De Balie, Amsterdam, 3 May 2019

"How do we recognise evil?"

The beginning of the month of May is also metaphorically the time of year when we start to reflect. 1 May is Labour Day, when we remember that in 1890 we fought for the eight-hour working day. On 2 May, we remember the victims of the Holocaust, and on 4 May, we remember the victims of war in the Netherlands. On 5 May, we celebrate the Liberation. On 9 May, we celebrate European unification, which, for me, remains the most successful response to the tendency toward self-destruction which we Europeans have often displayed.

It is always difficult to keep these commemorations fresh. This today is one of the most inspiring initiatives – for which I thank you – which challenge us to reflect and discuss, not merely to engage in sterile commemoration. So much seems self-evident today. It is our responsibility to keep commemorations fresh in order to pass on the message and promise to our children and grandchildren too.

Today workers enjoy working conditions which our grandparents could not have imagined. They fought hard for this. We have known almost 75 years of peace and freedom. Many people gave their lives for this. And we have lived for more than 60 years in a union with our neighbours, ensuring that it are diplomats who are fighting at the negotiation tables instead of soldiers fighting each other in the trenches.

In terms of health, having a roof over your head, income, study and pensions; never before have so many Dutch people had it so well. That is not to say that there are no excesses or that no one has fallen behind, on the contrary. There is now a risk that things go wrong as a result of the fourth industrial revolution. Far too many people are falling behind again. This is one of the causes behind growing fissures in society and also a cause for the increase of hate.

But we have made giant strides in the past century. We work, live, marry, buy, sell, produce and travel across a whole continent that no longer has internal borders. It regularly happens – as I know from my previous activities – that Dutch people all of a sudden come across an external border of the European Union and find that they are not carrying a passport because “you no longer actually need to in Europe...” A tangible example, I think, of how deeply being European has already seeped into our subconscious.

Just think of the Erasmus Programme, in which over a million young Europeans have now taken part. If it were up to us, we would expand it so that every young European could take part, even if he or she is not attending university or in higher education.

It has produced a new generation of Europeans who are not detached from their own culture but who have developed a greater understanding of other cultures and other countries. So, in that sense, no matter what the Dutch House of Representatives says, ‘an ever closer Union’ is a reality. And even if one would remove this sentence of an ‘ever closer union’ from the Treaty, it would not stop Europeans from growing closer to each other.

However, these achievements are still less than a century old. On the timeline of our history, our peace, safety and prosperity is just a tiny blip. Yet, we take it completely for granted. So much so, in fact, that it is clear that it is becoming ever harder to get people to resist when these achievements come under pressure. Because “well we have already paid for it, haven’t we? So why should we pay again?”

But, freedom, gender equality, peace, prosperity, democracy, the rule of law, solidarity, and human rights are values; they are not verbs. They do not flourish all by themselves. They require fostering, nurturing and protecting.

My generation has grown up with the idea that tomorrow will always be better, simply because that is what we saw and experienced the inevitability of the global wave of democracy; the inevitability of further economic growth; the inevitability of increasing freedom. Nevertheless, my generation now doubts whether our children will also have it so good. I believe the fear of decline is, at this time, in many countries, stronger than the expectation of progress.

Everything humans have achieved, humans can destroy again.

Let me take you back a hundred years. The young economist John Maynard Keynes was a member of the British delegation sent to take part in the Versailles peace negotiations following the First World War. He later stepped down in protest. In his book ‘The Economic Consequences of Peace’, he wrote of pre-1914 Europe:

“…life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep…

He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality…

But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable…

The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper…”

I think we can recognise many things in this description. It sounds suspiciously like the Europe that we have been aspiring to for decades, but now available to everyone.

Within just a few years, Keynes’s idyllic Europe was destroyed as Europeans, singing and dancing, plunged into the abyss. Not once, but twice within a few decades.

I think that we, in our Dutch remembrance culture, have a blind spot with regard to the First World War. You cannot understand the Second World War if you do not properly understand the First World War. If you do not wish to read history books on the subject, I can at least recommend Geert Buelens’s fantastic anthology of poetry from the First World War, if you are interested in this subject.

I was born in 1961 and I will turn 58 in three days’ time. If I deduct my age from my year of birth, I get 1903, coincidentally also the year in which two of my grandparents were born. It would then be another eleven years before the First World War broke out. It is only a breath away.

In the 21st century, we are not markedly different from the first human who picked up a club to bash in another’s skull. The context is different, the technology infinitely more advanced, but the essential questions of the earliest philosophers about who we are, what is good and what is evil are still questions with which we grapple. So we are no better than our forefathers. As Mark Twain once said, while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.

