Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, dear fellow citizens:
What a beautiful Sunday. It was the 18th of March, exactly 22 years ago today, that we voted. We, the millions of East Germans, were allowed to be citizens after 56 years of dictatorship. For the first time in my life, at the age of 50, in free, fair, and secret elections, I was allowed to determine who would govern in the future.
The people who flocked to the election were still living in the echo of the Peaceful Revolution when the walls fell. I, myself, had been allowed to participate as Speaker of the New Forum in Rostock. We were already free from oppression, but had just started to learn how to use our freedom. We were preparing to learn to use our new freedom to do certain things and to champion others.
I will never forget this election, neither the turnout of over 90 percent voter turnout -- which was mentioned today -- nor my own emotions. I knew that my hometown, and my colorless, humiliated country would now become a part of Europe. At the time, I was filled not only with joy but also with the certainty that I would never again miss an opportunity to vote in an election. I had waited too long for the opportunity of political participation to ever forget that feeling of powerlessness which is the fate of the subjugated.
"I wished to be a citizen, nothing more and nothing less." That is how a German democracy scholar, Dolf Sternberger, had defined his political beliefs. On the 18th of March 1990, I felt exactly the same desire, affirming emotionally what I would later determine theoretically: that from the joy of liberation follows both the obligation and the joy of responsibility, and that we understand the true meaning of freedom only when we have affirmed and implemented this into our daily lives.
Today, you -- representatives of the Federal Convention -- have elected a President who cannot imagine himself without such freedom, and who cannot and does not want to imagine his country being without the experience of this practical responsibility. I accept this appointment with the infinite gratitude of a person who has finally and unexpectedly found a home after many long years of being led astray through the political deserts of the 20th century and who has for the past 20 years experienced the joy of participating in the democratization of this society. Therefore what a beautiful Sunday this 18th of March is for us, and for me also!
It has also been encouraging and gratifying to see how many in this country have participated in and encouraged me to accept this candidacy -- people from varying professions and from different generations, people who have been living in Germany for a short time and those who have been living here for a long time. That gives me hope that there is going to be a coming together between the governing class and the citizen. I want to do all that is within my power to encourage this process.
Certainly I am not going to be able to fulfill all the expectations directed towards me and my presidency, but I can promise one thing: I will fully and with all my heart devote myself to the the responsibility you have granted me today. Because what I say to the common citizen about responsibility and obligation must also apply to me as President. It also means that I must engage different people, topics and problems, and to confront issues that concern us today in Europe and around the world.
I thank you, members of the Federal Convention, for your confidence. You, those who voted, are not simply delegates but also -- and I fully understand this -- representatives of a vibrant society. Whether we as an electorate help bolster our democratic foundations or whether we as duly elected leaders determine the goals and direction of our nation, it our country whether we bear our responsibilities or not.
We should never forget that both those who shape our society, and those who stand alongside, have children; and are going to hand this country over to them one day. It is worth every bit of our efforts to ensure that when we entrust it to them that they, too, can actually call it "our country."
Research Note: This text transcribed directly from audio by Heidrun Ferguson and Michael E. Eidenmuller.
Page Updated: 8/13/18
U.S. Copyright Status: Text = Public domain.