Days of Tolerance in Europe, November 9-16, 2008
Address by Hans-Gert Poettering, President of the European Parliament at the Special Event Promoting Tolerance Throughout the European Continent
Brussels, European Parliament
Mr President of the European Jewish Congress, dear Moshe Kantor,
Honourable parliamentarians, Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, we have gathered at the European Parliament to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic events of the Reichspogromnacht. It is a moment of great emotion for me to address you on the occasion of this special event - just a few days ahead of the International Day on Tolerance and during this European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.
70 years ago last night, in a premeditated rush of destruction and depredation that took place in Nazi Germany, hundreds of members of the Jewish community were murdered, up to 30,000 arrested and deported to concentration camps.
The Reichspogromnacht saw the destruction of more than 200 Synagogues, and the ransacking of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes.
It followed years of segregation and exclusion of the Jewish community in Germany, but it was more than just another dramatic episode in a too long series of acts of intolerance, religious hate crimes and wars witnessed throughout the European continent over the centuries.
Yet, the real significance and far-reaching impact of the Reichspogromnacht had not been sufficiently understood: With the November 1938 events, the last remaining illusion of a link to the European continent’s humanistic roots and human rights’ traditions was being openly trampled upon.
The Reichspogromnacht was the beginning of Auschwitz. Some, many, too many - in the name of appeasement - failed to see the omen.
So indeed, the flickering torches reflected in the splintering glass, the cries of the women, the children and the men chased out of their homes on the streets, did not spark enough of the outrage and determination needed to put an early stop to the atrocities that finally became the full horror of the Shoah.
As the German historian Wolfgang Benz said, „the Reichspogromnacht marked the turning-point. With no other event has the Nazi-Regime so cynically demonstrated that it no longer laid the slightest value even on the pretence of keeping the rule of law. The Reichspogromsnacht (…) opened the way to the systematic eradication, the million fold extermination of Jews“, along with Roma, Poles, Russians and countless men, women and children of other nationalities, religions and convictions in the concentration camps set up by the Nazis.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today I speak to you as a German, thus in full awareness of a special responsibility. As a German I avow myself to the darkest hours of the history of my people, to that page, beyond comprehension, in the History of my country, of our entire continent and of Humanity.
But I also address you in my capacity as President of the European Parliament, which is the democratically elected representation of the peoples from 27 European nations. The European Parliament stands for and defends democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and solidarity between people and nations in today’s European Union and in the world.
The Swiss writer Adolf Muschg once wrote, 'Auschwitz is not only the zero point for European history, it is also the place where its rebirth begins'.
After this darkest tragedy of the history of humankind, thus reaching its ethical nadir, the European continent was nevertheless able to reshape itself and pave the way towards a civilisation based on freedom, democracy and human rights – thus as a common effort to achieve tolerance, justice and solidarity.
Today, the European Union is a community based on these shared values. The supreme yardstick underpinning our political action in the European Union is indeed the respect for the dignity of the human being all over the world. Human dignity is inviolable. In my view this understanding of the human being results to a large extent from our common Judeo-Christian roots.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we have the chance to live in a peaceful and free European Union, in which democracy and rule of law prevail. But none of this is self-evident.
This has become true in the last half century, because we have let ourselves be guided by one particular value which gives the European Union its true soul: this value is tolerance. And it took us centuries to learn this.
Democracy, rule of law and tolerance are not self-evident: They must not be taken for granted! “Only” 70 years have passed since the Reichspogromnacht, we can still speak to witnesses of that night, to survivors of the concentration camps and learn from the story of their life.
It is with great emotion that I would like to welcome amongst us Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Samuel Pisar, who are both survivors of the Shoah, and who will take the floor later this evening.
What we have learnt ourselves, or from our parents, we have to pass on to our children and grandchildren. We must remain constantly vigilant!
The tragedy of the Shoah, along with all the pogroms of the past, the acts of racial hatred and religious intolerance have a lesson to teach, a lesson that never loses its importance:
We in the European Union bear a responsibility and have a duty to oppose absolutely and without exception, without appeasement, all forms of extremism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and to defend democracy, the protection of human rights and human dignity worldwide.
And thus allow me, in the name of the European Parliament, to express my serious concern: There are reasons to be alarmed by the rise in intolerance, violence, xenophobia, aggressive nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism on our continent over the last years.
This poses a major threat to our democratic societies and to our European values. We must be unrelenting in that cause, and unrelenting we shall be!
The fact that we are commemorating the Reichspogromnacht today in the European Parliament, here in the Yehudi Menuhin Room, is in my view of a twofold symbolic significance.
Yehudi Menuhin was the soloist at the concert that was held in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, shortly after its liberation. This concert was a deliberate - almost defiant - demonstration that the spirit and soul of the human being in all its richness may be violated, but can never be decimated.
This talented musician was debilitated by pain, but not disheartened. He was full of suffering, but also filled with a nascent hope for a new life.
The second symbolic significance for me lies in the fact that we are holding this commemoration at the European Parliament, at the heart of this now democratic, peaceful and united European Union.
In awareness of our constant responsibility, this is also an admonition for the future: we must promote tolerance and better understanding between the peoples within the European Union and beyond, between people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs.
Therefore, by means of today's event, which takes place just a couple of days before the International Day for Tolerance on 16 November, the European Jewish Congress and the European Parliament wish to send a loud message of tolerance and hope for the future.
In the context of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, we want to create momentum for the fight against intolerance, xenophobia, racism and all forms of anti-Semitism. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism should never ever again be given a chance on the European continent.
Allow me just a shortcut into German history to illustrate my point: In Germany’s 18th century society, in 1743, the young Moses Mendelssohn began his artistic work, which culminated in the historic Jewish-German dialogue between him and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing – the same Lessing who, in his work Nathan the Wise, left us the most valuable linguistic symbol of tolerance ever written in German language.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and the Templar, bridge their misunderstanding and the gaps between Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
This parable is about friendship and tolerance, the need for honest communication and mutual understanding. This is what the European Union is aiming for in the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.
We want to build a bridge of communication and dialogue, a bridge build on the pillars of respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.
These pillars, when well built, will support the bridge over the flow of time and will withstand also the dangerously rising tide of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
The future will be defined above all by the younger generation: they are the main pillars of these bridges of mutual understanding. Allow me therefore to mention the example of Euromed-Scola, which is particularly close to my heart and will take place in the European Parliament in Strasbourg at the end of this week.
It brings together around 250 young pupils with different political and religious backgrounds from all over the European Union, as well as from the partner countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, including young people from Israel and from the Palestinian Territories.
It is one of the many projects that we have developed in the European Parliament to promote dialogue and encounters between peoples in the European Union and beyond.
These young people will get the chance to experience direct exchanges, and thereby to live diversity as enriching; and dissenting opinions as a positive challenge. With this project, we wish to contribute to the development of a spirit of tolerance at an early age, and to help to further promote the necessary intercultural dialogue.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today is a day of remembrance, a day of looking back and reflection, aimed at maintaining constant vigilance and awareness. But today also should serve as a moment of hope for the future by creating a bridge between the horrors of the past and the values to which we have bound ourselves.
We must never forget, we must remember, we must be vigilant. The past obliges us to build a better future based on tolerance and democracy, in Europe and in the world.
We have learnt from our mistakes, we have learnt not to close our eyes. We have learnt that the rule of law must always prevail over the rule of force, that fighting for human dignity, tolerance and mutual understanding can never have too high a price.
What we have learnt, we must pass on to our children and grandchildren, by commemorating days like today, by educating, speaking and, above all, by acting, in a way which will prevent the horrors of the Reichspogromnacht - and all that followed - forever!