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“Latvian culture and language are in the happy position of having a state which protects 'Latvianness' and helps it to survive” - said Ints Dālderis, Latvia’s former Minister of Culture in an interview with E&M. On 18th of February, 2012, 74.8% of Latvian voters rejected Russian as a second official language. Christian brought together four young Latvians to discuss the result.
Kristina, Beāte and Laura agree that there should only be one official language in a country. Kristina says to her personally speaking Russian or Latvian does not mean a difference, Beāte deems it important to preserve the independence Latvia has finally achieved, and Laura, who has lived in Germany for almost nine years, states that she is proud of the majority in the referendum.
Marija, Russian by nationality and a Latvian citizen, also says "no": she appreciates Russian language and culture as well as Latvian, but she thinks that the lack of integration of the Russian population cannot be simply reversed by making Russian the second official language. Instead, she proposes establishing Russian as an administrative language on the municipal level, and to embark on a long-overdue integration policy.
In February 2011 former Latvian minister of culture, Ints Dālderis, talked with E&M about the importance of protecting the Latvian language. One year later, on the 18th of February 2012, a referendum was initiated to make Russian the second official language in Latvia. Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This article, the first in a two-part series, investigates the Latvian language question and asks whether language is a matter of identity – and a matter of conflict.
The facts and figures seem to speak a clear language: the referendum to make Russian the second official language in Latvia, initiated by the Russian movement "Native Tongue" on the 18th of February 2012, raised a high participation level of 69% and was "resoundingly" rejected by a majority of 74.8%.
Yet after the referendum it has become even more obvious that the unambiguous result is not in fact a sign of a nationwide consensus but of a strand going through Latvia's population. Many of the 62.1% ethnic Latvians in the population consider the referendum an encroachment on their country's freshly won independence, endangering "one of the most sacred foundations of the Constitution – the state language" (Latvian president Andris Bērziņš). And within the ethnically Russian part of the population, complaints about discrimination can be heard. "Over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have been humiliated by the authorities, by endless attempts either to assimilate or make them second-class citizens," claims Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of "Native Tongue." "So this is our answer."
"After Fukushima nobody can simply carry on as usual" and claim that our nuclear plants are safe, said German chancellor Angela Merkel on 14th of March 2011, to explain the adventurous shift of her nuclear policy as a consequence of the Japan earthquake.
This sentence also matches in a way the assessment of a catastrophe 256 years older. "After Lisbon nobody can simply carry on as before and claim that we live in the 'best of all possible worlds' " – that was, in other words, what many European intellectuals felt after the Portuguese capital had been devastated by a fatal earthquake and tsunami on 1st of November 1755.
The "best of all possible worlds" theory had been formulated by Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz in his Essai de Théodicée (1710). It was paradigmatic for the unbroken optimism the early enlightenment had embraced. Yet 39 years after Leibniz's death it was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon that undermined a central idea of his philosophy.
But Merkel's adversaries would now object: whoever said nuclear technology was safe (before Fukushima) must have been either ignorant or a lobbyist! Just as Leibniz' posthumous opponents sneered in 1755: whoever said that we lived in the best of all possible words (before Lisbon) must have been either an idiot or a cynic!
An earthquake of magnitude 9, a tsunami of 15 metres, conflagration for days. 85 percent of a blossoming metropolis is devastated, 235,000 people killed. A mental shake-up makes the foundations of age-old world views crumble, and when the initial distress dies away the world finds itself undergoing a process of deep rethinking hitherto unseen.
This is not Fukushima, this is not the "end of the nuclear era" (Der Spiegel). This is Lisbon on the 1st of November 1755, some will later call it the "end of the optimistic enlightenment era" (Ulrich Löffler). But what the historic disaster causes is both a setback and boost of enlightenment thinking. Some of its shock-waves have shaped modern intellectual Europe – and this is mostly for its good. How could that happen?
