Narratives for Europe: Voices - Historical Taboos

Writers Ece Temelkuran, Neel Mukherjee, David van Reybrouck, Rodaan Al Galidi, artists Bogomir Doringer, Ruud Gielens, Laila Soliman, change agent Kirsten van den Hul, journalist/ editor Claude Grunitzky share their visions and thoughts on four timely topics at the heart of European public debate and media.

Our first topic is Historical Taboos:

There are a number of key moments in history that have not been fully or properly digested by our societies. These national and European points-of-pain – or taboos – are part of us, and influence our social and political reflections and actions. By not confronting our own histories and responsibilities, we risk falsifying our current relationships.

Some of these taboos are: the long term impact of our colonial pasts (and how it still influences how certain EU countries deal with certain non-EU countries), the Palestine conflict and Europe, the roles of Western EU countries during the Balkan war, the place of Roma and Sinti in our societies, the relationship between countries in the north with those in the south...

Rodaan Al Galidi

What's your national taboo?

In the Netherlands, people believe more in their system than the words of others. Between 19 February 1998 and the end of 2007, I underwent an asylum procedure. Nine years. As long as WWI and WWII combined. It’s strange that no one believes that I’ve been through a nine year asylum procedure. When I tell people they cannot believe that their system has something like that on their conscience. So they think I am not telling the truth. I asked the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for proof that I spent all those years in a procedure, but their reaction was to get angry. You cannot ask for such things yourself. So I received no proof from the system that I was a victim of their system. And without this proof, people do not believe me. It’s as if the system was there first and then the people, and not the other way around. One time I spoke with a diplomat at the Dutch embassy in another country. I had just won the European Union Prize for Literature. I told him about my nine years in asylum centres. But that’s absolutely impossible, he said. The truth can only be told and believed through the mouth of the system.

Once in the asylum centre De Harne in Harlingen, a man became a father. The new-born was just a few days old when the man was sent back to Germany because they discovered he had asked for asylum there as well. His wife and daughter had to stay. He had to leave his baby behind. We asked for help from people who lived near the asylum centre but they did not believe that this was possible. We said they could see the baby for themselves but they did not want that. I did not understand this response, unfortunately. Perhaps I never will.

How can this taboo be ovecome?

I think to get beyond all this, there must be more space given to other media – non-system media. The system’s victims who think they are victims must have a place where they can tell their story. In 1999, an Iraqi refugee in an asylum centre tried to commit suicide after waiting for a long time in his room. Police arrested him and put him in a cell because this was not allowed. We called the local television and radio stations to go see him because we believed he would be much better off in a psychiatric hospital. But they weren’t allowed in with their cameras and microphones.

What would change?

What would happen is as follows: the human side of the system will get the chance to grow. When I was living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the system was hard. You always had to be careful. Reading books was very dangerous since if you read there was the possibility you would think – and thereby you would perhaps think about being against the system. To protect myself I read books in secret and changed the covers of any banned books. For example, a book by Jean-Paul Sartre would get the cover from a book about Saddam Hussein’s life. It was all very clear: the system could bite – and sometimes even eat you up.

Here there is a democratic system. This system protects you until you make a mistake. Then they punish you. The idea behind punishment is to protect you and others from your mistake. If you are drunk and drive a car, you will be punished because you are not protecting yourself or others. This is all well and good. That’s why you blow into a gadget so the police can tell if you drank or not. The police don’t believe your words but only believe this gadget. Therefore, you only have to fear the police and the police only have to not believe you. That’s how the system works. It doesn’t have a human side – a gadget has to stand in between. This is all clear and justifiable.

But how about situations when there are no gadgets in between? During the nine years I spent in asylum centres, I spoke Dutch, English and Arabic. Once when an Iraqi was arrested for attempting suicide, the police politely asked if there was anyone who could translate since the man could only speak Arabic. I volunteered and was taken in a police car from the asylum centre AZC De Harne in Harlingen to the police station in Leeuwarden where he was imprisoned. There he was in a waiting room with his arms tied back. I sat down beside him, and the policeman who had brought me returned to his station in Harlingen. I waited not knowing for who I would translate or when. Much later, two agents walked in and one pointed at me and said, ‘Why is that one not in cuffs’? I wanted to say that I was only here to translate but the agent put his finger to his lips and shhh-ed me.  I tried again to make clear why I was there, but he just shhh’ed harder and threatened me with a finger in my face. My hands were tied back with a plastic thing. I did not dare, and nor was I allowed, to open my mouth. It was evening by now. We were both taken to a cell and that’s where I stayed the night.

The next day, I said I was a translator and wished to make an official complaint about my night in jail and the inhumane way I was treated. The man behind the counter said, ‘Don’t exaggerate. You will get a train ticket from us to go back to Harlingen.’ When I said that I did not want this, he said I would be returned to the cell. So an hour later I was on the train. Even the social division of the asylum centre did not believe my story.

Imagine if there was a human side to the system, then I would have been allowed to say that I was there voluntarily and did not deserve to spend a night in a cell. At the very least, they would have listened.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned? 

The biggest learning moment for Europe was the Second World War. This war was the result of the largest possible changes in Europe. Before, humans were the centre of the universe and not of their lives. The economy began destroying the humanity of humans and turning them into numbers. The crowd became a herd. A herd of millions. Once that happened, the Europeans were ready for any kind of herder. Whether such a herder was communist, capitalist, socialist or nationalist did not matter. Whoever had the herd could then decide who would be slaughtered and who would be allowed to graze. This was followed by the craziest years in the history of humanity. There had never been a worse fire and with so many victims: 60 million. The Europeans are not stupid – or honest – enough to say it was ‘their’ war. No, they called it the Second ‘World’ War. Meanwhile my grandparents knew nothing of this war since they had no radio or TV. They were absolutely no part of this war and yet it was also called their war. Because Europeans are the world.

The most important thing that the Europeans learned from this was that no opportunities should be given for a man to grow into an ‘idol’. They have learned this well. Since the Second World War, we have not seen a Mussolini or a Hitler. And definitely no Stalin. That’s the lesson that Europe has learned best. Because in the last years, there were many men who would have grown into many Hitlers and very many Mussolinis if the same ground was as fertile as it was between 1936 and 1939.

Kinan Azmeh

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

I am not someone who believes in taboos in the first place, and I feel that it is my duty as an artist to challenge those whenever possible and expose them to the public as much as possible. Also I am not sure there should be a one national taboo for any culture. However, I do acknowledge that many taboos in the Arab world are religious ones or culturally associated with religious practices or understandings.  On the other hand, the most striking European taboo that I see – which is not only European but also American – is the whole discussion that comes together when discussing Israel's present and past. Even though it is a topic that has been discussed over and over among scholars, I do feel from many European friends a hesitation in discussing this in public and criticising Israel policies.

How can this taboo be overcome?

Taboos can be overcome as simply as any other thorny subject: by extensive discussions about the subject matter and about what makes it a taboo in some cultures and not one by others. Also by making a clear distinction between one's culture/associations/past and his/her thoughts as a free human being. Being a German, for example, should never stop an individual from publicly criticising Israel if she/he likes. This should come from a common belief that the freedom of thought should be sacred and protected from all sorts of censorships.  After all, taboos are mostly self-imposed, and act as one of the most terribly efficient forms of censorships.

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

I was once attending a "german cultural hour" presented by few german students from Columbia university. The "cultural" hour began by: As you know, we are not very proud of our past. My initial reaction was an absolute shock, are you not proud of Goethe and Beethoven? is it becoming a taboo for the germans to talk about their past without mentioning the disastrous WWII? I do believe that a healthy society is one able to acknowledge and learn lessons from its mistakes and past while building, improving, and feeling proud of its past achievements. 

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

WWII might be Europe's biggest learning moment, I am not talking about the war itself , but rather about the years that led to the war and what happened afterwards. From an outsider perspective, seeing the football "national" teams of Holland and Germany speaks volume of what Europe have learned and continues to learn. 

Lina Ben Mhenni

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

For more than 35 years, my country Tunisia, along with other North African countries, had belonged to the French colonial empire. A long period during which Tunisians suffered too much as they were slaves within their own territories. After bloody battles and continuous sacrifices, colonialists left our country. Nevertheless they left their traces. One of the most important of these is French language, which today constitutes a real taboo for Tunisians. Indeed, under the French protectorate, this language was imposed through institutions, and especially through education, which proved a strong factor for its dissemination.

Despite the attachment of Tunisians to the Arabic language, the newly independent Tunisia chose to maintain bilingualism while moving towards a gradual Arabisation. This choice has the consequence of an unprecedented increase in the number of French speakers as the teaching of French starts from the third year of primary school and as it is the language of science and education and technology in secondary and higher schools. Regardless the different Arabisation attempts, French remained an important linguistic tool in Tunisia.

The linguistic feeling engenders infinite controversies: the linguistic factor is very controversial as the question of the French language is a main source of many identity conflicts. These linguistic conflicts increase or decrease depending on the Franco-Tunisian or the Franco-Arab relationships. For example after 14 January 2011, Tunisians discovered how the French government was an accomplice to the dictatorship. This resulted in hatred and a rejection of all what is French and coming from France, including the language. We can notice this by observing the discussions and debates on the social networks. Indeed, all languages used to be tolerated and used equally on the social networks, which is no longer the case. Whenever someone expresses themselves in French dozens of people leave comments urging them to use our mother tongue:  Arabic, the language of the Quran. Otherwise they are accused of treason.

