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January 31, 2024

Weisse Rose Commemoration at Munich University 

Weisse Rose Commemoration at Munich University 

Munich, January 30, 2024 

Ambassador Amy Gutmann

(as delivered)

 

The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München is one of Germany’s oldest and most renowned universities.  It is an institution steeped in traditions.  A tradition of academic excellence.  A tradition of producing exceptional scholars and future leaders.  And, most importantly to our discussion today, a tradition of academic freedom and culture of remembrance.   

President Professor Dr. Huber, a measure of that tradition is this annual commemoration of the Weisse Rose and the admission that for a period in the history of this storied institution, it failed to live up to these values as it does so clearly today. 

In the 1930s, there were signposts.  From calls for the purification and ascendancy of the Aryan race to anti-Jewish boycotts to expropriations to the building of concentration camps throughout Germany.   The signposts pointed to the Holocaust.  Institutional complacency –and indifference—allowed many in power to ignore or downplay these and many more signposts.  Many Germans were uncomfortable with the antisemitism of the Nazi Party but they remained silent – at precisely the time when they could have made a difference in some way.  A few spoke out in response to the deeply troubling developments that were happening around them. 

Fast forward from the 1930s to 1942: the students who formed the Weisse Rose called for opposition to the National Socialist dictatorship and an end to the war.  The signposts were long in the rearview mirror.  The Third Reich had long revealed itself – bloodily, brutally, barbarically – for what it had been from the start: a murderous, anti-democratic, genocidal regime.  When the young heroes and heroines of the Weisse Rose stood up and spoke out, much, much more was at stake for them. They displayed immense courage.  They spoke out when the overwhelming majority remained silent. 

At their supposed “trial” –calling it a trial does disservice to the word – the Weisse Rose defendants were not even permitted to give testimony in their own defense.  They were sentenced to death the same day.  The only statement on record is Sophie Scholl’s declaration:  “Was wir sagten und schrieben, denken so viele. Nur wagen sie nicht, es auszusprechen.” (“What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.  They just don’t dare say it”.) 

My father Kurt Gutmann, the youngest of five children in an observant German Jewish family, grew up not so far from here in a small Bavarian town.  He dared to say it, to speak up – and to act upon it.  

When Hitler came to power, Kurt Gutmann was a student in Nuremberg, where he boarded with a Christian family. The family treated him well but when he saw them flash the Hitler salute at a Nazi march, he could not ignore the signpost:  he knew it and he told them that it was time to act.  In 1934, he fled Germany, his homeland, the only home his family had ever known.  Thanks to his foresight and courage, he was able to organize the escape of his parents and four older siblings to India. They all immigrated after World War II to the United States, where I was born. 

Forced into the refugee life, my father’s formal education was cut short by Hitler’s ascendance to power.  I am proudly his daughter.  I am proudly Jewish.  And I have served as a professor, a university president, and now the U.S. Ambassador to the country from which Kurt Gutmann was forced to flee.  I stand up humbly before you.  In my father’s name and in the name of countless others, I dedicate my remarks here at this year’s annual Weisse Rose commemoration to the students and their teachers who are a part of this university, as well as to students and teachers across Germany and the United States who stand up and speak out against antisemitism and all forms of hatred.  

I also dedicate these remarks to the descendants of the Weisse Rose resisters whom I had the pleasure of meeting just a few minutes ago. You carry not only their names but even more so their spirit. 

I would like to talk today about the importance of recognizing signposts and standing up and speaking out for democracy.  And I would like to talk about the role of universities today and in the years ahead.  Ultimately, as great as our scientific, technological, and economic capabilities are, those will not be what define our future. Our future will be defined by how we choose to use those capabilities.  

That choice is the most important one we have before us, as countries, as societies, and as responsible democratic citizens. Those of us lucky enough to live in strong democracies have the responsibility to use our rights of citizenship wisely.  Democracy is hard work.  We dare not take it for granted.  Indifference in the face of signposts is a secular sin. 

In the past few weeks, all over Germany, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, demonstrating their commitment to democracy.  They are not indifferent to the signposts.  They care.  They all have one thing in common: they are standing up against hatred and right-wing extremism.  Defending democracy is of the utmost importance.  We are indeed stronger together.  Gemeinsam sind wir stärker. 

