Speech by the Minister of State for Europe at the Federal Foreign Office, Michael Roth, on the occasion of the opening of the 64th Bad Hersfeld Festival

13.06.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to start with the reassuring news that the great majority of you are sitting here today because you want to be here, not because you have to be here. Yet at ceremonies up and down the length of the country the circumstances may well be different. You, friends of the festival, carry the oldest open-air theatre in Germany in your hearts and you carry it there through highs and lows. You are the real protagonists in the screenplay of this now 64-year-old story.

This story has made Bad Hersfeld into something special, indeed unique. Each and every one of us can tell our own personal account of our connection to the festival.

My story begins in the early 1980s. It is the story of a boy from the country who, along with many other pupils, benefited from the cheap tickets on offer for dress rehearsals. I may not be able to remember which play I first saw performed on this impressive stage, but the atmosphere which cast its spell not only over these ruins but over the whole town is something which I will never forget. And so today I must say that I am somewhat proud to be able to speak to you not only as Minister of State for Europe and representative of the Federal Government, but as someone who grew up in this region. Thank you to all of you who had a part in giving me this honour.

The people of Bad Hersfeld are proud of their free festive spirit during Germany’s oldest folk festival, the “Lullusfest”. But what exactly is freedom for a festival? In the summer months, Bad Hersfeld shines in the glow of something special. We are all familiar with this. The curiosity for new faces and voices, for names and stars. The town beats to a different rhythm, picks up a new pace: packed cafés, an overflowing pedestrian zone, chitchat and gossip from the cafeteria, intrigue and love, tragedy and comedy. And we’re at the heart of it all! There may still be some people in our region who have never spent an evening in these ruins. But nonetheless they are proud of and grateful for this annual summer which frees us from our daily routines and prompts us to shift our gaze to drama, both on stage and behind the scenes in the theatre of life.

The Bad Hersfeld Festival is a declaration of freedom and this is how it began in 1951 – as a beacon of culture in the face of the doctrine of lack of freedom and oppression imposed a few kilometres further east.

Here, we know to what extent freedom is at once valuable and vulnerable. Up until 25 years ago, our freedom to travel and our liberty were limited. As some know, I come from Heringen. I grew up less than a kilometre as the crow flies from the border with the former GDR. Until I left school, it wasn’t possible to travel beyond the Eastern horizon, for once, Udo Lindenberg was wrong, as that is where the Wall, fences and fragmentation mines systems were to be found. Back then it was unimaginable for me too that this reality, quite literally cast in concrete, would ever change.

That was terrible for the people, especially for our compatriots in the former GDR. But our region suffered too. Due to the division of Germany, Bad Hersfeld stood on the sidelines for four decades. “Zonenrandgebiet” – a cold and technical German word describing the immediate area on both sides of the former border between East and West Germany – is a term which makes it hard to believe that this supposedly unfortunate location would turn out to be propitious for our region’s cultural life.

For – thanks not least to subsidies from the Federal budget – in its early days, the Bad Hersfeld Festival played a very special role in the Federal Republic’s cultural scene and above all its theatrical scene.

This particular significance was also evident in the fact that until 2009, for nearly six decades, the Federal President was a patron of the festival. Over the decades, high-ranking directors – from Johannes Klein to Holk Freytag – have successfully developed the festival into a highly symbolic brand. Renowned actors have graced the stage here and the Bad Hersfeld Festival had a great capacity to attract a national and international audience.

When the Wall came down 25 years ago, Bad Hersfeld quite literally woke up to a different reality.

When the first people then crossed the border, they were searching for something which had been kept from them by the totalitarian regime of the GDR. Economic prosperity was one of these things – but what our compatriots also wanted was to live in freedom, peace and security. Values such as democracy and the rule of law, freedom of opinion and of the press, cultural and religious diversity held a powerful attraction back then just as they do now. A force stronger than the divisive one.

People in other Central and Eastern European states also longed for these values. The unification of Germany is unthinkable without the freedom movements in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. With the EU’s eastward enlargement ten years ago we took another step forward along this path. Then the people of Central and Eastern Europe courageously revolutionised politics, the economy and their everyday lives in the spirit of European values.