The use of French language presents one of the biggest European taboos in Tunisia. For some people, this language presents a heartbreaking heritage, as it is the language of the colonisers, who occupied our lands and killed a large number of our ancestors. After independence, this language was imposed as a second language and as the language of sciences and technology, thus engendering an identity conflict among Tunisians. When it comes to this language, the many debates usually turn into arguments – especially on social networks.

For conservative people, the use of French is a betrayal of their homeland, national identity and religion. The debate is often interpreted as Muslims versus Christians (or Jews) – as Arabic is the language of Quran. To be honest it is not easy to overcome this taboo, as it has been going on for a long time.

Personally I think that learning and using French and other foreign languages is very important and crucial to Tunisians. This is related to many factors. The history of Tunisia is one that is known for its openness and tolerance. Our strategic geographical location, in central Mediterranean allows important trade exchanges between North Africa and Europe. Tunisia has been removing barriers to trade with the EU and I think that language is one of these barriers. Moreover tourism is one of the pillars of our economy, and is experiencing hard times due to security fears since 14 January 2011 when the Tunisian dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was ousted. It’s a sector that should recover as soon as possible. Knowing foreign languages is very important for Tunisians working in this sector and in the services sector in general. 

How can this taboo be overcome?

Overcoming this taboo should be done through making the people aware of the importance of this language. This should be done through introducing courses in the curriculum to explain the importance of foreign languages and to make the distinction between remote history and the present situation. Language is a tool that we should exploit efficiently to convey our messages. It is true that Arabic is our mother tongue and we love it very much. But learning a foreign language is so important in today’s context of trying to make solid steps in this globalised world. 

Bogomir Doringer

Introduction + family issues

All families have their own little taboos. In my childhood there had been a few challenging taboos which were the cause of serious stressful moments, and which I have systematically been fighting throughout all my childhood. The mission was to destroy them!

For example, it wasn’t allowed to play late at night, it wasn’t allowed to speak about family issues and problems with non-family members. Then, it wasn’t allowed to score at school less then 5 or 4 (A or B), to talk about family income, or about whom we voted for at the last elections, we couldn’t even mention if we were members of any political party. There was prohibition regarding information flow relating to the “life of luxury”, which my mother introduced to me: sometimes she was buying sport shoes for me that were too expensive in my father’s opinion, and I could wear them only when he wasn’t around. Many times I was carrying them in my school bag, and changing shoes at school. My mother was taking me to the restaurant, theatre or to the cinema with the idea of introducing me to art and culture, but also give me the feeling of a normal life in the middle of the war that was going on. It all had to be hidden from my father, who considered all that expenditure just one more unnecessary nonsense, and was rushing to prepare me for some low level education so that I could find any kind of job, move away and become independent. On the other hand, my father didn’t allow anyone to mention his daily consumption of 5 liters of white wine, 5 liters of mineral water and 10 liters liquid of spritzer, all on days when mother worked night shift, he also wouldn’t allow any mentions on the fact that he was aggressive in his intoxicated condition. He was actually deeply sad: his relation with his father was restricted with general and particular taboos.

However, I was staying up later in the evening, misreading time as an excuse, saying I mixed up 19:00 with 9 pm, because 9 was present in both cases. Nowadays I am still doing the same, minimizing time with the idea that in such a manner I earn a few hours (and I do). However, one day I urged my mother to divorce my father because he is an alcoholic, which made our life unbearable. I was fourteen years old, what means that it took me some time to size the problem and to offer a solution. School marks were good, and if not, I didn’t come home. Once, I packed my stuff and ran away from home because I had a few bad marks at school. Still, willing to improve my situation, I went to school next day where my mother arrived in a hysterical state to pick me up. She brought me home and told me that from now on my father would take care of me, that she was giving up. This was precisely what I did not want to happen. He arrived home right when electricity was temporarily off- due to governmental restrictions. I was punished under candlelight, what gave a somehow romantic impression to the whole situation but also motivated me to just continue.

Yugoslavia (Taboo- revenge, spite)

I was born in Yugoslavia in 1983. I’ve heard about Serbia on television when the war started in 1991, then when I took part at student demonstrations in 1996, I understood that I belong by birth to the Serbian nation.

I couldn’t resist taking part in massive gatherings, which gave a hint to my later inclination to clubbing and control refrain. In order to be able to follow demonstrations, I summoned my parents to pay for my acting classes, which happened to be located in the centre of the city, close to the demonstrations area.

I couldn’t really understand real dimensions of the war, my life was protected, comparing to the people who were getting through the horrors of the Bosnian war zone. Nobody came to my door with intention to kill me, except the foggy-gray atmosphere. But all destructive energy was very difficult to handle on mental and emotional level. Today I realize that I had to take some mature decisions at a young age and experience a life that many adults in Western Europe had not seen within this same time period. My best friends in Western Europe are all above forty. During the war I was listening to the talks of elders sometimes, but my understanding of the war was limited, and colored with ideas from different local but also foreign media. The fact that my family told me that horrors on TV anyway are not real helped even more the situation that I didn’t take war as some TV directors wanted me to. The main thing that I remember is that I was missing holydays in Croatia and my childhood friend Maria from Makarska. The war was the reason I first met my cousin Vanja who grew up in Slovenia, at the age of 24. Vanja comes from mixed marriage family and they left Yugoslavia during the war, moving to Australia.

Several years ago, during my art studies in Amsterdam, I was as always discussing issues related to war with my friend who left Yugoslavia at the beginning of the conflict. She belongs to the “lost generation” - people who were around 20 years old when the war started, young people who left Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 90’s to spend some years looking for their options and identity in different Western countries. Some of those people never wanted to leave Yugoslavia; they were forced to leave because of the war. Others wanted to leave Yugoslavia anyway, for the purpose of studies or change, but war messed up with their basic needs and security, and left them to fight a much harder battle than what they had planned. Some of them suffer from nostalgia, which is nostalgia of especially difficult feature, because the object of nostalgia totally transformed in time.

Once in Amsterdam in attempt to produce spontaneous mood, in a city that at least today does not have it, my friend mentioned that might be that all in Yugoslavia happened because of Yugoslavian infamous “spite”. (In Yugoslavia people do things out of “spite”, just to harm their own interest, an unusual and difficult to understand model of behavior.) Today I understand that the war in Yugoslavia is result of delayed revenge and luck of communication during the “marriage” (between different nations). Compared to my parents’ marriage, where communication didn’t save marriage but offered an overview of the situation and positioning. “Revenge” in Yugoslavia was a taboo. There wasn’t communication about Serbian anguish towards Croatian concentration camps and NDH during the WWII. Serbians couldn’t digest number of Christians, Serbians & Croatians, who changed religion during the Ottoman Empire rule. Croatians couldn’t digest Serbian Orthodox religious orientation, and considered them “wild”, actually envying their better position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the same time Croatians liked Serbian temper, mixed marriages, folk music but couldn’t digest parents of their partners and so on.

After Tito died in 1980, soon the foreign elements appeared, financing those who in Tito’s time were nothing and nobody, isolated and closed because of their nationalistic and primitive hate-speech. All of a sudden they received political positions, prestige and financial support, they woke up dreamy churches and established previously devastated nationalism, which with new vigor dug out old animosities and confrontations.

As an artist I could see Yugoslavia after WWII as one conceptual work.

In contrary to conceptual work Yugoslavia is interesting for watching and experiencing, not only for reading, but is it anyway time and place based installation that could exist only while conceptual artist was present and alive to maintain his installation. The conceptual artist - “friend” Mr. TITO.

Western Europe-Eastern Europe and my last name

The only thing that my great-grandfather left me is my family name. That family name has its own plus and minus points. For example, to foreign ears, it’s easy to remember: “door ringer”. In Serbia it differs from most of the family names and makes me feel a little bit like a guest in the country where I was born. Sometimes it makes people skeptical towards me, it can help in social life (I feel at home in Vienna) as it can ruin opportunities. I always felt as a citizen of Europe, listening to stories of how I resemble some relatives from Austria, people whom I never met in my life.

Recently passed Dragan Klaic, internationally renowned world traveler and intellectual, taught me something important on one occasion. We first met when I just arrived to Amsterdam, at one of the dinners he used to organize occasionally, getting together interesting people from the arts and cultural sectors. He felt that his duty was to share life experience and knowledge with young people, the same way others shared with him in the past.  

I listened carefully to the conversation occasionally related to Belgrade, until he asked me why I left Belgrade. I answered right away with honesty: “I left to be able to still love Belgrade”. Then I mentioned something that was bothering me a lot at that time: I was treated as an immigrant at university, which was extremely annoying because I was a student. The reason why I came to Holland was to study. I felt that the Dutch system was forcing me to marginalize myself, without offering me any other option at that time, and that the only way to leave Serbia with dignity was if I was well off. Dragan Klaic was listening to my story and replied: “You are not an immigrant, you are an émigré. You should call yourself émigré, not immigrant.” I left to be able to love my country of origin, and to be able to better understand who I am; I left before it was over. Before all beautiful feelings transform into hate and become fabrications.

