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The ECB Jewish Memorial and the European project

Speech by Vítor Constâncio, Vice-President of the ECB, on occasion of the inauguration of the Jewish Memorial at the ECB Main Building Großmarkthalle, Frankfurt am Main, 22 November 2015

Madam Erbrich, Lord Mayor Feldmann, Mr Korn, Mr Gross, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be speaking here today. Besides representing the ECB, I feel the personal interpellation of the facts underlying this ceremony and I need to reflect this in my remarks, especially after the moving account provided by Madam Edith Erbrich on what happened to her and her family. Not since my visit to Israel in 1981 have I been so directly confronted by the horrors of the Shoah.

The difficulty is that, faced with the events that brought us here today, the right words will always fail us. How are we to speak about the unspeakable? How are we to make sense of the ultimate evil? Let me reach out to philosophers and persons of wisdom.

Kant used the concept of radical evil to designate gratuitous destruction and violence, resulting from a weakness of will to respect the inner sense of moral duty. He considered that all philosophical theodicies that rationally try to defend God’s goodness in face of radical evil have failed. The theodicy of the Book of Job is based only on faith. In his book “Radical evil and the scarcity of hope”[1] the Jewish philosopher Martin Matuštík finds Kant’s concept insufficient.

By talking about weakness of will, Kant still tries to keep the human structures of reason, but as Richard Bernstein[2] shows, even “transcendental conditions of human reason are eliminated by totalitarian means”. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry said that “the most revolutionary fact of our XX century’s consciousness … is the destruction of all balance between the … theodicy of western thought and the forms which suffering and its evil take in the very unfolding of this century”.[3]

However, secular historicist narratives, for instance along Hegelian lines, also fail to account for Auschwitz as a proxy to designate the Shoah. As the German philosopher Hans Jonas puts it, “the disgrace of Auschwitz is not to be charged to some all-powerful providence or to some dialectically wise necessity, as if it were an antithesis demanding a synthesis or a step on the way to salvation”.[4]

We thus find no comfort neither in theological nor secular narratives. There is no explanation for the problem of radical evil. The fact is that the suffering of innocents is a scandal that can never be justified; we can only fight against it. This is the attitude of revolt proposed by Albert Camus in confronting the absurd in the world and the human condition: “The only thing that equilibrates the Absurd is the community of men fighting against it”.[5] Metaphysical and historical rebellion[6] are necessary to say “No” to the irrational and claim for meaning and moral order.

Metaphysical rebellion lead Camus to denounce the Christian approach typified by St. Augustine in saying “Nemo bonus”(no one is good) and that only faith in God can save humanity. Historical rebellion implies, in turn, the refusal that secular illusions with progress and perfect terminal societies could ever justify compromising with authoritarian solutions.

Besides our refusal, we also have a duty to remember and not to stay indifferent. Not to stay unconcerned is what Elie Wiesel reminded us in his speech on the “The perils of indifference”: “… to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative…Even hatred at times may elicit a response. […] Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response”.[7]

This brings me to the ceremony today and to the fact that the ECB was not indifferent. Already in 2001, when considering the Großmarkthalle as a site for its new building, the first ECB President, Wim Duisenberg met Dr Korn of the Jewish community. From 1941 to 1945, the cellar of the Großmarkthalle had been rented by the Gestapo as a base for organising and carrying out the deportation of 10,000 Jewish men, women and children. Only 179 survived, some of which are with us here today.

From the beginning of the construction project, the ECB, the Frankfurt Jewish Community and the City of Frankfurt decided together the construction of the memorial that is separated from our building and belongs to City Municipality.

A specific design competition was announced to memorialise this place. The jury, with the participation of Mr Trichet, then President of the ECB, Ms Roth, then Mayor of the City of Frankfurt, and Mr Korn, Chairman of the Jewish community, selected in 2011 the Cologne-based architects KatzKaiser to carry out this endeavour. The architects’ task was very challenging as revealed in their own words: “The question was how to tie these events into a visible part of the site and thereby ensure that they are not forgotten.”

As you will see, the basement of the Großmarkthalle was preserved intact in the selected project. Only quotes from survivors and witnesses were added on the grey rough walls.

The ramp reminds us of how Jewish citizens were herded to the rooms in the basement and is well visible from the public areas. To the south of the ramp, in a public space, a signal box and symbolic railway tracks serve as a reminder of the deportations, as well as a footbridge over the tracks from which people used to bid farewell to their loved ones.

To complete my remarks today, let me now turn to the indispensable historical and political dimensions that are so important for the European project of which the ECB is a vital part.

Historical reflections on the Holocaust run the risk of trivialising the event. Leaving aside the ridiculous attempts at denial, there are two ways where the risk of trivialisation may materialise: either by exaggerating the uniqueness of Nazism or by placing it too much on a comparable historical context. Nazism was undoubtedly special with distinct features, but to make it just an ephemeral aberration resulting from the madness of some evil men is to miss important historical lessons. There is a social, economic and historical context that has to be examined if we want to ensure the “Nie wieder” (Never again) that is at the core of our hopes.

