Europe continues to schlep all its unresolved and suppressed traumas from the centuries gone by. For many years the only thing that defined Europe was its entanglements with the past, with the detritus of old injustices, divisions of power, common culprits and collective victims. Lately, populism has proved to be a political stance with a capacity for responding to the prevailing emotions, prejudices and fears of its inhabitants. This is the kind of politics that feeds on frustrations and emotions and offers a political agenda that promises quick and straightforward solutions to any and every problem. Populism has been on the rise in many countries around the world, be they traditional or recent democracies. It is frequently appropriated by demagogues.
But Europe has a different tradition. In the Czech context, it is hard to imagine a time when Charter 77, the movement initiated by Václav Havel, didn’t exist. For imagining this conjures up a sense of total relativity of values. Charter 77 was the first significant act of solidarity in communist Czechoslovakia, a time when people found the courage to stand up for their rights. Furthermore, it awakened their sense of equality, solidarity, cohesiveness, togetherness and a selfless willingness to help one another. In this context, the 1968-1969 polemic between Václav Havel and Milan Kundera has gained a new relevance. Havel did not share Kundera’s a priori scepticism with regard to acts of civil courage that stand no chance of having an immediate effect. Havel believed that one was obliged to act as a matter of principle, for example when people were unjustly imprisoned. He emphasized the importance of long-term, assiduous work on the part of everyone who hasn’t tired of doing things like writing petitions again and again. And he believed that you should do these things even if it makes you look foolish. Upon their release, many former prisoners said that petitions on their behalf had given them much succour, making them feel that their imprisonment was not pointless. For unlike those “outside”, they were aware that a petition was about much more than their own release. At the same time, they said it was invaluable for them to know that they had not been forgotten, that there were people out there who shared their views and did not hesitate to take a public stand on their behalf at a time of widespread apathy and resignation. In our time the Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan, the Kurdish author and politician Hevrin Khalaf and the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo feel the same.
The European community, sovereignty and language
Currently we hear much talk of “European community and sovereignty”, on an international level. Nevertheless, 27 dwarves cannot turn into a giant capable of stopping another giant. All of the dwarves speak their own mother tongue and behave according to their own mentality. “France is the country of fashions, England the country of moods, Spain the country of ancestors, Italy the country of splendour and Germany the country of titles,” Immanuel Kant once said, sarcastically. The list could go on, with Western arrogance and inferiority complexes in the East added to the mix.
A key difficulty in translating specific national and period-related traits arises from the fact that we are not dealing with issues that can be easily grasped and identified, but rather specific qualities that pervade, to varying degrees, all aspects of speech, literary works or political rhetoric. Translating a text means expressing it in a unity of content and form through different linguistic material. Literary works and political speeches are unique, historically conditioned facts. The original and its translation cannot be identical. That is what makes translators and interpreters – people who are not only fluent in various languages but also well-read and thoroughly educated – so vital in Europe. Their work demands far more than a knowledge of languages: it is translators who help Europeans lacking a common language understand one another. For public intellectuals like Susan Sontag saw Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka as true giants and European culture as the source of all culture. From this perspective, Sontag regarded America as a European colony. Things are very different nowadays.
The comparison between the European Union and United States is not quite apt: we lack a common language and cultural background, and our way of thinking is also related to language. Language is of paramount importance. After all, even if a word has survived intact, it can mean so many different things. In the European context, it is empty clichés and their impact that are of particular concern. We live in a world in which linguistic interpretations carry far more weight than reality itself. They actually become reality, from which “actual reality” is derived. We need to ask the question: what is the truth of language? In his essays, Václav Havel coined terms such as “post-totalitarian system” or “anti-political politics”. But these were just auxiliary concepts that he chose to serve a specific purpose in a specific context. To him, words such as socialism or communism meant nothing except loyalty to the government. We need this kind of profound truth in language, otherwise the unification of Europe by the means we have so far employed will amount to nothing but an attempt to make scrambled eggs without breaking a single egg.
