Past Events

Days of Tolerance in Europe, November 9-16, 2008

Address By Günter Verheugen, Vice-President Of The European Commission at the Dinner On Promoting Tolerance Throughout the European Continent

Dear friends!

For the history of my country Germany November 9 is a very special day. Three times in the 20th century November 9 made history. November 9, 1918 – Germany was declared a Republic. And this Republic failed and paved the way for Hitler into the Third Reich.

Our meeting tonight takes place one day after November 9th. Three times in the 20 th century this day made history in my home country, Germany. But the importance of that what happened in those days goes far beyond the history of one country.

In the morning of this day in 1918, 90 years ago, the German republic was declared in Berlin. The young German republic did not succeed. Its failure paved the way for Hitler and the Third Reich, the Nazi-dictatorship, which resulted in the bloodiest war in the history of our planet and to crimes against humanity on an unprecedented scale.

60 years ago, the evening and the night of the 9th November saw the first nationwide organized Nazi-pogrom against German Jewish people. This night is known as the night of the broken glass, a description not much better than the German word "Reichskristallnacht". More than crystal and glass was been shattered on that shameful night. On that very night nearly a whole nation broke with humanity, compassion and solidarity. There was no public outcry in Germany. There was silence and passivity. Hardly anyone helped their Jewish neighbours. The burning synagogues, homes and businesses of the Jewish community marked a turning point: the attempt to eliminate the whole Jewish people in Europe.

19 years ago, it was the night of the 9th November 1989, the Berlin wall came down and with it the division of Germany and Europe, one of the results of Hitler's war, came to an end. I have always believed that this date, the 9 th November, would be the most appropriate national day for my country. It would help us to keep in our minds, in our memories not only aspects of our history but the whole difficult picture. It is important that we don't forget that the unification of Germany was by no means the logical result of the fall of the Berlin wall. Unification became a reality thanks to the European integration that was founded on a strong policy commitment: to never again allow any fall back into the tragedy of world wars and racism and national arrogance. European integration offered the opportunity for reconciliation. This opportunity was seized and no nation in this world has reason to fear the united Germany anymore. Germany has truly become a European nation.

Not everything is about memory, but without memory of the past there is no future. It is understandable that human beings do not always want to be reminded of the past. They want to forget their pains, their sufferings and their misery – and of course they want to forget their own failures. I said, it is understandable, but we must not allow it. Time does not heal all wounds! The tears of survivors of the Nazi dictatorship are not going to dry.  And we are not allowed to forget each and everyone of the 6 million Jewish people, who were murdered by Germans in the name of Germany just because they were Jewish. History has taught us that what happened once can happen again. Remembrance is something that the victims demand from us. Those whose lives were extinguished by the Nazi-henchmen have a right to live forever in our memories. If we forget them, we are preparing the next assault.

Even in darkest times of German and European history there have been people who did not look away, people who cared and helped to save lives. There were not that many of such people, a few only which are called Gerechte or Righteous Gentile – only a few Chassid Umot ha'Olam. However, each and every one of the Righteous Gentile reminds us, that humanity needs our courage, our commitment, our decisive fearless action.

We have experienced all too often in our history, and I am not speaking of times which are gone since centuries, we have experienced that there is only a thin borderline between civilisation and barbarism. Sometimes I have the feeling that our Western civilisation is still very fragile. The Romans used to say: Principiis obsta – resist the beginning. And the beginning is always with attitudes or policies which violate the basic human right: the untouchable dignity of man.

I was born in 1944 and like many of my generation I grew up in a social environment with a collective loss of memory. In my hometown, in the Rhineland, there was a flourishing Jewish community before the Second World War and there was a synagogue. It was burnt down in the night of 9th November. It was directly opposite my school but I learnt that only when I had already left school. Because people kept silent. But I started to ask questions and I found answers. No, the Nazis didn't hide what they have done. Exact records do still exist. I learned when the order came and who issued the order. I learned who was present; some of them belonged to the respected honourable citizens of my town. One of them was a teacher of my own school. At the end of the war, the Jewish community of my hometown was exterminated. Only a few Jewish citizens survived.

