Gariwo: the gardens of the Righteous GariwoNetwork

Versione italiana | Search in site:

Finding our way to Europe again

by Francesco M. Cataluccio

Francesco M. Cataluccio's remarks, with the picture of Landmesser in the background

Francesco M. Cataluccio's remarks, with the picture of Landmesser in the background

Following we publish the remarks by essayist and writer Francesco M. Cataluccio on the European identity and the Righteous of Europe, delivered at the International Conference GariwoNetwork 2018.

Beggars become brothers to princes
Where your gentle wing abides.,
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!. Such ode to brotherhood is the Ode to Joy (An die Freude, 1786), by German poet Friedrich Schiller, set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony, and was chosen, in 1972, as European anthem. An anthem that is seldom played, while the national anthems (some of which are particularly rhetorical and warmongering) hold sway, because Europe remains unaccomplished. Significantly, Polish director Krzystof Kieślowski, in his Blue film (1993), imagined the story of a musician who, dying in a car accident, left the European anthem unaccomplished

I think of the picture of the German man August Landmesser (1910-1944), highlighted with a circle by the police because he refused to do the Nazi salute. He was a worker of the arsenal Blohm & Voss of Hamburg: he was the only one among hundreds of workers and authorities, who did not perform the Nazi salute to Hitler, remaining untouched, his arms folded, during the inauguration of the training ship of the German navy, the Horst Wessel, on 13 June 1936. Landmesser had been a member of the National-Socialist Party from 1931 to 1935, compelled to join only by the need to get a job. He started to oppose Nazism when he was accused of “dishonouring the race”, as he had had two daughters from a woman of Jewish faith (Irma Eckler, who was arrested in 1938 by the Gestapo and detained, first in the lager of Fuhlsbüttel in Hamburg and then in the woman lagers of Oranienburg and Ravensbrück, to then be eliminated on 28 April 1942). Landmesser was first expelled from the Party and then jailed twice in the concentration camp of Börgermoor. In February 1944, he was sent to the front, where he died during an operative mission in Ston, in Croatia. This is the picture, that was taken to justify the verdict against him (it was found again only in 1991 and published by “Die Zeit”), which became an emblem of heroism. Landmesser, through his gesture, did not save anyone, on the contrary he condemned himself, but he saved his honour and that of the humanity: this is why Landmesser should be remembered as a Righteous.

When did we start to think of Europe as we mean it, would like it to be and partly, know it today? It was right in the middle of the tragedy of World War II, in the confinement place on the tiny isle of Ventotene, as two anti-fascists, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, who had found a way to discuss it with the other prisoners, wrote the Manifesto of Ventotene (original title: For a free and united Europe. A Draft Manifesto), which expressed a wish for European unity, and was then published and spread by Eugenio Colorni [1]. With some naiveté – but let us think of the time and place where it was written – the Manifesto prefigured the need to establish a European federation provided with a Parliament and a democratic government with real powers in some key sectors, such as the economy and foreign policy, passing through a brief dictatorial stage: "Through this dictatorship of the revolutionary party the new state will be formed, and around it the new democracy." History showed, in fact, that all national aggregations had stemmed from a kind of unification that was imposed on them, often by the use of force, by the hegemonic nations (let us think of the Russian empire, Prussia, but even of Italy’s unification). The great challenge was to make sure that this unification would be the outcome of a revolution of all European peoples. In other words, it was necessary to have a movement that could mobilize all popular forces active in the various countries, in order to create a federal state, with its own armed forces and “sufficient bodies and means to have the deliberations aimed at maintaining a common order executed in the single federal States, though at the same time letting the very States be independent, so to ensure a plastic articulation and the development of a political life according to the various peoples’ peculiar features.

The reform of society, aimed at letting immediately resume the historical process against inequality and social privileges, had to go through a European revolution, necessarily socialist “i.e. it would have to focus on the emancipation of the working class and the fulfilment of more human life standards for them”. This is why Altiero Spinelli then founded, in the days 26-28 August 1943, in the Milanese home of chemical scientist Mario Alberto Mario Rollier, together with Eugenio Colorni, Ernesto Rossi, Ursula Hirschmann, Manlio Rossi Doria, Giorgio Braccialarghe and Vittorio Foa, the European Federalist Movement.