Europe, mentality and borders
Europe is a peculiar space. A thrilling space. In Australia, you can travel for thousands of kilometres without any change in the landscape. In Europe you can cover just a few hundred kilometres, or in some regions only a few kilometres, and everything will be different. Not just the language, but also the architecture, the food on your plate and, above all, the mentality. And mentality is a collecting vessel, a receptacle for a plethora of nineteenth century terms, such as nation, nationalism, chauvinism. Terms we keep tripping over.
During a discussion on European literature in New York in the autumn of 2010 (for Americans, Europe is a small, and perforce unified, area), what stirred up the strongest emotions was a comment by a French author. He said something along the lines of: Europe equals France and everything else is just rubbish. The panelists reacted strongly to his statement, the audience less so – they felt a bit lost trying to follow an argument between a French writer on the one hand, and a Spanish, Polish, Czech and Italian author on the other. On the other hand, they found it thrilling to witness such a turbulent clash of ideas. Customs houses may have disappeared but borders keep making themselves felt: different mother tongues, mentalities and experiences have left their imprint on individual countries and the behaviour, the facial features and gestures of their people. Human foibles, sympathies as well and antipathies, also play a role (for example, Gerhard Schröder could not abide the French, or farmers, and trying to list everything and everyone people such as Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman have loathed would be a pointless and never-ending endeavour). Mentality is linked to language. And language needs freedom of opinion and expression.
Europe and the struggle for the power of words
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” At a time when international radio was still in its infancy and not even science fiction authors could envisage the internet, the final sentence in particular was ground-breaking: “regardless of frontiers”. That is the original wording. Freedom of expression is further defined in Article 20. However, it turned out that additional legislation was needed so that war propaganda and hate speech – statements advocating all forms of national, racial and religious hatred that incite discrimination, hostility, hatred and violence – could be punished. A state that is party to an international treaty is legally bound to comply with it – in theory. It is required to fully incorporate it in its political and legal system and provide guarantees for the observance of these rights. But what if a state won’t do this? Or, even worse, what if diplomats loudly profess freedom of expression at international conferences while back at home repression and censorship is widely deployed and any semblance of freedom is punished, silenced, nipped in the bud?
Moreover, nowadays those suffering from poverty, ill-health, lack of education or access to the internet, find that their freedom of expression is, in practice, largely curtailed by circumstances. For the rest of us, the limits of freedom of expression are defined by the country we happen to be in, as well as by companies and organisations that control our means of communication. The actual freedom of expression we enjoy as individuals is the result of conditions in particular states, as well as conditions laid down by virtual states, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter or other platforms, such as publishers, radio stations, newspapers, universities and other institutions, depending on where one lives. Anyone willing to give up his or her freedoms in order to gain certainty will gain neither freedom nor certainty. In the system of global information and communication the struggle for the power of words has also become a struggle for power over the word.
Europe and democracy
When democracy fades away, it doesn’t happen all of a sudden. Rather, it disappears gradually, a centimetre a time. We can see this in the East as much as in the West. We must cling to the freedoms we have secured. And once again, this demands a great deal of strength. The fundamental choices haunting all of us now are between the individual and the crowd; between a closed society and open democracy; totalitarianism and freedom; reason and zealotry; tolerance and hysteria; creativity and freedom of opinion or censorship. European countries are becoming radicalised, some vigorously and spine-chillingly, as in Hungary, where no one any longer cares about individuals bereft of hope. Why does self-identification cause so much suffering to so many of us in Europe? In democracies, the right and the left oscillate like the pendulum of a clock. In the Czech Republic, we have recently seen a curious phenomenon: instead of choosing between parties, personalities and ideas, many people are choosing between a political system and its total rejection. The solution is not a choice between parties but between morality and immorality.
What frightens me especially as I look at Europe these days are the developments in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Something that was unimaginable only a few years ago has become a social reality: once again nationalism, racism, antisemitism and sexism are rampant. We have forgotten too quickly that the freedoms we fought for and achieved three decades ago cannot be taken for granted. We live in an era of economic pragmatism that despises democracy and reduces it to business. Some have even called for a new definition of human rights. Many in Eastern Europe succumb to resignation because freedom has not turned out to be they imagined it. It requires them to take responsibility, and it will take us several generations to get there. What Eastern Europe has adopted from the West amounts mostly to consumerist behaviour and neoliberalism. Democracy, however, calls for different values and our language calls for different words.
