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Körber History Forum 2018: Report


The value of Europe with a view to history

The conflicting relationship between politics and history was the focus of this year's Körber History Forum 2018. The list of speakers included Erkki Tuomioja, former Finnish Foreign Minister and Chairman of "Historians Without Borders", sociologist Eva Kovács from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, political anthropologist Esra Özyürek from the London School of Economics, historian Philipp Ther from the University of Vienna as well as Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı.

"All over the world, we see that a free and democratic community is something very fragile," said Thomas Paulsen, member of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation at the opening of the two-day conference in Berlin, which brought together international scholars, journalists, politicians, intellectuals and mediators of history for the third time. "Democracy is not a given, it has to be nurtured and fostered, it has to be defended against its enemies, but it also has to evolve, it has to be re-established and renegotiated time and again."

The Körber History Forum wanted to make a contribution to this process, because knowledge and critical debate about the past were also essential to a democratic society. "At this forum we want to set an example for an open approach to history as an indispensable component of an open society," Paulsen said. In its new area of activities, "The Value of Europe", the Foundation was guided by the conviction that the cohesion of Europe and the liberal, open social order constituted precisely this value.

Consequently, the German-Polish Barometer 2018 was developed in cooperation with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, the first results of which were analysed by Gabriele Woidelko, head of the new "History and Politics" department of the Körber Foundation. According to this survey, 59 percent of the Poles feel sympathy for the neighbouring country but only 29 percent of Germans. Moreover, Poles and Germans know each other too little. Two thirds respectively have never visited the neighbouring country since 1989. According to the survey, more Poles (73 percent) than Germans (54 percent) identify with Europe. Even if questions of history such als the acknowledgement of the Polish victims during the Second World War and the question of reparations separate the Polish and German societies, the majority of Germans (70%) and Poles (60%) approve of a contemporary and future-oriented approach to the mutual relationship.

Migration as a challenge

Recent surveys showed that support for the European Union was higher today than it was a few years ago, Bulgarian political scientist and publicist Ivan Krastev said in his opening speech. "One of the main reasons for this is the rise of the EU-sceptic parties." Whether this interaction was good or bad news was open for discussion. "The refugee crisis was Europe's 9/11," Krastev said. In the USA, September 11, 2001 had pushed the country into globalisation and something similar had happened to Europe in 2014. This was not just about the high number of refugees but about the moment that Europeans had realised that they were living in an interwoven world. Inequality played an increasing role in this. Often it was easier to change the country than to change the government to make something of one's life. Furthermore, the number of Eastern Europeans who had left for Western European countries following the financial crisis was much higher than the number of people who had come into the EU from the outside.

"I still believe this is a challenge that Europe cannot only overcome but will overcome successfully," said Lotte Leicht, Director of the Brussels Office and EU Director of Human Rights Watch on the treatment of refugees and migrants. She advocated putting this question into a broader international context, as there was a refugee crisis worldwide with 65 million displaced people. "Of these, 24 million are refugees, wwho had to leave their country" said Leicht.  Less than two million of them were in wealthy Europe, so this challenge could be successfully met. Leicht criticised that politicians in the EU were not preparing themselves for this refugee movement, which would continue to grow in the future. It was about people with hopes, dreams and a mission for their lives. Instead, many camps in which Syrian refugees were stranded had become places stripped of a future and hope. Leicht called for more people to be accepted into Europe.

A lack of migration history

While Western European states, as former colonial powers or by accepting "guest workers", had a historical experience of migration, this was completely different in Eastern Europe, the former Hungarian diplomat Gergely Prőhle countered and defended his country's restrictive refugee policy. They had always lived with minorities within their own state, for example with Roma or Germans. The experiences with the integration of refugees in France or Germany were not so positive that further East European countries also wanted to bring "other civilisations" into their countries. "They have their own problems, they don't want to take on new problems," said Prőhle. The Viennese professor of Eastern European history Philipp Ther was astonished that in Hungary their own experiences of flight after the suppression of the Hungarian national uprising in 1956 were forgotten completely today. "If they were present, one would remember that a system of international resettlement existed at the time," Ther drew a historical parallel to the EU quota system for refugees today and called for more solidarity within the EU.

The Turkish political scientist Esra Özyürek pointed to the important role of economic development and successful integration. "Integration is when people live together, do not hate one another and have access to similar resources," she said. People do not have to have the same religion or the same values. In France there are areas that do not offer their citizens the same infrastructure or education, but instead disadvantage migrants. In Germany this situation was better and therefore also more peaceful. But there was an increasing tendency towards segregation in schools, Özyürek criticised.

The question of modernisation of the country played a central role in the discussion on developments in Russia. The Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov advocated that the West should participate in Russia's modernisation despite political tensions. "As a Russian, I'm not comfortable with the idea of an economic collapse," he said. The population had experienced the decline of the economy already once in the 1990s. In many cases this had been a "human tragedy".

Divided memories

Older history also showed its present-day significance in the EU crisis, said journalist Winfried Sträter, who moderated the debate on the consequences of the First World War. Even a hundred years after 1918, there was still a divided memory in Europe of ist significance. In contrast to a country like France, which had existed as a nation for centuries, some Eastern European countries had enjoyed only a fleeting moment of happiness as independent states before they became EU members, Polish historian Andrzej Nowak explained. This is a reason for important differences in self-awareness. The Hungarian historian Éva Kovács lamented that not only her country but numerous European countries liked to present themselves as victims. The historian Joachim von Puttkamer of the University of Jena was concerned that nowadays the interwar period in Poland and Hungary was so strongly remembered by the "authoritarian figures". Erkki Tuomioja, Finnish politician and chairman of the organisation "Historians Without Borders", called for historical memory not to be misused by politics and the media.

The crises of capitalism

On the occasion of the 200th birthday of political economist Karl Marx, one panel discussion focused on the question of what could be learned today from the history of capitalism. "We are talking about Marx because we live in a time when not only capitalism is being called into question but our social system is being called into question with the help of capitalism and other things," said the Zeit economics journalist Uwe Jean Heuser.

All participants in the discussion agreed that capitalism had proven to be very flexible and adaptable. An end is not in sight. "The history of capitalism is also a history of economic crises," the economic historian Sven Beckert of Harvard University said. "The principle of crisis is inherent to capitalism." Inequality had continued to increase after the financial crisis in 2008 and he expected further crises. Beckert warned, however, against taking too euro-centric a view of the problem. India and China saw an enormously dynamic development of capitalism, unlike Europe and the USA. "Maybe this is the history of the future of capitalism," he said.

"I am more concerned about the future of democracy than capitalism," said Swedish author and economic adviser Per Molander. The successful model of economic and social development in recent decades had depended on a strong state in order to achieve stable economic development. In the meantime, however, multinational companies were increasingly undermining the power of the state. Molander said that the classic idea that economic and political freedom were Siamese twins had long since proven to be fundamentally wrong. "We have to defend the strong state in order to save capitalism from itself," the economic advisor demanded.

Towards the end of the conference, there was a heated debate as to whether there was neo-Ottomanism in Turkey or whether this was more of a media discourse staged by Western Europe. The historian Ilber Ortayli from Galatasaray University in Istanbul denied that this term played a role at all. His colleague Abdulhamit Kirmizi from Istanbul Sehir University also complained that Western media wanted to assign labels. Such designations served the purpose of exclusion in order to block Turkey's path to the EU.

By Gemma Pörzgen

Photos: David Ausserhofer


Speakers and Moderators

List of participants (PDF)

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