Past Events

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

Address by the Chairman Of European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation Alexander Kwaśniewski at the Dinner On Promoting Tolerance Throughout the European Continent

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

The goal of our today’s celebrations – those in the European Parliament and during this dinner – is to commemorate the events of the Kristallnacht and celebrate the International Day of Tolerance. I use the word celebration with premeditation because, in fact, there are few phenomena more advantageous for the world than mutual tolerance. Tolerance as a principle was formulated in the 17th and 18th centuries as a response to the horror of religious wars, which shook Europe after the period of Reformation. It was then for the first time in the history of civilised world that people have physically realised that tolerance was not an elusive idea of thinkers, but that it was a principle of social peace offering a chance for stability and development. Religious peace in Western Europe, based on the principles of legally sanctioned tolerance, guaranteed this part of the world a period of unprecedented development and prosperity.

Times of wilfully practiced tolerance are periods of development, prosperity and welfare for individual countries and entire continents. The time in which the principle of tolerance was ignored and rejected was the time of tyranny, persecution, and wars.

The contempt for the principle of tolerance, contempt for different outlooks and faith eventually always means contempt for another human being. Heinrich Heine once wrote that Where books are burned, in the end people are burned. Prophetic words indeed! The same Europe, which by the works of Locke, Voltaire or Lessing built immortal monuments to the principle of tolerance, in the 20th century became the ground of inhuman war unleashed by the fanatic regime, the arena of genocide, the site of the Holocaust. The extermination made us, Europeans, realise how fragile can our cultural formation be in collision with demagogy and fanaticism referring to collective fears, stereotypes, atavistic ideas and emotions. The Kristallnacht, the events from November 1938, which we recall with sorrow today, constitute one of the most dishonourable moments not only in the history of Germany, but also in the history of our entire continent.   

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The experience of wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century made us realise two extremely important issues pertaining to the notion of tolerance. In the first place, they made us realise that tolerance cannot be decreed. It should be practiced and exercised while being vigilant towards manifestations of xenophobia, racism, and disregard for man.

There is no country, society, or culture, which could say that the tolerance homework had been done and that there is no point in dealing with it any longer. Nobody is immune to the demons of fanaticism and hatred. That is why we must not ignore or belittle any manifestation of collective pathology, any forms of disregard towards others. A desecrated tombstone, an inscription on a wall offensive towards other nations, anti-Semitic or racist statements – none of these events are “innocent” or “not dangerous”. Due to the historic experience of Europe, we must remember that the principle of respect towards another human being is being undermined first shyly, later gradually with increasing force and finally, everything that is different, is relentlessly removed. That is why our reaction to the manifestations of intolerance must be firm and immediate.

Our history makes us realise that tolerance has also a concrete human dimension. It is an attitude rooted in our fundamental moral convictions, in the feeling of respect and duty towards other people regarded as persons with a human dignity. That is why tolerance is an indispensable part of our vision for a common Europe, if it wants to be a community of axiological foundations guaranteeing basic human rights. Apart from this fundamental, moral dimension, tolerance also has a social aspect: it simply proves itself as the foundation for social peace guaranteeing political and economic development. Only a Europe inspired by the spirit of tolerance, Europe deriving from multi-culture and multi-ethnic resources of its societies, can effectively compete with other world political and economic centres during the time of globalisation.

As I mentioned in the European Parliament today, tolerance also has its political dimension. It relies on the presence of moral authorities, attractiveness of patterns to follow, inspiration and personal example. That is why the strength of a political leadership is of key importance for the implementation of the policy of tolerance. One of the objectives of the European Council for Reconciliation and Tolerance, which I have the honour to chair, will be to distinguish effective leadership in favour of Tolerance in Europe. I think that, also in this way, we, the group of former politicians, will be able to assist in the strengthening of a culture of tolerance on the European political scene. Our distinction will have the form of a European Medal of Tolerance. After protracted discussion, we have decided to grant the first European Medal to a special person, not only in Europe. The person being a synonym of effective and at the same time wise leadership and peaceful transformation. The champion of national and European reconciliation, able to level divisions and solve conflicts of extremely complicated background. To one of the most outstanding Europeans – His Majesty Juan Carlos, the King of Spain. Thanks to his political vision and unfaltering activeness, Spain came back to Europe as a democratic country, open to the world, resorting to its best tradition of an open and tolerant state. We hope that we shall soon be able to deliver our distinction to His Majesty in person.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many speakers today pointed out that in the globalised world, ethnic and cultural monoliths are not possible to be kept any longer. Societies are becoming increasingly diversified; the process does not have to lead, by definition, to social atomisation and chaos. The integration of multi-ethnic and multi-national societies is possible only on condition of an authentic, genuine respect for culture or religion of another person. A well-conceived tolerance allows for an enrichment of own identity and broadening its perspectives and opportunities. Europe will meet the challenges of the 21st century only availing the enormous potential of nations and cultures living in it. Achieving this is only possible through respecting the principle of tolerance, conceived as practicing the respect for others. The practice of tolerance, not as a declaration or formal principle, but as the courage to meet it half-way, immerse in its culture and customs and the ability of accepting its perspectives. Me and all members of the European Council for Reconciliation and Tolerance wish that for our common Europe and all its citizens.

Thank you for your attention.