From the moment when I left Yugoslavia I noticed that Western Europe was treating Eastern Europe as a sort of TV show, seeing it very Euro-negative. By analyzing Eastern Europe, Western Europe sees itself as good, perfect, rich, right, politically correct, and modern with a rich history. Europe is prizing itself for knowing in advance that communism was bad. Western Europe thinks that Eastern Europe is not Europe, and Eastern Europe, in spite worshiping Western Europe, things that real life comes through suffering, and that despite Western Europe being shallow and sterile, good standard of living is still there, so everything is “ok”. Western Europe likes to visit Eastern Europe with nostalgia, and Eastern Europe pays visits to Western Europe to buy a few newest fashion details. Eastern Europe is good for documentaries: everybody cries, but they are eloquent and well read, real ideal tragic personalities. Western Europe prizes itself regarding the war in ex-Yugoslavia, claiming that it is rare boon that once again in the history it treated war in such a wise way, dividing participants into criminals, victims and confused people. Western Europe is proud to have treated war as a film set, where arms, drugs, children, organs were sold. First, it was only watching, and then “helping”. Western Europe is silent when mafia bosses become political leaders, as long as those mafia bosses are working for their sake. Or silent when election budget is questioned in any of the transition countries in Eastern Europe. Western Europe says that Yugoslavia was a beautiful country and it issooo sad that nowadays people have to sell their kidneys for peanuts. Europe is prizing herself for bombing Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and is glad to be able to use horrible contemporary weapons as DU (Depleted uranium). Western Europe doesn’t speak about it, but it is clear that she treats Eastern Europe as a garbage bin for it’s own waste. Western Europe likes how Eastern Europe is kissing and hugging, Eastern Europe is giving love and emotions to Western Europe that the she didn’t have in childhood, Eastern Europe gives understanding, spontaneous adventure, good entertainment and support. Western Europe goes to Eastern Europe to make porn movies and while selling the same porn in their legal sex shops, claims that all Eastern Europeans are whores. Both Euros go to each other to do what they can’t do at home. Gay people from Eastern Europe find Western Europe a better place, and want to have the same freedom as Western European gays. Western Europe likes cheaper holidays on the Adriatic coast and swims in the same see in spite of all DU that flows in the water, that Western Europe produced, or any other IDOL country such as USA and Russia. While Eastern Europe is making pictures on Croatian beaches, enjoys opportunity to be alone on the beach before Croatia enters the EU, and becomes one extra super market where everything is the same as everywhere else, plastic vegetables and pretentious prices, as in the countries where one of EU languages is spoken.

Western Europe likes to bully others. She is aged “chick” with adolescent ego, and needs to prove her power illegally. It is never discussed because of her haughty background. What is NATO bombing then but macho bullying? Except good opportunity to spend arms and munitions and keep the weapon industry alive, it is meant destruction of the physical identity of one country that previously had “good looks”. After NATO bombing in Ex-Yugoslavia the difference between Western Europe and bombed countries is only that West is shooting from long distance, not looking into eyes, doing it as trough the bed sheet and pretending that it never happened. Then when tourists from West visit Belgrade or other bombed places, they want to make photos of bombed building rather than just walk around landscapes around the city.

Speaking about bombing and change of people’s identity.

Once upon a time, when as teenager I was waiting for public transport at Slavia (public square in Belgrade where there used to be a cinema and a solar clock), I was sized by a monkey-man because of my extravagant looks and red scarf, and he bitted my friends and me. My appearance during the next few days was scattered and transformed. Looking at myself in the mirror I was shocked, which I automatically used for introspection and started to question my identity, my statements, my thoughts, my values, even my personality and my attitude towards the others was questioned. It created fear and fear created anger and hate. The same as Western Europe is shooting bombs by plane joysticks leaving long scars of destruction that even today are confusing identities of many who live in that region, some of them feel like taking a “revenge”.

Then, to confused inhabitants of ex –Yugoslavia, Western Europe is offering help and hope, shaped as a game with their own rules.

Western Europe is Performer, likes to show on the stage when the curtains are shut and directing done. It always plays on modesty, hiding involvement in production of the event. She makes good pics of herself, and although she didn’t improve much, sells her old image as some pop star from the 80’s. She doesn’t like USA in her street talks and between their own kind, but Europe and USA have great relation behind closed doors.

They like to share a meal in the lunch break between chastising and naming others, teaching them how to create a humanitarian society.

Chrissie Faniadis

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

I have always been fascinated by national taboos, those things people do not talk about. Personally I don’t think taboos are static or permanent, I think that they eventually come up to the surface, to the forefront of the social debate. It is by facing and eliminating taboos that society moves forward. But it is not an easy or given process. Sometimes taboos represent a shameful or guilt-ridden past, and we find ourselves collectively trying to suppress it, and maybe compensate for it.

As a second generation immigrant I have always been curious about ethnic Swedish people’s perception of themselves and their history. Sweden has been incredibly successful in building up a society that prides itself on its openness, transparency and tolerance. Sweden is well regarded internationally as a beacon of pluralism and diversity, a champion of democracy and “correct” human values. In many respects this is an accurate picture and reflects many aspects of Swedish society. However, it is also an image built on the reluctance to closely examine Swedish history. There are moments in the not so distant past that very few, if any, Swedes talk about, and many younger Swedes don’t even know about. Having to face up to its Nazi sympathies during World War II is something that brings shame and embarrassment to “neutral” Sweden. It is something that people have tried to both ignore and compensate for. I have witnessed first-hand the awkwardness that such a topic brings, and when new facts of Sweden’s dealings during the War have been revealed, people tend to excuse it or dismiss it as something that is unrelated to the Sweden of today.

The unprecedented advancement of the right-wing extremist party, the Sweden Democrats, in the 2010 election shocked the nation. People took to the streets in protest, mourning the loss of the Swedish society so many thought they were living in. It was a serious blow to the self-image of many Swedes, and took a long time to process. I’m still not sure people have faced up to the fact that there are anti-democratic, racist movements in Sweden, and that there is a history of such movements that go way back. This is a taboo that is still too heavy, too raw to properly comprehend. So we push it under the carpet, hoping any reminders of it will just….go away.

How can this taboo be overcome?

I believe that taboos are closely related to the collective psyche. National taboos are created when our collective behaviour somehow doesn’t fit with our self-perception or our self-image, and we just don’t know how to deal with it. And sometimes we just don’twant to deal with it. However, I am convinced that the only way of overcoming taboos is to face them, head on. They won’t go away. They will always be there, beneath the surface, popping up every so often to remind us of our unfinished business. This is how it works on an individual level as well. National taboos are our collective baggage. But how is society supposed to move forward if we ignore vital issues that prevent us from doing so? All we do is build a society on a foundation of lies and half-truths, and run the risk of repeating that behaviour. We taint our relationships both within our own society and with others.

I believe it is not up to the new generations to take the blame of what has been done before them. But it is up to the new generations to take responsibility for how we handle those issues that weigh us down. In the particular case of Sweden and the national taboo of its Nazi sympathies I believe there needs to be a discourse, an open and active debate. There needs to be a will to face the past, to air the dirty laundry and properly examine the role this country played during what is still the darkest era of our continent. We need better history education in schools. We need research. We need access to archives and documentation. We need media attention and civic engagement. Most of all, we need to burst the bubble of self-importance and, in essence, self-delusion that so many Swedes are slaves to, because it is not doing us any good. While we stick our heads in the sand, there are those who are gaining ground and who build up their strength on the very taboo that we refuse to face. Taboos are like ghosts, they thrive on denial and fear. We have to face them, and then release them.

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

One would hope that confronting a taboo is kind of like confronting a ghost: you acknowledge its presence and then you release it. Unlike a ghost, however, a taboo can be a little harder to shake, so it may have to be confronted and released several times over. This requires two things: a willingness to be self-critical and honest about the issue, and a willingness to continuously examine it. Given the tendency for the collective memory to be of goldfish length, and the fact that Swedes generally feel that they have dealt with this issue once and for all, by commissioning an investigation into the Nazi gold dealings a few years ago, I think it would be a utopian scenario to imagine Sweden without this taboo. Quite a few ugly truths came to surface in light of the investigation, truths that were very painful for many Swedes, who would have loved to think that Sweden was completely neutral during the War, or at least, if it sided with anyone it would be the winners. However, the focus of the commission was mainly on what had been done, concretely, in terms of participating in the Nazi quest for Arian perfection. There was not much of in-depth soul-searching on an ideological basis, there was no real confrontation of the belief system. I believe this is at the heart of the matter, and the reason why this taboo is so hard to shake.

Nevertheless, it does not prevent us from hoping for and imagining the impact overcoming this taboo would have. First of all, Sweden might feel a closer affiliation with Europe as a continent. We are peripheral, not only geographically, but also in our mindset towards our European neighbours. I think it would give us a greater understanding of the plight of others, not that Sweden is insensitive to it, but there are rarely any “personal” experiences. We tend to think of Europe as “the others, over there”.

