“Sharpening our Senses”

Bern, 27.01.2016 - International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January 2016 in Bern, Address by Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr. Check against delivery

Madam President
Ladies and gentlemen

I am neither competent nor qualified to say anything about the Holocaust that has not already been said. Indeed, it is difficult to speak in any way about the unspeakable.

Yet there is one remark I would like to make - not because it is new, but because I believe it is important in this context. Nothing happens that cannot happen again. Perhaps not in the same place and in the same way. Perhaps totally unexpectedly. And yet, all events, even the most unimaginable atrocities, can be repeated in one way or another.

No-one put this better than Primo Levi: "Beyond our individual experiences we have collectively been witnesses of a fundamental, unexpected event, fundamental precisely because it was unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It happened against all predictions, it happened in Europe; incredibly, it happened that an entire civilised people... followed a buffoon... It happened, therefore it can happen again... therefore we must sharpen our senses."

Indeed, systematic murder and killing did not stop with the Holocaust. Neither in the Soviet gulags, in Rwanda or the Balkans - it occurs in almost all wars, all around the world; it is as if every second generation needs to live through such a barbaric experience so that the fortunate generation between can be spared. It happened and therefore it can happen again. What can we do to stop it? Sharpen our senses.

The internet and social media have made it more difficult to look away, but many of us still choose to turn a blind eye and ignore what is happening in the world. 

It is no surprise that, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, historian Fritz Stern talked about "not wanting to see" as an "appalling characteristic" of the twentieth century: "In many respects the past has taught us how not to act; how we should act remains a task for the future".

And at another point in the speech: "I have often said that every instrumentalisation or trivialisation of the Holocaust, every failure to remember the millions of other victims, is a crime against the victims themselves. We honour the victims by attempting to reconstruct in historical research the world from which they were torn and which largely perished with them, and so to preserve it in the collective memory".

I personally believe that Stern was right in this respect. We can only honour the victims of the past if we try to understand what happened. This enables us to sharpen our senses to similar troubles that may be brewing. Knowing and remembering is not enough: we need the strength of character to look and to act. But knowing and remembering help us to do this.

Ces activités importantes - perpétuation de la mémoire des victimes de l'Holocauste, renforcement de la recherche historique et de l'effort éducatif - doivent être menées au plan international et de manière coordonnée. C'est dans ce but qu'a été créée l'International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, une organisation intergouvernementale qui regroupe actuellement plus de 30 Etats. Sur décision du Conseil fédéral, la Suisse aura l'honneur et la grande responsabilité de la présider en 2017.

C'est pour ça aussi que je salue l'initiative du corps diplomatique d'avoir organisé une cérémonie solennelle qui nous réunit tous ce soir dans la capitale, à l'occasion de la Journée internationale à la mémoire des victimes de l'Holocauste.

La Suisse est membre de l'International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance depuis plus de dix ans. Dans ce cadre, elle soutient en particulier les survivants suisses dans leurs efforts pour témoigner. Je me réjouis d'ores et déjà d'entendre tout à l'heure le récit de l'un de ces survivants, M. Eduard Kornfeld. 

Ladies and gentlemen, all of us here bow before those who died and those who survived the Holocaust. We cannot envisage their suffering. But our contribution can be to sharpen our senses by studying the past and remembering.

Back in 1988, the British politician and historian Roy Jenkins gave a speech in the Library of Congress in Washington entitled: "Should Politicians Know History?", in which he ran through the biographies of a whole string of American and European presidents and prime ministers. He summed up by saying: "I believe it is more that historical knowledge stems from a mixture of curiosity and a generally well-stocked mind, and that those with these attributes are better equipped than those without", and further concluded: "What I really believe is that those with curiosity, whatever their educational and occupational backgrounds, are bound to have interest in and acquire knowledge about the past; and that those without it are likely to be dull men and uncomprehending rulers."

I believe this is true, and that it can serve us all as a reference. Those who have a sharp view of the past have a clearer understanding of the present. And as I said, we all must sharpen our senses! Thank you.

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