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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

The Nursery School Teacher from Tversk Street

Stefan Chwin
Traduction de David Malcolm

Texte intégral

Prawdziwą Europą jest dla mnie Europa, która się waha.
I która mimo wahań potrafi skutecznie działać.

1Any writer who thinks about what the essence of the European spirit is and what it means to be a European in today’s world must face up to certain very unsettling questions.

2The bite of those questions increases when we approach the really difficult issues.

3As long as I’ve lived, and I’ve lived for quite a while now, I’ve never come across anyone who wasn’t in favor of justice and truth. Everyone has always been, and still is, in favor of justice and truth. At least no one says out loud that he or she is against them.

4And everyone tells me that justice is on their side, and more than that — everyone tells me: you should be with us; you should be on our side. For if you aren’t on our side, you can’t be counted among the just.

5Some people tell me that it was just to kill the terrorists in the Moscow theatre. That if you fight for independence, it’s permissible to attack the institutions of a hostile state, but surely not inoffensive folks who simply go to the theatre one evening, and then suddenly, towards the end of the first act, someone puts a gun to their heads and in a few seconds turns that nice nursery school teacher from Tversk Street, whom all the older kids love, into a political hostage. That those who are fighting for their country’s independence, in reality, want to create a barbarian Islamic state between Georgia and Russia; so isn’t it more just for Russia to crush the Islamic fanatics than that there should be in Europe — yes, in Europe, because Chechnya is a European country, after all — one more of those states in which women are deprived of all their rights and corporal punishment is the order of the day? So isn’t it the case that — if we have to choose — then a modernizing Russia, albeit unjust and cruel, is the lesser evil in the conflict of civilizations that they say is inevitable than the yellow crescent on the green standard?

6Others try to convince me that the Chechens had no way out, that it was the Russians, themselves, who forced them to take such desperate measures by depriving a small nation of its right to independence, that a hard and harsh justice was rather on the side of the desperate fighters with the green bandanas on their heads, because in a confrontation with a great power no small nation has any chance of fighting according to the rules of war, that, mutilated, powerless, crushed under the treads of thousands of tanks, unless it lets the world know about its existence through such bloody acts, the world will forget about it, just as it has forgotten a thousand times before about small, troublesome nations, which have, without reservation, been condemned to political (and not only political) death by governments and parliaments; thus, though what happened in the Moscow theatre was cruel, terrible, and vile, was it somehow just?

7And I, when I hear this, ask myself: which of these justices is more just, and which is more villainous and vile?

8Some have told me that completely innocent people died unjustly in that Moscow theatre, people that had gone to the theatre to see a musical about the Russian Army, to be entertained a little by Russian soldiers dancing on stage in knee-boots, that there were innocent women there whom were cruelly threatened with death.

9Others have told me that to continue to maintain, even after the experiences of the twentieth century, that in modern mass societies there exists such a thing as “completely innocent people” is to not see a fundamental change in the structure of responsibility, that in modern mass societies political responsibility is diffused, justly distributed among all, that among the audience at the Moscow musical were hundreds of men of draft age, each of whom, if he got his call-up papers, would fire on the people of Grozny without batting an eye, that the innocent women who, together with their husbands and brothers of draft age, took their seats in the audience of the Moscow theatre had voted for Putin precisely because he promised to fix the Chechens, that these ordinary, nice women said in their homes to their growing sons and daughters that “someone’s finally got to fix these Chechens,” just as ordinary, nice German women in the 1930s said to their children over breakfast that “someone’s finally got to fix these Jews,” that these nice ladies from Moscow, who would not hurt a fly, spoke in their homes about the Chechens in exactly the same way as ordinary innocent Russians spoke in their homes during the Polish Uprising of 1863 about “Polish bandits and rebels” that needed to be silenced once and for all, that this terrible blow against these innocent people, though deeply unjust and vile, was also somehow just, for it was precisely these innocent people who, when they cast their votes at the polling station, supported the razing of Grozny as part of a just “anti-terrorist operation,” which enjoyed the support of a large proportion of Russians, that it was precisely that sweet nursery school teacher from Tversk Street, that smiling blond girl in the light-colored dress, whom is loved by all the older kids from the Lady Bird class, who voted for Putin so that he could finally “fix Russia and the world.”