I think another important impact would be a more honest society. Facing up to one’s flaws or past mistakes makes us more honest about ourselves, and, I hope, better prepared and more aware of previous evils showing up again. Even though today we see a tendency towards those past evils gaining ground once more, I think we still have a chance of reminding ourselves of what we have let go, and who we want to be today, as a society.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

The wonderful thing about Europe is that it has learning moments all the time! Unfortunately though, I am not sure that we take advantage of them as much as we could, or should. It is hard to find a bigger moment than World War II, and some real effort was made to learn from that, what with the planting of the EU seed and its subsequent development. But we didn’t learn from the conflict as much as we should have, hence the conflict(s) in former Yugoslavia, the persecution of certain minorities and the emerging pockets of extremism. So one might wonder, perhaps cynically, if we did learn at all? Perhaps we learnt but forgot to pass it on?

The most recent opportunity to learn I believe is the financial crisis and the consequences of an unregulated, capitalist system and what happens when financial markets run amok. I believe this is a huge lesson, but I wonder if we’ve done enough to prevent it from happening again?

As I was thinking about this question, I felt that throughout my trip down Europe’s memory lane, there is a little red thread that keeps appearing: the dangers of not listening to the people. Europe constantly struggles with its democratic deficit. We have core European values that we have all, through our elected officials, agreed to uphold. But the question is, to what extentdo we safe-guard these values? Are we treating them too lightly? In a recent poll Swedish youngsters preferred a non-democratic system, so that they wouldn’t have to get too involved. This is highly troubling! It means that there is a disconnection between society and government, people don’t feel represented or listened to (Greece and Spain are timely examples!). And if there is anything Europe should have learnt by now is that if you don’t have your ear to the ground and listen to people, there is always a price to pay. I just wonder: can we afford to pay it?

Ruud Gielens

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

The role of European politics and how to deal with their ‘neighbours’ has for sure often been one of cowardice and questionable decisions.

For decades Europe’s politicians have been supporting brutal dictatorships around their borders, going from the states who formerly belonged to the Soviet Union, over the Middle East, to the whole of North Africa.
It is European policy to engage in arms deals with these dictators, and tolerating them although they are only interested in the well-being of an economical elite and their most inner circle.

Our leaders have put money in these dictators for whatever reasons they thought were beneficial to them personally, economically or strategically.
And thus excluding any notion of equal cultural, social or economical exchange with the citizens of these countries.

A little more then 18 months ago, we witnessed what we called the ‘Arab Spring’,
a spring that has turned into a dark and very cold winter by now.

How much these revolutions were directed against their brutal dictators, against a system of oppression and for equal justice, they were also directed at us, for our negligence, for the fact that we chose to deal with these leaders instead of actively trying to negotiate with the people’s movements.

The revolutions in the Arab world and their violent aftermath have made it for the first time very obvious and clear what fierce monsters, we western countries have created.
Militaries that are far greater, bigger and definitely more violent than our own.

A military apparatus that has had decades of time to develop, and is not willing to give up its consolidated powers.

An army that doesn’t draw back from attacking it’s own people, engaging in brutal, merciless military campaigns that have left no one uninvolved.
Their sole objective: destabilizing the country to that extent that the people depend on your ‘force’.

One can undoubtedly say that my army -the Belgian one- is still of any importance.

Compared to the one of a country like Lybia, our army is quite frankly a joke.
Until the fall of Ghafadi the Lybian Army had roughly the same size as the Belgian one,
although it has only half of the inhabitants.

But having a laughable military doesn’t mean, that we don’t produce arms. 

One of our national prides, is an arms factory called “FN Herstal”, it is owned for one hundred percent by the regional Walloon government, and controversially exported a variety of small arms to the Lybian "Khamis" Brigade in 2009, meant to protect humanitarian convoys to Sudan.
After Gaddafi's fall, the weapons fell into the hands of rebel fighters and civilians.

Belgium is the only country in the European Union where the power of granting export licences for arms rests with regional authorities and not in federal hands, putting the door open for all sorts of conflicts of interests.

When the uprisings spread through the Middle East and people across the world saw the images of unarmed citizens fighting security forces in the streets of Arab cities, a great number of European governments were forced to begin accounting for the weapons they had sold for decades to the very rulers they now found themselves abolishing.

We all remember the pictures of protesters holding up tear gas canisters stamped "Made in USA", showing the everlasting US support for autocratic Arab regimes.

But the United States were certainly not their sole-provider, Egyptian riot police fired shotguns made in Italy. Bulgaria has led weapons sales to Yemen, and let’s not even mention the amount of weapons supplied by Russia to the Syrian army, let’s stay focussed on European ‘democratic’ nations.

In the five years prior to the Arab Spring, at least 20 governments - including Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Serbia, Switzerland and Belgium, sold weapons worth more than 2.4 billion dollars to the five countries that have faced - and violently combated - popular uprisings: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

After security forces turned on protesters with deadly force, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, suspended arms sales for an unknown time, suspending not ending.

Detailed data on arms sales is unreliable, since national reports may differ from those provided by the European Union and the United Nations, and regulations change year to year, but a rough estimate tells us that Italy sold $554 million in arms, mostly to Libya, followed by $145 million from Germany and $111 million from Serbia. 

Even the ever so peaceful Finland, is specialized in selling high profile sniper rifles to the regimes of Bahrain and Egypt.

As protests continue in Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, the weapons supplied in the past years will for sure be used again, and regimes will see their supplies met, despite campaigns by activists and politicians to force their halt.

The countless attacks on civilians in all sorts and forms, in Syria, Yemen, Egypt; visible and invisible for they eye of the camera have made it very clear that there is not much hope under these fierce military rules, even if some of them still claim to be transitional.

In Egypt, since the beginning of the revolution, the estimate of the people killed by army bullets are already well over 1000, close to 9000 injured, and an estimated 13000 in military trial.
This makes it more than clear that this regime has other ambitions and sees no point in making the necessary changes upon the road to a more social, just and less corrupt society.

In Syria we hear about massacres every week now, activists estimate the death toll at more then 20.000 at this point, but off course no one can tell for sure.

The impunity, with which these military regimes have abused their powers, makes it all to clear that the international community, is still supporting to this day these old regimes.

The head has gone but the body is still there and recovering very fast.

Some of those close to me have experienced first hand in recent months the wrath of the old regime to the revolutionaries, they were brutally tortured and sent to military courts where they were sentenced on false accusations.

These are the excesses that our leaders did not think of when supporting the dictators, unfortunately and therefore we are now in this mess…

Why doesn’t the European Union take the lead in a global Arms Trade Treaty, pushing for more stringent national controls.

When we deliver arms we need to know how and why these arms will be implemented, the particular unit in the security forces, and really examine the capacity and sanity of that end user to use those weapons lawfully.

But as long as billions of dollars in profit remain available, many countries seem eager to put memories of the Arab Spring behind them, the European government doesn’t want these regimes to “lose control" and remain focussed on the fulfilling of earlier reached and to them beneficial agreements.

How can this taboo be overcome?

In these countries a generation has stood up, who has had enough of these practices and wants to negotiate with us on an equal level, humane and as a peer, not more or less but certainly not repressed.

A generation that has been fighting an uneven battle now for 18 months, and are getting very tired, a generation that needs encouragement and some sort of reconciliation.

It is therefore also up to us, to take a decision on how the future of these countries will look like, they don’t need our support to create a political system, they are intelligent and strong enough to do that themselves.

We don’t have to impose our virtues and forms of government.

But we can help by choosing the side of the movement and the people, by condemning the military rules, and by putting an unprecedented pressure on our politicians to cut of these arms-deals that have led to armies so powerful and strong that it’s influence stretches far beyond its ‘normal’ rule.

This is our task, they will do theirs.

Claude Grunitzky

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

I was born in Togo, a small nation-state in the Gulf of Guinea. When I was growing up in capital-city Lomé in the 1970s, I remember the post-Colonial optimism of the civil servants who (my father included) were hoping to march into the twentieth century armed with the renewed confidence that comes with post-struggle emancipation, economic growth and social benefits. Togo, like most French colonies, had gained independence from the French in 1960, and the talk was always about building proper institutions on an ambitious pan-African model. True, the French colonial legacy would remain for some time, but I remember hearing, as a child, thoughtfully crafted - and vividly explained - visions of prosperous, democratic African societies where stability would come with the emergence of a powerful - and well looked-after - middle class.
The opposite happened, and sadly I witnessed the change from afar. I had moved, as a 12 year-old, to France, where my father enrolled me in a Catholic boarding school. I don't remember them ever saying it, but I knew that my parents were secretly hoping that I would return to Togo after my European studies, and help to build the young nation. Instead, I became a naturalized French citizen, and chose to start a European career in publishing. Instead of moving back to Lomé, I moved between London, Paris and eventually New York. My parents actually ended up blessing my decision because by the mid-1990s, they had become disillusioned with the state of Togolese affairs.
Many in the new Togolese establishment had profited from "the system" (as my parents used to call it) by colluding with and manipulating the military rulers who'd remained in power by assassinating the most prominent members of the opposition and stealing most of the proceeds that came with the export of Togo's natural resources. A direct result of the actions led by Togo's kleptocratic régime was the near total decimation of the Togolese middle class. Every time I went back home, usually on holidays, I would hear complaints from schoolteachers who had not been paid in six months, from university graduates who'd been unemployed for six years, from farmers who'd fled the countryside because of the collapse of the cooperatives they so depended on. Meanwhile, the rich were getting richer, and the corrupt were getting more corrupt.
The European taboo that this Togolese-French student-turned-media-entrepreneur confronted was the active role the French government and French corporations were playing in the wholesale confiscation of the Togolese economy. When the remaining opposition leaders and activists became more vocal, the police became more violent, and as I now assess the economic effects of violent conflict, coupled with the related capital market reactions where Togo's foreign direct investment was pretty much cut off in the mid-1980, I can lay at least some of the blame on what the media has been calling the "Françafrique." In the 1980s, President Mitterrand's son Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (an "advisor" to his father on African affairs from 1986 to 1992 who later became a convicted arms dealer) kept an office next to President Gnassingbé Eyadéma's in Lomé and in the late-1990s President Chirac insisted on protecting General Eyadéma when much of the human rights community had listed him as one of the most ruthless rulers on the continent. The post-colonial role of France in Africa has not been so glorious.

