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“We have learned out of our horrible history that you have to stand up and if people are being slaughtered, you have to protect them," said Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen

Open doors

Germany praised for “amazing moral response” to the refugee crisis

By Paola Totaro on October 8, 2015

“Indifference is not an option” said Germany’s Minister for Defense, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen to thunderous applause in London last night.

“We have learned out of our horrible history that you have to stand up and if people are being slaughtered, you have to protect them … if someone is fleeing civil war, you give shelter even if there are thousands, tens of thousands. You have to stand up for your values, open your doors”.

Speaking at the Women in the World Summit on her 58th birthday last night, von der Leyen told Women in the World’s Tina Brown that while Germany would continue to offer refuge to the 10,000 people arriving over its borders every day, she had to concede that an end to the conflict in Syria seems distant.

“This is a conflict that will last a long time, it is not easy to turn around and no one solution will solve the ISIS issue. I was talking to the King of Jordan just an hour ago who said ‘This is our fight.’ He said ‘you help us but it is we that need to find the real Islam.’

“I agree with him. He is right. Without regional consensus from the Arab world on how to fight ISIS, we won’t have long term success.”

Widely tipped to succeed her friend and mentor, Angela Merkel, as German Chancellor, von der Leyen — a medical doctor and mother of seven children — became Germany’s first female Defense Minister in 2013. As Merkel’s Labor and Social Affairs Minister, she was a powerful political warrior for women’s rights, championing and leading major reform of paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers.

Von der Leyen told Brown that Germany was continuing the modernization of its military forces and aimed to better meet NATO defense spending targets as well as national commitments as part of the western alliance. However she said that one of the most important reforms of the German armed forces in the 21st century has been to offer modern work rights — including parental rights — to the young men and women who enlisted.

“The first thing I said was that if we have young people who are willing to give their best to stand up for democracy and freedom, for our values then we have to treat them as well as anyone else in the country.”

“I know that there are not just military solutions to global problems. But sometimes, you just need the military to open the window for debate, for reconciliation and compromise. To do that, we need them to be effective and modern.”

Asked if she regretted Germany’s decision not to intervene in the Ukraine, von der Leyen said patience was needed and economic sanctions would have greater effect.

“When Putin started to exert power there, we decided not to act because it would have led to a horrible clash and enormous bloodshed. We answered by showing the unity of the western world … in fact if he [Putin] achieved anything, it was the unity of the west.

“We [said] ‘you cant do business as usual’. That hurt Russia in a most vulnerable place because it is not a modern economy … you have to have strategic patience but the effect now is that the Russian economy is going down drain. But then someone has to pay their army … it is better to wait than have bloodshed.”

Russia’s action in Syria, she added, suggested that Vladimir Putin was attempting to position himself in as strong — and strategic — a position as possible before he decided at “what table he would sit in negotiations.”

Myriad regional powers were involved in Iraq and Syria; from Saudi to Iran, Turkey to Jordan and Lebanon as well as the US and Europe: “All these different actors have an interest in the region. The one common interest is to fight ISIS and as tough as it is, we have to find a consensus on who to fight and who to protect”.

Brown’s description of Germany’s “amazing moral response” to the refugee crisis in Europe sparked spontaneous applause from the audience in London’s Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square. “I even read that Albert Speer’s daughter has two refugees staying at her home” Brown said, referring to the daughter of Adolf Hitler’s architect.

Von der Leyen agreed Angela Merkel’s leadership had been exemplary, adding said some 270,000 refugees had entered Germany in September alone, stretching medical, educational and housing resources in her country.

She said the initial euphoria of being able to open doors helped German citizens but that now, in the long term, the going was “tough”.

Huge investment was needed to re-settle the hundreds of thousands who were arriving but she was confident that Germany has the economic capacity and “solid” foundations to share its resources and grow.

More importantly, she added, Germany had overtaken the old debates about integration: “Twenty years ago, we had fierce debates about whether to let refugees go to school, allow them to work or not. Now, that debate is over. The Right and the Left  have a consensus if you want successful integration, school and work must be immediate,”

“Language, school and work … it empowers people. Be strict on the rules and your values and you must insist on respect for the law. We learned that from the lessons of the past of 60 years. This is a solid basis to go forward. I know many people fear we won’t make it but I am convinced that we will,” she said to another warm round of applause.


Defense minister and mother to seven, Ursula von der Leyen, shares some hard-won wisdom