This is not being defeatist. On the contrary, it is seeing the world as it is. I believe that this observation and our constant grappling with what constitutes good and evil are essential. We must wrestle with this, every day. As the famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, said:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

Indifference and the complete trivialisation of what makes us who we are, are our biggest enemies.

You can see in the current discourse on social and traditional media that a false moral equality is increasingly being held up and it is threatening to become the norm. Perpetrator and victim are given equal space. Science – whether it concerns global warming or vaccination – and emotion – ‘there is no global warming’, ‘vaccination is dangerous’ – are presented on the same level, as if science and an opinion hold the same value. This trivialises morality.

Under that same pretext, the most terrible things are said, because it often goes further: ‘High time that we can just say again what we think! Down with this awful political correctness!’

But, if facts do not matter and perpetrators and victims are equally right, and emotions and opinions rule, how then do you recognise lies? How do you recognise evil? And, if you do not recognise it, how do you fight it?

I often speak to students, say the top 2 % of society in terms of education. In 10 or 15 years they will be sitting at the controls of our society and directing our governments, companies and associations, which is why it is of the utmost importance that they acquire an adequate moral grounding. One that includes knowledge of history, the human psyche and the values that lie at the foundation of our open society. In short: that they learn to think critically.

Occasionally, I put them to the test. I give them a quote and ask what it is about, and who might have said it. Let me give you the quote:

‘We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; who does not believe in working but speculates with money; who does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.'

Here, in condensed form, is every anti-Semitic cliché there is. It is a quote from someone who is now a Head of Government in one of the countries of the European Union. He said it in March of last year [2018] during the election campaign. He had declared a Jew, George Soros, his greatest enemy.

However, if you read this and present it to young people, they often do not recognise the hidden message. They do not hear the ‘dog whistle’. They do not have a feel for it and cannot place it. These are highly intelligent, well-meaning, idealistic young people. The problem is that if you are not able to register these words, you are potentially receptive to the seeds of hate speech, or hate speech itself, and then you can set people up against each other.

Recently, a Dutch politician spoke of the Dutch ‘self-hate’ through its striving towards a “homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people with all the people of the world”.

What does “homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people” mean? And why are some laughing it off?

Are we dealing with the harmless musings of a romantic, intoxicated by excessive partaking from the horn of nostalgia? Is this the lament of a sentimentalist following Baudelaire in the Elysian desire for a pre-industrial society, when beauty had not yet been tarnished by the oil of machines, and people willingly let themselves be guided by an aristocracy versed in the classics and which had the best of intentions for the boreal world? Did we land in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ following the fall from the earthly paradise? [This is a play on recent rhetoric by a Dutch politician.]

It may well be that this is the case and there is nothing wrong with that. It has always been thus. It is nonsense to see in this ill intent or a source of evil. Ultimately it is a sublimated form of the ‘everything was better in the old days’ that my grandmother always used to tell me.

But, what if a political programme has been drawn up on the basis of such nostalgia? Politics is the art of doing things that shape, change or maintain society. Politics is about mobilising people in order to bring about change. If, in the opinion of this politician, the “homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people” is a quest on the part of others, should the question not then arise as to what this striving is exactly and who exactly is pursuing it and why?

Even more importantly: if this is a problem that needs to be addressed, how to do so? In any case, in politics, you can never just designate something, you also need to do something about it. Politics cannot be idle chat, free from obligations, the consequences of political actions are too important for that.

And even if the desire goes no further than expressing a sentiment, with no intention of pitting people against each other or scaremongering, which is something I can accept for good measure, is a politician then not still accountable for the effect that his or her words may have on others? Words have the ability to rouse the evil that lurks in every one of us. Is a politician not also responsible for the context in which she or he uses words and concepts?

Words have a charge, a meaning, an effect. The use of words by authority figures – whether they gained that authority by being admired or securing political support – these words, by definition, have impact. It is a form of exercise of power. And, in a democratic society, influence, power and responsibility go hand in hand.

Now some people are being very vocal in demanding they be given absolute freedom to say anything they want. At the same time, however, they demand that they also be given the assurance that others cannot say anything about it. Because if you raise any objection, then you are offending the voters or demonising them, the politicians.

The political colour of journalists, judges, and also teachers and professors, has suddenly become a major social stigma. People are encouraged to denounce left-wing professionals in particular on dedicated websites. The anonymous hotline as a political tool. Ironically enough, this was a favoured instrument in communist regimes. And so it is also a political programme. Not good.

