European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)



Address by Mr Günter Grass, Nobel Prize for literature

No Voice

Ladies and gentlemen,

During the rains of last summer, that is to say during the “silly season” when inconspicuous back-benchers like to flood the news market with horror stories, for once there was a real news item causing great public commotion. As if, out of the blue, right-wing extremism was suddenly discovered as a danger in Germany. This “discovery” was helped along by a series of brutal and violent acts, which even led to fatalities. Given that some of the young thugs involved live in the east of the Federal Republic and conduct their street-fighting in east German towns and villages, the contemporaneous but still unsolved murder attempt in Düsseldorf was pushed into the background; and since, despite the collapse of the Wall, we Germans still tend to think in terms of cardinal points and define ourselves as West and East Germans, the story was that the East Germans had once again provided the breeding ground for the violence. Infected by their communist past, they are presumed to be particularly prone to such problems, as if there had not been local “firebugs* in the west for many decades, backed by the very moral petit bourgeois Biedermanns who form an obligatory part of any extreme right-wing role-playing. Of course Bavaria was quick to appeal for a ban on the NPD. A few hesitant voices were gradually raised against such a ban: prohibiting a party would not suffice, in specific or general terms, to solve this problem. The high-profile skinheads were rapidly identified as the baddies. And yet it soon became evident that this supposedly unerring designation of obvious racists and killers was only the tip of the iceberg: no one had, or has, the courage to name the aforementioned bourgeois Biedermanns as their accomplices in government. It is the same in Germany as in any other European country: the rot sets in at the top and works its way downwards. People have forgotten, or tried to forget, that years ago, in the early stages of the asylum debate, it was the Bavarian Prime Minister, Mr Stoiber, who, with a demagogical quiver in his voice, warned against any “tainting of the German race”. And almost a year ago, as soon as the elections in Austria had run their disastrous course, it was also Mr Stoiber who encouraged the Austrian People’s Party to go into coalition with Haider’s so-called liberal party. And surely we can still recall the racist overtones of the attempts by Roland Koch, the current Hessian prime minister, during the regional elections, to block the long overdue naturalisation of long-established foreigners. Again, even though the campaign “Kinder statt Inder” (“More children, not more Indians”) proved a flop in the North-Rhine Westphalia parliamentary elections, it still spoke volumes on how irresponsible politicians who are now demanding a ban on the NPD nonetheless jump on its racist bandwagon when it suits them.

I could give further examples of this phenomenon, but I will instead home in on the decision to dismantle the Federal Constitution’s provisions on asylum and the consequences of this move, to which the SPD also subscribed, as one of the reasons for the increase in extreme right-wing activities and violence. Ever since this decision was taken it has become usual practice in the law-based State to mete out inhuman treatment to asylum seekers. Worse still, such treatment has become so commonplace that even the most scandalous incidents now attract precious little public attention. In any case, only small groups sit up and take notice. They try to help by providing asylum seekers with church sanctuary or, vainly, protesting against the brutal splitting up of asylum-seeking families. Schoolchildren send letters of protest hoping to protect their Kurdish classmates against compulsory deportation. It is as if we have come to terms with the fact that roughly four thousand individuals who have committed no crime are being held in detention in Germany pending deportation, as though they were criminals. From time to time a suicide at the Frankfurt “deportation airport” causes a stir for a day or two, before the law-based State calms down again. They quote the Schengen Agreement, refer to the practice in other European countries and maintain that by comparison Germany is still fairly liberal in this domain. They also, and this is new, now draw a distinction between asylum seekers who could be useful to the German economy and those who would be a burden to the nation, or, more to the point, to the taxpayer. This system of selection is called “Selektieren”, a word which harks back to a criminal national past.

We have no time here to go into the many individual cases notified to me through emergency calls, testifying to the absolute contempt for human dignity in the German treatment of asylum seekers. Parents are torn away from their children, and vice-versa. Bosnians still reeling from the trauma of the period of persecution in their homeland are threatened nonetheless with deportation. To put this lack of compassion in a nutshell, the current Minister of the Interior is now continuing his predecessor’s horrific practice. It is beyond belief.

That is how things stand in Germany. Is the situation any better in other European countries? Of course I am not going to compare and grade them, but it must generally be said that the European Union, including its prospective new members, is increasingly seeing itself as a fortress. Europe is trying to batten down the hatches against the flood of poor people from Africa, Asia and Russia who want to come here or are already on their way. This is no mean task. The hundreds of kilometres of Spanish and Italian sea coasts, the well-organised traffickers in illegal immigrants, the permeability of east European borders: all of this bodes ill for the success of fortress-building. At the moment we are making do with deportation. We still imagine that cancelling the poorer countries’ debts, albeit in a hesitant, half-hearted manner, will suffice to help the Third World. More and more legislation is being adopted to narrow our room for democratic manoeuvre. As I said at the start, we think we can eliminate right-wing extremism, which often puts official government policies into violent practice, by prohibiting the NPD. We are developing tunnel vision. Ambient fears are fuelled by our latent xenophobia, which is frequently encouraged out of base political motives. However, since it is impossible to make Europe’s borders completely impenetrable from the outside, now that the security psychosis had been unleashed it is also beginning to extend to minorities who have shared our continent with us for centuries.

These minorities are the main subject of our discussions. They have invariably been regarded with suspicion, living under the pressure of immutable prejudice. They have been discriminated against and persecuted, and for twelve years, when German racial legislation was in force, they were deported and murdered in concentration camps. When we get round to confessing our guilt we either forget them or just mention them in passing. I am of course talking about the Sinti and Roma. The twenty million or so representatives of this people form the largest single minority in Europe, and yet they have scant recognition. It is as though they had no voice, by which I mean that they are there but are not perceived in the spheres where social policy decisions are taken.