Let us recall the idealism of 1968 Prague. Back then, people had faith that every individual citizen could effect a degree of change. This is the kind of faith we need today. During the Prague Spring people showed courage. They found a constructive way of resisting the social reality they were dissatisfied with because they wanted to achieve something. In those days, change came from the bottom up. There was much more humour, directness and hope around, people stood up for something, fought for something, suffered for something. Europe did not yet seem swamped with the lava of general indifference.
So what went wrong? The themes of 1968 are still highly relevant today, as freedom of the media and independence of the judiciary are again under threat in many countries of Eastern Europe. One of the reasons why the past totalitarian way of thinking survives is that the perpetrators of the totalitarian past were allowed to go unpunished. This proved to be a fundamental mistake. Following the regime change of 1989 it was important to clearly identify the culprits and to dispense justice to those who had suffered so much. A debate about the mistakes of the past would have enabled our society to heal and develop in a different way. This was how (West) Germany handled its past – it took them several decades to come to terms with the legacy of the Nazi dictatorship and its crimes. But it was also a question of language. The dangerous parallels with today abound.
Totalitarianism, language, propaganda
In their memoirs and letters, those who survived don’t mince their words. However, their only means of describing the atrocities was language, which proved insufficient. The victims returning to normal life found the old language unusable. Language itself is nothing but a construct, a game that adapts to society. Language deceives itself. The official term for the extermination of European Jewry was “deportations”. Nazis referred to extermination as “self-cleansing” and “revival”, as “getting rid of a boil on the healthy body of the German nation” and “cleansing that body of the Jews”. The man in charge of the Department of National Hygiene (Abteilung für Volkshygiene) at the Ministry of the Interior defended Nazi government policies by arguing that his job was to implement an “active policy that seeks to provide consistent protection of racial health”. It is incredible quite how much effort went into the legal definition of “Jews” to ensure that the rest of the population could feel that these measures did not apply to them. Racially “pure” citizens felt safe and didn’t care about what happened to anyone else. Zero solidarity, zero empathy: nothing but indifference. This is what paved the way to the concentration camps. In private, Hitler was obsessed with hygiene and often used comparisons with illnesses, epidemics, befouling, isolation. He likened Christianity and Bolshevism to the plague and Jews to germs and loathsome vermin. For the head of the press department of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs the “Jewish question” was a “question of political hygiene”. For the Jews to be excluded, they had to be stripped of their status as German nationals and members of the national community. As soon as the first bureaucrat used the term “non-Aryan”, the fate of European Jewry was sealed. And the moment the “Jewish question” shifted from the context of “racial” self-defence to the realm of political “hygiene”, the language and the rhetoric changed too. The official title of the SS department charged with the extermination of European Jewry was the Economic and Administrative High Command (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungs Hauptamt). In this language, which Viktor Klemperer called the language of the Third Reich, the emphasis shifted to efficiency. The activities of this department, couched in the language of bureaucracy, were no different from other rationalized activities. The only thing bureaucracy requires is efficiency. Bureaucratic rationality inspires horror. Its language deflects attention. As the deportees were led to their death in the gas chambers, they were told they were going to “washrooms”. Before the Germans started to build gas chambers, on Hitler’s orders, they wanted to exterminate their mentally ill and physically disabled fellow citizens: this was referred to as a “merciful death”. And vice versa, they aimed to “ennoble” the German race through organized impregnation of women of “good racial quality” by men of “good racial quality”. All this was the result of a rational administration of society and applied science. The “cleansing of the nation” by means of murdering other groups was discussed in a language that used words such as “reduction”, “active control” of population trends, “elimination” and “evacuation”. The official designation of institution that coordinated the murders of the mentally disabled through euthanasia was the Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care (Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Anstaltspflege), known as T4 after Tiergartenstrasse 4 where its office was located. Following protests by some prominent church representatives this “engineering project” was suspended in 1941. However, the same people did not protest against another project, known as “the final solution”, that affected another group of people: the Jews. Even today populists often resort to racist language as they climb the greasy pole to power. They advocate segregation to incite the crowds and to strengthen the national community.
