European Humanist Federation General Assembly, Nuremberg 2018
Opening Speech by EHF president Giulio Ercolessi
first of all, allow me to thank our German member the Humanistische Verband Deutschlands, and what I hope you will later welcome as a new full member of our federation, the Humanistische Verband Bayern, and most of all our friend Michael Bauer, for hosting us this year in coincidence with the Humanisten-Tag, in this city of Nuremberg. A city that, after having been chosen as its capital by the tyranny at the time of the totalitarian dictatorship, has now rebuilt itself as a capital of the Human Rights, in this Federal Republic of Germany that has been, in my humble opinion, the best vaccinated of our countries in the more than seventy years of peace and cooperation we Europeans have been living for the first time in centuries and perhaps for the first time ever.
But now we are altogether living bleak times in Europe and throughout what used to be called the Western world. Most of the taboos that were established after the end of WW2 in defence of our restored or newly established democracies have been broken and this has been largely accepted by public opinion and electors. If much of liberal democracy consists in “government by discussion”, our public discourse is growing more and more uncivilised. What has been proudly defined “illiberal democracy”, by one of the elected authoritarian leaders of Europe, is a model that is apparently gaining momentum in many of our countries. The most basic human rights are being trampled in many of our countries. What in the last 70 years used to be called, rightly or wrongly, the leader of the Western world, the USA, has surrendered to a tycoon who appears to be totally unaware of the basic principles of constitutional government and of the rule of law, beginning with international law.
It is perhaps not useless to remember, in a time when so many of our fellow citizens and politicians have decided to forget the dire lessons of the past century, that 79 years ago, in May 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to the Americas, carrying almost one thousand Jewish asylum seekers on board, who were fleeing from persecution in Nazi Germany. Cuba, the US and Canada refused to accept them. So the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, but the ship’s captain Gustav Schröder, himself a non-Jewish German, refused to return the ship to Germany until all the passengers had been given entry into a safe country. After threatening to wreck the ship on the British shores, captain Schröder docked it in Antwerp Belgium, and successfully negotiated to safely disembark all the passengers, that finally found asylum in the UK, in France, in Belgium and in the Netherlands, that all very reluctantly accepted them in the end. Many of them were deported and died in the Shoah when the Nazis invaded continental Europe, but many other survived.
The governments of the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, that either refused or slowly and very reluctantly accepted the asylum seekers of the St. Louis where not all necessarily composed by antisemitic or racist politicians. On the contrary, many of them actively tried to convince the other governments to grant asylum to the passengers of the St. Louis. But they were not prepared to defy the hostile attitude of many of their fellow citizens and electors and of the media. They all objected that they already had accepted too many refugees and they were not able to allocate more resources for that.
Our generation has good chances to be remembered that same way.
In this crucial area, and in many others, whatever the details and the legal, economical and technical provisions, we should do whatever we can to avoid the sinking of our civilization, of what most deserves of it to be preserved and handed down to the Europeans of the future: liberal democracy, secular institutions, the rule of law, human rights, government through rational discussion, freedom of belief, freedom of the media. In short, the heritage of the Enlightenment.
At a time when the progress of scientific research and its achievements might theoretically open us the way to a global Golden Age, the political and cultural developments seem to move in an opposite direction, pushed by the new religious fundamentalism, by the autochthonous religious conservatives that seek to regain power and influence thanks to them, by populist and nationalist politicians and mass media that are, without even being aware, leading our civilization to the same road, opposite to integration, and opposite to supranational democracy, that led to the two attempted suicides of Europe in the 20th century.
We should fight the populist and fundamentalist narrative, restore education to citizenship, fight the “barbarism of specialisation” that is disempowering even highly educated electors: all these forces and phenomena are pushing toward a downfall of our civilization, for reasons that are utterly the opposite of those outlined by the intellectuals that first used that formula one hundred years ago.
Yet, there are also positive signs. Along with the steady growth of societal secularisation, at least in Western Europe, traditional authoritarianism appears no longer capable to reverse the trend towards individual self-determination and individual freedom to choose. That kind of traditional authoritarianism based on religious prejudice may unfortunately be brandished as a rhetorical tool to stigmatise strangers or to revitalise nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, even open racism, sexism and homophobia. But that kind of traditional authoritarianism cannot be realistically re-imposed on our citizens: the triumph in the Irish abortion referendum, three years after that on equal marriage rights, is there to show that impossibility. On Lgbti rights and end-of-life regulations our cultural battles are winning, and there is no sign of a reversion in the path towards individual self-determination. That is probably also the case or reproductive rights, and freedom to choose, even though we must be aware that the new narrative adopted by our opponents, that is now based on a distorted use of human rights and ecological or animal rights jargon, requires an updated response from us. And, when and where it retained its independence, the judiciary, and also most of our legal culture, are not reversing the basically slow but steady progressive trend of the past decades.
But even those achievements could be jeopardised by a downfall in the quality of our democracies. There is a huge disproportion between our duties and the resources we have at our disposal.
I would be insincere if I said that I am satisfied with what we were able to do in the past year, but with your help, with our small but brilliant and talented staff, we should redouble our efforts in the great challenges we are bound to face in the next year. Mind you, this will be a crucial year, because Europe, of which the European Union is no minor political actor, carries more responsibility than ever in the defence of the tradition of the ethical-political values and of the legal principles of the Enlightenment and of its civilisation, that is our own.