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GoetheInstitute

19/06/2007

Europe's oppressive legacy

Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertesz on the legacy of the last century and the challenges facing Europe in the next

The Acadamy of Arts in Berlin hosted the conference entitled "Perspective Europe" with speakers Carlos Fuentes, György Konrad, Wole Soyinka, Andrzej Stasiuk and Ilija Trojanow, among others. We present below the keynote speech by Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertesz.

Imre Kertesz. Photo © MTI, courtesy The Hungarian QuarterlyImre Kertesz. Photo © MTI, courtesy The Hungarian Quarterly
Among the dreadful ordeals of the century that now lies behind us, there was one unexpected bright spot. I'm thinking of the bloodless collapse of the Soviet empire, that staggering and barely comprehensible event which unfolded according to its own laws, like any compelling natural phenomenon that we may goggle at in terror or awe, but over which have no influence. When the great fortress of clay gave way, bonfires were lit and carefree celebrations broke out across Europe. Only when the initial euphoria had passed did people give any thought to the inheritance, the deceased giant's horrific legacy, and it was this climate of anxiety that suddenly gave birth to a European ideal.

Or to be more precise, to the plan for European economic and monetary union. Not a word was spoken about ideals. In truth, it was more a case of people being glad that the era of ideologies, which had caused so much harm, had come to an end. It seemed that with the disappearance of the last totalitarian empire, the last totalitarian ideology had also expired, and there was no longer a footing in Europe for the proven fallacy which was state socialism. All the more for that cautious, yet certainly forward-looking and rational concept of economic and monetary union. Europe long ago committed itself to the rationalist tradition, and although it has sometimes spawned irrational state formations and served absurd powers, it has subsequently always fervently condemned these. So what is the need now, of all times, to invest an otherwise wholly necessary system of conventions and institutions like the European Union with ideals - to idealise, even ideologise it?

The pragmatism that held sway in the debating chambers, out of which all that leaked were snatches of financial arguments and the table-thumping of parties campaigning for their own interests, proved to be a language that many did not understand, indeed, perhaps nobody at all in those Eastern European countries which had regained their independence. Those states were left to themselves, and, however odd it may sound, the miserable sureness of occupation by a foreign power gave way to fear and bewilderment gaining the upper hand. In vain the idle pats on the back, the inflated phrases about what belongs together knits together - right down to the present day, the wounds have still not healed, and an ideological vacuum has arisen in the place of a dynamic of regeneration.

It was an important moment because, in my opinion, it was the moment when Europe's fate was sealed, the fate of us all, the fate we are now living through with the unexpected breakdown of old agreements, with radicalisation and the fear of terror, and with a feeling of helplessness in the face of all of this. The genocide in Yugoslavia made it clear that Europe was reluctant to pick up the oppressive legacy that the Soviet colossus had bequeathed it. For a few years people simply dared not acknowledge that the pits of the Apocalypse which now, fifteen years later, threaten to engulf the entire world had already opened on Europe's south-eastern border.

I may be reaching for harsh words, but I feel no need to apologise. It is my conviction that the moment for gravity, in the most literal sense, has arrived. When there is a need for genuine analysis of the facts in place of populist claptrap, legalistic high-mindedness and manipulated political passions. A lot is said nowadays about "old Europe," about traditions, about European culture, and there can be no doubt that the crisis, indeed division, to which we are witness across Europe is, in large part, cultural in nature. When we consider that during the twentieth century Europe was, after all, victorious over the twin totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and communism that threatened the most basic principles of its existence - indeed, it entered the new millennium under the very flag of that victory - we might feel that, all in all, there was cause to be content. On the other hand, it was on European soil that these totalitarian powers came into being; their roots took nurture from the poisoned soil of European culture; and it is highly questionable if European vitality would have been sufficient to vanquish them without assistance from the United States of America.

One might say that this is a political, not a cultural issue. It might be, if it were not evident that Europe is now confronting similar questions of principle to those it faced in 1919 or 1938, and it is struggling with them as indecisively as it did then. How can that be when, during the more than half a century that has passed since the Second World War, we have heard about nothing other than the importance of remembering, the horrors of war, the need to keep constantly before our eyes the lessons that can be drawn from the camps of the Holocaust and the Gulag so that those atrocities should never be repeated?

Undeniably, remembering is not easy. Not long ago, I was a guest at an exhibition that was presenting serious documentation about the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht under Hitler. All of a sudden, I became aware that I was shifting around with a poker face, like some polite stranger, striving to keep my distance lest I be prostrated by alarm at the material on display. Had I perhaps forgotten that I am myself a participant in and survivor of those atrocities? Had I forgotten the smell of the dewy dawn when the salvoes of gunshot rang out? Sunday evenings in the concentration camps, when the next in line for the crematoria would still be dreaming of fancy cakes? Even if I hadn't forgotten, once I had transformed it all into words, it burned out, in some way came to rest within me.