On the other hand, some words are missing from the vocabulary of bureaucratic state systems – morality is one of them. The system prefers words such as discipline, loyalty, duty and obedience to superiors, thus enabling the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Moral considerations of good and evil are immaterial. All that matters is being united under a single boss with totalitarian tendencies and visions, and following only the rules of “his” organization. The subordinates and “subjects” concentrate solely on the tasks allocated to them by their boss. Even today, modern society foregrounds efficiency and evinces moral blindness. The internet and modern technologies erase the humanity of the individuals targeted by those in power. They will use violence to protect the borders of a national community and the state will silence its critics. This use of violence goes against moral considerations. It is immune to the influence of solidarity, respect and mutual help. Modern bureaucracy silences moral awareness. It solves the problem in a rational way.
Except that every human life is sacred, although bureaucracy has no idea how to deal with this concept. The principle of collective guilt based on gender, religious faith, or skin colour has not disappeared. The state divides human lives into those that are valuable and those that have no value. The latter need to be eliminated. World War II put paid to this tendency to widespread modern forms of human coexistence. The factors that made the Holocaust possible are still with us today: a powerful government, a mighty bureaucracy, and the silent majority.
Discussion of totalitarianism in Europe and the mistakes of the past is crucial. In Central Europe this process still has a long way to go. But instead, those who were in positions of influence before the change of regime in 1989 have regained power in most countries of the region. The old horrors have raised their ugly heads again everywhere. East European society is sick. And more than that: It refuses treatment. In 2022 war and genocide here is called a “special military operation”.
Europe and truth
I have felt for several years now that there are many in Europe who would rather see a wall or a fence erected again between the East and the West. Certainly, Europe is once again divided by a mental border, one that never completely disappeared. This border also passes through Germany, where the difference between the East and West is still visible. In 1989 I was full of hope that we might be able to preserve all that was good about Eastern Europe, blending it with the humanist values of the West. But something quite different has happened. Many have started to emulate the example of the nouveaux riches, with their arrogant behaviour and proclivity to corruption. Personal enrichment, by whatever means, is now acceptable as the sole aspiration in life. Similarly, many have come to admire the Chinese model that I have experienced at first hand during my frequent visits to the country: an economically successful, hybrid capitalist-communist police state holding out the promise of affluence. China has married the worst of capitalism with the worst of communism –in terms of economics this works like a dream, albeit one without human rights. In the era of neoliberalism many have begun to forget concepts such as human rights, democracy, freedom of religion, the rule of law, a dignified life for all; many don’t even mind that the internet is censored. But freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, a fundamental element of humanity, the mother of truth.
So what about language? In Europe, the Chinese police state has been labelled a “harmonised and stabilised” society. The battle for the power of words may be taking place in the global information and communication system but it begins in our own backyard.
Europe. A house without a roof or a roof without a house?
In autumn 2011 I was in Germany, attending a meeting of members of the Paneuropean Union at Andechs, a Bavarian monastery where seven kinds of beer are brewed. The organisation was founded in 1922, banned by the Nazis and re-established after World War II. It was headed by Otto von Habsburg until his death in 2011 and over the years its members have included Franz Werfel, Albert Einstein, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. I participated in a heated discussion that sought the answer to the question: “Europe – a house without a roof or a roof without a house?” A fruitful metaphor. Everyone used it and I just followed its various iterations. Enterpreneurs were represented by Prince Wolfgang of Bavaria and Bernard Antony, a renowned cheesemaker from Alsace. Alsace is a region that has had to find a way for the Germans and the French to coexist in a small space. Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset proposed a renovation of the European house on Christian foundations. But what would happen if Muslim Turkey were let into the house? He had much to say about the traditional family. But what does a family look like these days? What shapes and forms do families come in these days? Politicians were represented by Herbert Dorfmann, a Euro MP from South Tyrol, and the media by Georg Paul Hefty, a political scientist and editor of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So who and what did I represent? Literature? The people? And whose perspective? Europe’s? The panic that is gripping Europe is unnecessary, Hefty argued, we are not experiencing a crisis of the European Union but rather a crisis in its individual countries. He was one of the first to admit, in the 1990s, that a woman might one day become Chancellor of Germany. He was also the first person to ever use the feminine form of the German word for ‘chancellor’, which later became word of the year. And Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first to allow the possibility that a country might be “excluded” from the EU, with indebted Greece in mind. She triggered an avalanche – from that moment, the option that any state could be excluded from the EU was on the table, as was the option that a country might leave the EU if its economy was strong, and it was unwilling to “pay for” countries whose economy was weaker. It’s a bit like a train passing through a country: the passengers can get on and off depending on how comfortable and fast they find the train. But Europe is not a train, it is here, it is the countryside, the country, it is people. It does not move.