To mention Romani culture is to invite outbursts of effusion about gypsy music and its influence on Spanish, Hungarian and German composers. We seem, on the one hand, to regard the Roma as a people comprised entirely of virtuoso violinists, yet when it comes to helping them, as a very substantial minority, to obtain the democratic right to be consulted, all we are prepared to do is make high-sounding declarations. I should, perhaps qualify that, for the right to consultation has begun to be recognised. In the young “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” - shielded, so far, from the mindless bloodletting in the Balkans - four Roma parties hold seats in parliament. And in certain districts of the capital, Romanes, the language of the Roma, actually enjoys official status. By contrast, in the Czech Republic - where even under communism there were 11 members of the Roma minority in parliament - this right to consultation has been lost in the political changes. Recently, at the World Congress of the International Roma Union in Prague, four hundred representatives of this widely scattered minority heard, in their own common language, details of all the injustices done to the Roma people over the centuries: injustices that have yet to be documented at European level and range from discrimination and exclusion through expulsion to persecution and extermination. To take one example, of 280,000 Roma citizens in Kosovo, there now remain between 8,000 and 10,000, crammed into ghettoes and trying to survive. The majority have been driven out by hatred and violence on the part of Serbs and Albanians. Whether because the troops are over-stretched or because, once again, the Roma are being denied protection, the KFOR units currently in Kosovo have been, and remain, unable to shield them from this double dose of hate. And yet, speakers at the Congress in Prague talked boldly, and with a certain battered self-confidence, of the Roma nation. The delegates decided, as a first step, to set up an office of the International Union in Brussels, for this is another forum - where every economic and industrial interest group has its lobby and can influence decision-making - in which the Roma have no voice.

But such a step is not, and cannot be, enough. A minority of this size - which, although less numerous in my own country, has a very substantial presence throughout Spain and Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria - understandably craves the democratic right to be consulted. And where better for such a right to put down roots than here in Strasbourg, in the European Parliament? But it is not sufficient to pass occasional solemn and well-intentioned resolutions asserting the obvious by confirming the existence of the Roma as a people. Instead, it is time for the ever-expanding European Union to live up to its own ambitious standards. Europe must become more than a mere enlarged market with a bureaucracy looking after economic interests. Europe has a shared history, albeit a contradictory one enacted all too often in the form of wars and violence, and since the 15th century the people we call gypsies, gitanes or Zigeuner - frequently suffering and being persecuted - have played a part in that history. Europe is a product of multiple influences and its culture draws inspiration from many different sources: there is no denying that musically, in particular, it has been influenced by the Roma. And Europe bears a collective responsibility. At the end of a century in which totalitarianism and racist delusion, world wars and genocide, mindless destruction and mass expulsions have more than once brought our continent to the brink of the abyss - but in which, nonetheless, we eventually tried out and accepted a democratic conception of society - it ought to be possible to give Europe’s largest minority, namely the Roma people and nation, a place and a voice in the parliament in Strasbourg.

Roma representatives, standing on a united list, could seek seats at the next European elections. I realise that there are very particular obstacles on the road to democracy in the shape of the ballot box. Not only would the decision to put up candidates be met with ingrained anti-gypsy prejudice, but it would also be very hard to convince Roma citizens (many of whom are stateless) to register as electors. The very word “registration” evokes memories of the hundreds of thousands of relatives of today’s Roma who were registered and then, once officially recorded, were arrested on the basis of carefully compiled lists to be deported and murdered in German concentration camps. Fear of registration - even when it is necessary for a democratic election - is thus understandable but it must nevertheless be overcome. A further consideration is the fact that Romanes, the language of the Roma, exists only partially in written form. Although spoken in its respective dialects, along with the national languages, by Roma in every country in Europe, it is an internal means of communication confined to each language community and cutting those communities off. It has been and remains a protective mechanism: the secret language of people discriminated against and persecuted. But in this area, too, resistance must gradually be overcome. At the International Congress in Prague a number of demands were made in this respect. For example, the European authorities and the European Investment Bank could undertake a long-term programme to develop the use of Romanes in the classroom. This is the only way to give Roma children access to higher levels of schooling and university education; the only way to enable sufficient numbers of them to become representatives of their people, notably - as I have argued here - in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

You may be somewhat surprised to hear me put forward a proposal guaranteed to run up against near insurmountable opposition. Not only that, but I come from a country rank with scandals and sleaze that, apart from raising a few eyebrows, have drawn little in the way of censure. It is a fact that two years ago, in the course of a routine change of government, two-thirds of the documentary records in the Federal Chancellor’s office were erased, shredded or otherwise destroyed. It is a fact that many industrial companies in Germany - a country that still bears a burden of responsibility for the crimes committed under the Nazi regime - refuse to pay compensation to the few surviving victims of slave and forced labour. It is a fact that I come from a country where xenophobic politics is grist to the mill of right-wing extremists practising terror on the streets. Surely these are three good reasons why I should confine myself to tackling problems closer to home. But the theme we are discussing here in Strasbourg cuts across national borders. And because - rather than merely issuing finely crafted declarations of protest against racism - we need to send out a courageous political signal by acting to overcome it, I repeat my proposal in the form of a challenge. The European Parliament stands to gain from the presence and voice of freely elected Roma representatives in its midst. For the Roma are Europe’s most mobile citizens: they know no borders, and the suffering they have endured makes them, in a unique way, tried and tested Europeans.

* Translator’s note: this is a reference to Max Frisch’s work “Biedermann und die Brandstifter”, translated into English as “The Firebugs”. A more literal translation might be “The petit bourgeois and the arsonists”.