So like many of my generation I asked the evident question: what have you done? Why did you do it? And why don't you tell us about this? I got different explanations. Very often a stubborn rejection of the truth. Not so often, but at least sometimes, people were ashamed. These people were so ashamed about themselves that they couldn't speak about it. Today, I believe that there was still another explanation. People were so occupied with survival, so busy with building a new future that they simply wanted to leave everything behind, wanted to hide that they had become guilty. I firmly believe that it is one of the finest achievements of post-war Germany that the wall of silence finally fell. When the concentration camp trials began it was no longer possible to deny or to hide the facts. But still there are voices which would like to bury the past and each of such voices is a threat to humanity.

I had the opportunity to visit Israel when I was only 18 years old. I will never forget the day, 14 December 1962, when I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. This was the day when I learnt something that became fundamental for my political life. You cannot say: I was a child when it happened, actually not even born, and I have nothing to do with it. I know since then that there is a responsibility which goes beyond my own lifetime. And I have already said what the responsibility is: keep the memory alive and do everything you can to make sure that it will never happen again.

Occasionally, when I spoke about this, it happened that people in a mild surprise said to me: Oh, you are brain-washed. And I replied: that my brain was not washed but my conscience and my mind. Now, many years later, I am happy to say that there are other experiences which demonstrate that our efforts to draw the right lessons give reasons for hope and strength. Today, as a German, you can visit the battle grounds of the First World War not far from here in Flanders and people will accept you and share their memories with you. You can visit the factories of death in Poland and you are part of a community. A community that is united in memories and in common mourning. A community that is united by one strong conviction – let it never happen again.

And this is the reason why I believe that the new initiative for memory and reconciliation is not an impossible mission. I am again in a privileged position. Working in an institution of the European Union is a daily proof that we can do better than we did in the past. History is our best teacher. History told us that we cannot live together without tolerance. But tolerance is a difficult virtue. Sometimes it is not more than a benign negligence or permissivity. Real tolerance is more: it is a state of mind that makes you understand that there are no nations or individuals which are superior to others.

We should not be naïve: this is a way of thinking that we encounter every day in our civilized nations. We must be vigilant instead. Racism and xenophobia are not a distant threat, they are real. It is sheer racism when skin-heads in our streets beat up other people because their skin is of a different colour. It is racism when Jewish cemeteries are destroyed. At a more sophisticated level it comes at least close to racism when we are dealing with less developed countries in a paternalistic way. And I have witnessed a lot of xenophobia when I was in charge of the accession negotiations and people were strongly against because the acceding countries were poorer than the old Member States. I was shocked to learn how many prejudices still exist in Europe and how much they influence the political process. In today's Europe an initiative for tolerance and reconciliation is not only possible, it is necessary. The example that comes to my mind is Turkey and the projected accession of Turkey to the EU. It is a very dividing, controversial issue. Of course, some people have arguments which nobody should brush aside. But very often it turns out that the negative opinions towards the Turkish nation are based on religious intolerance.

Religious intolerance is the most incomprehensible and irrational behaviour that I can think of. It is paradoxical in itself. I am well aware that anti-Semitism in Europe has strong roots in religious intolerance. I am well aware that terrible crimes were committed in the names of religions. What I have said about nations and races is equally true about religions. None is superior compared to others. They have their equal place in this world.

While anti-Semitism, open and hidden, still exists we see a new conflict emerging which has the potential to put the whole world at risk: the conflict between Western democracies, which are strongly rooted in their Christian traditions, even if they have a secular Constitution, and parts of the Islamic world.

I do not ignore the threat that a radicalised fundamentalist Islam is imposing on mankind, irrespective of our religious belief. But I see with growing concern that we have a tendency to generalize. Terrorism is a danger but we must understand that terrorism is not a natural incarnation of Islam. Terrorists with a Muslim background are in reality abusing a religion for completely different purposes. In the 21 st century, we can simply not allow conflicts based on religion. Turkey is a kind of a test case for our own tolerance. If we soberly analyse the arguments which are used today against the accession of Turkey, we will find the perception of the European Union as a Christian club. Turkey is rejected because the country does not share our religion. The EU is based on values, not on religion. If Turkey shares our values, it should be welcome and Turkey as a Member State of the EU could make an important contribution to bridge the widening gap between different cultures. If finally rejected, the reactions in the Islamic world will be extremely strong, I am afraid.