The discourse about a European Union was resumed more concretely at the end of the Forties, at the end of the difficult stage of the peace treaties and the early reconstruction. The French minister of foreign affairs, Robert Schuman, in his “Declaration” of 9 May 1950, which is considered as the first official political speech where the concept of Europe appears, expressed a wish for overcoming the historic rivalry between France and Germany, two countries involved in the production of carbon and steel. Lending a hand to the defeated enemies, preventing Germany from being fractioned into many small states and overly humiliated (as it had happened after World War One): “World peace cannot be safeguarded but with creative efforts, directly proportional to the perils that threaten it. The contribution an organized and vital Europe can give civilization is pivotal to keeping peaceful relations. (…) Europe will rise from concrete realizations that create, first of all, an actual SOLIDARITY”.

The European Union, at its onset (in 1950), was called ECSC (European Community of Carbona and Steel) and would then find its full accomplishment one year later (in 1951) with the so-called “Treaty of Paris”, joined by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. The great personalities behind such a start of European unity, a French, Robert Schuman, a German, Konrad Adenauer and an Italian, Alcide De Gasperi: three men who had personally endured the horrors of war, who had been persecuted by Nazi-fascism, three statesmen. This deal, economic in nature, had a background that could be summarized in the slogan “NEVER AGAIN”: never again the wars, hate and destructions, which had always afflicted the European continent but, with the two World Wars and the modern development of Technique, had taken on unbearable catastrophic dimensions. As Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella emphasized just a few days ago at the Carignano Theatre of Turin, for the inauguration of the University’s academic year: “If in the Fifties some countries decided to put together their economies and energetic resources, giving rise to the historic choice of European integration, which was joined by so many countries, it is because they felt a common background and cultural basis”.

We will not be here to go over all the history of the European Union, but we can already understand what, since the very start, the difficult stake of the game was: an economic union that would have to go at the same pace as a political and administrative, cultural and social union. A great acceleration to the European Union, and its enlargement came from with the collapse of the walls between West and East, in 1989. The small countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which had lost Europe and the West after the Second World War, have understood it and advocated it bravely and resolutely, though keeping alive, at the same time, some meagre nationalist claims. This is precisely why the push to reunite with Europe has been one of the engines of the social and political movements that helped pull own the totalitarian regimes. “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe”, was the message that was sent via telex by the director of the Hungarian press agency one minute before the conquest of Budapest by the Soviet tanks. Such a European dream was nurtured above all by such intellectuals as Czech writer Milan Kundera, who, by the way, in 1983, wrote a bitterly lucid text: The Stolen West or The Tragedy of Central Europe[2]. Kundera held the following view:

"Central-Eastern European peoples cannot be separated from European history; they cannot exist outside it, but they represent the wrong side of this history; they are its victims and outsiders. It's this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the "non-serious spirit" that mocks grandeur and glory. "Never forget that only in opposing History as such can we resist the history of our own days". "I would love to engrave this sentence by Witold Gombrowicz” above the entrance gate to Central Europe".

Elsewhere, Kundera proudly claimed the nature of this Other Europe:

"It often seems to me as if the European culture we have known so far hides yet another culture, unknown, of the small nations with weird languages: the ones of the Poles, the Czech, the Catalans, the Danes. The smaller nations are thought to be by necessity imitators of the great ones. That is a deception. They can even be very different. The perspective of a small country is not the same as a big one. The Europe of the small nations is yet another Europe, with a different point of view and a system of thought, which is the real counterpoint to the Europe of the great. The Jews and the Czech did not have any tendency to identify with History, to see seriousness and meaning in its manifestations. An unmemorable experience has stripped them of the habit of worshipping this Goddess, and praising her wisdom. Thus, the Europe of the smaller nations, better sheltered against the demagoguery of hope, has been more lucid in figuring out the future than the Europe of the greater nations, always ready to exult with their glorious historic mission".[3]

As early as in the 19th Century, in Central Europe, a pro-independence intelligentsia of bourgeois descent arose. It was a pro-Western class, as well, and it advocated the cultural and language identity of its own country, but it looked at Europe as at a dream of modernity and national and social emancipation. As Polish philosopher Krzystof Pomian noticed in L'Europe et ses nations (1990): "If there are nations, which can be said to have been created from their States, these nations instead have been created by their religious and cultural élites, their priests and school teachers ". A key role was played by the Jews: compelled to cross many borders by the persecutions and also for their jobs, educated above the national disputes, they were the main cosmopolitan and integrating element in Central Europe, its intellectual cement, its spiritual condensation. This is one of the reasons why they were persecuted and also exterminated by the nationalists, and are still viewed with hostility by Europe’s enemies.