To address the second aspect related to the context where Nazism emerged, I turn to the Jewish-British historian Mark Mazower who called Europe “The Dark Continent” in the name of his most famous book.[8] He reports that there were 19 million deaths from wars in the 19th century and that the estimated figure rises to 110 million in the 20th century, of which 74 million in Europe and this number does not include the victims of the Stalinist Gulag. It is sobering to realise that Europe was the killing field of the 20th century. Mazower also shows that for most of the century, the whole of Europe was not the home of democracy. After World War One and the collapse of liberal capitalism in the Big Depression, there was a fascination with authoritarian regimes which promised security and efficiency. Even the ideas of social Darwinism and eugenics had many followers in Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland or the U.S. Some well-known intellectuals of different political persuasions fell for those siren calls. Since World War One, Mazower shows that “Europe found other authoritarian forms of political order, no more foreign to its traditions and no less efficient as organizers of society, industry and technology”.

We would thus be misguided to accept an idyllic vision of Europe’s history. Only after 1945 did we see the flourishing of democracy with the extension of social rights and the creation of the Welfare State. Nothing is given in the theatre of history and only the harsh combat of many men and women made the victory of freedom and democracy possible.

Nazism was of course different from other European authoritarian regimes: it went much further in its tribal nationalism, its biological racism, its systematic eugenics and its social Darwinism. Nazism’s totalitarian approach had the intent and was successful in making the individual superfluous while at the same conquering the population from within, by crushing their belief systems and their moral identity. Jonathan Glover, in his moral history of the 20th century[9] analyses this process of repression and propaganda that succeeded in interiorising the ideological system of Nazism beliefs.

He analyses how Nazism crushed the internal moral resources of individuals. Absent and external moral authority, these inner resources are built from the instinct of co-operation and self-interest as a product of evolution; or they stem from sympathy as Adam Smith put it, or from compassion that Schopenhauer saw, as the source of all morality or, finally, they are associated with the Socratic inner moral identity or Kantian inherent sense of moral duty. The control from within the individual consciousness was a feature of the totalitarian ideology as Hannah Arendt has shown in her magna opus.[10]

The weakness of the human condition always requires the strength of proper institutions to shore people in keeping a moral order. Primo Levi, reflecting on his stay in Auschwitz, wrote: “…man is fundamentally brutal, egotistic in his conduct, once every civilised institution is taken away…”.[11]

European integration, born under the threatening cloud of the cold war, has succeeded in creating the ramparts to protect freedom, human rights and democracy.

The new Europe is founded on the values of tolerance, human dignity and peace. As the Berlin Declaration in 2007, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome says: “In the European Union, we are turning our common ideals into reality: for us, the individual is paramount. His dignity is inviolable. His rights are inalienable.”

The European institutions are grounded on those values: “striving for peace and freedom, for democracy and the rule of law, for mutual respect and shared responsibility, for prosperity and security, for tolerance and participation, for justice and solidarity”.

We must not lose sight of these values, especially now when the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-09 is producing signs of emerging nationalism, offensive racism and dangerous xenophobia. Populism and extreme ideologies are again using democracy to erode its core values. We need a sense of European unity to strengthen our Institutions.

It has been by overcoming narrow nationalisms that Europe has been built. Nations are a construct of man, not a natural reality. They reflect that our consciousness and our knowledge are socially constituted. In his famous Vienna address in 1935 on the existential crisis of Europe, Edmund Husserl concluded: “The existential crisis of Europe has only two outcomes: either Europe will disappear in becoming ever more distant from its own rational signification, that is its vital sense, and will sink in the hatred of the spirit and in barbarity; or Europe will be reborn from the philosophical spirit as a result of a heroism of reason that will overcome naturalism”.[12]

We remembered today what happened some years later in those dramatic times. The ECB, as one of the true pan-European supranational institutions is attached to the core values of the European project. The ceremony we have here today is a symbol of our commitment. On behalf of the ECB, I thank the City of Frankfurt and the Jewish community for their contribution in making this memorial come to life.

Thank you for your attention.

  1. [1] Matuštík, M. B. (2008), “Radical evil and the scarcity of hope”, Indiana University Press.

  2. [2] Bernstein, R. (2002), “Radical evil: a philosophical interrogation”, page 208, Cambridge U. P.

  3. [3] Quoted by M. B. Matuštík, ibid, page 81 and originally E. Levinas (1988), in “Useless suffering”in R. Banasconi and D. Woods (eds), “The provocation of Levinas: rethinking the Other”, pages 156-180, Rutledge.

  4. [4] Quoted in Neiman, S. (2002), “Evil in modern thought: an alternative history of philosophy”, Princeton U.P., page 262.

  5. [5] Camus, A. (1964), “Carnets II (1942-1951), Gallimard.

  6. [6] Camus, A. (1951), “L´Homme révolté”, Gallimard.

  7. [7] Wiesel, E. (1999), “The perils of indifference: lessons learned from a violent century”, speech at the White House Millenium Evenings.

  8. [8] Mazower, M. (1999), “The Dark Continent: Europe´s twentieth century”.

  9. [9] Glover, J. (1999), “Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century”, Pimlico, Random House.

  10. [10] Arendt, H. (1951), “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. Revised ed., New York: Schocken, 2004 (includes all the prefaces and additions from the 1958, 1968 and 1972 editions).

  11. [11] Levi, P. (1947, 1991), “If this is a man”, Abacus.

  12. [12] Husserl, E. (1935), “Philosophy and the crisis of European Man”, lecture delivered in Vienna on 10 May 1935. In, Husserl E. (1965), “Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy”, Harper Torchbooks.


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