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BERLIN — In a blistering speech to lawmakers in Berlin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday accused politicians of failing to live up to their historical responsibility after the Holocaust — enshrined in the phrase “never again” — to secure peace in Europe.
Zelenskyy, a Jewish president of a nation deeply scarred by millions of deaths in World War II and the Holocaust, lambasted Germany for pursuing a policy of appeasement toward Russia in recent years and for prioritizing economic security over democratic values.
Amid heavy civilian losses from Russian bombardment, Ukraine insists that the EU must stop buying the oil and gas that helps fill President Vladimir Putin’s war chest. Germany, however, is the chief opponent to such a move, arguing that it has no alternative but to keep buying Russian energy.
That German intransigence helped spark Thursday’s bitter address, in which the president pulled no punches in his condemnation.
“After 80 years, something like this happens and I am telling you: Every year politicians repeat the words ‘never again’ and now we see that these words are simply worth nothing. In Europe a people is being destroyed. There is an attempt to destroy everything that is dear to us,” he said.
Speaking via video link from Kyiv, Zelenskyy criticized Germany for years of prioritizing business in Russia above defending Western values. Indeed, after the Russia annexation of Crimea in 2014, while the EU at large pledged to reduced its dependence on Russian gas, Berlin broke ranks and pressed ahead with the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, against fierce opposition from Ukraine and other allies.
“We have always said that Nord Stream 2 is a weapon and a preparation for the big war and we received the response that it’s about the economy, the economy, the economy,” Zelenskyy said. Berlin only put the pipeline on ice last month, just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Some steps were taken too late. The sanctions may not have been enough to stop the war,” Zelenskyy told the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, as Russia continues its lethal campaign of violence in Ukraine which has left thousands dead.
In his speech, Zelenskyy said that there was a new wall in Europe, built from bricks that represent Germany’s failure to properly stand by Ukraine’s side, with the Nord Stream 2 fallout providing the wall’s “cement.”
“The world may not have seen so clearly yet, but you are separated from us by a kind of wall. Not a Berlin Wall, but a wall in the middle of Europe between freedom and a lack thereof. And this wall is getting taller with every bomb that falls on Ukraine. With every decision that is not made for peace,” he said.
Another brick in the wall, Zelenskyy said, was Germany’s reluctance to let Ukraine join NATO.
He implored German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “tear down this wall,” echoing a speech delivered by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Berlin in 1987. Zelenskyy also channelled Britain’s war-time leader Winston Churchill during a speech to the U.K. parliament last week, and American civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., during his address Wednesday to the U.S. Congress.
Zelenskyy thanked German companies that “put morality over economic interests” and the people who have embraced the idea of Ukraine’s EU membership, but his tone remained one of profound disappointment and outspoken criticism.
After Zelenskyy’s speech finished, the German parliament moved straight to other topics, a move that prompted criticism among many MPs, including the Bundestag foreign policy doyen, Norbert Röttgen.
“Today was the most undignified moment in the Bundestag that I have ever experienced!” he tweeted.