January 12, 1870 is the recorded official birthdate of the German Foreign Office in charge of the country’s external relations for the past 150 years. Only that the country did not yet exist at that time, at least not as a political body. This did not happen until a year later, after Prussia’s victory over France had removed the last remaining obstacle to a German nation state by uniting the various kingdoms, duchies, principalities and free cities on German soil in a political federation under the name of German Empire.
Its precursor had been the so-called Northern German Federation (Norddeutscher Bund), an alliance of all German states north of the river Main under the leadership of Prussia, which accounted for some 90 percent of the federation’s territory. In recognition of Prussia’s dominant role, the Prussian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin was re-christened “Foreign Office of the Northern German Federation” in 1870, and henceforth put in charge of external relations for all member states.
The name “Foreign Office” was kept on after the founding of the German Empire in 1871, and it survived all following stages of the country’s tumultuous and fateful history: the collapse of the monarchy after World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic, the dark years of Nazi dictatorship and aggressive expansion during World War II, to the post-war reconstruction of democracy, when the young Federal Republic of Germany was allowed to conduct its own foreign affairs again by the victorious allied powers and could re-establish its Foreign Office in the provisional capital of Bonn on March 15, 1951. After German reunification in 1990, the Foreign Office moved , when the necessary extensive rehabilitation and construction works were completed in 1999, its main seat back to Berlin – back to where it had begun its existence in 1870.
The history of the institution and the individuals who shaped it mirror Germany’s history of the past 150 years – its brighter and its darker spots, the positive achievements of German diplomacy as well as its worst failures. Against this backdrop, the 150th anniversary of the Foreign Office does not call for laudatory speeches, but rather for critical analysis of its past and for reflection of the present and future role and responsibilities of diplomacy in the 21st century with all of its unfolding new challenges. With this in mind, nonetheless – happy birthday!