10And still others say to me that it is deeply unjust and against the spirit of European culture, and even crazy, to extend responsibility to everyone. They tell me that there are people in the world who are just and pure, whom cannot be accused of any wrongdoing, that it is absurd to load responsibility for the Auschwitz concentration camp and the crimes of the Holocaust on the back of that nice, friendly German lady who, in the 1930s, while making cheese sandwiches for breakfast, said to her young son, just by way of digression: “Hans, watch out for those Jews. Jews are dangerous. Someone should fix them once and for all,” and then when Hans grew up he set off for the Generalgouvernement.

11For what did she have to do with his killing Jews? And would she be justly punished for it? After all, what she was really concerned about — as I heard recently from a young man in Nuremberg with regard to his grandmother who voted for Hitler in 1933 — was maintaining order and building motorways. Yes, all she was concerned about was order, motorways, and that there should be fewer unemployed. Not even for a fraction of a second did she think of gas chambers. The very thought would have horrified her. In any case, Hitler never said anything about any gas chambers. If he had, she’d never have voted for him. And the Jews? He just wanted to prevent them from gaining total control over commerce. He never mentioned that he wanted to kill them. So did she commit a sin for which she should go to confession when she joined the NSDAP in 1934?

12And how are matters in my own Central Europe? What did that innocent gesture of voting mean in Poland, the GDR, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the Communist period? We, the just and the innocent, did indeed vote, because, after all — and was it not so? — we said to ourselves that we had been brutally forced to do so by a totalitarian system, that refusing to vote wouldn’t even change anything, we’d only be putting our families at risk; so we voted regularly, every four years, almost all of us? And what is one supposed to think of the ordinary, decent people who, during the anti-Semitic incidents of March 1968 and the militia’s suppression of the workers’ protests in the Polish city of Radom in June 1976, held up the banners that had been shoved into their hands with the slogans “Send the Zionists to Zion,” “Punish the Troublemakers from Radom,” and “The Whole Nation is with the Party” without thinking, for even a moment, about what was written on them, because the only thing they had on their minds was that they didn’t want to lose their jobs at the factory and that politics didn’t concern them at all anyway? Was that gesture — that indifferent raising of the banner, that brandishing of it, that waving of it above their heads — an act that indirectly gave permission to the militia to beat the protesting workers in Radom with rubber truncheons on what they called their “health-cure paths,” or was it a meaningless pantomime that the Communist system imposed on people, a pantomime that nobody (?), neither in Poland nor the rest of the world, took seriously? For, in truth, is it just to argue that someone who does not express open protest in the face of evil thus expresses indirect acceptance of it? And, indeed, scenes like these, with the participation of millions of people, took place thousands of times in the very center of Europe, wherever the Nazis, the Fascists, or the Communists took power.

13And who were those who, in that December of 1970, during the workers’ revolt in Gdańsk, gave the order to use the army to save people from the burning Party Committee Building, a building surrounded by a crowd of demonstrators who, according to several witnesses, were shouting “down with the red bourgeoisie!” and didn’t want to let the fire engines through? Were they totalitarian criminals with the blood of Polish workers on their hands, or were they the just officials of a state that had been deprived of its sovereignty, officials who were doing what anyone would have done in their place? Or was justice on the side of those who, in their desperation, set fire to the building — to the extent that it was, indeed, ordinary desperate people who set fire to it?

14In the heart of a writer living in the very center of Europe, mulling over what is most European in European culture, all these questions provoke a deep unease. So how can one mete out justice to the totalitarian evil that gave shape to half of Europe, since that evil was diffused over everyone, since it was based on the principle of the silent, indirect — and often unconscious — participation of all, with the exception of those who protested openly, that is those who ended up in gulags and prisons?