This was anything but a walk in the park, yet nonetheless our neighbours never doubted where they belonged – back in the centre of Europe.

A great deal changed with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, not only here in this region but also for the festival. There is no longer any “zone”. 25 years ago, this term, which had defined us for such a long time, suddenly lost all meaning. I’m not sure whether the Bad Hersfeld Festival has drawn the conclusions it needed to from this historic turning point. What followed the stroke of luck 25 years ago? Have we had an honest and considered discussion about it, even if is controversial?

Nowadays, Bad Hersfeld no longer lies on the edge but right at the heart of Europe.

The festival now needs to hold its own under very different circumstances and must face new, damn fierce competition.

But I think that every such test of its mettle presents a great chance. Because essentially culture feeds off its connections with others – it needs stimulation, intellectual input from outside. The festival can benefit from this if it seizes the chance offered by this new Europe free from boundaries: vibrant exchange with artists from all over Europe and cooperation with other theatre companies, both in Germany and abroad. Under director Holk Freytag, the festival is striving to open itself up more to Europe and this is something that we should wholeheartedly support!

For art has always been most successful when it looks beyond national borders. In the middle ages, artists and craft workers carried their ideas, designs and talents across borders into other countries.

I’m thinking for example of the architects of Europe’s great cathedrals. This also generated and boosted cross-border artistic flows such as baroque, romanticism or expressionism.

Despite this such radical change is never easy. The chatter that the festival’s status is supposedly in decline is simply hot air. One is tempted to ask whether art, whether theatre has become less important today than it was in previous times. Back then every performance which took place in these ruins, just a few kilometres from the communist system, was a statement of freedom. And today? Without the political dimension which it previously had due to its proximity to the border, is a great theatre festival such as the one in Bad Hersfeld still needed or meaningful today?

This leads us to yet another question on the requirement for and reality of art. It is not a question for Bad Hersfeld alone, but one controversial everywhere! In a nutshell – is art not getting ahead of itself if it claims that it wants to change politics and society? Is this claim still realistic? Does art, does theatre have anything to do with political tests of mettle that we see today, for instance in the latest developments in Ukraine or in Turkey?

Let’s try putting Bad Hersfeld on a par with the Maidan and Gezi Park, rather than Salzburg and Avignon. Is that ridiculous or courageous? In Bad Hersfeld we may not be confronted with protests or revolutionary movements. But what should stop us from using art to reflect and pick up on what is going on elsewhere in Europe here?

There is one thing that art can always do – that is serve as a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected. Art questions who and what we are and why we act in the way that we do. It shakes us up, stops us from simply pressing on without comment.

An example for this meaning of theatre is the play “Anne Frank”. It serves as an impressive reminder of the cruelty that man is capable of. In this special year, 2014, we are not only remembering the fall of the Wall but the outbreak of the Second World War 75 years ago. So it is fitting that Bad Hersfeld has included a play like this in the programme.

Such plays help ensure that we never forget the Holocaust and the unparalleled betrayal of all civilised values that it entailed. This is one function of theatre: it portrays very concrete information, for example about history, about our volatile, tragic past.

And “The Name of the Rose”, another play on the programme, is also not just an exciting thriller. It shows us what life in the middle ages was like and what shaped societal and political discussion back then.

This aspect of the festival is all the more important to me because I believe that we must use history as an anchor in order to be able to understand and weather the crises of today. History does not remain in the past. We can only succeed in the present if we keep sight of our history – with its dark and joyful moments alike.

The fact that we have dealt with points of rupture in German history in a self-critical manner has earned us respect and recognition abroad. It is important that we do not sweep past experiences under the carpet.

For example, we need to know what Poland and the Baltic states experienced in the past so that we don’t disregard their fears regarding Russia’s expansionist endeavours. And of course we must be aware of the tragic history of German-Russian relations when today, despite a certain amount of strain, we continue trying to overcome this lack of communication between Europe and Russia.

Yet that is only one dimension. Theatre is far from simply a textbook on history. It also tells us “what isn’t in the textbooks,” as Erich Kästner once put it. Theatre shows us people in very real situations, in which they are confronted with questions and problems which are encountered by people all over the world.

Theatre can help us to reflect on our own experiences and to better understand the world that we live in.

