Falling Walls Conference
November 8, 2014 — Berlin, Germany
Professor Turner, Professor Mlynek, Professor Eissenhauer, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thinking, rethinking and thinking ahead — it is for this that you have come together today. David Chipperfield has provided inspiration with his monumental installation, which I too greatly admire. I welcome you all to Berlin — a city that has made history.
The Falling Walls Conference links the past with the future in a significant way. It links the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago with a look to the future and the boundaries that we can overcome today and tomorrow. It combines experience with the hope for a good, nay, better life in the future — a hope which science and research play a vital role in nourishing. In this way, the Falling Walls Conference draws attention to something that is an essential condition for human activity, and a driving force behind it: this was, is, and always will be freedom.
Tomorrow we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This day reminds us that the human desire for freedom cannot be subdued indefinitely. During that fateful year, 1989, more and more East Germans overcame their fear of state oppression and harassment. They uncovered the electoral fraud committed in local elections. They met in churches for open discussion. They founded civil rights movements and took their demands to the streets.
On 7 October 1989, East German officials were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the GDR with the customary pomp. At the same time, they were having peaceful demonstrators hunted down. In spite of this, only two days later, tens of thousands gathered in Leipzig for the Monday Demonstrations. This meant that a boundary had already been crossed, so to speak. There was no turning back. More and more citizens showed that they had the courage to stand up for their beliefs. It is thanks to their bravery that the barriers of the inner German border were finally lifted.
Unlike in 1953 in East Germany, in 1956 in Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia and in 1981 in Poland, the desire for freedom and self-determination could not be crushed; neither in East Germany nor elsewhere. The people’s human need to be able to take their fate into their own hands consigned the inhuman division of Europe and the Cold War to history. Today, some 500 million citizens from 28 member states live together under the umbrella of the European Union. They live together in peace and freedom. Many others would like to belong to our community. Our collaboration is a forward-looking response to the conflicts of the past.
States of shocked disbelief, boundless mistrust, and cold faith in a military logic, such as that prevalent 100 years ago at the outbreak of the First World War, have become unthinkable. We have commemorated this in 2014 too, as well as the beginning of the Second World War 75 years ago. Both wars claimed many millions of lives — those of both soldiers and civilians. These wars laid waste to our continent. They left a trail of unspeakable horror. We Germans will never forget that it was our country that broke with all the rules of humanity during the era of National Socialism. From the collapse of civilization that was the Shoah, Germany has accrued a perpetual responsibility.
However, even after all these horrors Europe still did not come together. The Cold War followed. Germany, Europe and the world were divided into two blocks. The wall through the middle of Berlin was a symbol for this.
Twenty-five years ago, in the days leading up to 9 November 1989, some may have thought it a vague possibility that the wall would fall in light of the growing protest movement. But hardly anyone could have guessed that it would only be a matter of hours. A clear parallel with science is visible to those who care to look. In science, too, much can become apparent in broad outline, but when exactly a breakthrough will be made and — most importantly — what it will actually look like and what new possibilities it will bring with it can sometimes come as a complete surprise.
Freedom is a necessary condition of life and engine for it. Freedom opens up new worlds. Those who can think and explore freely have access to broader horizons, they are able to recognize new paths and are free to tread them. Or, as the French writer André Gide put it, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore”. Yes, it takes courage to fight for freedom. And it also takes courage to make use of freedom. The Falling Walls Conference aims to give us this courage — the courage to bring down the walls of established thought, the courage to innovate, and the courage to unlock new perspectives.
The seemingly insurmountable can indeed be overcome, and this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry has provided a wonderful example. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Professor Stefan Hell once again on his tremendous success. His research focuses on the area of so-called nanobiophotonics. Thanks to his pioneering work, detailed high-resolutions are now possible in microscopy, which were heretofore considered impossible. Essentially he has rendered visible that which was previously invisible. In this way, new and deeper insights into living cells have now been unlocked in the truest sense of the word. His work will help us better understand the causes of diseases and ultimately assist their targeted treatment.
The example of medical research in particular shows very clearly how science can shape our lives. This is the reason why high hopes often rest on the scientific community. So that many of these hopes can become reality, we place an emphasis on the political advancement of science — in healthcare and in many other areas.
In healthcare we place heightened emphasis on previously neglected and poverty-related diseases. This is because developed and research-intensive countries such as Germany have an international responsibility, especially when it comes to medical research. We have made this topic a priority of our G7 presidency for this reason.
In saying this, I draw your attention to Ebola, which is currently afflicting large parts of West Africa. German scientists are involved in the search for ways and means to curb the disease. But it must be said: we would most likely have already developed a vaccine had we given the matter sufficient attention when the epidemic was in its infancy.
Ladies and gentlemen, at this point I could talk at length about what the German government does in cooperation with the federal states to bring science to the forefront time and again. I do not want to go into that in detail here, but I will say that we are constantly guided by this principle: it is only when we are able to break new ground, it is only when we are willing to leave well-trodden paths behind – and encourage others to do so – that can we maintain and improve our prosperity.
Ladies and gentlemen, without a doubt, the Falling Walls Conference offers an outstanding opportunity to promote the German science sector. I make no bones about it: we would like to see more top researchers come from abroad to conduct their research in Germany. Our universities and research institutions have a lot to offer. We are not content to rest on our reputation as the onetime country of poets and thinkers. Whilst we are assembled here today in a museum, it is not with the intention of simply looking to the past. We intend to make a firm name for ourselves as a country of trailblazers.
In doing so we recognize that the shining seal of quality that is “innovation made in Germany” is inconceivable without freedom. This is especially true with regard to education. In the former GDR, for example, many were excluded from universities despite possessing promising talents. A liberal state, however, invests in individuals’ inclinations and abilities.
We celebrate lateral thinkers, people who break new ground. Everyone ought to be given opportunity, but this opportunity must also be seized. This is what makes a country human; this is what makes a country enduringly successful. This is the goal and benchmark of future-oriented, forward-thinking policy, and always will be. To this must be added a large number of initiatives which bring together people with a desire to break new ground, people who want to bring down walls. The Falling Walls Conference is one of these.
I wish you a pleasant evening and successful discussions tomorrow. I welcome you all warmly once again.