Körber History Forum 2019: Report


Europe: how reliable is history in times of uncertainty?

Old myths and new propaganda, strong leaders and weak peace agreements, dangers for democracy and Europe's crises: there was much to discuss at the fourth Körber History Forum in Berlin. For two days, more than 200 scientists, politicians, journalists and intellectuals contentiously debated the past and occasionally looked cautiously to the future.

"History has rarely been as topical as it is today, and politics has rarely been so steeped in history." It was with these words that Thomas Paulsen set the framework for the two-day Körber History Forum in Berlin. The Executive Board member of the Körber Foundation was not only alluding to the many historical events whose anniversaries are coming up in 2019, such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles 1919, the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic GDR and NATO in 1949 as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Paulsen also meant the sentence in a very topical way: "History is increasingly being instrumentalised, it is becoming a political weapon".

Increasing threats are, however, also being faced by an increasing number of people committed to liberal democracy, he added. Deconstructing myths and building bridges: This is also the aim of the Körber History Forum, which in its fourth edition looks back on a positive history: "What began as an experiment in 2016 has quickly become 'the place to be' of international dialogue on the present of the past in international politics," Paulsen remarked to scientists, politicians, journalists and intellectuals from all over the world.

Europe after 1989: Between self-determination and the search for a common order

American historian Mary Elise Sarotte made it clear how great political and historical debates can be condensed into one question: "Was the renunciation of NATO's eastward expansion promised to the Soviet Union in the course of the reunification of Germany?" This was the central question of her opening talk. Sarotte countered the emotionality of the debate, still present today, with an alternative: "There are documents". The result of her years of analysis of documents relating to the Turnaround: No, there was no broken promise. There was, however, a missed opportunity to create a blueprint for lasting peace in European.

How much the topic still moves people 30 years later could be seen in the long queues at the audience microphones. "No one could imagine at the time that former Warsaw Pact states could be members of NATO," stressed Markus Meckel, who had witnessed the Two Plus Four negotiations himself in 1990 as GDR Foreign Minister. On the other hand, human rights professor Daniela Haarhuis drew attention to the perspective of Eastern European states: "Isn't it irrelevant whether there was a promise or not? We're talking about sovereign states here."

The former President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, also spoke of "regaining the right to self-determination" with a view to his country's EU and NATO membership. In his speech on "Europe's values" in times of nationalism, Brexit and economic crisis, the historian and former Solidarność activist lamented a "siren song that misleads entire societies". Nevertheless, Komorowski was optimistic: "We sense that the crisis phenomena in the EU are on the increase. But it is not a crisis of Europe's value structure." The subsequent discussion revolved around the question of what these values are. Europe is "the sum of national patriotisms, not their counterpart", Komorowski explained, and he looked further into the unifying effect the "Christian roots of the West" have for Europe.

The ambivalence of strong leadership

The following panel discussion also touched on the ambivalence of nationalism and patriotism. "Is strong leadership a threat to democracy", moderator and Süddeutsche Zeitung editor Daniel Brössler wanted to know from the panel. "It depends", is how one could summarize their consensus. The problem is not only strong leaders, but also the lack of control over power, said Sylvie Kauffmann, editor-in-chief of Le Monde: "We need functioning and democratic checks and balances." For Archie Brown, historian and former professor of politics at the University of Oxford, being embedded in democratic structures also made the difference: "If ‘strong leader’ is used simply as a synonym for good leader, we can all be in favour of strong leaders, but that renders the term meaningless." Brown defined a strong leader as a power-maximiser who asserts and acquires the right to take all the big decisions within a government, pulling rank rather than relying on persuasion. American historian Timothy Snyder pointed to positive developments. Unlike in the 1920s, hardly any despots today focus on territorial gains: "How many serious imperialists do we still have today?"

With a view to the experiences of Eastern European states, Zoltán Balog of the Fidesz-based Foundation for Civic Hungary, meanwhile, pointed out that "weak leadership could also pose a threat to democracy". At the latest in the concrete case of Viktor Orbán, however, agreement on the podium ended. Balog, who was himself a minister in the Hungarian government, pointed out the democratic legitimacy and economic successes of his head of government, but was largely alone with his view. The conflict researcher Solveig Richter, who spoke from the audience, called for a stronger debate on the fact that anti-democratic leaders are often the product of democratic elections. Mirko Kruppa, head of the political section at the EU delegation in Moscow, on the other hand, pointed out that leaders frequently did not accept the concept of constitutional control for themselves.

Diplomacy caught between punishment and reconciliation

The question of how to deal with despots and current conflicts and what lessons can be learned from the Paris Peace Order of the interwar period was examined by the next round, which was broadcast live on Spiegel Online as part of the debate series "Making Peace". Under the moderation of Spiegel editor Dirk Kurbjuweit, not only the head of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger and the historian Eckart Conze clashed, but so did two concepts: international criminal law vs. reconciliation. Conze pleaded for "transitional justice" that combined both approaches: "We don't want to go back to a time before 1914". Ischinger, on the other hand, warned against "regime change slogans". With regard to western policy on Syria, he believed that "no one had a decent plan".

