“This, to me, is the biggest danger. The worst atrocities happen when nobody pays attention. And they can happen again because at their origin there is a tactic, old as the world, which continues to guide not simply ideologies but sometimes even state policies. This is the tactic of putting all the blame for our own problems on “the others”, and making them pay for it. This tactic will persist for so long as we do not realise that we ourselves are “the others” and “the others” are us.”
(Plaza Theatre, Brussels, 10 November 2008)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have listened with great emotion to the speeches we heard this afternoon. As I did, two words kept returning in my mind. They were: ‘Never again!’.
For a moment I felt myself transported to the streets of Berlin on that fateful night, “The Kristallnacht”, or the “Reichspogromnacht”, as the 9th of November 1938 is officially known. In the light of burning synagogues, schools and shops I could see the horror in the faces of those innocent men, women and children as they were killed on the spot, or taken from their homes and given a few minutes to pack their belongings before being dispatched to unknown destinations from which few would return. I saw a whole people, with a civilisation going back thousands of years, being uprooted, wilfully destroyed.
I am a historian by training and I closely studied this cruel episode, which left the young student I then was deeply moved. I was not naïve, and I knew a little of the history of the Jews and their most difficult times. I come from Girona, a city of significance in the history of Israel, as you know, as it was the scene of a pogrom in September 1391, when all the Jews were killed. A century later, in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain, in another episode that left me incredulous. So my knowledge of the tragedies of Jewish history was fairly good, but the terrible events in Germany and elsewhere in the 1930s and 40s left a profound impression on me.
The Kristallnacht was part of a plan. A plan by Hitler and his supporters, who were now, since 1933, in complete command of state power. They had absolute authority to decide over the life and death of the Jewish population of Europe, but also of the Roma, homosexuals and political opponents of all persuasions other than their own.
Absolute power also over peace and war. What country to attack and subjugate, what country to spare for now until a better moment for attack had come.
There was a direct link between Hitler’s grasp for power in 1933 and “The Kristallnacht”, and between that night and the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942, when an overall, detailed plan was drawn up by the Nazi hierarchy – occupied country by occupied country – for the realisation of ‘the final solution’, the Holocaust. The building of concentration camps, filling them with millions of victims who were soon to be systematically killed.
During all this time the world did not react. Most people in the outside world did not know, some perhaps did not want to know. And it might perhaps be argued in the world’s defence that it was simply too busy fighting the Nazi onslaught to try very hard to find out what was happening in Germany and the occupied territories.
Finally, after the years of horror, the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, with names such as Dachau, Buchenwald and Treblinka as part of a very long list, now etched in our collective memory.
So it is both as a historian and a politician that I am angered and appalled by the holocaust denials of neo-nazis or the President of Iran, whose manipulative formulation of history is absurd and loaded with hatred and patently war-mongering ulterior motives against the Jews.
At long last came the end of the war in 1945, and with it the determination of all people of good will in the world to try to create it anew, to never let what happened be repeated.
One of the first manifestations of that will, after the creation of the United Nations organisation in 1945, was the founding of the Council of Europe. Created in 1949 by ten founding States, one of its very first acts was to draw up the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Convention was opened for signature in 1950 and entered into force in 1953.
The Convention reads almost like poetry, perhaps because it was drawn up so soon after the nightmare of the war, when memories of it were still fresh and there was absolute community of purpose about what needed to be done.
With the Convention there was now an international, judicially enforceable bulwark against atrocities such as the Kristallnacht and what was to follow: the right to life; the prohibition of torture; the banning of slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty and security; the right to a fair trial; the right to respect for one’s private and family life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association; and the banning of discrimination. And many other rights and freedoms, some of them added in what has in the meantime become 13 Protocols to the Convention.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, one reason why I am mentioning the Convention at such length is that I have the great privilege of representing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe tonight – the body that took the initiative to draw up this Convention close on 60 years ago, not to mention a whole range of other legal instruments – too many to mention here – which it has initiated since. The Assembly has been – together with the Council’s Committee of Ministers, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, our European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and many other of the Council’s bodies – fighting ardently to defend European democracy, rule of law and human rights.
We are aware, however, that tolerance is not only a matter of legal jurisdiction. The order of whether a hand should or should not grasp a gun comes first and above all from the mind.
This is why we in the Council of Europe have been investing so heavily in education and culture, especially in history teaching and the promotion of intercultural dialogue. The Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a report on the contribution of Jewish culture to European culture, which demonstrates to what extent our collective culture contains elements rooted in Jewish culture.
Council of Europe campaigns such as “All different, all equal” or the new campaign entitled “Speak out against discrimination” are emblematic of our belief that we have to change minds in order to change hearts and mentalities. I am also glad to say that most of the countries signatories of the European Cultural Convention have now chosen a date, in relation with their national history, to celebrate in schools a Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and for the Prevention of Crimes against Humanity.
A whole series of events are taking place around these days to celebrate the International day against fascism and anti-Semitism and the International Day of Tolerance. The European Ministers of Education met in Nuremberg and in Dachau last week to discuss “Teaching remembrance for a Europe of freedom and the rule of law.”
A new partnership was forged today between the Council of Europe and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The “Lisbon Forum” on 10-11 November will address the “universality of human rights and its implementation at international and regional levels.” And a Council of Europe conference this week will be looking into “Human Rights in culturally diverse societies”.
Today the Council of Europe has 47 member States stretching from Iceland in the west to Russia in the east, Norway in the north to Malta in the south. But here we are talking about much more than just geography. We are talking about an extremely ambitious political project, the project of learning to live all together.
We have gone a long way, but not far enough. I am turning again to the horrible images I mentioned earlier: of burnt houses and of broken human destinies.
Where have we seen this again? We do not need to go as far as Rwanda or Iraq. We can stay on European soil with Srebrenica, Chechnya, or most recently, with events in Georgia.
But we do not even need to go that far. We can stay in our town or perhaps even our street and see desecrated cemeteries, immigrants’ hostels set on fire, neo-nazi marches in the streets, racist and xenophobic incitements by politicians in the media and in parliament… We can feel the kind of ordinary, everyday racism and intolerance everywhere in our ordinary, everyday lives and, despite all our efforts, we often end up regarding these phenomena as inevitable, ordinary features of everyday life that are minor and are not even worth bothering about.
This, to me, is the biggest danger. The worst atrocities happen when nobody pays attention. And they can happen again because at their origin there is a tactic, old as the world, which continues to guide not simply ideologies but sometimes even state policies.
This is the tactic of putting all the blame for our own problems on “the others”, and making them pay for it. This tactic will persist for so long as we do not realise that we ourselves are “the others” and “the others” are us.
Europe has gone through many challenges since its foundation. We have jointly overcome many threats against the values that we defend, but we can be sure that they will try to reappear. It would be self-deluding to imagine that you can ever totally defeat the forces of evil and darkness. You can only keep them at bay, just as darkness is kept at bay by light, but returns as soon as the light goes out.
That is why we must, each one of us, always be bearers of light, always make it our mission to combat outbursts of intolerance in the form of racism and xenophobia, ever ready to raise their ugly heads. We must never cease in our struggle for democracy, human rights and the rule of law – the only means by which atrocities such as those I have described can be prevented.
And to be able to do this we must always remember the Kristallnacht and its message for all time: “Never again!”
I thank you for your attention.