This year, countries representing nearly half the world’s population will hold some form of election.  Around the world, for the first time in more than two decades, more countries are closed autocracies than liberal democracies.   

According to a recent report by Freedom House, in 2023 “Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year.” Freedom of expression – the right to stand up and speak out – has been a primary victim of this global expansion of autocracy.  In autocracies, the price for voicing viewpoints differing from those of the government is high. 

Is democracy at risk?  This may seem like an odd question to ask at a time when an estimated 3.8 billion people are going to the polls to vote in some form of election. 

The signposts, once again, are ones we cannot afford to ignore. Don’t just take my word for it.  A few months before his death in 2020, John Lewis, a legend of the Civil Rights movement, a leader of the 1963 March on Washington, and a friend and one of my personal heroes, spoke about his lessons learned for young people today. 

Lewis was the son of a sharecropper.  He grew up in rural Alabama during the Jim Crow era.  Racism was rampant.  His parents always told him “Don’t get into trouble.”   

As a young man he was inspired to activism by the Montgomery Bus Boycott that started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus.  Rosa Parks inspired him to get in the way of business as usual, to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.  “She kept on saying to us,” he remembered, “if you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, do something.” 

John Lewis endured numerous arrests and physical injuries, but John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence that he learned from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.   

He adamantly supported free speech, and he also adamantly condemned hate speech.  “I believe in freedom of speech,” Lewis said, “but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, antisemitic, or hateful.” 

John Lewis was equally avid about getting involved in politics, not only in demonstrations but also in electoral politics: first at the grassroots level and later in the U.S. Congress for over 30 years.  Throughout his career, he pursued transformative change by advocating for people who could not advocate for themselves.  He found opportunities to craft compromises that would result in better conditions for all. 

The first step in making transformative change is one that all citizens can take.  That first step is to vote.  The vote is the most powerful tool in a democracy.  The right to have one’s vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty everywhere in the world.  With it, anything in politics is possible.  Without it, nothing is possible. 

Here in Germany, voter turnout across all age groups increased in the last two federal elections.  Older voters have a significantly higher turnout than younger voters.  This is also true in the U.S. 

What does that mean?  It means young people need to vote at a higher rate if they want to make an impactful difference. For only by voting can young people implement changes to the laws and policies that will profoundly affect their lives and future lives.   

These issues include climate change, AI regulation, gender and LGBTQAI-plus rights, job opportunities, equal pay for equal work, food insecurity, global peace, and other basic human rights and opportunities. 

So my message to everyone fortunate enough to have the right to vote in a democracy is: Vote, get involved.  As Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”  Permit me to add one of my favorite sayings: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.

I am a lifelong teacher and scholar by profession.  “Democratic Education” was the book that launched my academic career.  I learned early in life from my father that education and democracy go hand in hand. 

Democratic education propels both people and societies forward.  For our democracies to endure, we must educate better, and stand up and speak out more often, against all disinformation and hate mongering.  

To make democracy work, education must teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.  It must also teach tolerance and respect across religions, races, genders, sexualities, and abilities.  Students must learn to distinguish truth from falsehood.  And to stand up against false, hateful speech. 

Freedom of expression is essential to all democracies. It must not be confused with a license to harass, threaten, or incite violence.  For free speech to serve democracy, it needs to be used responsibly, which is why education is so essential for democracies to survive and to thrive. 

We must educate individuals who will freely stand up and speak out against hatred and cruelty, while also being open-minded about opposing points of view.

This is an important challenge for universities in the 21st century.  Universities and institutions of higher education have existed for millennia, stretching back to the schools of ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and India.  Long before liberal democracies existed, there was a very special tradition of students and scholars coming together to create unique environments of learning. 

This university was founded in 1472 – over 300 years before the founding of my country!  The invention of the printing press was just taking hold.  It was a new world. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German academic model shaped universities in the United States.  That model was predicated on the ideal of a community of scholars and students engaged in a common task: creating new knowledge through scholarship and research, and preserving inherited knowledge that continues to pass the test of open inquiry.  

The university of today is more global and diverse than ever before.  What happens in the world spills almost immediately into our classrooms and meeting areas.  Today, we expect scholars and students to bring the skills and knowledge they have acquired to bear on the major problems facing our global society.   But skill and knowledge is not enough.  A moral commitment to free speech and respect for differences is equally important.  So often today, our differences can divide us into mutually hostile camps.  