How can this taboo be overcome?

The taboo cannot be overcome until Togo and other African societies unite instead of being divided into ethnic groups. Although the dubious role played by French heads of state remains a taboo because of the way an entire post-Independence generation was sacrificed for the economic gains of a few privileged Togolese citizens and French corporations and individuals, it must be noted that much of the responsibility lies with the Togolese populations themselves. Any serious student of Togolese or, for that matter, African history, will place special emphasis on the salience of ethnic conflict. Much of the economic inequality and despair that came with the alliance of misguided French and Togolese interests resulted from the inability of the Togolese themselves to get along. The Togolese just could not bring themselves to transcend ethnic divisions. By and large, the Togolese from the North do not get along with those from the South, and vice versa. My own family comes from the center of the country, and I sometimes wonder about our allegiances. The French colonial masters understood this ethnic conflict early on, and maintained the status quo. Because it was in their interest. In other words, it is the Togolese themselves who created an environment where high level French and Togolese officials were free to pursue their ends without any concern for justice and economic redistribution.

As we analyze the economic perspectives and social musings on Togolese culture today, we realize that public goods are still being divided and allocated along ethnic lines. But the good news is that the share of economic contributions and allocations made by and to specific ethnic groups is evening out. Ethnic warfare has diminished considerably. The current administration, led by President Faure Gnassingbé, is to be commended for aiming for peaceful stances in the face of a new youth rebellion that could turn hostile at any moment. Because of his own DNA, and the fact that his father is from the north while his mother is from the south, President Gnassingbé is in a unique position to bring about change through dialog. Ultimately, both ethnic and class conflict can be tamed if all of the ethnic constituents of Togo understand that only unity can lead to prosperity. A united Togo would be wonderful and powerful on so many levels:  the celebration of social and economic milestones can become a reality if ethnic considerations are set aside for the benefit of the entire population, not just the Togolese government cronies and their French protectors. I believe in Togo, and I can see many positive roles that François Hollande's government can play in restoring active solidarities between the two countries.

What would change?

As a black African Frenchman, who happens to also carry Togolese and American passports, the issue of identity is at the heart of my everyday travails and concerns. Traveling across Europe for business or pleasure, as I have done (extensively) during my entire adult life, I am constantly reminded that the status of “the other” is meant to identify and describe people like myself – non white European citizens whose multiple identities and transcultural sensibilities can be mistaken for schizophrenic behavior. Where are you really from? Well, I really am from all these places, and I do really feel like a citizen of Europe, like a citizen of the world. As any non white European will tell you, it often feels good, even if it sometimes hurts, to broadcast one’s identity crisis, if only because it allows us to occasionally confuse white Europeans even more.

Even when I try to carry on with my daily tasks, minding my own business in Paris, Amsterdam, London or Barcelona, I cannot help but notice the surprised glances, muted stares and expressions of disbelief when I write down (or spell out) my Polish surname. (An episode at Warsaw airport a few years ago was particularly funny, but I will save that one for another story.) So sometimes I overdo it, and answer the question about where I am really from with the answer: Poland, Togo, France, the United States, and also the UK (because I studied and spent my formative years in London). How’s that for an answer?

I used to always say that the book that shaped my adult sensibilities was Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, which was published right around the time I left Paris for London at age 20, in 1991. Now, my answer has changed. Having read Zadie Smith’s masterful novelWhite Teeth, which was published ten years after Rushdie’s tome, I now believe that her book is the one that best describes the complex cultural tapestry of London and, for that matter, modern metropolitan Europe. I cannot forget the internal struggles of teenager Irie, a central character in the novel who somehow tries to discover who she is by attempting to learn about her family history. In her own book of collected essays, Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith, speaking of the promise of Barack Obama, describes what she calls “the multiple sensibility.” Finally! A simple term to describe what I’d been trying to explain away, in my own books, as transculturalism.

The multiple sensibility, as applied to European dogma and my own feelings of “otherness” is about being European without looking European, and still feeling beautiful. It’s about speaking European languages with non European accents, and not feeling ridiculed. Ultimately, it’s about appreciating European cultures and European history while still valuing the flavors in our cultures of origin. I, for one, feel a lot smarter for having always relied on my centuries-old African compass, on those ancestral Togolese values that my late grandmother used to tout when we were growing up in Lomé.

The question here is, what would change if we were finally able to overcome these cultural tensions and see beyond those European points of pain, often expressed as nationalism, that prevent so many non white Europeans from fully integrating into European societies. For me, the answer is simple. What would change is that we would spend a lot less time explaining who we really are and where we reallycome from. As a serial immigrant who ended up getting really comfortable with the multiple identities and multiple sensibilities, I think we owe it to all the adolescent Iries of Europe because, after all, having to always explain everything about oneself can, after a while, get really tiring.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

To me, the single most important learning moment was around 8pm France time, on Sunday April 21st, 2002. I still remember that day, ten years ago, when my Togolese-French friend Romain called me to inform me that the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen would face Jacques Chirac in the runoff election as one of the top two candidates in the French presidential election. I was in New York on that day, and had not bothered to vote, preferring instead to spend my afternoon at the swimming pool, because I took it as a given that the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin (whose son had been my roommate in New York’s Lower East Side) facing Chirac in the runoff would win.

Now, all of a sudden, France faced the prospect that an ultra-nationalist politician, one whose revisionist theories and anti-immigrant statements had somehow managed to seduce enough French citizens to become, at least for a while, the second political force in the country. Even though Chirac would win the presidency, and be reelected in a landslide, the climate of French politics had changed forever, and it was now OK to be blatantly racist and anti-Semitic. It was OK because many French now officially recognized themselves in the National Front’s policies, paving the way for the party’s acceptance as a democratic alternative to mainstream conservative ideology.

I remember being depressed for weeks on end, and blaming myself for not voting, because I could feel that a new chapter had begun in French politics. And that it would have to do with intolerance and knee-jerk reactions to confrontations relating to immigration, religion, terrorism and other national security issues. Which is why I was not the least bit surprised when, three years later, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy seized on the 2005 civil unrest in the country to advocate a tougher “law and order” approach to crime. That approach itself I didn’t have a problem with, because I agreed with most of my fellow French citizens who felt that the rioters should be punished. But it was the demagoguery behind the divisive language – the word “racaille” that Sarkozy used can be loosely translated as “scum” – that was meant to single out suburban (mostly non-white) French youth as the main culprits, as the main drivers behind the breakdown in French social cohesion.

Of course, we know that Sarkozy rode this hardline, anti-immigrant stance all the way to the Elysée Palace in 2007. Having never voted for (or liked) Sarkozy, to me the lesson is twofold. Firstly, anti-immigrant rhetoric would become popular all over Europe, which meant that any political attempt to promote the social integration of the rejected would prove futile until European citizens could find a common ground. And finally, despite the fact that Sarkozy was defeated earlier this year when he tried, once again, to use inflammatory, anti-immigrant language in his face-off with François Hollande, I believe the clear path to any conservative political mandate in Europe is now paved with hardcore identity politics and warlike semantics. Which can make non white Europeans like myself feel very unwelcome in some parts of Europe.

Kirsten van den Hul

What's your national taboo?

Our national taboo has a name: Piet. Let me explain. Every December, Holland falls victim to a bizarre virus. Kids cannot sleep, parents go nuts and entire blocks are closed off for traffic. No, I'm not talking about a terrorist threat or the latest Harry Potter hype. I'm talking about one of the most popular Dutch traditions: Sinterklaas.

An old, bearded guy wearing a red dress, who supposedly lives in Spain where he owns a palace full of presents. Each year, he takes his gift-loaded steamer to visit Holland, dropping presents through chimneys. He does vaguely resemble his Anglosaxon brother Santaclaus, though Sinterklaas prefers a horse over raindeer and …  black slaves over elves.

Black slaves? Yes. Loads of them. “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) has been Sinterklaas' loyal servant since he first entered the story in 1850, when Amsterdam-based school teacher Jan Schenkman wrote the first illustrated Sinterklaas children's book. He depicted Black Pete as a More, wearing 16th century clothes, carrying a whip and threatening kids to put them in a bag and take them back to Spain, if they misbehaved. Poor Pete is sent up the roofs to drop off the presents, has to carry Sinterklaas' cane and looks after the old man's horse. In other words, he's his slave.

