflicht’ (our duty). The time and the place impose a sense of duty.

He also uses the place he is standing, the Frauenkirche Dresden, to embody the continuity of past, present and future. After laying out the future, he brings the present back to ‘hier auf diesem traditionsreichen Platz’ (‘here in this traditional square’). And he places himself squarely within this history: ‘Mein Ziel bleibt – wenn die geschichtliche Stunde es zuläßt –- die Einheit unserer Nation.’ (‘my aim is, when the historical hour allows it – the unity of our nation’). So here he exploits the place and moment in which he speaks to this audience – invoking a sense of historical significance in the immediate reality of the crowd in the square in front of him, in his own figure, and the united nation that is being born around him.  He places the crowd, and by extension himself and the rest of both German populations, in this singular homely yet historical moment: ‘Wir alle haben das empfunden in diesen Wochen and Tagen’ (‘we have all felt this in these weeks and days.’).

In the next paragraph he extends the temporal perspective by repeating ‘Jahr’/‘Jahrzehnt’/‘Jahrhundert’ (year/decade/century) It is worth quoting the whole paragraph, because it is a masterclass in creating a sense of history through simple repetitions, and in doing so creating a sense of how the horrors of past have a place in a peaceful German future.

Liebe Freunde, in wenigen Tagen, am 1. Januar 1990, beginnen die neunziger Jahre, beginnt das letzte Jahrzehnt dieses Jahrhunderts. Es ist ein Jahrhundert, das vor allem in Europa und auch bei uns in Deutschland viel Not, viel Elend, viele Tote, viel Leid gesehen hat – ein Jahrhundert, das auch uns Deutschen eine besondere Verantwortung auferlegt hat – angesichts des Schlimmen, das geschah.

(‘Dear friends, in a few days, on 1st January 1990, the ninetieth year begins, the last decade of this century. It is a century that has seen, especially in Europe and also with us in Germany, much distress, much misery, much death, much sorrow – a century, that placed a special responsibility on us Germans – in the face of the evil that happened.’)

After the abstract figure of time invoked in the previous paragraph, he comes back to the ‘der Ruine der Frauenkirche in Dresden, am Mahnmal für die Toten von Dresden’ (the ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, a monument for the dead of Dresden) as a symbol of the past and especially of memory. And again, he places himself in this history, ‘habe ich gerade ein Blumengebinde niedergelegt – auch in der Erinnerung an das Leid und an die Toten dieser wunderschönen alten deutschen Stadt.’ (‘I have just laid a wreath – in the memory of the sorrow and of the dead of this beautiful old German city’). In this period of uncertainty, fear and flux, Kohl evokes a historical continuum, a story perhaps, in which to situate the present struggle for reunification and the peaceful common future he and his fellow citizens are trying to create.

The final moment of the speech brilliantly pulls together the two perspectives – the greater continuum of history and the domestic image of building a communal future. Christmas is both a universal and a deeply domestic event. Notice how Kohl, with remarkable subtlety, avoids any Christian reference in describing Christmas as ‘dem Fest des Friedens, das ist das Fest der Familie, der Freunde.’ (‘the feast of peace, the feast of the family, of friends’). He places this festival in the historical present, and especially in these historical days when ‘empfinden wir uns in Deutschland wieder als seine deutsche Familie’ (‘we again in Germany feel like our German family’). The holiday stands as a celebration of hope and unity, irrespective of the two countries’ different political pasts and the sorrows of the previous century.

As a precursory example of the more modern type of diplomatic rhetoric that I have written about, this stands as a brilliant example of what we should be working towards. Did it work? Yes. The speech was warmly received, both in the square and in the wider world. It stands as a great feat of diplomatic speechmaking, and also as a single step on the long road to unification.

We are now facing a different but no less disruptive period in our history. In a world where the nature of power is changing, where we are facing increased insecurity, disruption and disunity, we need this kind of diplomatic rhetoric. It is a rhetoric of balance, of sincerity and ultimately, of community.

Image Source: German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) via Wikimedia Commons



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