“If we recognise that we are all different, that differences are a richness to us all, but that we are indeed all in the end equal, then I believe we will be able to overcome many of the problems of intolerance that beset our continent.”
(European Parliament, Brussels, 10 November 2008)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me tell you how happy I am to be able, in my capacity as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to address you on this occasion.
We have come together today to remember the past, and on the strength of that past, to build our future. The occasion, as we know, is the 70th anniversary of “The Kristallnacht”, “The night of broken glass” of November 10, 1938. If we are determined that such an event – and all that followed in its wake and in particular the Holocaust – if we are determined that it must never happen again, then we must see what lessons we can draw from it and apply them to our present time, and the times to come.
Our hosts, the European Parliament and the European Jewish Congress wanted, I believe, to underline this very aspect by dedicating this special event to the promotion of tolerance throughout the European continent.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which I represent is well-placed when talking about spreading values and ideals across Europe.
Our organisation unites 47 European countries and has its headquarters in Strasbourg, a city-symbol of reconciliation between two war enemies, France and Germany.
The Council of Europe has for almost 60 years – we were founded in 1949 – worked with all its different components – its Committee of Ministers for Foreign Affairs, its Congress of Local and Regional authorities, its European Court of Human Rights and many other bodies set up within it – for the purpose of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law across Europe. In other words, “promoting tolerance throughout the European continent” is precisely what we have been doing all these years. And may I add how closely the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly work with the European Union in carrying out this mission – very much including its European Parliament and President Pöttering himself.
We may have thought, after the end of the Cold War, that confrontation and tension between and within nations was a thing of the past. We now realise that “old demons” have often been replaced by new ones.
Rabid nationalism, religious and political intolerance, terrorist acts, the persecution of ethnic groups and even ‘ethnic cleansing’, with its cortege of ghastly wars and conflicts in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, South Ossetia, and the list goes on. The horror coming back time and time again. We had to react against this barbarianism and we did.
I could mention the many achievements of the Council of Europe – conventions, resolutions, recommendations, campaigns, but only at the risk of you looking up to the ceiling and wishing I will soon come to a close. So let me instead mention just four words that I find genial, the words from a slogan used by the Council of Europe in its 1995 European Youth campaign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The slogan was simply “All different, all equal”. “All different, all equal”. I think that those four words embody so much of what we want to say in fighting intolerance.
If we recognise that we are all different, that differences are a richness to us all, but that we are indeed all in the end equal, then I believe we will be able to overcome many of the problems of intolerance that beset our continent.
And surely we have enough challenges to face: enmity between certain ethnic groups. Discrimination, such as against our Roma population or against immigrants. Ethnic cleansing, where the early 1990s saw examples on a scale never thought possible again. And now we have neo-fascist and even neo-nazi, groups appearing with their calls for national or ‘ethnic’ purity. And then there are the holocaust deniers peddling their anti-Semitic claims with provocative and alarming vehemence.
If we look to the present time, we also face a world financial crisis, which carries the risk of widening into an economic crisis for our continent. Just as we must find a way to overcome this crisis by working closely and innovatively together, so we must also be aware that it is precisely in difficult economic times that tolerance will be put most severely to the test.
We only have to look to the consequences of the Great Depression of the 1930s to understand the danger.
However, my message is that all these challenges should not serve to discourage us, but rather inspire us to fight harder on behalf of tolerance and understanding.
And here I see a source of inspiration, coming not from Europe’s shores but rather from those of the United States. Quite regardless of any political consideration, I believe that the overwhelming choice by the American people of their first non-white President, Senator Barack Obama, is an extremely hopeful and inspiring message also for the Old World.
The United States, a country that has had its fair share of racial intolerance, has shown that it can rise above prejudices and recognise a candidate’s personal capabilities irrespective of his skin colour.
So this choice, coming as it does sixty years after the “Night of the broken glass” and the introduction of Nazi legislation, forbidding, by the way, any German from marrying a black person – this choice is the best refusal possible of the Nazi doctrine, and an encouragement for Europe to overcome its own past and present intolerance.
In 1936, when Jesse Owens, the US athlete, ran to win the 100 metre Olympic gold medal, Hitler rose from his seat in the Berlin stadium so as to avoid having to shake his hand. By contrast, when Barack Obama visited Berlin this past summer, 200,000 cheering Berliners came to hear him. The difference is there: time and history gone by have marked our present and foretell a future full of hope.
‘All different, all equal’. Excellencies, friends, we still have a way to go, but we have also come some way. ‘Kristallnacht’ was a grave error of history but will also remain engraved on our memories, never to be forgotten. A reminder to what extent human beings can become inhuman.
I thank you for your attention.