An essential difference to the Peace Treaty of 1919 also emerged: playing on "two keyboards" of secret diplomacy and public relations was a challenge for today's politics, said Conze. Ischinger added that the press could be a "brilliant instrument for achieving results". Nevertheless, he thought that some discussions today should still be possible to conduct away from the public.

Remembrance, identity and cooperation in Europe

In this spirit, the approximately 200 participants of the Körber History Forum then disappeared behind closed doors for the lunch sessions. In smaller groups they discussed with, among others, Estonian-Canadian historian Andres Kasekamp the possibilities of cooperation in the Baltic region in times of increasing regional tensions. Can the EU legislate to protect political symbols or the memory of genocides? And what has France experienced as a pioneer in the legislative protection of the past? This question was examined by the participants of the second group with the cultural scientist Nikolay Koposov. Interested parties were able to talk with the Minsk-based historian Pavel Tereshkovich about the memory of Nazi terror and Stalinism and their consequences for the independence and identity of Belarus. The debate with democracy and anti-corruption expert Alina Mungiu-Pippidi focused on the more recent history of Eastern Europe and the question of how sustainable democratic change has been there since EU enlargement. Deputy president of the German Historical Association Frank Bösch discussed the achievements and omissions of Germany's treatment of the past and its challenges in an increasingly diverse society with the participants of his session. The sixth and last group also dealt with the difficult relationship between history and identity: the director of the Academy of World Religions Giuseppe Veltri questioned how Christian the West really is.

Confrontational history, cooperative present

How history and different perspectives on it determine current political cooperation and opposition became clear in the subsequent panel discussion. How can a dialogue between former colonial powers and colonies be conducted? This is what NDR culture journalist Christine Gerberding wanted to know. Nwando Achebe, historian for West African history, replied: "Until the lions have their own historians, history is always that of the hunters." James Shikwati of the Inter Regional Economic Network from Nairobi disagreed and advocated a European-African dialogue based on common interests: "If they always think of the glorious times of the past, they quickly become relics themselves". Antje Leendertse tried to bring about a synthesis. The State Secretary in the Federal Foreign Office referred to projects designed to examine the colonial era on a partnership basis, but also to common interests: "Without the Africans we can no longer achieve our goals on the international stage". Using the example of the Commonwealth's failure to deal adequately with history, historian Philip Murphy set out the real problems of African-European dialogue: "In reality, the Commonwealth avoids every risk and does everything it can to avoid discussions about history."

The contributions from the audience were also marked by different perspectives on shared history. In Germany, there is no lack knowledge of its own colonial history, remarked Tagesspiegel editor Christoph von Marschall. He called on Achebe "not to describe Africans just as victims" and to talk to her students about their own involvement in colonialism as well. Achebe rejected the accusation of victimisation. Moreover, he should not be telling her how to teach African history: "It is my history".

A few rules for this wonderful new world

"That was Fake News Panel 1," is how the philosopher Jason Stanley summed up the discussion on colonialism and added: "Now comes Fake News Panel 2." History was also invented in the past, and today's debates on Brexit, Trump and Russia are also marked by colonial undertones: "Everyone is talking about the loss of their great empires." Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum drew attention to a difference from earlier forms of propaganda: "Censorship no longer means removing articles from newspapers. It means showering people with story after story." Asked by moderator and Guardian journalist Natalie Nougayrède what could be done about fake news, propaganda researcher Jo Fox also appealed to social responsibility. People should leave their echo chambers: "We are part of the problem, but we are also part of the answer."

There was broad agreement among the participants that new regulations were needed to combat disinformation. There was opposition from speakers in the audience who warned against the curtailment of freedom of expression and the danger of counterpropaganda. Markus Engels managed to combine the risks and opportunities of the new information age in an optimistic closing statement of the Körber History Forum. "As a child, I had no idea what people in India or China were discussing. Today I know that," Martin Schulz's former campaign chief explained, adding: "We need optimism and a few rules for this wonderful new world. Then it'll work."

Photos: Marc Darchinger



Programme (PDF)

Speakers and moderators

List of participants (PDF)

Media on the Körber History Forum 2019

Handelsblatt, 22 May, 2019:
"Orban-Vertrauter zu europäischer Solidarität: ‚Ungarn hat seine Hausaufgaben gemacht‘"

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20 May, 2019:
"Was die Politik von heute aus der Geschichte lernen kann"

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 May, 2019:
"Afrikas geraubte Geschichte"

Deutschlandfunk Kultur Fazit, 14 May, 2019:
"Liken ist keine politische Teilhabe"

DeutschlandFunk Kultur Studio 9, 14 May, 2019:
"Macht und Manipulation in der Geschichte"

Deutsche Welle Polen, 14 May, 2019:
"Komorowski w Berlinie: PiS zamienił Trybunał Konstytucyjny w atrapę"

TVP Info, 15 May, 2019:
"Komorowski w Berlinie: Próbuje się dokonać ograniczenia niezależności sądownictwa"

Polskie Radio, 15 May, 2019:
"Bronisław Komorowski w Niemczech. Były prezydent zaatakował polski rząd: TK zamieniono w swoistą atrapę tej instytucji"

Hiradio Ungarn, 14 May, 2019:
"Balog Zoltán: a Magyarország elleni támadások a nyugati elit tanácstalanságát mutatják"