Your Excellency, General Sir Peter Cosgrove,
Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia,
Administrator Barry Haase, Members of Parliament, Chief of Navy, distinguished guests,
Admiral Henning Bess und Angehörige der Emden Familie aus Deutschland, members of the Sydney family,
Sir Peter, I thank you for your kind and moving words on this day, the centenary of the battle between HMAS Sydney and SMS Emden. The tale of those two ships and their men has indeed long been a source of inspiration for all of us. Those brave sailors and their descendants have taught us truths that many may still not believe: The bonds of humanity can be stronger than war and death. There can be mateship even across the gulf of official enmity. Former enemies can move on and become friends.
On this Sunday morning, one hundred years after the battle to the day, many things come to mind. Feeling the soft tropical air and its gentle breeze that slightly bends the palm trees around us, it defies imagination that on a morning exactly like this, just one hour earlier, in view of this peaceful island, young men got ready to fight and to die.
What might have gone through their minds in those moments? Eager anticipation on the Sydney as she was racing towards the islands, with the hunt for the raider finally on? And on the Emden – confidence in their professional skills and their luck? Or foreboding when it dawned on them that they were trapped and outgunned?
Whatever their thoughts, their elation, their anxieties or their fears – they did what their nations expected them to do, never wavering in their sense of duty, displaying the highest standards of professionalism and valour throughout the battle; a battle that soon transformed the Emden into a battered inferno.
And more questions come to mind: how could things ever get there? Between navies that only months earlier had paid each other friendly port visits, enjoying each others’ company? Between countries and peoples that already then, during that first phase of globalization, benefitted enormously from peaceful exchange?
People like one of my great-grandfathers who made a living of the exciting new transnational opportunities. He came to Australia in the eighteen nineties, working as a geologist for an Anglo-German company. Once, he got lost in the outback of Western Australia and would have perished if a group of local aborigines had not found him and taken him back to his camp. So, he made it safely back to Europe, but his only son, the brother of my grandmother, was one of the first to die under the guns of August 1914.
Two million more young Germans were killed in that war; and more than sixty thousand young Australians. Things did not stop there. In Germany, the Great War triggered a fateful chain of events, a downward spiral of state and society that, thirty years later, nearly finished our country off – physically, politically, and morally.
Now, after this brief glimpse at the cataclysmic tragedies which, in a way, all had their starting point in 1914, let me take our wandering minds back to the 9th of November of that year, the day of the bloody but chivalrous battle between Sydney and Emden – what does it mean to us today, what can it mean to us, under the shadow of all that followed?
It holds two powerful messages.
First, on the level of international politics, it tells us that we should never send our young into war against nations which should not be our enemies, but rather our partners and friends. Alas, history can never be undone. But we can learn from it. And we have, with dramatic outcomes.
On another 9th of November, twenty five years ago, we realized what you can achieve when you patiently follow an approach of reconciliation and partnership, backed by a firm alliance. On the 9th of November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and since then, we have witnessed the re-emergence of a reunited Germany within an enlarged European Union that is synonymous with peace in Europe.
So, the Centenary of 1914 – including the epic battle we commemorate today – for us is a powerful reminder of what went wrong politically then, what we have already put right since, and what we have to do to stay the course.
Like our European neighbours and America, Australia has become our partner and friend. Never again will we go to war against each other. But we do know that not everybody in this world shares our approach to international relations. War and violence are still with us today and will not go away soon. Our armed forces are as vital for our future as ever. In a very different way than in 1914, but existential nevertheless.
And here comes in the second powerful message this day of remembrance holds for us. In trying to recapture the spirit of those who fought here one hundred years ago, there is one overriding thought coming to mind: Today like one hundred years ago, we want our soldiers and sailors to be like the men of the Emden and the Sydney, displaying such incredible dedication, professionalism, valour and stamina, such sense of duty and honour, such decency and compassion.
That is why we have come here on this 9th of November 2014, lest we forget.