There’s a saying in German, “Gras über eine Sache wachsen lassen” (to let grass grow over a matter) – which means to forget something, to let something blow over.
This morning I saw a video from Rue Romuald Pruvost in Lens. We know that much has happened there during the last few years. Houses have been torn down, the road has been redirected. The pavement has disappeared. Where Number 74 used to stand, there’s now a young birch tree. And grass has grown. Nevertheless, the memory of what happened there on 21 June 1998 is still very much alive.
It is indelibly etched in the minds of many people in Germany, France, indeed throughout Europe. In my mind, too. I witnessed what happened back then.
We were so disgusted and appalled by these cold-blooded, barbaric attacks by German hooligans on you, Mr Nivel. And let me say quite frankly that I, and I’m most certainly not the only one in my country, was ashamed and still am today.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering inflicted on your family that day. However, I’m among the millions of people who were deeply affected and remain so today.
I’m profoundly saddened that you’re still suffering today as a result of this cowardly attack, yet the perpetrators have long since served their sentences and are now free. Justice was dispensed, but atonement is hardly possible in such a case.
I’m still appalled that in Lens, a town occupied by German soldiers during both World Wars, radical right-wing hooligans chanting “Wir sind wieder einmarschiert!” (We’ve invaded again!), went on a savage rampage intent on causing the greatest possible devastation. These images made the blood of many people in our country and beyond run cold.
Many individuals in your situation would have withdrawn and turned their backs on Germany or even on football. Who could have blamed you! But you reacted quite differently.
You’ve shown great personal strength in working to promote non-violence and peace in sport. The Daniel Nivel Foundation established in your name is dedicated to pre-empting football-related violence, pinpointing the root causes and, above all, helping the victims of such vile crimes. You yourself regularly take part in Franco-German fan projects and football matches. You deserve the greatest respect for showing so much courage and so much magnanimity!
Twenty years after the intolerable attack on you, you’re a role model, the epitomy of humanity and the determination not to succumb to prejudices or generalisations by seeking a nuanced picture.
This is more important than ever today. For nationalist slogans are threatening to become socially acceptable again in many parts of the world. We’re also witnessing this in Germany, in France and throughout Europe.
First of all its words – and then the actions follow. People who don’t hesitate to use violence, who do a Nazi salute or chase people are again taking to the streets in our country. That is intolerable.
And again today, those who protect us often do so at personal risk. Just as you did back then. We must never allow that to happen again!
Mr Nivel, you represent those in uniform, those in uniform who serve the common good. Those who ensure law and order and are often spat at or attacked or who, as in your case, are even almost killed. Police officers are one of the main pillars of our society. In day and night shifts, they do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job so that we can live in freedom. They all deserve our greatest respect, our appreciation and our recognition.
We must ensure that those who protect us are protected!
Last weekend in Berlin, 250,000 people showed that our streets can look very different – colourful, diverse and peaceful. They demonstrated their rejection of racism and exclusion and their support for tolerance and open-mindedness. Fortunately, the majority of people in our country still think this way.
You, too, have taken a courageous stance through your work and resolutely champion the values which enable us to live together in peace and mutual respect.
I’m sure that everyone will agree that you have become a symbol against hooligan violence as well as nationalism. A symbol for peace in sport and for the Franco-German friendship.
For that we are deeply indebted to you. I congratulate you on the award which I’m about to present to you. As a token of his recognition for your commitment to forgiveness and building bridges between peoples, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded you the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany on 4 September.
It’s one of the highest awards in the Federal Republic of Germany and you are a worthy recipient.
Let me conclude by addressing a few personal words to your wife.
You have been tending to your husband’s wounds, both the physical and the emotional wounds, from the very first day. Your last words to Daniel on the morning of 21 June 1998 were, “Look after yourself!”
You’re still doing that: 24 hours a day for more than 20 years. For that you deserve our recognition. I have the greatest respect for what you’re doing! As long as there are people in this world with a heart as big as yours, I won’t worry about the future.
Nivel family, Lorette, Daniel
You may rest assured that no matter how much grass grows in Rue Romuald Pruvost – we’ll never forget what happened there.
Thank you most sincerely and many congratulations on this award!