Shocking? Not in 1850. When Schenkman wrote his book, the Dutch colonies had not yet abolished slavery (that wouldn't happen untill 1863) and most Dutch people had never met a free black person. Now comes the shocking part. Today, in 2012, when, thanks to post-colonial migration, our country is a multicolored mosaic, kids still grow up with Black Pete. White men in blackface wearing 16th century clothes still acting as Sinterklaas' loyal servants. And that's not all. Black Pete is depicted as stupid (he always gets lost), dependent (he needs Sinterklaas to help him out) and scary (cause bad kids still have to fear being put into his bag, back to Spain).

What I find most shocking, is that most Dutch people refuse to acknowledge this is in fact a racist stereotype disguised as tradition. Any debate about the abolishment of Black Pete is nipped in the bud “cause it's part of our culture.”

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against tradition. I even have nothing against Sinterklaas. But I strongly object to the perpetuation of painful racist stereotypes through this shameful show we put on for kids each year. Let's get this straight. It's stupid. It's unneccesary. It's time to move on.


How can this taboo be ovecome?

Freeing Piet is easier said than done. It all starts with an acknowledgement of the darkest page of Dutch national history: the role we played in trans-atlantic slave trade. That means: including chapters on our colonial past in history books, making space for a more inclusive approach towards national history. Secondly, Piet can only be free once companies join the liberation movement. That means: no more offensive images of Piet (including big red lips and other racist sterotypes) on packaging, ads and visual merchandising. Thirdly, parents need to realise that Piet is painful for many of our fellow citizens. Each year, I hear stories of children calling dark skinned people Black Piet. So why not introduce a new Piet, who can be white, brown, yellow or black. The story has it he climbs through the chimney. Fine, then have Piet wear smudges of soot on his cheeks. But I've never heard climbing through chimneys results in afro wigs, red lips and silly accents, have you?

What would change?

What would change once Piet was free? In order to answer that question, we need to ask ourselves another question, underlying the Piet-pain of those who feel offended, hurt, marginalized and mocked by that so-called tradition I described in my previous entry. Ultimately, this Piet-pain is not about wigs, earrings or make-up. It is about lack of empathy and historical perspective. So the real question we should be asking ourselves is: what would change once Europe came to terms with its colonial past? Let me limit myself to my own country, the Netherlands, which is still struggling with those darkest pages of our national history. 

Did my history books include pages on our role in transatlantic slave trade, on the conditions on Dutch plantations overseas? They didn't. Do kids these days know who Tula was, and how he tried to free the slaves on Curacao, inspired by the French Revolution? Do they know why there is a fortress in Ghana which still bears a Dutch name, from where thousands of slaves were shipped to far away shores? The answer is as simple as it is sad: no.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, said Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, ignorance leaves people puzzled, and somehow, the pieces of our national puzzle have yet to find their place. In Amsterdam, this becomes painfully visible, right around the corner of my house. Oosterpark is an interesting place. One of the oldest city parks in Amsterdam, it houses the national slavery monument, where every July 1st, a small crowd gathers to commemorate the abolishment of slavery in the Dutch colonies. A few hundred meters on, in the same Oosterpark, there's another monument called “The Scream”, erected in remembrance of Theo van Gogh, the controversial Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by an angry young Dutch-Moroccan who was offended by one of Van Gogh's films on Islam. Keep walking through Oosterpark and you'll run into the impressive building of the Dutch Tropical Institute and museum, with its vast collection of cultural heritage from Surinam, Indonesia and other former colonies. Right across the street, you will find NinSee, the Dutch National Institute for for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, currently fighting to stay alive amidst budget cuts and austerity measures. Around the corner, you can eat the best Surinamese roti in town (if you're willing to wait in line). The Dutch mosaic in a nutshell. All in one square kilometer, all connected, and yet worlds apart, safely tucked away in their own little corner of the park. 

So what would change once Piet was free, once our children grow up knowing about those shameful shiploads our ancestors sold, once people know the full story of our “Golden Age”? 

There would be less ignorance, more empathy. There would be more people visiting the national slavery monument in Oosterpark. And there still would be a line for the best roti in town. 

Only when the Dutch own up to their role in transatlantic slavery, will this country be able to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Time to check, double check and come clean! 

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned? 

Ask a young person in the streets of Tunis, Havana or Willemstad where they'd rather be, and chances are they will tell you: France, Spain, Holland. Last December, I asked a young man in Cairo this very question. “Greece”, he replied.  “Are you sure?” I asked, wondering whether he realized that Greece was not exactly in the best of shapes. “Yes”, he said. “I am sure. It's still Europe, isn't it?” I couldn't argue with that. Risking their lives on rafts and boats, these drifters are sailing on the winds of fear. Fear of having no future, no job, no livelihood, no freedom. Anything better than home. 

Ironically, fear is also what is leading a growing army of populist preachers in those very countries those youngsters in Tunis, Havana, Willemstad or Cairo are dreaming of, to call for higher walls around Fortress Europe. 

But how many of those populist preachers have ever asked an immigrant about the why behind their big move? How many of them realize that only half a century ago, most of North Africa and Latin America was still under colonial rule? 

Many of the sans-papiers who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or spend their life's savings on a trans-Atlantic flight, think they are on their way to paradise. Can you blame them? They were brought up to believe that Europe is the center of the world. School books in formerly colonized countries are more often than not still in the former colonizer's language. Supermarkets, satellite tv, sports teams and superstars keep selling the European Dream. Dolls are white, blond and blue eyed, cremes with names like Fair and Lovely promise lighter skin and, therefor, success. When a baby is born in Cuba, the first thing parents check is whether (s)he has “pelo bueno” (good hair) or “pelo malo” (bad hair).  Sad? Yes. Surprising? No. As Frantz Fanon argued: “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards.”

Again, it's time to check, double check and come clean. Only when Europe owns up to its role in colonization of the minds of millions of Arabs, Africans, Latin-Americans and Asians, will Eurocentricity be replaced by more realist expectations, on both sides of the pond. 

Neel Mukherjee

Europe’s biggest taboo? The inability of some of its member states to come to terms with their shameful pasts. Austria has had practically zero reckoning, compared with Germany, about its deep complicity in Nazism. Does one not want to return to Elfriede Jelinek’s extraordinary book, Die Kinder der Toten, on the voluntary, willed amnesia afflicting postwar Austrian society, if only to remind us how rare that kind of book is in Austrian culture and mentalité? All her subsequent works have anatomised the Austrian soul by approaching it via one of its expressive strands, the sexual violence of men against women, as if that were the abiding metaphor for the long-festering sickness and sordidness that lie just under its haut-bourgeois veneer. Here are the opening words of her essay, ‘Im Verlassenen’: ‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal. The performance takes place in the very much smaller cellar dungeon in Amstetten – daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed … Performances are all there can ever be.’ Amstetten was the village where Josef Fritzl held his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in an underground cellar for 24 years.

Or take Belgium and its appalling colonial past in the Congo. Remember the scene in WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in which Joseph Conrad arrives in Brussels in 1891, where he ‘saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies, and all the passers-by in the streets seemed to him to bear that dark Congolese secret within them’? And then those shocking lines: ‘And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere.’ Once again, near-zero accounting for this chapter; again, almost a collective amnesia, against the tide of which only Adam Hochschild’s book pushes. Is it shame and embarrassment that is responsible for the silence? Or just ignorance?

England, once the dominant colonial power in the world, was, until last year, unaware of Churchill’s direct role in the Bengal famine of 1943 (casualty: 3 million Indians), or, until 6 years ago, of the exact, brutal nature of its empire’s end in Kenya. These are only two examples in what Sebald calls the ‘mostly unwritten’ story of colonialism. These examples can be multiplied, particularly in regard to the British Empire.

What can be done to reverse the denial, the ignorance, the volitional amnesia?

Here, I think, a leaf can (and should) be taken out of Germany’s book: the way learning about and memorialising the Holocaust has been at the centre of every postwar government’s agenda and duty. It is only with deep State intervention that the darkness can be pushed back. Perhaps even a kind of Truth & Reconciliation Committee with links to board members of the National Curriculum in History so that schoolchildren imbibe this knowledge from the outset? A dedicated sub-section in History Departments in universities to promote research, publication and teaching in the field of the particular country’s colonial past? A National Remembrance Day that will be dedicated to a special kind of remembrance, that of colonial history and its depredations? But perhaps at the beginning of all these interventions lies the wish for a truthful reckoning, to settle accounts with history, as it were, and what intervention or suggestion can ever achieve that? 

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified, how would that impact the country?

