Old Europe, New Europe: Sandra Kalniete’s remarks at the Leipzig Book Fair 2004


Remarks at the Leipzig Book Fair
24 April 2004, Leipziger Buchmesse

I don’t like to talk in terms of Old Europe and New Europe. To me, Europe is Europe, once again unified and free. The many reversals in fortune in Europe’s history can be blamed primarily on one thing – our inability in the past to pay attention to changes in our milieu – that is, to listen and hear the initially subtle and increasingly obvious ambiguities in our discourse. If this happens at a time when one political force or another cleverly takes over that discourse and turns it into a self-serving tool, then Europe faces bitter times.

Whenever I hear people talking about New as opposed to Old Europe, I hear a qualitative comparison, which I do not like. Its implied ambiguity confuses me since both words “new” and ”old” can have a positive or a negative connotation. Their true meaning is often revealed only in context, and that meaning depends on the value system in which one or the other word has an advantage. Latvia’s most famous poet, playwright and thinker, Rainis, saw the word “new” as a symbol of progress and creativity. He spoke of “new strength”, “new thinking” and ”the new era”, always stressing the positive aspects of the “new” versus “old. The traditions of the Chinese and many other nations, however, hold the old to be more important. They place a higher value on the experience, the stability and the wisdom of the old than on the unknown of the new.

When during the heat of the war in Iraq, American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chose to contrast New Europe with Old Europe, he deeply offended many Europeans. So did French President Jacques Chirac, when he got so carried away in the battles of the political giants that he advised the New Europe to shut up. In both cases these harsh words confirmed for me that the language of Europe must never include this kind of divisive contrast. We must leave this attitude behind in the 20th century. In this new century, language must bring us together; it must be harmonious and balanced.

There is one particularly noteworthy genre of writing among the many that developed in the 20th century in Europe. After World War II Europe was divided by Iron Curtain. This not only enslaved the people of Eastern Europe, but also erased their true story from the overall history of the Continent. Europe had just rid itself of the plague of Nazism. It was quite understandable that after the bloodbath of the war, few people had the strength to face the bitter truth. They could not deal with the fact that behind the Iron Curtain the Soviet regime continued to commit genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe and, indeed, against its own people.

For 50 years the history old Europe was written without the participation of these victims of genocide. Not surprisingly, the victors of World War II have written a history that separates the good from the bad and the right from the wrong from their perspective. It is only since the collapse of the Iron Curtain that researchers have been able to access archived documents and the life stories of the victims. These confirm the truth that the two totalitarian regimes – Nazism and Communism – were equally criminal. We must never see these ideologies as holding different positions on the scale of good and bad just because one of them was victorious over the other. That battle against Fascism cannot be seen as something, which for ever exonerates the sins of the Soviet regime that oppressed countless innocents in the name of class ideology. I am firmly convinced that it is the duty of our generation to reverse this mistake. The losers must also write their story, because it deserves a firm place in the overall history of the Continent. Without this, the broader history will remain unilateral, incomplete and dishonest.

I thought about my responsibility toward historical truth when I wrote my book “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows”. The book speaks of the torment of my family suffered in deportation. The shattering fact is that my family was by no means an exception. There is no family in Latvia that cannot tell stories about Siberia and about relatives who disappeared without trace in the vast, barren wasteland of that part of Russia. The stories are all very similar, only the names change. The time of the deportations, the places where people were sent, the suffering, the absolute absence of any rule of law or justice – these always remain constant.

The recent history of the other Eastern European countries, who like Latvia are once again rejoining the European continent, is equally dramatic. Nothing similar must ever be allowed to occur again. And it is because of that I firmly believe there is no New Europe, no Old Europe. There is a single and reunified Europe in which each and every person is of value.

 

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