The Central-European intellectuals, precisely for the fact of belonging to small nations, victims of their bigger and more arrogant neighbours, which often fanned the fire of national exasperated, had a sharper perception of the impact of totalitarianism, populism, racism, and religious intolerance. Intellectuals such as the Hungarian philosopher Istvàn Bibò[4], the Polish poet, Nobel Laureate in 1980, Czesław Miłosz (author, in 1950, of the beautiful essay Rodzinna Europa [5]), the political playwright and politician Václav Havel (who became the President of his own country after 1989), the Romanian writer Paul Goma, only to quote some of the best-known intellectuals, have helped us understand the “vulnerability of Europe”, have managed to convince the civil societies of their countries about the need to “go back to Europe”, because they felt they belonged to Europe and its values, and they considered it as an antidote against blind nationalism.

Unfortunately, after the collapse of the walls, many inhabitants of the former communist countries imagined that the fact of eventually entering Europe would mean more well-being. It was not like that for all. Thus, Europe has become the scapegoat of all disappointments that followed too easy illusions. The so-called Europe of Maastricht (from the name of the small village in the Netherlands, where on 7 February 1992 the Treaty of the European Union was signed), that allows, based on the Schengen Accord, to all citizens of the 26 European member States to freely circulate across the continent without a passport, and promised a perspective single currency, single flag, one single police and army, today is on a still stand and on the brink of falling apart. The right-wing forces, which have always seen in Europe and its ideals the enemy of their nationalism, have found an easy game in attacking the liberal-democratic parties, which, though amidst mistakes and hesitations, had successfully managed the transition. They have accused them of being representatives of the privileged urban élites to the service of Germany and France (considered as the “masters of Europe”), of the banks and the foreigners, who have cheaply bought the post-communist firms.

In the name of national pride or the discontent of the populations that have remained on the edge, and sometimes have even been impoverished, nefarious, demagogical, over-simplifying and intolerant ideologies have gained momentum and accrued their consent among the classes “where the impotence and frustrations of those who were compelled to imagine world they will never possess dwells.” Through the elections, the majorities governing today have seized the power, thanks to debatable electoral laws, in an authoritarian way, not giving up the European advantages (like subsidies to agriculture and infrastructures), but countering, in the name of their sovereignty, the community obligations (both concerning the migrant quotas and the compliance with constitutional principles and the values of secularism and tolerance provided by the Charta of Europe). As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his Untimely meditations: “Nationalism is the scent of those to know how to be proud only of the fact of being a herd”. Nationalism and populism are the worst enemies of Europe, because they come to question their values and agreements. This is precisely why European values are the best weapon to defeat selfishness, intolerance and hate. A great responsibility is thus placed on schools for spreading these values by educating the younger people to democracy, tolerance, respect, brotherhood, and feeling citizens of Europe and the world.

The Middle Ages historian, Bronisław Geremek, who was one of the advisers to Solidarność and then Minister of Foreign Affairs and the great personality behind the adhesion of Poland to the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance, and author among other works of a book entitled as Common Roots of Europe[6], at the beginning believed it would be necessary to start from the shared knowledge of Europe’s history. But this has proven impossible. Despite the efforts of teacher associations like EUROCLIO (founded in 1993), based in the Hague, which deals with the introduction of the most recent teaching innovations in the teaching of History in the European countries, no steps forward have been made. Despite the Recommendations for History Teachers, issued in 2001 by the Council of Europe, we realized that, precisely since that year, the political interest in a historiographic approach focused on the nation was rapidly increasing in the school curricula of many countries, with a subsequent decrease in the interest in European subjects. As early as in 1992, there had been an attempt to create a European schoolbook, by summoning a group of 12 historians representing as many European countries. The outcome was a failure: the History of Europe, Peoples and Countries[7],in French in the original edition (that was the language the experts had agreed to use), does not stand up, and shows that after centuries of wars and massacres, boundaries that have moved dozens of times, it is impossible to write a history of Europe that finds the agreement and the approval of all. The complexity is such, that it cannot be reduced and solved through compromises. It is not therefore of History that we should think to create a common European conscience. We need to start from the VALUES.

But what are the EUROPEAN VALUES? Which are EUROPE’S COMMON ROOTS, today challenged by the resurfacing of national selfishness?

It is worth returning to the work of Polish film director Krzystof Kieślowski. After the fall of the communist regime, and while Poland, like the other countries of Central Europe, took the necessary steps to join the European Union, Kieślowski started to work on a project of three movies that would place the focus, through some exemplary tales, on the importance and the contradictions of the European values. Three movies entitled as the colours of the French flag – Film bleu (1993), Film blanc (1994), Film rouge (1994)- each of which represented the three key values: FREEDOM, EQUALITY and BROTHERHOOD.

