The title of our panel discussion speaks of shaping history without violence. Indirectly the possibility is spelled out that peace and not violence may change history. And another question comes to my mind: Can the peace that follows war be maintained? How, despite the wounds inflicted by the war, the murdering, the raping of women, the abuse of children as child soldiers, how despite all this and after all can peace develop and be maintained? Or, is violence inevitable?
When we ask these questions, we think of Syria. How can peace find its way back there? How can the people live together peacefully again? Is it conceivable that different religions and ways of looking at the world can coexist peacefully and rebuild the devastated country? We think of Iraq. We can only imagine how deeply the country is split after decades of dictatorship and tyranny and a number of wars. We can hardly imagine what hopelessness and desperation has afflicted many people after the destruction of all institutions by the military intervention in 2003 and the daily terror ever since – which has been going on for ten years now! We think of Afghanistan. Do we really believe in peaceful further development of this country after decades of war and international military intervention? What needs to happen to really make dignified and independent and above all peaceful development of this proud nation really possible?
During 25 years of Caritas work around the world, I have experienced refugees and victims of wars on all continents and tried to organise help. If I have not lost faith in the meaning and sense of this work in all these years, then perhaps only because I have repeatedly seen what strength and what courage those affected displayed themselves. But I have, too, often experienced how the will to live and optimism of people have been destroyed by those in power, by geopolitical decisions and by cruelty. My experience of these 25 years of worldwide Caritas work is that it is a personal, a moral decision to work for understanding and for justice.
Today, I am at the helm of a German Foundation that stands as an institution for understanding between peoples and for learning from history. I would like to talk about both of these aspects here today – about institutional and about personal responsibility for overcoming experiences of violence and for securing peaceful development.
The Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (also known by its German acronym EVZ) is the outcome of addressing the crimes committed against millions of people during the National Socialist era. The Foundation EVZ was only established in the year 2000, in other words 55 years after the end of the Second World War, to compensate the forced labourers. What made it necessary to establish this institution at such a late stage and after all that Germany had already done in “coming to terms” with the past and “compensation”? It would take too long to go into the circumstances of the cold war, the division of Germany, and the competition and far-reaching differences between the two German States –in the way they dealt with the legacy of National Socialism too. The fact is that after the Berlin Wall fell and following reunification of Germany, the compensation for many surviving victims of National Socialism paid up to that time was felt to be insufficient. Attention here focused above all on those people who had never received any recognition as victims up to that time, let alone received any material compensation. Even in their home countries they were not recognised as victims of the Germans – namely millions of forced labourers from the former Soviet Union. In fact, after the war many of them had been confronted with charges of collaborating with the German occupiers.
By establishing the Foundation EVZ it was intended to face up to the injustice that had not been addressed up to that time. However, this was not a simple decision – why not even a voluntary decision – of the German State and German politicians. In the 1990s the surviving forced labourers and other victims of National Socialism from Eastern Europe were able to articulate themselves for the first time. They set up their own organisations and brought litigation against German companies who had employed them largely without wages and exploited them during the Second World War. Courts in the USA accepted class claims from victims. Civil society organisations assisted them – in Central and Eastern Europe, in the USA, and in Germany too. German industry had to respond to this. As a result of the public campaigns being undertaken against the companies in the USA, their reputation and their markets were at stake. However, it was not only a pure defence mechanism that could be seen among German industry. A new generation of company management boards made the attempt to seriously explore their corporate history and the involvement of their companies in the racist suppression and exploitation system of the National Socialists on moral grounds too. In the end it was the interaction of different circumstances that finally led to out Foundation EVZ being established - the international pressure and the threat of loss of reputation for German companies, the personal commitment of a small number of company managers, the discussion conducted in public by citizen initiatives and the press, and wise political leaders.
Thus from the history of its origins and from its mandate, the Foundation EVZ is an institution for the political and moral responsibility of German industry, politics and society for the crimes of National Socialism. Its first task was to make at least a symbolic compensation for the injustice suffered by paying out the money put together by German industry and the German State, so many years after the Second World War. This payments programme covered around 4.6 billion Euros and managed to reach 1.7 million people worldwide – most of them in Central and Eastern Europe and in Israel. It was completed in 2007. Despite all the inadequacies, an attempt was made to do justice to all the persecution fates that had not been taken into account up to that time. And this was also acknowledged by those affected. A very important contribution to the late compensation of the victims and reconciliation of Germany with the country’s former opponents was made via this payment programme.