I do not gladly surrender that tranquillity, though that is precisely what is required: the shame of which those pictures and documents speak concerns all of us, whether we were there at the sites where people dug their own mass graves, so that fellow human beings might then shoot them into the ditches, or whether we have only come into possession of these monstrous facts - facts that we shall never be able to rid ourselves of - as a heritage. Ecce homo - so is this what man is? One day he is called away from beside wife, children, ageing parents, and the next day he is shooting women, children and elderly people into ditches, and, what is more, with evident pleasure written on his face? How can that be possible? Obviously, with assistance from hatred, the sort of hatred that - along with lies - has become an indispensable requirement, one could say: an essential spiritual nourishment, for mankind in our time.

It will be the very first task of the new Europe to hack out clear paths through the jungle of ideologies and fallacies. It is a typically twentieth-century phenomenon that politics and culture have become not just antagonistic but inimical to one another. In this terrible century of lost values everything that was once of value became ideological. The hour was struck for the political adventurers and leaders of the people who undertake to direct and later exploit the masses with the help of the apparatus of political parties cultivated by devious stratagems.

It has become more obvious than ever before that there exist at least two Europes, in which shared history, the shared European experience, is reflected in at least two different ways. There is a general belief that democracy is a political disposition, but if one thinks about it, democracy is in truth more a culture than a mere system - and here I am using the word culture in, as it were, its horticultural sense. The democracies of Western Europe came into being organically; democracy sprouted as a political system on the soil of a social culture, through a process of economic, political and behavioural necessities, successful revolutions or great social compromises. In Central and Eastern Europe, by contrast, the political structures were the first to be brought into being - insofar as they have been brought into being - and society must now undertake the gradual, wearisome and possibly painful task of assimilating to those structures. But then was that not also the case for so-called socialism? In many places this was constructed directly on the foundations of a feudal system, and what gave it a peculiar grotesqueness was precisely the fact that the ideology that was elevated into a state religion was in flat contradiction to the way it functioned in practice. That brutal contradiction could only be bridged by means of terror, which naturally had its own consequences.

Let us be clear about this: the genuine novelties of the twentieth century were the totalitarian state and Auschwitz. The anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century, for instance, was as yet barely able, nor even would have wished, to imagine a Final Solution. Auschwitz, therefore, cannot be accounted for by the common-or-garden, archaic, not to say classical concepts of anti-Semitism. One has to understand that there is no organic link of any kind. Our age is not the age of anti-Semitism but of Auschwitz. And the anti-Semite of our age does not kick against Jews but wants an Auschwitz, a Holocaust. Eichmann testified during his trial in Jerusalem that he was never an anti-Semite, and although those who were in the courtroom burst into laughter, it is not inconceivable that he was being truthful. In order to murder millions of Jews the totalitarian state had need, in the final analysis, not so much of anti-Semites as good organisers. We need to see clearly that no totalitarianism of party or state can exist without discrimination, and the totalitarian form of discrimination is necessarily mass murder.

It is not easy to live together with our grave historical experiences. It is not easy to face the brutal fact that the trough of existence into which mankind sank during our century is not just an outlandish story, peculiar to one or two generations, but also, at one and the same time, an empirical norm that encompasses general human contingency, and thus, in this particular setting, our own contingency. One is appalled by the ease with which totalitarian dictatorships are able to liquidate the independent individual self, and with which a person becomes a snugly fitting, compliant cog in a dynamic state machine. One is seized by fear and uncertainty that so many people, even we ourselves, during certain segments of their lives, can be transformed into beings that the rational self, with its sound civic, moral instincts, will later on be unable - and not wish - to recognise or identify with. There was a time when man was God's creation, a tragically fated creature who needed salvation. That lonely being was first leavened by ideological totalitarianism into a mass, then enclosed within the walls of a closed political system, and finally degraded into a lifeless cog in the works. At that point, there is no need for salvation, because he is not answerable for himself. Ideology has robbed him of his cosmos, his solitude, the tragic dimension of the human fate. It has squeezed him into a determinate existence where his fate is governed by his origins, his racial classification or his class loyalties. Along with his human fate, he is also robbed of human reality, the sheer sensation of living, so to say. In a totalitarian state we stand uncomprehending before the potential criminal acts, whereas all that we ought to be assessing is the extent to which the place of morality and the power of the human imagination have been subverted by the new categorical imperative: the totalitarian ideology.