The democratic mission of universities today can only succeed with a commitment to rigorous debate that respects our collective right to learn, work, and live together, free of bigotry, intimidation, and harassment.  

Freedom of expression is among our great strengths. We must use it responsibly for its value to be fully realized.  As we have also repeatedly seen—prominently and sadly since the terrorist attacks by Hamas on October 7—when free speech is used irresponsibly and when it crosses the boundaries of free expression into harassment, threat, and intimidation, it engenders well-founded fear and feelings of devastation, deep pain, grief, and anger.  

When Jewish people are targeted simply for being Jewish, this is terrifying and this is antisemitism, pure and simple. It must be called out as such.  We cannot stand by and stand silent in the wake of antisemitic incidents.  We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.  Too often Muslims are also the target of hate-fueled attacks based on their religious beliefs.  The biggest poison we face is the hatred of people of different religions and nationalities. 

Effectively combating hate requires people of conscience to build coalitions across communities and work together to understand, identify, and combat antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and bigotry in all its manifestations.  This is why we mourn the loss of every life:  Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and those of every faith (or no faith) and every nationality. 

We need to resist in every way we can the dehumanization of others that leads to needless, tragic, horrific death and suffering of innocent women, men, and children.  

Like Secretary Blinken, I find the war in Israel and Gaza gut-wrenching.  Our common goal is not simply to stop the war.  It is to end the terrorism waged by Hamas forever, to break the cycle of unceasing violence, and build something stronger and safer so that there is security for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

This is also why we support a two-state solution, while strongly condemning Hamas as a terrorist organization that is dedicated to destroying Israel while also undermining the interests of the Palestinian people. 

The impact of an act of hate is never momentary.  Whether Hamas’ massive terrorist attack of October 7th or an anonymous swastika graffitied on a wall or the senseless, cowardly targeting of synagogues and mosques in our countries, hurt and fear always reverberate beyond the physical victims themselves and endure long after the headlines have moved on. 

Challenging times such as these call on us to reflect on our values and to create a stronger community, a community where debate and disagreement are rooted in academic rigor and civil discourse, a true home for intellectual discovery and debate that honors the humanity of all its members. Such encounters, when patient and respectful, are a part of why so much human knowledge and innovation originate in university environments, including right here at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.   

For over 550 years, here at your university, many of the best minds of the times have devoted themselves to research, teaching, and learning.  After the end of World War II, LMU rededicated itself to that vital work, moving ahead, with courage and conviction.  The actions of the Weisse Rose resisters are enduring symbols of your commitment, reminding everyone of the need to fight against antisemitism and for the freedom of the human spirit wherever and whenever it is threatened, even in the face of great personal sacrifice.   

So as we stand at an inflection point in history—a point where the future of democracy is truly at stake—I stand before you not only to honor the example of the Weisse Rose, the example of Kurt Gutmann, and the example of so many others who recognized the gravity of the decisions before them—and took action.  

I also stand before you to recognize the gravity of the decisions before each and every one of us. What we do—and what we don’t do—will determine the future of our democracies for decades to come.   

Our ongoing commitment to the people of Ukraine is underlined by a simple lesson of history. When dictators are not made to pay a price for their aggression, they cause further chaos, death and destruction.  To put it more bluntly: Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine is not his final destination. It is his bloody, brutal signpost.   

This moment in our shared history calls upon all of us to make every effort to model, in our own words and our actions, the world we want.  Just as in the past, silence is the coward’s option. 

That is why, last year, I launched a “Stand Up, Speak Out for Democracy” campaign at our Embassy and our five Consulates.  Together, we will use our voices and our platforms to build a more tolerant, more secure future.  To make our “Stand Up, Speak Out for Democracy” campaign successful, we are reaching out to younger generations along with citizens of all ages and calling on them to join us in standing up and speaking out.   

We all need to cultivate robust yet reasoned debate.  We need to support those who unite to forge our common good, those who stand up and speak out for human rights, freedom, and democracy.   

This is the simple message we need to take out into our society and our world.  The signposts of hatred and cruelty are all around us.  Indifference is injustice.  Let’s speak out – in our own words and in our own way – for the values we share.  I owe that to my father. We all owe that to the members of the Weisse Rose.

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