This is a game of counterfactuals so one could play this endlessly. My (skeptical) position is that any individual, peoples, or nation, when confronted with their incontrovertible history of wrongdoing, tend, first, to go into vociferous denial, then entrench themselves further into their indefensible moral position or their position of error. Recent studies done on large sample sizes of people who are told, then given the evidence, that a particular belief they hold has no basis in fact or reason (such as a superstition), show that they tend to cling to their beliefs even more strongly instead of abandoning them. So questions of overcoming, I feel, are both advanced and optimistic. And yet Germany has shown that it can be done. But, on the other hand, Britain, Belgium, Austria, Poland are still in denial. Last week a declassification of certain documents held by the Foreign Office in the UK has revealed how tens of thousands of documents pertaining to atrocities in the former British colonies were destroyed and their existence denied. A terrible light has been shone yet again on very grisly chapters on the final days of Empire. What is the reaction in the UK? Why, denial, of course. Here is the English writer George Monbiot’s opening paragraph in today’s Guardian on the new revelations: “There is one thing you can say for the Holocaust deniers: at least they know what they are denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, they must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain's colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied.” He identifies a ‘national ability to disregard’ that history of crime. The comments posted by readers at the end of this soul-searching and truthful article make for very uncomfortable reading; there, in a microcosm, is a fair picture of the ‘impact’ you ask about.What makes us think that other countries will not be following similar patterns of behaviour?

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

Unquestionably, the Nuremberg Trials and, generally, the post-WW2 reckoning with the Holocaust.

There are another couple of learning moments shaping up now, nowhere near the scale of the previous learning moment, but they pose or will be posing serious problems for the shape and well-being of the future of Europe: 1) the hoo-ha about the Muslim population of Europe, 2) the failure of austerity measures to lift Europe out of its massive economic mess. Both are in the process of unfolding so talk of learning is a bit premature at the moment. 

David Van Reybrouck

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

Pedophilia, you would think. Sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy. The battle between the Flemish and the Walloons. Or at least: Congo. These all seem to be obvious candidates in the contest “What is Belgium's biggest taboo?” And yet they are not. Believe it or not, it is a much older issue that is still nagging at the back of our minds, so remote it almost seems imperceptible. And yet it is there: the Second World War still rages on, not like a conflict, but a like an itch. We haven't gotten over it. We haven't digested it. And now it seems so long ago, that it would be pathetic to ruminate about it. So we have saddled ourselves with a second burden: we have added shame to pain. No good.

When I say 'The Second World War', I actually mean: the collaboration of certain segments of the Flemish movement with the German occupier. Let me explain. Historically, Belgium has been a linguistically diverse country where Flemish dialects, Walloon dialects, French and German were spoken. In 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was clear that French served as the dominant language in politics, arts and academia. Against this supremacy, there was an awakening sense of Flemish pride, a movement that started already in the early 19th century as part of the wider romantic zeal for national roots that pervaded Europe at the time. By the turn of the century, feelings of frustration and resentment had become part of the Flemish national discourse. 

The Germans capitalised on that. Already during WWI, they had been responsible for starting the first Dutch-speaking university in the country. (Flemish is the same as Dutch; the differences are minimal, comparable to the difference between American English and British English.) Since Dutch was a Germanic language, it was clear that the Germans were a good ally for promoting the Flemish cause. This was also the reasoning in WWII. Germany devised a so-called Flamenpolitik(Flemish policy) that privileged Flemish identity and helped to divide to country it was occupying. Divide et impera, but then auf Deutsch.

Many Flemish nationalists joined German ranks. With the Germans, everything was going to improve! Intellectuals sided with the occupier. Farmers and factory owners were keen to deliver goods and services to the Germans. Catholic priests encouraged thousands of Flemish youngsters to join the SS and go fight the Communists at the eastern front.

And then the Germans lost. And the collaborators were first lynched by the mob (women who had been with a German were shaved and exhibited in the empty cages of the Antwerp Zoo) and later prosecuted by the state, swiftly and severely. There were 40,000 verdicts and 242 people were executed. In Flemish nationalist circles, the years after the war are still known as ”The Repression” (not as The Liberation).

It meant a serious blow to the Flemish movement: what had been a legitimate cause was now tainted with connotations of high treason and fascism. It embittered more than one advocate for more linguistic, cultural and political rights. The Flemish cause had become “aangebrand”, as people used to say, literally meaning “charred” by the national-socialist excursion. As a consequence, it turned inwards. Silence became the answer, not serenity. Underneath the surface, resentment ruled.

As an example: my own grandfather, a small-time farmer from the countryside, had been thrilled by the Flemish movement as a means of revolt against French-speaking bourgeoisie and aristocracy. In the 1930s, he joined the nationalist party and campaigned in his village. In the early 1940s, he sent my uncle (then a child) to Germany for a cultural exchange program. Yet after the war, he was interrogated and taken into custody. Although his imprisonment only lasted two weeks and although his case was considered too minor for prosecution, the fact that he was arrested still taints our later family history. Up to this very day, the case is surrounded with mystery, silence and scruples. It is fairly unbelievable that a two-week imprisonment is still nagging after more than 70 years. But it is.

And the reason is that we haven't come to terms with our past. "All things pass, except the past" is the magnificent title of an equally magnificent book by Belgian sociologist Luc Huyse. In it, he talks about transitional justice, in South Africa, Rwanda, but also Belgium. Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has enabled South Africa to open the wounds of its painful past, the so-called “repression” in Belgium has rather intensified them. Since the call for justice was strong, the claim for truth was silenced. Perpetrators preferred to shut up, rather than to share. The wound was not cleared, but covered. Retaliatory instead of reconciliatory justice may have a short-term beneficial effect, but in the long run it provokes new complications. 

We still suffer from WW II, because we haven't properly treated our wounds.

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

It would certainly have an impact on the linguistic tensions within the country: Belgium has been divided since the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1962, the linguistic frontier was formalized and established, in 1970, the first phase of the state reform was realized. It was the first of a series of six. The sixth is presently being negotiated: all state reforms had the aim to federalize the country, that is, to turn a unitarian country into a federal state. Although I would certainly not want to go back to the unitary Belgian state of the 1950s (often described as the "Belgique de papa"), I can't stop thinking that some of the recent outburst of the linguistic tension, and in particular the rise of Flemish nationalism, still goes back to a poorly digested war trauma on the Flemish side.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

Biggest learning moments are always painful moments: the Dutch-French-Irish NO to the EU Constitution certainly made clear that the old way of doing things no longer worked. That old way started in the post-war years when some of the brightest minds in Europe drew the outlines of a political project with far-reaching consequences. The idea that an intellectual, idealist and voluntarist elite could work out such plan no longer holds, even it was originally designed for the benefit of all. Europe has become the continent of communication; one-sided decisions from above, even with the best intentions, are no longer experienced as legitimate. Communication has never been easier than today, yet the EU does so little with it. People are better educated than anytime in history, yet the EU keeps on playing its old-school paternalist, top down approach. Without genuine participation from below, the European project is bound to fail.

Another learning moment, much longer ago, was the failure to establish a European defence union. Ever since, the continent has been dependent from the Nato for its inner and outer security. 

Laila Soliman

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

The current taboo I think in Europe today is racism.

It is discussed as a thing of the far past and not of today.

It is the absent present in most European cities, which you experience as a non-white. Sometimes you can recognize it in an unmistakeable way in form of verbal abuse, sometimes in less of a clear way of a look, and mostly in an intangible way , that forces you to question your own perception, and wonder about possible motivations of that person which might have nothing to do with you or ask yourself: “Have I become paranoid?” And it is this state and cycle of self-questioning that I find the most exhausting of them all for an outsider in a society.

It is as subtle as neo-colonialism compared to the outspoken clearly regulated colonialism of the not so far away past.

How can this taboo be overcome?

Maybe a possible solution could be to raise awareness by situations where people are forced to take decisions and express themselves openly. To go a step back, as now I think some try to express themselves in a “politically correct” way while their thinking and behaviour is far less politically correct.

I think questioning current cultural policies in Europe is also a very good place to start.

What would change?

The silence would change, the subtly, the intangibility, in case people finally talk more openly about everyday forms of racism on a street or state governmental level. But I think rethinking global hierarchy is the distant dream.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

It is very difficult for me to answer any question with a superlative in it.

I cannot also say what “you”, Europeans, “should do” with what you supposedly “learnt”.

Nevertheless I can think of many “learning moments”, but I can also question the lessons learnt.

Ece Temelkuran

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

At the moment the big taboo in Turkey is press freedom. In these Kafkaesque times that are full of prosecutions and arrests, and with 106 imprisoned journalists, it seems as if no such taboo exists in Turkey. If one follows nothing else than the mainstream media, one might think that Turkey is a land of democracy and prosperity – but this is only very chic window dressing. All the fuss about Turkish democracy being a model for the Arab world is just marketing material and regarded as a joke for at least half of the population in Turkey. In last elections, 47 percent of the country voted for AKP and the rest, it seems, is now waiting to get prosecuted. The government, through a highly-politicised judiciary system, is going after those who are not in support of the AKP party.

The political oppression that Kurdish and socialist media has been suffering, was not visible until some well-known journalists, like myself and Nuray Mert, were fired from their newspapers due to political pressure from the government. At the moment the common joke in Turkey is that between them the jobless journalists can publish at least three newspapers and can establish at least two TV networks. Two names, investigative journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, have become symbolic names among the arrested journalists. They have been in jail for about a year now. All the prosecutions are done under the Anti-Terror Law, and all those who criticise the government in Turkey are facing the danger of being labelled as terrorists and ending up in jail.

Since the mainstream media chooses to step back when faced with threats from the government, Twitter seems to be the only way to learn about these political developments. Despite the dangers of being prosecuted, some journalists are gathering to discuss projects for independent news websites. As the gap between the reality and mainstream news becomes unbearable day by day, we as the journalists of Turkey are still trying to decide what to do.