But what are we doing to counter this?

I will defend until my last breath the right for everyone to say whatever they think, within the limits of the law. Controversial opinions must not be silenced. But at the same time I will always try to summon up courage to vigorously contradict myths, misunderstandings, lies and hatred.

Freedom of expression is a great good. But it also demands responsibility and active citizenship: we must actively and robustly respond. We must stand up and speak out whenever necessary. And not just laugh things off or let them go unchallenged.

If someone says to a journalist that Mussolini was actually a communist, they must be contradicted. You cannot just remain silent.

Because if you let lies go, and if lies are repeated often enough, as Göring said in Nuremberg, they become whitewashed  [a reference to the Belgian poet, author and playwright Tom Lanoye, who read a speech of Göring just before at this event] and we end up believing them. Hella Rottenberg, who is here today, knows this from the Soviet Union and Russia. There, too, nothing but lies – and yet people believed them, even as they told each other every day: “It's all lies.”

Some of you are no doubt familiar with the work of Joseph Roth, one of my favourite writers. While many stories about Nazism and the Nazi era were written after the event, in the knowledge of how things turned out, Joseph Roth was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, when the worst was still to come. He is someone whose work is otherwise known for its nostalgia.

Although he was no longer alive when the true scale of the Nazi horror became apparent – he literally drank himself to death in 1939 – he spotted the seeds early and saw what they portended.

Hindsight makes is easy to see inevitability in the outcome. “Those are the causes, so A leads to B.” I have often witnessed it, for instance at the end of the Soviet Union: “Inconceivable”, people cried, a few months before it happened. And after it happened, the very same people said “the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable”.

So be critical, remain observant, do not assume anything.

It was ‘impossible’ that the wall would fall, that Germany would be reunited. It was ‘impossible’ that the Soviet Union would cease to exist – yet it happened. It was impossible that the British people would vote in favour of Brexit, that Macron would win the presidential elections, that Trump would come to power – yet it happened.

It happened, I think, more because of indifference than due to the mobilisation of the people who made it possible. Anyway, that will be for others to judge.

It is much more difficult to see in advance just where something may lead. Joseph Roth did so. Hanna Arendt is another author who had a sharp eye and a sharp pen. She said, with keen prescience, that:

”in an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

In this industrial, technological revolution, we seem to have ended up in a similar, fact-free world. Literature and writers like Arendt and Roth help us to detect and identify the symptoms.

What conclusions can we draw?

We can learn that, as Roth says, “the hatred of the biggest criminals in history or the brutality of their helpers is not the most serious threat to our society. The greatest enemy is the indifference of the majority”.

A well-meaning but indifferent majority, who say about themselves: “But we mean well, don't we?”

Evil never just comes out of nowhere. It festers and grows if no-one is watching and if no one stops it. It starts with a word that dehumanises someone because he or she is Jewish, or a gypsy, or Muslim, or gay.

The Holocaust cannot be compared to anything else and must retain a unique position in our collective consciousness. I cannot and do not wish to recall now my sombre visit to Auschwitz earlier this year; that will be for another evening and another speech. If you wish, I will come back here for it.

But since that visit, one question has been constantly in the back of my mind: how anyone can do this to another person. Paradoxically enough, I also wonder whether the horror of the Shoah, the knowledge of how it all ended, does not sometimes hinder a proper analysis of how it all started and the processes in society that can end up driving humanity off the rails entirely.

What I mean is this: similar processes do not inevitably lead to similar outcomes, but certain processes may nevertheless pose a serious danger to society and should therefore be identified and addressed early on. The Shoah cannot be used as an argument to say: “You can't compare.” But, we are not comparing with the outcome, we compare with the causes – where it started, not how it ended.

Anti-Semitism is disturbingly on the increase. It is coming from all sides - the extreme left, the extreme right, reactionary groups, parts of the Muslim community. And, it is becoming increasingly apparent in the heart of society, in people who do not fall into the category of ‘extreme’. You know the refrain: “I have nothing against Jews, but...”

As a minister, I started to sound the alarm and in recent years in the Commission we have worked closely with the Jewish community throughout Europe and beyond, so that we combine all positive forces in society in order to combat this centuries-old, constantly re-appearing virus. There is still a very long way to go. But without a Jewish community, Europe ceases to be Europe, and this must never happen to us.

Security, greater understanding, more dialogue, much better education... These are all necessary components of the vaccine we need to develop together. We are talking about a small European community that does not pose a threat to anyone – it does not wish to convert anyone or menace anyone. It is for me the essence of who we are as Europeans. If the Jewish community no longer feels safe within Europe, there is something wrong with the essence of Europe.