15For the due processes of democratic justice — of European justice that demands hard proof of concrete individual guilt — are helpless in the face of an evil that is diffused, collective, indirect, and anonymous. And why, indeed, should it then surprise us that, after the collapse of the totalitarian systems that required millions of people to build and sustain, we usually see, standing in an almost empty court room, five former secret-police officials against whom it’s difficult to prove even three criminal acts? And, in any case, gray-haired, bent, disabled, sick with cancer, tottering on unsteady legs, dropping with fatigue, they often manage to die before the trial is over. So isn’t it more just to simply forget about such bygone cases and rely on the verdict of God’s justice?

16And the matters of conscience and truth to your own convictions? Some tell us that it is just and proper, and thus most in keeping with the spirit of European culture, to respect all religions and faiths, that we should respect a religion even if it ordains the stoning of a woman for bearing an illegitimate child and that the stones with which the woman is to be put to death be the same size, no smaller and no larger, than the hand of a grown man so that the woman may take a long time to die and completely feel her just punishment, for such is God’s holy will.

17Others tell us that it is just, and even necessary, and thus most in keeping with the spirit of European culture, to condemn a religion that permits such things, that it is necessary to infringe the sovereignty of a state in which such things take place, that it is necessary to overthrow the religious court that issues such terrifying verdicts, that even, if there is no other way, it is necessary to bomb the cities of such a state, scatter its army and liquidate its government, in order to liberate people from the violence of such an infamous law, as was recently done in Afghanistan.

18Is it, therefore, just that authorities in Geneva, where I was told this story, immediately fired a public school teacher of Arab descent, who had written in one of the city newspapers that a Nigerian woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child should be stoned to death after she had finished breast-feeding her baby, because that was God’s will and there can be no further discussion about it? Did the authorities of the Swiss city behave justly, and thus in keeping with the spirit of European culture, when they argued that a man like that should have no contact with European children? In Germany itself there are already several million Muslims, one of whom may well be elected president in twenty years, or maybe less. By this time “dying Europe” will have changed beyond recognition as a result of demographic changes and immigration from the Third World.

19Some try to convince us that it is just and proper, and thus in keeping with the spirit of European culture, to suspend human rights in the battle against terrorism, and that all means are permissible in order to destroy this plague, that it is just to kidnap the citizens of foreign states suspected of terrorism and to shove them into iron cages at Guantanamo Bay without a trial and to hold them there as long as one wants, that it is just not to respect the decisions of the Hague Tribunal, because respecting them hinders effective anti-terrorist operations. And more: that it is just and acceptable, and even necessary, to send secret agents of the special services to foreign countries — to Denmark or Sweden, for example — just as the Czarist (and not just the Czarist) police did, to liquidate people suspected of terrorism as they walk down the street, that it is just and proper to shoot down airplanes with kidnapped people on board if they could be used by terrorists as flying bombs, that it’s necessary to shut the mouths of those who question the validity of brutal anti-terrorist acts and call for negotiations even with the worst of fanatics, and that it’s occasionally necessary to keep journalists away so that they can’t inform society of what’s going on.

20Others, however, try to convince us that all this is deeply unjust, striking a blow against the very essence of the European system of values, and suicidal, though it appears essential and deeply just, and that if we go further down this road, after a while we won’t know what we’re actually protecting, so much will we have changed.

21The world is genuinely mysterious — both splendid and terrible. And everything that we touch is out of focus like an image in a clouded photograph. We do not know why reality has this opaque structure, so that even the holy books on which the edifice of European culture has been raised do not give us a clear answer to the question: what does it mean to act justly in the face of concrete events?

22That is why, in difficult situations, we usually choose a simplified picture of the world, because only in a black-and-white reality are we able to make decisions and mete out justice. But maybe — as Shakespeare suspected — between the deed and a deeper knowledge of the world there lies a contradiction that cannot be healed. “Yes, yes” — “no, no” — we repeat to ourselves over and over. But the reality on which we strive to keep a tight grip with our resolute words and decisions scoffs at us, even if it gives in to our will; it’s a hundred times more complex than these two hard words promise it to be. Reality rarely says, “Yes, yes” — “No, no.” It has many more colors and shades. Rather it is a genuine forest of things, intertwined and dark, in which the distant light that we’re trying to get to shines only somewhere far ahead in the trees. But experienced people tell us that the traveler who sees and knows too much, just as the one who sees and knows too little, can miss the path and disappear.