Since these Kafkaesque times in Turkey did not create the noise I personally expected from European people, I now think that this situation is also taboo of sorts for European people as well.

How can this taboo be overcome?

Although the variety of technological tools to combat the oppression increases constantly, the things that must be done against the oppression are still the same as it has been since the beginning of human history: it is to speak up and then to speak up again. Meanwhile, I think European intellectuals should be in solidarity with people of Turkey in this effort because I know for certain that we are going through our loneliest times since the beginning of Turkey’s modern history. Some Turkish people would certainly interpret my remarks about solidarity as complaining about my country to "foreigners". But we now know such struggles are no longer just local, but universal.

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

Since I pointed out to the imprisoned journalists and silenced media as the taboo of the day in Turkey, most probably the political authority would be seriously shaken if the media was free to do its job. To have an idea about what would have happened if the media's opposing voices were heard, one can have a look at what happened just after Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener were released from prison. Ahmet went to European Parliament to give a speech about the political oppresion on journalists which was very influencial among the European political circles. As some of us have been doing he made his voice heard by the international media that very recently started mentioning the outrageous realities of Turkey. I think what Ahmet did is a significant hint to predict what Turkey would be like if there was freedom for media. 

Moreover, since the intervention in Syria is on the agenda nowadays, I suppose, all the warmongers in today's Turkish media would have been less powerful.

Speaking of the media in Turkey, I  hereby invite European journalists, freedom of speech activists, social media figures to look closely at Turkey in the coming days. I suppose a strong professional solidarity could have exposed what we as Turkish and Kurdish journalists are going through. 

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

I think the biggest learning moment for Europe was the demonstrations in Spain and in Greece. In my point of view those were the most significant mass questioning of the financial system and the hegemony of the Capitalist mindset. What Europe learned from the moment is another question but those demonstration most certainly gave some lessons to Europe. 

Iryna Videnava

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

In my country, we are all taught that every fourth Belarusian died during World War II. The death and destruction on our territory is viewed as our greatest national tragedy. The Great Patriotic War – this is how World War II is still officially called in Belarus and other post-Soviet states – remains the cornerstone of our country’s historical narrative, explaining its past and justifying its present. In school, we learn about the cruelty of fascist occupiers, mass killings of Belarusian civilians, and the heroic Soviet resistance movement. But while promoting the Soviet partisan myth, our official historians, school curricula and the state media remain silent about one of the most terrible tragedies of the 20th century – the Holocaust in Belarus.  

Jews had lived side by side with Belarusians since the Middle Ages. Before the war, about 14 per cent of the total population and almost 40 per cent of the urban population on Belarusian territories (then part of the Russian Empire) were Jewish. We had one of Europe’s densest populations of Jews. Our history and culture is impossible to understand without its Jewish element and Belarusian Jews such as Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine are part of European and world culture. Belarus’s Jewish partisans even played a role in defeating the Nazis, a story told in the recent Hollywood film “Defiance” staring the English actor Danial Craig. 

So why do we remember the loss of Belarusians but ignore the killing of between 500,000 and 800,000 Jews – 90 per cent of those living on the territory of Belarus? Why is there a huge “Great Patriotic War Museum” in downtown Minsk but only a modest memorial called “Yama” (The Pit) marking the Minsk ghetto? The reason lies in our Soviet past and post-Soviet present. Like his European counterparts, Stalin and his successors cared little about the fate of the Jews. Virtually all of Belarus’s war memorials, even those where primarily Jews were killed, speak only of the crimes committed against “Soviet citizens.” After our independence in 1991, those “Soviet citizens” became “Belarusian citizens.” But more importantly, Stalin had a vested interest in not singling out any one particular nation as a victim. Among his many crimes, he had ordered his own atrocities against those living in Belarus during and after the “Great Purges” – with the result being between 600,000 and 1,600,000 dead. In his superb but sobering book Bloodlands, the US historian Timothy Snyder links both sides of this sad story: “In Belarus, more than anywhere else, the Nazi and Soviet systems overlapped and interacted.”

Today, our President depends on Russian support to prop up our economy and keep him in power, and an external enemy to the West to justify and popularize his authoritarian rule. So the Soviet-era taboos continue. Snyder states that half the population of Belarus was either killed or moved during the war – a fate unequalled by any other European country. This terrible history cannot and should not be told without including the Jews. But there is no Holocaust museum in Belarus. Jewish history is not taught in schools. Archives containing documents on the Jewish genocide are still classified. Belarusian historians are discouraged from researching this topic. In an unfree country, maintaining a taboo is easier than reconciling it with a hard and controversial past. 

How can this taboo be overcome?

The Holocaust is part of European history and part of Belarus’s history. Just as Belarus’s past cannot really be known without understanding its Jews, Snyder’s book makes it clear that the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews cannot be understood without knowing something about what happened in Belarus. Our European neighbours have their own taboos regarding the Holocaust. Few know or care that my country was “the epicentre of European killing” from 1933-45; that more Jews resisted Hitler in Belarus than anywhere else; and that the parallels between the Nazi and Soviet regimes are not only interesting history but important contemporary issues in Belarus. For us, it is crucial that this book be translated and published in Belarus. It is equally important that Europeans read it, as well as a few more books about my country.

Things must also change in Belarus. Without opening the archives, removing unwritten bans on researching sensitive issues, creating favourable conditions for domestic and foreign scholars, encouraging honest debate on the crimes of Stalinism and the Holocaust, revising textbooks, understanding the nature of both the Nazi and Soviet systems, Belarusians will not be able to reconcile with the past and move forward. Artificially created, heroic myths about a great victory will remain empty words for generations who have no opportunity to understand their history.

It was at an exhibition in Prague where I learned that thousands of Jews from Europe had been deported to die in Belarus and that the first gas chambers were tested in Minsk. I wish such exhibitions were organised in my country, so that more Belarusians could hear the voices of the few survivors, learn about a hidden history of suffering, courage and solidarity, and realize that even distant parts of Europe are connected in strange ways. Similar research projects, exchange programs, publications, study visits and summer schools, carried out jointly with EU countries, could help Belarusians to better understand their own history and become less isolated from the rest of Europe. We Europeans are each and all responsible for our joint past, present and future, both the good and bad. We must all get past our taboos if we want to live in a united and free Europe. 

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

Belarus is a very homogeneous state today. Nevertheless, it has always been a borderland country, located between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, Europe and Eurasia. A better job must be done in educating citizens about the Holocaust on its territory, the forced expulsion of Poles, Soviet repression against Belarusians and the history of other ethnic groups, both positive and negative. This type of education would highlight the country’s multiethnic, multiconfessional and multicultural past, and help to make citizens more tolerant. More importantly, it would help to instill European values and help promote a more democratic mindset in Belarus. Today, there are two concepts of the history of Belarus that compete for the public’s attention. Belarusian democrats look to the country’s European past, which includes the centuries of being part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This European concept includes a multicultural Belarus where many ethnic groups and religions lived in peace, as well as democratic elements such as rule of law, elections and self-government. The competing vision, offered by the regime and the Kremlin, is that Belarus has always been part of an Orthodox, autocratic, Russian empire. In this vision, there is no room for a multicultural, democratic or European Belarus. In the early 1990s, some reforms were implemented in Belarus that led to more teaching and knowledge about Belarus’ European past. But these were thrown out by a regime which glorifies the Soviet past, brotherhood with Russia today, and a Eurasian future. Today, only civil society keeps alive the idea of a past and future European Belarus. Through political and cultural programs, including alternative education, civic campaigns and international exchanges, it is trying to overcome the taboos of the past and promote a more western mindset in Belarusians. Today the country is divided and polarized, with about half looking to Europe and half to Russia. It will take time, but I believe the western view will prevail.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

I believe that Europe’s greatest learning moment was after World War II, when its leaders began to understand that there was no future for individual nation-states competing for hegemony of the continent. Instead, Europe’s leaders realized that reconstruction and reconciliation could best be achieved by working together for a better present and future. The creation of NATO and the EU led to greater safety, democracy and prosperity. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, the prospects of many former communist countries were improved through Euro-Atlantic integration. But for others, including Belarus, joining a “Europe whole, free and at peace” seems like a distant prospect. Our democrats and many of our people believe in the values of the EU. We have some memory of a similar union in our history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which Belarussians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews and others lived in a proto-democratic republic that included the elected kings and parliaments, rights guaranteed by constitutions, religious toleration, rule of law, and independent self governing cities. But this Commonwealth was destroyed by the autocratic rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria. In contrast to Europe, Belarus took another path after 1945, one that was opposed to Euro-Atlantic values and embraced conflict and a Cold War with the West. 1991 demonstrated that this path was a dead end. We thought that our leaders understood this too, but the current regime seems more interested in a Eurasian Union than a European one. We also worry that, for Brussels and Strasbourg, further integration to the east has stalled. Europe should remember again that decisive learning moment after 1945 and continue the process of implementing that lesson. We understand that this process is not only in Europe’s hands but that we Belarusians must also earn this process. The current regime has little interest in moving closer to Europe or embracing its values. But there are many in my country that remain committed to the Europe of our past and the Europe of our future.