We often hear people complain that the younger generation is not interested in the European Union, that it regards the EU merely as a grouping founded in response to economic need. They don’t give any thought to the European Union for the simple reason that they are European. They travel, study languages, forge friendships across borders and continents, taking it all for granted. What matters is not unity but common interest. What matters is a Europe united on the basis of democracy and friendly relations: a spiritual dimension. And that calls for the best translators and interpreters.
Returning home from Andechs (even though I was “at home”, in Europe, throughout) my thoughts wandered to more general subjects. For centuries it had been macho political power games that moved the world. But perhaps times were changing. Nevertheless, there is only one way, the oldest and hardest way: to respect others, try to understand, acknowledge and accept them. Ultimately, there is only one border: that between two human beings. Maybe it is time to change the metaphor for 2022: rather than one big house, Europe is several smaller houses that respect both their common space as well as each other’s privacy.
Europe and language as a way of classifying people
A friend of mine, a great writer, moved to a new flat in Berlin some time ago, and went to the florists’. “Where are you from? France?” – “No, Romania”– “Oh, I see, never mind, don’t worry about it.”
I’ve come across similar reactions: “Where are you from?” – “You’re from the Czech Republic, Bohemia, Eastern Europe? I see, never mind, don’t worry about that.”
Children are taught by grown-ups at home and at school to classify people in this way and this vicious cycle is impossible to break. It is natural for people to believe that their way of seeing the world is the correct one, the only possible one. But Europe has proven again and again that there are countless ways of seeing the world, that the words we use to think with can be “bleached” and used “in different ways”, that we can live “in different ways”, that creative freedom knows no bounds. The struggle for freedom and for free, critical thinking is always exhausting and it never ends. Concepts such as “collective guilt” and “collective victory” are monstrous. And nationalism has lately taken on even more monstrous forms when it keeps spouting the same question: “Where are you from?” We ought to ask a different question, a much more important one: “Who are we?”
The only thing that matters is not giving up. Young people – this is something I’ve learned in recent months – are fed up with hearing only those speak of Europe who speak of it with condescension, sullying its visions. They don’t want to be robbed of their hopes and future by populists, or see their hopes stifled by a general lethargy.
Europe in 2022. The freedom of a state is not the same thing as freedom in a state
Let me come briefly back to Europe’s past, which continues to exert a decisive influence on us. There were six million Jews among the more than twenty million people murdered on Hitler’s orders, but the Jews were the only ones destined for total extermination. It was a crime committed at the heart of Europe, by the country that was the pride of modern civilisation, with the best science and technology at its disposal. A country in the midst of Europe produced mountains of corpses and moral devastation. The rest of Europe stood by in silence. To this day, the Holocaust epitomizes the right of the strong to do what they will with the weak.
Nazi rule is gone. But its prejudices endure, flourishing in new guises. The Nazis have shown totalitarian states all over the world how to deprive of their humanity those who “violate the order” – and how to corrupt language.
