For far too long the systematic and brutal campaign of persecution and destruction waged by the National Socialists against Roma and Sinti in Germany and throughout occupied Europe was ignored, denied or belittled. Today we know that Europe's Roma and Sinti were the victims of evil and insane racist doctrines and we Germans have accepted that the genocide of the Roma and Sinti is part of our nation's history. It took, however, sustained and dedicated efforts – efforts that still go on – to raise public awareness throughout Europe of the importance of preserving the memory of these crimes, the murder of nearly half a million European Roma and Sinti. In this connection I would emphasize that the new German Government stands by the decision to erect a memorial to the Roma and Sinti murdered during the National Socialist era. We hope those concerned will speedily resolve the issues that still need to be settled and that work on the memorial can soon begin.
The Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma has played a key role in generating this new awareness. Its latest contribution to this vital work is the present exhibition on “The Holocaust against the Roma and Sinti and Present-day Racism in Europe”. In all European countries with Roma and Sinti communities it is clearly crucial that the story of their persecution and destruction should be told.
In terms of intercommunal relations today, however, it is also important that the Roma and Sinti are perceived not only as victims but also as fellow-citizens – with their own language and rich cultural heritage yet who above all belong, who are an integral part of the society in which they live. Hence the insights the exhibition provides into daily life and evolving patterns of interaction between minority and majority communities can also be of great value in helping us nowadays to understand and get along with one another better.
On both moral and historical grounds we bear responsibility for the crimes of the past and we bear responsibility, too, for the Europe of the future. That is why we have a clear duty to resolutely combat – in Germany and throughout Europe – all forms of racism, xenophobia and discrimination and to take a firm stand on the protection of minorities.
This “European house” of ours is built also on shared values, a collective commitment to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The protection of human rights and minority rights is therefore a key benchmark for the success of our European project.
The way a country treats its national minorities is not only a yardstick of how free and democratic that country is. In the interest of internal stability, too, as well as good relations with other countries it is crucial that all sections of the population live in peace together and national minorities can count on protection and support.
In this direction a good deal has already been achieved. Under the auspices of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union there are now a host of legislative and political initiatives, institutions and mechanisms in place with the specific aim of ensuring that national minorities – including notably the Roma and Sinti communities in all countries in Europe – are recognized and protected. One of the most recent initiatives in this field launched under Council of Europe auspices over a year ago is the European Roma and Travelers Forum.
Clearly, however, much yet remains to be done. In many countries in Europe Roma and Sinti still have to face racism and discrimination. Despite the human rights commitments all European countries have signed up to, they often find themselves marginalized and excluded. That is a situation we cannot allow to continue! Wherever they live, Roma and Sinti must not be relegated to the margins of society, they must enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow-citizens.
Europe – and Germany in particular – is conscious of its responsibility for the past and special obligation in this regard to vigorously combat racism, xenophobia and intolerance. That is the reason why practical steps have been taken to ensure that the crimes systematically perpetrated during the past century also against Europe's Roma and Sinti can never happen again. Exhibitions such as the one we are opening today can play a valuable role in highlighting our continuing collective responsibility in this area and raising awareness of the challenges we face both now and in the future. In this sense I hope the exhibition will be a great success throughout its tour across Europe!