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Speech given by the Prime Minister of the Free State of Saxony, Mr. Stanislaw Tillich, on the occasion of the centenary of the Monument of the Battle of Leipzig, 18 October 2013

»Leipzig, Leipzig! Evil soil, Ignominy brought our toil, Liberty! we cried, fighting on your fields of mud,  Wherefore you drank my crimson blood?«

The German poet Adelbert von Chamisso penned these lines in 1827, fourteen years after the Battle of the Nations had been fought. What despair, what resentment these word convey! And what a drama the Battle of the Nations, and its aftermath, was!

It had been the biggest battle since antiquity. More than half a million soldiers were pitted against each other. About a hundred thousand of them were killed or wounded. Not to speak of the suffering of the noncombatants, the people living in Leipzig and the surrounding villages. The passing armies ruthlessly pillaged their places, and epidemics broke out after the fighting had ceased. Thus, the inhabitants of this region were suffering as much as the soldiers in whose memory the Monument of the Battle of the Nations was built a hundred years ago.

Today, looking back upon the past hundred years, we might ask: Did this monument have any effect whatsoever? Did it contain, or even prevent, the atrocities of war? 

Alas, no!, is the honest answer. Less than a year after the monument’s inauguration, the Great War broke out in Europe. It engulfed the continent, meting out unimaginable suffering – and dashing all high hopes that a carnage like the Battle of the Nations would never, ever happen again. In short, in 1913/14 the monument and its associated memories of the horrors of war did not make an impression upon anyone concerned with questions of war and peace. Tall and strong as the monument stands, its message of how fragile a thing peace is failed to get through.

Where the monument failed, we have to deliver. For six decades now, we live in a peaceful Europe, on a continent which has seen no major war since 1945. And it is our very task to keep this peace, and to keep the memory of war and suffering alive. Because, as an American philosopher put it nine years before the outbreak of the First World War, »Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.«
I read this sentence as a challenge and a request for us to learn from our history. It is our task to make sense of the Monument of the Battle of the Nations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

one could say that Leipzig and the Battle of the Nations of 1813 were the end of an era. Not just because new styles of warfare were introduced, but because the battle had been fought, by the victorious coalition, in hope of more freedom and an end to many an oppression. These high hopes for liberty were desperately disappointed, as the lines of Adelbert Chamisso quoted at the beginning of my speech made clear.

For Germany, this meant another century of waiting for the advent of Liberty and Democracy. The old dream finally came true in 1918, only to be buried again under the terror of the Third Reich and the horrors of World War II. And as for Leipzig and Eastern Germany, they had after 1945 to suffer the oppressions of a new dictatorship for another four decades. Only in the year 1989 did the dreams of liberty come true that Germany had dreamed during the Napoleonic wars.

Now, some historians have said that war is he birthplace of nations. In Germany, it was, on the contrary, the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 that brought Germany national unity and liberty. And the Peaceful Revolution started here in Leipzig. War and violence wreak havoc, they do not bring forth any good, is the lesson of Leipzig in 1813. The peaceful quest for liberty makes a nation whole and creates something new, as the lesson of Leipzig in 1989 teaches us.  In view of this, it is wholly justified that Leipzig carries the honorary name »City of Heroes«. These heroes are not the warriors at the Battle of Nations, but the free citizens that broke down the Wall, toppled a dictatorial regime, and ever since strive for peace and an equitable society. 

The Monument of the Battle of the Nations reminds us of our common duty to never again wage war against one another, and to build, in a common effort, the European House.

Moreover, the history of the Monument itself teaches us a lesson about what constitutes a free society. It is the commitment and cooperation of its citizens. Just as, prior to the Battle’s first centenary, German citizens privately funded this monument, so it has been an association of Leipzig citizens that has pushed for the restoration of the Monument prior to the bicentenary of the Battle. In other words, this monument reveals a tradition of civic engagement for the cultural heritage of this city and Germany.

During the last fifteen years, the Friends of the Monument of the Battle of the Nations have raised about 1.6 million euro. Special thanks to all those who have participated in that great fundraising effort or otherwise furthered the restoration of the Monument. I am convinced that it is a wise choice to preserve this monument for the benefit of future generations. I say this in the hope that our contemporary interpretation of the monument is shaping the views of future generations as well. And this interpretation is to defend liberty and peace in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives for them and had to suffer their loss.

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