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Steinmeier: Our democracy is as strong as we make it

December 24, 2018

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has urged the people of Germany to address tensions in society by engaging with each other. The country must not be allowed to drift apart, he says in his annual Christmas speech.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at his Christmas address 2018
Image: Reuters/A. Hilse

Steinmeier calls for more debate

Political and societal dissent in Germany have grown louder and more intense in 2018. There is much talk of social division, of alienation between politicians and ordinary people. Many express anger, especially on so-called "social" media, where there's often no real interest in debate or a genuine exchange of views.

In his Christmas address, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier refers to the increased bitterness of this discourse. "Wherever you look — especially on social media — we see hate; there is shouting and daily outrage," he says. "I feel that we Germans are spending less and less time talking to each other. And even less time listening to each other." Steinmeier urges people to keep on talking to each other, even if others espouse different views and it leads to arguments — because that's part of what constitutes democracy.

Read more: When social media inspires real life violence

Getting involved

"Our democracy is strong!" the German president says. He experiences this every day, he explains — millions of people in Germany make it that way. Everyone who's active in their local community, associations and city councils, everyone working in hospitals and nursing homes, with the police or the fire brigade, including over Christmas — they all contribute to it.

Steinmeier links this affirmation of the strength of German democracy to a reminder, which can also be taken as a warning. "Our democracy is as strong as we make it," he says. "Its founding principle is that we voice our opinions, and that we are willing to argue for what we believe in." To defend our own opinions, while respecting those of others: "Reaching compromise does not signal weakness, but rather is a sign of strength. The ability to compromise is the backbone of democracy."

Protester wearing yellow vest scuffles with a policeman during a demonstration by the "yellow vests"
Steinmeier says Germany is not immune to the chaos that is going on in ParisImage: Reuters/C. Hartmann

Cautionary examples abroad

This is Steinmeier's second Christmas address to the German people, and this time, unlike last year, he also mentions other countries. "What happens when societies drift apart, and when one side can barely talk to the other without it turning into an all-out argument, is all too evident in the world around us," he says.

The German president cites the "burning barricades in Paris, deep political rifts in the United States and anxiety in the United Kingdom ahead of Brexit," and comments that "Europe is being put to the test in Hungary, Italy and other places." Germans, "in the heart of Europe, are of course not immune to these developments," he warns — making his call for dialogue, for argument, for sticking together, all the more urgent.  

Read more: Understanding the populist narrative

Angry mobs take to the streets in Germany

'Keep talking to one another'

"In our country, too, there is uncertainty, there is fear and there is anger," Steinmeier observes. And this is precisely why he believes the conversations people will have over the coming days — over Christmas dinner, with relatives and friends — are so important. "I believe it's good for us to engage in debate; it's good for us to talk to each other. If I had one wish for our country, then it would be: Let's have more debate!"

'We are all part of this country'

What worries Steinmeier "more than the shouting of some is the silence of many others." More and more people, he says, are "sticking with their own kind, living in self-made bubbles where everyone always agrees one hundred percent — also on who doesn't belong." He argues against such exclusion, affirming that "one thing remains true: We are all part of this country, regardless of our origin, skin color, approach to life or favorite sport team."

Read more: Germans increasingly prejudiced against foreigners, Muslims

This Christmas, Steinmeier will also have his family with him at the table. Not that that's in the speech; this information came from the presidential office. On Christmas Eve, Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Büdenbender, will be visiting his mother in Brakelsiek, a village a few kilometers from his birthplace, Detmold, in the northeast of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Then, on Christmas, they will head one hundred kilometers or so south to Büdenbender's home region of Siegerland.

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