Reconciliation is the other side of the same coin. Tolerance is even a condition for it. You cannot have the one without the other. For the whole world reconciliation was a must after the Second World War. The UN-Convention in human rights is the strongest symbol for that. Article 1 goes directly to the core of the matter: all human beings are equal. This is exactly the opposite of the crude ideology of the Nazis. They did not believe in equality, they believed in superiority.

In the European Union we try to implement this principle and totally ban discrimination on grounds of race, sex, age or religion. It is not always easy and I know that discrimination of every kind happen every day everywhere. It is not enough to have it in the statute book. It has to be implemented at home, at the work places, in our schools, communities and institutions. What we have to do with discrimination is to fight it and to raise awareness. Very often, it is still culturally embedded. Only the truth can help. We have to make it visible when it happens, we must not deal with it as a kind of a minor wrongdoing. A strong non-compromising attitude is crucial because discrimination can be the beginning of the worst.

I do not want to close my remarks about reconciliation without a more conciliatory note. We have seen during our lifetime the reconciliation of Germany's neighbours with Germany and we have seen the reconciliation between Israel and Germany, the greatest miracle of them all. These acts of reconciliation mean that the terrible ghosts of the past are finally defeated.

The very nature of the whole process of European integration is reconciliation. Despite all practical problems and shortcomings it is a unique success story that can serve as a model for other world regions. I know how much this success is admired and how much it gives hope to other nations and I find it sad that the undeniable imperfection of the process prevents many Europeans from acknowledging the profound change we have made.

I see our enlargement policy in this context. Without the accession of those countries which were not allowed to participate as a result of the fact that they ended up behind the iron curtain when the war was over, European reconciliation was not complete. I have seen it as an act of historical justice. We cannot change the past, we cannot undo the history. But we can care for a better future. Anyway, I found it impossible to explain why the Germans, the Irish, the Dutch etc. should have the right to enjoy the benefits of European integration and the Poles and Czechs should not?

We are not very good at presenting our success in the European Union. Its fundamental advantages are not always recognized. But this is another story: if the policy makers don't make a strong case for it, how shall the citizens support it. And more generally, if European politicians do not speak about Europe in a positive way, how can they expect the people to think positively about the integration?

But full political and economic integration of the whole continent is not a realistic concept for the near future. That is where the neighbourhood policy comes in. If we make a forecast of what the world of tomorrow will look like, we certainly agree that we will not only have a new economic world order with new economic super powers with more people and more resources than we have. Politically we will see on top or as a result of this a multipolar world. And the question is what will be Europe's place in this world of tomorrow? Will we be an equal, independent global power willing to share responsibilities or not?

It is evident that the European Union must join forces with our neighbours in Europe and the whole Mediterranean region. I could imagine an ever closer economic integration and political cooperation with all our neighbours.

One of our neighbours is Israel. How we deal with Israel is in my view a litmus-test for the credibility of our political values and our ambitions at the same time. One must not agree with everything what Israel has done but one must respect a fundamental principle: we Europeans have a special responsibility for Israel and the right of the Israelis to live in peace within secure borders. Israel needs a European perspective. It must always know that Europe is a good neighbour, a good partner, a reliable friend.

What I have said about integration of the EU and its neighbouring regions is particularly true for Israel. If the term privileged partnership has a meaning then it should be true for our relations with Israel. Israel is nearer to us than most of our neighbours, not in a geographical sense but politically, culturally and economically.

I do not want to speak about the Middle East conflict tonight. But I share the hope and the expectation of many Europeans that the new American President will make a difference. If President Obama really tries, and I think he will, then he should be able to do that based on a strong and reliable Trans-Atlantic partnership. The Americans and the Europeans, if they are united in the endeavour to help to bring peace to the Middle East and cooperate in partnership, can make reconciliation happen also in this part of the world. Together we can set an example. Not only for Israel and the whole Middle East.

Tolerance and reconciliation are the guiding principles for a policy that wants no more and no less than to contribute to the building of a better world. Creating a better world – that sounds very emphatic but this is exactly what was behind our greatest achievements. The idea of the European integration was never about the accumulation of legal acts, the idea was to build a Europe that turns the lessons of the past into a common future. That cares for values. That puts its values into practice. That opens new chapters as the American people did last week. We are sometimes reluctant, uncertain, divided and ambiguous, too slow and not ambitious enough. But if you ask me whether we can do better, the answer, inspired by Barack Obama, is: Yes, we can.