These ones – together with the glue that was missing in the French Revolution: TOLERANCE – are Europe’s values. Unfortunately, albeit with many contradictions, the first and the third one have been sufficiently accomplished, while the second one (Equality) has not spread as had been hoped in spite of its natural limits of fulfilment in an economic system such as the capitalistic one. Alas, with the economic crisis, inequalities have grown, dividing even more the European citizens into well-off and disadvantaged. In the void of this Europe felt as a betrayer, the bad seed of intolerance and resentment has grown. The arrival of the migrants has further increased the diffidence and fear of the foreigner, but even earlier we started witnessing to shameful campaigns against very European citizens: let’s think of the attacks against the “Polish plumber”, the “Romanian windscreen washer”, the Albanian, the Bosnian…: all attacks, which, by the way, were not totally new, it would suffice to consider those, in the Fifties, against the southern Italian workers, and in the Seventies against the Turkish immigrants (and today we see what a big, enormous mistake was that of keeping the then secular Turkey outside Europe).

In the Red film (Brotherhood) by Kieślowski, which was the most successful of the trilogy, there was an initial episode that is worth a thought: the protagonist saves a dog from a car crash. This will make us understand that she did not do it either for the pet or for his master, but to save herself. Brotherhood is, first of all, a kind of self-help.

This also appears to me to be the meaning of the reasoning we have always done about the Righteous. Not postcard saints or heroes, but real people (with all their contradictions and human shortcomings): men and women who have risked their lives to rescue the others: “What would you have done in my place?”, candidly asked tradesman Giorgio Perlasca, a convinced fascist, who saved in Budapest hundreds of Jews from the Nazi fury. By rescuing those people, responding to the indignation of his conscience, he had really saved also himself. The experience of our work on the Righteous and the creation of Gardens through which they are remembered and they relive into the educational experiences, teach us that we need to restart from the individuals, the single and concrete European citizens, with their own peculiar cultural heritage and their thousands of languages, making them aware of the universal European values as they have been experienced, assimilated and practiced by people who have been certainly extraordinary, but who could be every one of us, if heeding our own conscience.

The word “Europe” does not indicate a geographic entità, but a mental notion. Europe must not be a State, but a federation of free, different States united by a common culture and fate, that make it possible to establish some rules and peaceful coexistence rules and agreements (which though can't be merely economic, monetary and customary). After all the tragedies that Europe has produced and endured, above all because of nationalism, and still recently (let’s think of the tragedy of the Balkan wars that have been the worse failure of Europe) it is very important to assume upon ourselves the words by Czesław Miłosz, who, at the beginning of his exile in the West, wrote a beautiful and very meaningful poem entitled as Mittelbergheim, Alsace 1951:

"(…) Here and everywhere

Is my homeland, wherever I turn

And in whatever language I would hear

The song of a child, the conversation of lovers”.

[1] Originally articulated into four chapters, the Manifesto was then clandestinely spread, cyclostyled and published, always underground, by Eugenio Colorni who in 1944 edited it into three chapters: 1) The crisis of modern civilization); 2) Postwar dueties. The Europan Unity (wholly drafted by Spinelli, as well as the second part of the third one; 3) Postwar duties. The reform of society (the first part of the latter was written by Rossi).

[2] M. Kundera, A Stolen West or the Tragedy of Central Europe.

[3] M. Kundera, Praga: la carta in fiamme , in "L'illustrazione italiana", n. 1, Milan 1981.

[4] I. Bibò, A kelet-euròpai kisàllamok nyomorùsàga (Misery of the small states of Eastern Europe, 1946).

[5] Cz. Miłosz, Rodzinna Europa (1959)

[6] B. Geremek, Common Roots of Europe

[7] Cfr. J. van der Leeuw Roord, A common textbook for Europe? Utopia or a Crucial Challenge?, in P. Bauer et al., Geschichtslernen, Innovation und Reflexion, Centaurus, Herbolzheim 2008.

Francesco M. Cataluccio, essayist and writer

Analysis by Francesco M. Cataluccio, essayist and writer

10 December 2018

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

Once a month you will receive articles and events selected by Gariwo Editorial Board. Please fill out the field below and click on subscribe.

Our Editorials


Paolo Kessisoglu's speech

on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015