Merkel says lessons of world wars strengthened her Crimea stance

BERLIN Wed May 28, 2014 10:21am EDT

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BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday she had taken a firm stance against Russia's annexation of Crimea in part due to the lessons of two world wars, but added it was vital to keep talking with Moscow.

Speaking to students at the opening of an exhibition on World War One, Merkel said her insistence that Russian President Vladimir Putin join her and other Western leaders in Normandy, France on June 6 for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was to avoid past mistakes.

"There are times where you have no desire to talk any more, such as with Russia now," said Merkel, who speaks Russian and regularly talks to Putin on the phone. "I force myself to talk. I'm surprised every time to see the other side's point of view."

Merkel said Russia's annexation of the Crimea was an unacceptable move because it upset Europe's postwar order - even though a 54-percent majority of Germans expressed understanding, in a March opinion poll, for the annexation.

"That's why I'm so strict when it comes to the Crimea issue," she said.

"Territorial integrity is the foundation pillar of our postwar European order. If you start saying things like 'it's my right' and then just take something, you'll end up with an incredible calamity. That doesn't work."

Putin will meet Merkel, Barack Obama and other leaders - for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis - in France to mark the anniversary of the D-Day landings against Nazi Germany in 1944 that helped turn the tide of World War Two.

"I worked very hard to ensure that the Russian president would come," Merkel said. She also said: "The lesson of the past is to learn cooperation instead of confrontation."

In unusually candid comments to the audience of students at the opening of the exhibition marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, Merkel said she was astonished by people's attitudes at the outbreak of that conflict.

"It always amazes me to see that there could be such total enthusiasm that came in 1914," she said. World War One in Communist East Germany, where she grew up, was not an issue talked about often.

"We had a selective history in East Germany," she said. "There was a lot of hesitance to talk about World War One in part because of the guilt question. By contrast the guilt question for World War Two was very clear."

Germany has so far paid little attention to the centenary of the outbreak of World War One while Britain, France, the United States and others are marking it with battlefield tours, television programs, exhibitions and ceremonies.

(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Andrew Roche)

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