This in any case far from untroubled situation has not been helped by the otherwise necessary and long-awaited eastward expansion of the European Union. The peoples of Eastern Europe were liberated in such a way that they personally could do little for their own liberation. Admittedly, there were events like the workers' risings in East Germany in June 1953, the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s - each and every one a school of acrimony. Important historical events make themselves known by the fact that they have a continuation, as we have learned from the French historian Fernand Braudel. Now the historical events that have just been listed had no organic continuation. Merely consequences: repression, disillusionment, an ever more oppressive sense of abandonment, resignation. In the end, everyone wanted the collapse, but no one had faith in it, no one made it happen. And once it did come to pass, without they themselves having to lift a finger, people looked around them in this new situation with dazed looks and rather uncomprehendingly, if not with outright antipathy.

Precisely because they did not fight out their freedom for themselves, and their values, which in large part had served a strategy of national and individual survival overnight became useless, if they did not look like shameful collaboration. For precisely this reason a not inconsiderable portion of this society really did experience the dropping of freedom into their lap as a collapse. And when their arms were stretched out for support towards the democracies of western Europe, all they got was a brisk handshake and an encouraging clap on the shoulder. Western Europe couldn't make up its mind what to do with its eastern neighbours, while looked at from the other side, this was taken to be a sign of arrogance, which sent the poor relations into a sulk. The winning of freedom came not so much with a release of the spirit of regeneration as, far more, that of the bad past, of ressentiment, in the form of a national frenzy at the reopening of age-old national wounds that degenerated to murder and genocide or, elsewhere, into a more restrained nationalism in a democratic mask.

In point of fact, this was a surprise for everybody, and even the true sceptics, even the most pessimistic among them, were amazed by the unexpected vitality, after the turning point of 1989-90, of ideals that were believed to have been long buried, forms of behaviour and thinking that were considered to have been long discredited. It was as if in this whole detonation, carried out with such great care and discipline, without so much as a whimper, someone had forgotten an important element of the fusion process that, now it was released from its restraints, as it were, spinning around with much fizzing and spluttering, rather like a suddenly activated grenade left behind by some old war. Who would have believed that for the peoples of Eastern Europe the so-called "Velvet Revolution" would prove a time machine that would set off, not forward, but backward in time for them to carry on the petty games from roughly where they had left off in about 1919, at the end of the first world war? As if nothing had happened in the meantime; as if the bloodiest and most traumatic phase of European history had not occurred, in which they too - and precisely they - had been such exceedingly active and exceedingly passive participants, but which they had never accounted for to themselves, preferring swiftly to forget.

Undoubtedly, on arriving at the threshold of the twenty-first century we were left to our own devices, in ethical terms. Man's prosperity, in the more elevated sense, lies beyond his historical existence - albeit not with any avoidance of historical experiences; on the contrary, by living through, taking possession of, and identifying tragically with them. Knowledge alone can elevate man above history; at a time of the depressing presence of totalitarian history, stripping away all hope as it does, knowledge is the only dignified retreat, the sole good. Only in the light of this knowledge, gained through first-hand experience, can one pose the question: can all that has been committed and suffered create any sort of value? Or to be more precise, can we attribute value to our own lives? Or do we forget, like amnesiac patients, or even brush it aside, like suicides. Because it is one and the same radical spirit that makes scandal, humiliation and shame a heritage of human awareness. It is also, at one and the same time, a liberating spirit, and it does not undertake to fully expose the contagion of nihilism in order to succumb to those forces. Quite the reverse, it does it because it seeks to enrich its own vital powers by doing so.

As I near the end of what I wish to say, you may reproach me for not having made a single specific, tangible proposal. In truth, I do not profess to understand either politics or economics or the art of government. I don't know how one can solve the refugee issue or social problems, nor how one is to embrace the poorer countries and valuable people. I don't know how terrorism is to be eradicated and a new order of security created. One thing I do know beyond peradventure, however: a civilisation that does not clearly proclaim its values, or which leaves these proclaimed values high and dry, is stepping on the path to perdition and terminal debility. Then others will pronounce their values, and in the mouths of these others they will no longer be values but just so many pretexts for untrammelled power, untrammelled destruction. As I said, we have been left to our own devices, without guidance from either heavenly or earthly powers. We must create our values for ourselves, day by day, and with that indefatigable yet invisible ethical toil that will eventually bring these values into the light of day and inaugurate a new European culture. When I think of the future Europe, I picture a strong, self-confident Europe - one that will always be ready to debate but never to compromise. Let us not forget that Europe itself came into being as the result of a heroic decision: Athens resolved to stand up to the Persians.

*

The article, written in Hungarian, originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 2, 2007.

Imre Kertesz was born in Budapest on November 9, 1929. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. He then worked as journalist, writer and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein, and Canetti, who have all had a significant influence on his own writing. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Translation: Tim Wilkinson

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