Learning to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and to empathise with them is a pre-requisite to understanding them.

In Schiller’s masterpiece “Mary Stuart”, we experience a scene in which this understanding is most likely no longer possible because the chance to meet and listen to each other has been missed. “Had you vouchsafed to hear me then, / When I so earnest sought to meet your eye, / It never would have come to this”, Maria Stuart says to Elizabeth in Fotheringay Park.

This quest for understanding, for a common perspective instead of confrontation, is particularly important in politics and in diplomacy. This is one more issue we are reminded of in the commemorative year of 2014.

For we are also remembering the First World War. The “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century began its disastrous course 100 years ago with the shots in Sarajevo.

In our collective memory, in contrast to that of our neighbours in England or France, this event is often overshadowed by the Second World War and the crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust.

This year, the Federal Foreign Office has launched a series of events on the First World War – specifically because this topic particularly affects us politicians and diplomats. It is entitled “Of the Failure of and the Need for Diplomacy”. The history of the outbreak of war one hundred years ago and of the collapse of the fragile balance of power in Europe in the summer of 1914 is indeed a disturbing tale of a failure: a failure of the elites, the military and diplomacy. In the complex and interconnected Europe of the early 20th century, the old mindsets moulded by the Congress of Vienna had long become inadequate.

This is exactly when diplomats should have been seeking out dialogue, weighing up level-headed alternatives and working out compromises. Whilst they did not have the appropriate tools to do so, it was above all the will that they were lacking.

In Europe we have learnt from these terrible experiences. They serve as both a warning and an incentive to avoid repeating past mistakes and to use all instruments available to us to protect peace and freedom. By the same token, the memory of the overwhelming joy with which people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe fell into each others arms after decades of separation should give us hope – even seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved through a willingness to talk, persistence and courage. It is our task to seek out understanding wherever we can.

In order for theatre, art and culture to be able to reflect our society, the framework conditions need to be right. In the 1960s or 1970s, things which were quite simply possible in Bad Hersfeld were impossible 30 kilometres away on the other side of the internal German border.

For art can only thrive in freedom, as Schiller once said: it is the “daughter of freedom”. And not only individuals, but we politicians must also be willing to let art query or even challenge us. It is sometimes unpleasant to have a mirror held up to you. But we have to persevere, my dear colleagues from governments, parliaments and city halls! Because we will become robust if we not only endure but engage with such controversy, in critical exchange on an equal footing. This gives rise to strength, creativity and skill.

Our former Federal President Johannes Rau said it himself in a speech in 2004 and it is as true now as it was then: art and culture are not the cherry on the cake but the yeast in the dough. If we don’t have this yeast then the cake will collapse. Whether the dough rises is less a question of indicative budget figures or decisions taken by the town hall or general managers. For the yeast to rise, we need the correct conditions in our society and we are all responsible for creating them. It is not only controversy that puts our festival at risk. It is primarily the shoulder shrugging and apathy of many that presents a serious threat to what has brought us together here today: the Bad Hersfeld Festival.

The current debate over the future of our festival may have arrived late, but it certainly has not arrived too late. What do we want to take forward from this fantastic festival which carries more weight than any politician or general manager – and what do we want to leave behind? Of what value is this festival of theatre as a reflection of freedom in the 21st century tu us?

Allow me to give you one piece of unsolicited advice – our festival will not survive as a copy of Bayreuth. And we need neither Thomas Gottschalk nor Roberto Blanco. We need the spirit of freedom. Yes, this does entail a certain amount of contention – with critical letters to the editor, heated debates at the regulars’ table and within the municipal committee, perhaps even some empty seats in these wonderful ruins.

This festival will survive if it defines itself as a part of the artistic process of understanding Europe, both from within and as a whole. We are right in the middle of it and we have stories to tell: small and great alike, about what freedom means. About this continent’s long struggle, one which is far from over. And in the midst of all this, Bad Hersfeld glows.

Let the festival shine – beyond the borders of our town and region. Perhaps all the way to the Maidan and Gezi Park.

The festival is a piece of Europe’s history and its future. Let us dream together! A dream for Europe, a dream which is lively, critical and full of hope.

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