When it was set up, the Foundation EVZ was given endowment capital to enable it to also work permanently for understanding between peoples and to strengthen human rights in future. It considers itself committed above all to initiatives of citizens and initiatives of civil society. We want to support their commitment to the values that the surviving victims of National Socialism have repeatedly claimed. We support their work for international understanding, for human rights, and above all their commitment against racial discrimination and exclusion of minorities by funding them.
I would like to briefly present two projects of our Foundation: the “Europeans for Peace” (EFP) competition and “Humanity in Action” (HIA), a network of young academics.
In EfP , international partnerships comprising schools and youth groups apply for funding for joint projects. These projects address human rights in the past and in the present, and in particular they combat discrimination of minorities. The young people discover for themselves thematic areas such as exclusion of people with disabilities in Poland and in Germany today, illegal refugees in Israel and in Germany, persecution and discrimination of Roma, human trafficking and forced labour in Europe today. They reflect on all these themes against the background of history and the young people explore and discover the history of these discriminations right through to the crimes of the Nazi period. It is often surprising and inspires us with enthusiasm to see with what creativeness the young people address these topics. And we can hope that the joint international project experience helps to shape their lives in future.
In HIA , a network of young professionals from the USA and six European countries has developed in the meantime. Each country has a national organisation – EVZ has funded and supported the development of the German and Polish programme for over ten years now. Scholarships are offered for an intensive summer programme. The programme focuses on coming to terms with the crimes of National Socialism, especially with the Holocaust, and at the same time on the situation of human rights today. And every summer the scholarship holders to date meet in order to exchange with each other about their professional lives so far and the fields of commitment they have built up independently themselves.
These are two examples of our Foundation’s activity area “Working for human rights”. Other activity areas include “A critical examination of history” and “Commitment to the surviving victims of National Socialism”. We see the human rights work and the combating of discrimination against minorities to be the most important fields of work for the future. Alongside the memorial sites and other institutions, the Foundation EVZ is thus an example of how a country and a society endeavour to come to terms with their historical responsibility at institutional level.
However, is this institutional level sufficient? That we don’t believe this is apparent already from the fact that the Foundation EVZ generally supports civil society initiatives. We see them as the real actors in facing up to the responsibility that our history places upon us and in keeping this alive. And I would like to illustrate this “keeping it alive” by looking at the example of Sinti and Roma.
The Sinti and Roma minorities were persecuted by the Nazis in the same way as the European Jews. They too were all to be murdered. It is estimated that half a million members of this minority met their death in the extermination camps and mass shootings. By contrast with the extermination programme against the Jews, the mass murders of Roma were not recognised for a long time. It was only last year that a central memorial to these crimes was unveiled in Berlin. The Dutch Sinto, Zoni Weisz, complained in the German Bundestag in January 2011, that “half a million Sinti and Roma – men, women and children – were exterminated in the Holocaust. Society has learned nothing, or almost nothing, from this, otherwise they would treat us more responsibly today“ . And at the Peace Meeting of Sant’Egidio in Auschwitz in 2009, the Austrian Ceija Stojka asked, “What was the sense of me surviving the concentration camp if my grandchildren still have to live in fear for their lives today?”
What it boils down to in the end is that a personal decision by many people is necessary. The decision to question and no longer accept the stereotypes deeply rooted inside us. To remember the persecution fate of the Sinti and Roma and for that reason too to work for their rights, the very rights to which all Europeans and all people are entitled. The decision to learn and accept lessons from history, to refuse to allow discrimination any longer, is ultimately a personal and a moral decision. People have to take this decision themselves. Institutions like the Foundation EVZ can and should promote and foster this. We can inspire, network and fund, but the will to do something for understanding and reconciliation must come from the people themselves.
Does this brief reflection on the Foundation EVZ’s work to foster understanding make me more optimistic about the questions I raised concerning today’s war arenas? Not necessarily. But a critical examination of our history, which is full of violence and destruction, forces us to realise, as J. F. Kennedy said, that:
“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.“