This year, 2022, we have been eyewitnesses to a war. In an era of economic pragmatism, we have reduced democracy to business. Those politicians and pundits who had long underestimated Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the repression he unleashed at home and the aggression he directed at other countries, now resort to the excuse that he had recently undergone a radical transformation. Never mind all those years we watched his attempts to rebuild the disintegrated Soviet Union by means of war and terror. And for many years now he has pursued another, much bigger goal: to divide and destroy Europe and establish an alternative (Eurasian) “union” under Moscow’s wing, in much the same way as the Chinese President has been striving for an Asian union under the leadership of Beijing. People in Eastern Europe (including the former GDR), who endured Soviet occupation for decades, know that the only thing dictators of Putin’s ilk respond to is a show of strength.
Putin is punishing the Ukrainians for everything that has happened in Eastern Europe since 1989. We, East Europeans, are undoubtedly united by our common experience of totalitarian regimes, by our personal and social experience of Russia or rather, the Soviet Union. The parallels with Russia’s current imperial policies are obvious. Ukraine is being denied the right to independence, as are other former Soviet republics. And in addition to that, Ukraine is being denied its own culture and language.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also brings to mind what my parents and grandparents told me about the popular uprisings in the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, crushed by Soviet tanks. In the summer of 1968, they saw with their own eyes our country being invaded by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, which ushered in the depressing and seemingly endless period of “normalisation”. Poland’s anti-communist resistance, triggered by the creation of the independent trade union Solidarity, brought renewed hope of reforms and radical change. Gorbachov’s policy of glastnost and perestroika also deserves mention. Many people failed to anticipate the “special military operation” in Ukraine, believing it was unthinkable. They had a brutal awakening. Many people in the West believed for too long that Russia and Putin did not want a war, even though there was plenty of evidence of Russia’s imperial, aggressive political goals, which were achievable only by military means. I’m speaking of Transnistria, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, the occupation of Crimea, the cities of Grozny and Aleppo wiped off the face of the earth… Not only had the West “underestimated” Ukraine, it was also completely wrong in its assessment of Russia and Putinism. The war in Ukraine has set a precedent for Europe, shaking the foundations of the post-war European order to its foundations. We must not forget that Ukraine’s fight against an imperial power is ultimately also a fight for our own, European freedom and democracy. These events have shown that the East knows more about the West than vice versa.
From a psychological perspective, perpetrators always show remarkable solidarity with one another: they are drawn to each other by their past actions and their desire to evade punishment. If there are enough of them, they succumb to the impression that their multilateral solidarity legitimizes their criminal behaviour. This was how the Nazis reacted after the war, and how the Stalinists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did after 1989. The twenty-first century has only added further technical details to their orchestrated propagandistic deception. With a predictable effect on the masses. Yes, sadly, there are parallels.
Europe, language and “reliable” witnesses
On 22 June 1944 a delegation of the International Red Cross arrived in the Jewish ghetto of Terezín (Theresienstadt); its members walked down the main street side by side with Nazi officers and Jewish elders. To this day, Holocaust deniers cite the commission’s “reliable” testimony. In fact, the whole thing had been staged. People drank coffee in a café and attended a rehearsal for Verdi’s opera (Requiem) being held in the room above the gym. At one point, children rehearsing another opera (Brundibár) downstairs cheerfully raised their props (exercise books, pencils, books), as instructed by their director. In his report for the International Red Cross Maurice Rossel describes their surprise at finding that people in Terezín lived an almost normal: life and that “the people who have ended up in the ghetto were not being sent anywhere else.” In fact, 68,000 people were deported from Terezín in 1944. By the end of October 1944 that number rose to 88,194. Meanwhile, the report of International Red Cross was being translated and read around the world and distributed not only by the Nazis. This exercise in sham propaganda has served as a model for present-day PR agencies and fake news.
