The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019
Why are values and standards essential? How can we live up to “never again” in an era this fragile? The keynote address of American historian Timothy Snyder on the Judenplatz square in Vienna took place on Europe Day 2019 and simultaneously served as a kick-off for the Wiener Festwochen.
The responsibility for the Other
European identity and normativity are two sides of the same coin
Deputy Chairman of the Board of ERSTE Foundation
What do the events of 1989-91 mean to us in Central and Eastern Europe? The jury on that is out – still and again. What could be more exciting than discussing this with Francis Fukuyama? To us here in the region, today’s questions about ‘identity’ are derived directly from the discourse on the ‘end of history’ back then. Who prevails in which history and – more importantly – in which historiography? Who creates, shapes or defines our socio- political identities?
Since our success as a financial institution is intertwined with the future of Central and Eastern European societies, reflecting on that context is important for us. Francis Fukuyama’s concept of the human desire for recognition helps us to gauge the dimension of the collective experience that a profound transformation of economic, political and social relations entails. We understand that we have an active role in this as Erste Group. Hence, our statement of purpose is far-reaching: the people, communities and families caught in this struggle for recognition are also our clients and our stakeholders.
Fittingly, our new campus in Vienna is more than just the headquarters of one of Europe’s biggest financial institutions: we devised it as a holistic place for creativity, knowledge and ambition. The reason we keep insisting on these deep correlations between our business proposition and changing social contexts is that Erste was created as a social enterprise 200 years ago. Inspired by our organisation’s history, we remain convinced that creating access to prosperity is linked with the foundations of open and free societies.
The Tipping Point Talks are ERSTE Foundation’s central contribution to the 200th anniversary celebrations of Erste Oesterreichische Spar-Casse. We welcome great thinkers, researchers and pioneers of action from around the globe to reflect on and cross-fertilise each other’s thinking, yes, to embrace an urgent moment of responsibility. Responsibility for achievements we value so much and which are so important for our next actions.
After all, recalling author Malcolm Gladwell’s work on tipping points, we fathom that ‘the world around us may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.’
In this situation, let me remind you of Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1906, whose crucial idea and indeed constitutional thought regarding post-war Europe was the ‘responsibility for the Other’. According to Levinas, the responsibility for the Other cannot be separated from the responsibility for oneself. The experience of World War II broke Levinas’s trust in the safeguarding state, fueling his conviction that everyone has to take responsibility within their closest social circle. To Levinas, only direct contact with others, only responsibility in extremis, can avoid violence. Evil emerges only when the individual blurs behind the seemingly securing façade of public institutions, because ‘evil has no face’ (Levinas).
This thinking has formed the normative backbone for the European narrative after World War II. The idea that the Other plays a substantial part in oneself has informed the whole process of European integration, encompassing the individual as well as the collective that we form e.g. as nations. This is why any attack on the Other – the foreigner, the refugee, the Jew – is always an unambiguous and insidious attack on the idea of Europe itself.
But how well do we tend to the normative foundations of this narrative nowadays? Let us not be naïve. Let us gather and focus on our responsibility for the next generations now. Let us find out what we can do to defend what we value most and to develop what we struggle for: a united, peaceful European Union that is in a position to cope with the challenges ahead.
The Tipping Point Talks 2019
#2 – Normativity, 9 May 2019
Judenplatz 1010 – A Speech to Europe
Boris Marte, ERSTE Foundation
A speech to Europe
Timothy Snyder: Judenplatz 1010
“The work of memory is in the present. In our century, a place such as the Judenplatz is not simply a square within a city, but a site that might be viewed from a distance, anywhere in the world, through technology. Jews were once taken from Vienna to be murdered, and that crime cannot be undone. Yet we can bring those who wish to learn from that history to Vienna, to this place. We have chosen this specific place as an opening to a general discussion: as a way to connect the part to the whole, the specific history to our general problems of ethics and politics. The work of memory is for the future. The ones and zeros of 1010 suggest our digital world, the binary language in which machines speak to one another, and in which we must struggle to assert human values, such as responsibility. It recalls an internet which can spread mendacity and hatred, as well as human contact and understanding. We are responsible for recalling the place, and all of the places, within the techniques of our times. And we are responsible for ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust helps us to shape the future. It is in the spirit that we inaugurate these lectures.” Timothy Snyder
ERSTE Foundation has initiated a public lecture, which will be held annually at Judenplatz as of 2019, in honour of Europe Day. The first speaker is the prominent historian Timothy Snyder from Yale University, who is also a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. The place and time chosen for the lecture are no coincidence: European history is presented at Vienna’s Judenplatz like in no other place. Every year will provide a new opportunity to ask: Which text emanates from this urban space today? A text that shows the European narrative, which brought forth today’s Europe, in a different light. It is a contribution towards giving this idea of Europe – which for so long was an assurance of peace – a place in the centre of the city and of our awareness.
Clarity of vision – Our European future
The four Tipping Point Talks constitute an attempt to gain a clear picture of your creative resolve.
‘In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power’, Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
Clarity encompasses an acute understanding of the past, an alert awareness of the presence, and a clear vision of our future. Banal as this sounds, it’s this clarity that we have shunned and turned into a rare, precious good. With our four Tipping Point Talks, we open up a space for clarity. In what kind of world and lives do we find ourselves in, which trends and hopes prevail – particularly in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe and in the larger European context? Let’s take stock of our current situation by approaching it from four different perspectives: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Isn’t it strange that we have a lot to say about weaknesses and threats but little when it comes to strengths and opportunities? However, our European future deserves that we consider the picture in its entirety – including all stakeholders and interests that exist today. If we fail to do so, we give up the stage and negotiating tables to those who render a united Europe impossible with their reflex to say ‘no’, and to those who gear up to destroy Europe with their destructive zeal.
“We do not lack more small-minded ideas but big and bold alliances of action.”
What is keeping us from associating Europe with beginnings and ambition also 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain? What are rule of law, human rights and diversity to us if not a moral obligation to train, cultivate and maintain a fair and clear perspective? Being a European citizen is to notice – from the commuting bus to the C-level suite – that quiet voice, these players at second sight, and all those alliances that seem impossible today but are necessary for tomorrow. We are called to bring Europe’s arena of quiet, constructive future-building into focus.
We must also encourage clarity of vision. If we do not seize the chance to forge a democratic, political and civic as well as a multicultural mark on our European future in this election and anniversary year, then we probably did not deserve that chance in the first place. This does not require new, small-minded ideas. Our future now requires new, big and bold alliances for action. Without exception, united Europe’s advance has been built on reconciling different interests, combined with the political will to move forward. Time and again, for instance, negotiator and visionary Jean Monnet brought French and German coal and steel manufacturers together from 1945. To the public, the results of this remarkable process did only become visible five years later in the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950.
To build a peaceful and democratic future, such coalitions for action must be imagined, identified, and realised – from an early stage onwards. This means a new strategic alliance between entrepreneurs and the non-profit sector. This also means alliances between current and future EU member states. Ultimately, this means alliances between prosperous members of the older generation and young people eager for change, who are taking to the streets in their fight for climate transition, for instance.
The four Tipping Point Talks constitute an attempt to gain a clear picture of our situation, goals, possibilities and our creative resolve in this region of Europe.
Cover picture: Judenplatz, Vienna. Photo: © Wolfgang Schlag