23We — just as the great old European painters — can imagine only with difficulty what the Last Judgment will look like and what verdicts will be handed down there. Certainly the just will be separated from the unjust, as in Hans Memling’s famous painting with a crystal staircase on the left side and flames on the right. But we do not know how the Judge will pass judgment on the man who handed people over to the secret police to get money to save his daughter who was sick with cancer. How will He justly pass judgment on the president of a state who gives the just order to shoot down a passenger jet with children on board because it had been seized by terrorists over Washington, Hamburg, Stockholm, or Warsaw? How will He pass judgment on the Israeli policeman who, for good reason, tortures a terrorist suspect in order to drag out of him information about a planned attack, information that might save the lives of hundreds of innocent people? How will He pass judgment on the Palestinian fighter who lays bombs in the homes of innocent people, those same innocent people who peacefully cast their votes and thus deny the Palestinians the right to complete independence? How will He pass judgment on the mullahs who, certain that they are doing His holy will, condemn to stoning a woman who has dared to give birth to an illegitimate child? And how will He pass judgment on those who, with their own hands, stone that woman to death, convinced that they are doing justice because it is completely in accord with their own consciences and religious law? How, too, will He pass judgment on us if we do not try to save this woman, even if it’s just by sending one letter of protest in her defense, for over the great matters of this world we have but little influence, though maybe in this one small (?) matter we have at least some? And how will He pass judgment on all those who, long ago, burnt women at the stake, convinced that they were doing this justly for the good of those women, for the good of humanity, and of the Church?

24And Europe? Europe will stay Europe as long as she can ask all these questions. As long as she does not get rid of the moral unease from which these questions arise. This is her most profound heritage, even if — as the bloody history of our continent demonstrates — we ourselves, we Europeans, have many times cast this heritage aside contemptuously — “unnecessary complications” that hinder effective action, as it is sometimes said.

25The most European thing about us is that we are still able to ask such questions and that we still ask them. And that European literature can still ask them. Because there were, and are, unfortunately, civilizations on earth that are not able to ask such questions, and don’t even want to. What is European in us is a consciousness of the complexity of the affairs of the human world, a consciousness that protects us from a black-and-white view of things. A consciousness of the conflict between knowing and doing, ethics and politics, justice and pity, individual fate and collective responsibility, punishment and revenge, efficiency and truth. A difficult consciousness that we inherit from Shakespeare, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Mickiewicz, and the wise and ancient culture of the Greeks. For it is those “unnecessary complications” of thinking about what happens in the world and in human hearts that makes us European, though European — and not just European — mass culture does everything it can to make us forget those “complications.”

26In one of his poems the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes: “Nike is most beautiful at the moment/when she hesitates.” I would like to make it clear: the real Europe is for me the Europe that hesitates. And that, despite hesitations, can act effectively. The Europe that can, therefore, move through that difficult space between a consciousness of the world’s lack of transparency, which (we sometimes think) weakens us, and the necessity of unambiguous decisions, between doubt that is full of scruples and hard certainty that one is right, between critical self-irony and fervor. It is a moral space that many simply call the space of the European conscience.

It is in this that I see her true spirit.
May it never desert us.
And I will do all I can that this spirit remain the light that guides my writing.


Further Reading:
“Hanemann.” Extract. Translated by David Malcolm. 2B
Issue 14 (1999).

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 293k


Born in Gdańsk in 1949, the literary scholar and author Stefan Chwin became known to the public as chronicler of German-Polish history with the publication in German of his novel Tod in Danzig in 1997. In Poland the novel was selected as Novel of the Year in 1995, while in Germany Chwin was awarded the Andreas Gryphius Prize of the Esslingen Artists’ Guild. In January 2002, a theatre version of his novel premiered at the Gdansk Theatre. Stefan Chwin has published (under pseudonyms) fantasy adventure novels embellished with his own illustrations, as well as critical and historical studies of literature and several volumes of essays. In 2000 a second novel Die Gouvernante (Esther, 1999) appeared in Germany. The author lives in Gdańsk, where he teaches at the university.

David Malcolm (Traducteur)

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