Europe and trauma
World War II dealt a psychological blow to all of Europe. The trauma does not end when a person leaves a concentration camp. It doesn’t end when the last survivor passes away. The trauma is the air that Europe breathes. The fact that so many lost their lives is horrific. But what makes it utterly scandalous is that the Holocaust took place here, in civilized, cultured and industrially developed Europe, built on Christian foundations and on clichés about loving one’s neighbour. It is a scandal that something like this could ever have happened in Europe. That something like this is possible at all. That we allowed it to happen. Because we were the ones who allowed it to happen. And the consequences are with us to this day. The excuse that the moral instinct vanishes at a time of raging war or profound crises in society does not wash. If the Nazis had won, the Holocaust would not have broken any laws and would not have qualified as a crime. At Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem his defence lawyer said that his client had done things for which people are decorated if their country wins a war, but are sent to the gallows if their country loses it. This is both cynical and trivial at the same time. Does it mean that the one who has power is in the right? To me, this entails a warning for our times: the modern state with its bureaucratic culture forces us to view society solely through the lens of trade, greed and lust for money, as the object of effective administration, regardless of the ultimate goal. Modern bureaucracy silences moral sensitivities, resolving problems in a rational way. Further danger lurks in the fact that present-day politicians let themselves be guided by economic interests rather than political ones. And the emergence of politicians seizing the opportunity to destroy a group that gets in the way can become reality at any time. These days our problem is technical progress, heartlessness and lack of empathy and solidarity with others.
A moral person cannot hide himself or herself in the role of an observer. The unsatisfied appetites of a single person can be enough to plunge an entire country into chaos. Past centuries creep into the present, raising the spectre of second-class citizens, with new imaginary Stars of David, blue circles, pink triangles being pinned to coats. For most people this is just a game on social media: they withdraw from reality, their eyes glued to smartphones. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have always been extremely attractive to millions of people. But life is a gift and we have to treat it as a gift that is precious.
Freedom means responsibility
Translating and interpreting is an art that comes with very specific responsibilities. At the same time, every kind of art is also an oasis of humanism whose importance grows at a time when rational consumerism and the luxury of indifference are the rule. This kind of authentic, non-sentimental humanism is extremely important today. It is an oasis of humanity that rejects political pigeon-holing. Literature, too, is a form of humanism that transcends time. It nurtures concepts such as trust, creativity, compassion, charity, that is to say, concepts that our modern, performance-oriented society usually regards as on the verge of being suicidal. It is an oasis of morality arising from the fact that we are alive and share this planet with others. It is not limited by the claim that the forces determining our present conditions course through global space, while institutions of political action remain basically unchanged, that is to say, local. The fact that we don’t see eye to eye with others is not an obstacle on the path to human community.
A united Europe is a successful answer to our history and geography. Unless we turn Europe into a full-blown player on the global scene, each of us will remain just a ball that other powerful nations can kick around. What we need right now is a cool head, clear reason and creative thinking. And the protection of human rights. In this day and age, truth has become so blurred and lies so widespread that you don’t recognize the truth unless you love it. In this respect translators and interpreters play a crucial and multifaceted role. Their thinking must not be purely mechanical. Purely empirical literalness is dangerous. Empirical literalness is typical of translators who translate mechanically, without opinions of their own and without understanding the differences between individual linguistic systems. Last but not least, translators have to be familiar with traditions, the past, the mentality and traumas of their own country and the country of the “other”. In this respect there are great differences between various areas of culture. For the diversity of languages derives not merely from the diversity of sounds and signs but from the diversity of world views. We need a common inner language. We all know that common humanity now faces the most fateful of all the fateful decisions of humankind.
Translated from the Czech by Julia Sherwood
A novelist, screenwriter, translator and dramaturge, Radka Denemarková was born on 14 March 1968. She also translates from German, in particular plays and the work of Herta Müller. She is one of the most widely translated contemporary Czech authors and has been awarded the Magnesia Litera four times; for prose, Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler), journalism, Smrt, nebudeš se báti aneb Příběh Petra Lébla (Thou Shalt Not Fear Death: The Story of Petr Lébl) and for translation, Rozhoupaný dech (The Hunger Angel). In addition to that, her novel Hodiny z olova (Hours of Lead) won the 2019 Magnesia Litera – Book of the Year award. In 2022, Radka Denemarková and her translator Eva Profousová won the (literary and translation) Brücke Berlin Preis for the novel Hodiny z olova (Hours of Lead) and its German translation published by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag.