Pressekonferenz Wahl-O-Mat

4.9.2018

Internationalize Civic Education!

Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen,

a very warm welcome to all of you here in the heart of Bratislava!

I am very proud to be guest tonight at the Austrian Cultural Forum here in the capital of the Slovak Republic. Thank you so much for your generosity, Excellency Helfried Carl, and Wilhelm Pfeistlinger, Director of this institution – what an honour to kick-off our international conference on the future of Europe in the 21st century here in this beautiful location.

Our conference at the idyllic castle of Eckartsau, just half way between Bratislava and Vienna, will start tomorrow and is hosted by the Department of Contemporary History of the University of Vienna and by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, bpb – in excellent cooperation, amongst others, with Leo Baeck Institute, New York / Berlin and the Österreichische Bundesforste.

It is a pleasure to cooperate with you, dear professor Oliver Rathkolb! A huge thank you for the congenial management and organisation goes to Linda Erker and Johann Kirchknopf and their team!

In the coming days we will discuss the meaning and the impact of the landmark years of 1918 and 1938 for the present time, for 2018, a year in which we see authoritarianism gaining ground again, not only in Germany and Austria but also in many countries of Central Europe.

Didn‘t we all believe that the authoritarian 20th century came to an early end in 1989 and 1990 – at last, for good and once and for all?

I spent the first 30 years of my life in the German Democratic Republic, a country dominated by the dictatorial rule of a monolithic state party until courageous citizens brought the regime down without any violence – 30 years ago. Therefore, this year I also think about events 50 years ago in the former Czechoslovakia, a „brother nation“ in the Eastern bloc. The Prague spring was also a Bratislava Spring in its own right.

An icon of my very early political thinking is the world famous photo of the Slovak photographer Ladislav Bielik. It shows an ordinary, decent man, the plumber Emil Gallo, taken here in Bratislava on August 21, 1968, on the day of the Soviet invasion when armed troops and tanks rolled into the city. The morning had begun as usual; Gallo got up early and went to work. At midday shots were fired near where the old bridge crosses the Danube. A 17-year-old girl died. Citizens screamed, cried, fainted. “Socialism with a human face” was over. Gallo could not know that his angry gesture of tearing open his shirt to scream with a bare chest at the huge gun of a Soviet tank on Šafárik Square was to become a symbol for the seed of freedom which had been laid by the Dubček government weeks before and during the months of the „Spring“.

The photo has later been proclaimed as one of the 100 most important pictures of the 20th century. Bielik, the photographer, has risked his life to take it. It shows the drama that unfolded on the streets of Bratislava during those days. Bielik had married four days before, and when the tanks rolled in, he incidentally tried to calm his wife and lighten an increasingly concerned mood, joking: “Don’t worry, this will make us famous. The whole Warsaw pact came to congratulate us for our marriage.” The same night, his photos were smuggled out of the country, and even if no foreign papers gave the accurate credits to Bielik he faced a very hard time during “normalization”. He was bullied, pressured by the police, but never gave in, even if his life was destroyed.

The seed of freedom was never to dry up again. It spread when Charta 77, a declaration of the Czechoslovak civil rights movement, was published in London in January 1977. The seed sprouted and flourished in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Two years later the Slovak and the Czech Republic became independent from Soviet authoritarian rule.

The image of Emil Gallo was grounded firmly in my mind. It is full of power and invokes the magic of non-violence and civil resistance. The symbolic year of 1968 in the GDR had a special meaning and will always be associated with events in Bratislava, Ostrava, Brno, Prague and elsewhere in the neighbouring country. The sad truth was: From then on the idea of reforming real existing socialism, the hopes which were awake with the reforms of the ever-smiling Dubček, came to an abrupt and brutal end.

All this happened only 30 years after Nazi Germany and Italy had pressed Britain and France to accept the final dismemberment of the Czechoslovak Republic with that infamous Munich Agreement of 1938. In the same year, in Germany synagogues were set on fire by a populist mob which claimed to represent the „will of the people“. It was remarkable that in the last moment Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had prevented East German tanks from entering Czechoslovakia; over 17.000 NVA troops were ready to invade and stood at the Saxon-Czech border. Brezhnev obviously feared the memories of 1938 and 1939, while the East German leader Walter Ulbricht had no such reservations.

In the aftermath, the East German state security police jailed over 500 persons who showed solidarity with the struggle of the Czechs and Slovaks, among them the writer Thomas Brasch. More than 200 members of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, the SED, were expelled from the party.

Since 1968, „Prague“ and „Bratislava“ became symbols of freedom – and of the courage of decent citizens, even if Slovaks and Czechs had to wait for another twenty years. Thus I am extremely happy to be here with you all, here in a city where it all began!

My institution, the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, for some years now has been striving to „Europeanize“ and internationalize its work. I cannot think of a global or even national topic of some importance which can nowadays be sufficiently discussed on a purely national level. Given the fact that all European societies are migrant societies, the need for multilingual and international approaches is more than evident. For example we are part of a very rapidly growing international network called NECE, Networking European Citizenship Education. NECE‘s big event this year will take place in Marseille - also this week! So I am facing my usual task to „divide myself up“ to attend not only Eckartsau, but also the NECE conference.

I wish us now a wonderful evening and I am looking forward to the coming days here in the heart of Europe. Let us all exchange ideas and encounter each other as European citizens so that the sombre dawn of a new authoritarianism which is currently haunting Europe will soon end to give way to a new democratic spring!

Thank you very much.


bpb:magazin 2/2017
bpb:magazin

bpb:magazin 2/2017

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