Anti-Semitism is ultimately an age-old exclusion process whereby people are deprived of their full participation in society on the basis of who they are. So they are not judged on the basis of what they do, but on the basis of who they are. That is the purest definition of discrimination I know. Judging people in this way means you take away part of their humanity. It is a process that takes place most easily if the 'other' is portrayed as an existential threat.

It is as if, using a vegetable peeler, you gradually strip off layers of the other's humanity until finally you see not a person but only a threat. Meanwhile, you do not realise that with each layer of humanity you peel away from the 'other', you are also peeling away your own humanity.

Then there is the trap of that same old logic: “It's them or us”, “Jews will not replace us”. Look at all the other refrains of the Identitarian movement. It is a “struggle for life”, and the “other” is given three choices: assimilate, so the other no longer exists; clear out; or be eliminated. Who actually loses their humanity, the other or us?

If some people who were adults in the 1970s or 1980s woke up in today’s world and followed the political discourse, they would be shocked by what is now the ‘new normal’. Have our souls become hardened in recent years?

Is it normal for someone to say that they 'do not want Europe to become Africanised' but for Europe to remain 'as it is, dominant, white and cultural'? Incidentally, what an utterly erroneous understanding of culture, to want it to remain as it is. But that's another story.

And, what are we to think of the new Internal Affairs and Finance Ministers in Estonia, a very successful small Member State of the European Union, making the white supremacy sign this week when they were sworn in?

There is a political paradox. I also witnessed it recently in the elections in Spain where on the basis of electoral considerations, established parties take over the new narrative of nationalists, the nationalists win and the established parties lose. The original version appeals more to people. That was the trap the Belgian party N-VA got caught in in the last elections in Flanders. Through their own behaviour they breathed new life into the Vlaams Belang.

What can we do?

I think we should stop playing in the theatre of the nationalists. Pedro Sánchez in Spain made that decision clear in the last elections and he was rewarded by the Spanish population for it. Traditional right-wing parties in Spain thought that by taking over the discourse of the fascists, Vox, they could retain the voters. They lost them. Today’s conclusion is: “We should not have done that, we have to go back to the centre,” but the damage is done and Vox has 24 people in the Spanish Parliament.

In the Netherlands the situation is of course different to that of other countries, but I notice everywhere in Europe that the basis of the European Union after the Second World War has been a balance between democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Thus, you cannot set democracy against the rule of law or the rule of law against democracy, and neither of them against human rights. But this is in fact what is happening now in a number of European Union countries.

Why can Orbán do what he is doing? Why can Orbán say the kinds of things he says? Because he has locked people into their fears. If you make people afraid enough of the 'other', of what is different, they will follow you as their saviour from the threat of the 'other'. This is the process that is taking place, and it has to be stopped.

I draw hope from the fact that in most countries of the European Union, social progress, the development of society, is going in the direction of more openness, more understanding, more tolerance – the 'ever closer Union', which has worked despite some governments.

I also think we need to realise that the Netherlands really is in a somewhat different situation from that of most countries in the European Union where the cluster of crises we have witnessed over the last decade has led to disruption in society. A feeling of despair comes across in recent reports showing the situation of the middle class in Europe and its rapid erosion. Politicians like Orbán, Kaczynski and others play very cleverly on that despair.

I strongly believe that in this fourth industrial revolution we will have to re-invent redistribution — the origin of my political movement — in order not to lose the middle class in Europe to the far right. That is what gives me hope: a new programme, to be devised by progressive parties. Indeed it is no coincidence that in this country, on a total of 60 issues, the Labour Party and Green Left cannot identify even one difference in their European programmes. Think about that.

We must devise a programme that puts solidarity into the fourth industrial revolution, so that it is “for the many, not the few.” If we succeed...

Because solidarity does not go from down below to up above, or from top to bottom, but from the centre both upwards and downwards. Offering hope, offering a future to the middle class, is the only real medicine against the virus of hatred towards other people. Understanding that solidarity, in which there is always a core of self-interest, must be reinvented – because social relationships in this industrial revolution have changed, the political programme is of the utmost importance, whoever is behind it.

Tomorrow on the 4th of May, we remember those people who can no longer talk about the hatred in Europe. The only thing we can do to make sure that our commemoration of them is not just a ritual is to continue acting in the spirit of tolerance, understanding and openness, and say a resounding NO to indifference.

Never be indifferent.

Thank you very much.


'Gesprek Voor de Dam: Is het kwaad al geschied?' - De Balie & Theater na de Dam