The French, not the Greeks, invented today's Europe and did so through bloodshed and tragedy. Rejecting the feudal-absolutist class society, realising the ideas and values of the enlightenment, 1789 was the birth of what would become a commonly shared notion of democracy and human rights throughout Europe. Yet 1789 also proved how dramatically a supreme moral vision can turn into its opposite through its very implementation – likewise a dilemma of persistent relevance. A German poet was early in grasping that, and tried to lead France on his alternative path to democracy: Friedrich Schiller.
Friedrich Schiller lived in Weimar. This sleepy little town was never a place for revolutions. On a court building of the little duchy of Schiller's time, a bon-mot of Kurt Tucholsky now reads: "Due to bad weather conditions the German revolution took place in music." And even that was still a far cry from 1789: when in France human rights were proclaimed in the name of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality and brotherhood), it would still take almost a century for any German sense of "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity and justice and freedom) to become reality.
At the time when the Bastille fell, many prominent intellectuals in all the German territories and duchies were enthusiastic about what was happening in neighbouring Paris. Close friends of Schiller's were among them, and he himself had been counted as one of the most progressive thinkers of the enlightenment era and an uncompromising critic of feudalist despotism. But he also seemed to be uncertain; especially when the prison's governor, who had been granted a free pardon, was murdered and his head carried through the streets of Paris. When Schiller's colleague Körner explicitly inquired about his opinion on the revolution in a letter, he left the question unanswered in his reply.
|Friedrich Schiller, 1793|
Then the French revolutionaries appointed Schiller honorary citizen of France, in acknowledgement of his novel Die Räuber. That was on the 26th of August 1792. One week later 1,500 royalist prisoners were massacred in Paris. King Louis, degraded to common citizen Louis Capet, was put in jail. Soon Maximilien de Robespierre, president of the National Assembly, would proclaim "the despotism of freedom in the struggle against tyranny", and his ally Antoine St.-Just would state: "a republic is based on the complete extermination of anything opposed to it." Now Schiller was not just unenthusiastic, he was sincerely worried.
In the early days of 1793, he seriously planned to travel to Paris and make a fiery speech in front of his new fellow citizens. His plan was to stop the execution of the imprisoned monarch by convincing the members of the National Assembly of his vision on how their revolutionary goals could become reality; that only the aesthetic education of man could create a society that could implement the ideals of enlightenment on a non-violent basis!
Abandon the guillotine, rush to the theatre, experience how the lovely and the sublime catapult your mind into a free play between reason and the senses, within a state of disinterested pleasure! Watch and behold the beautiful and become a freer, better human being!
He wrote that in 1799, and his Letters on the aesthetic education of man can be considered a bright antithesis to the bloody rebirth of European democracy in France. Instead of Tucholsky's teasing of the Germans, Schiller envisioned a revolution not in the arts but through the arts.
But Friedrich Schiller was not there to save Louis Capet. The King's head rolled on the 21st of January 1793, a "measure of welfare", as Robespierre had called it. Robespierre's own head followed on 28th of July 1794. Schiller stopped reading French newspapers because these "slaves of the brutes" disgusted him.
Still I remain curious about what Robespierre's reaction would have been had Schiller really shown up at the National Assembly. The passionate poet spoke in a strong Swabian dialect.
I live in Weimar. Maybe you have heard of it. It is the town of Goethe and Schiller. The cradle of German culture and one of the numerous cradles of European culture. Every day I pass by their statue, standing sentinel on the theatre square: there they are, Schiller the dramatic, Goethe the classic, the two poet-friends, genius up above, tourist below, zoom in, click, go.
Every day I pass by trees and bushes, quiet, babbling and burbling waters behind, a gravel path around the back of the city castle, and there he is. Or rather his head in bronze, and I passed by many times before deciphering the inscription below: M-I-C-K-I-E-W-I-C-Z. Never heard of it. Later at an East Europe seminar I learnt it’s pronounced not like „Micky“, but like "Miez", the sound a German cat is said to make. Never heard of him, how could I?! The Polish Goethe! The neighbour's poet-duke!
Born 1798 near Nowogródek (nowadays Belarus), educated in Wilna (Vilnius, nowadays Lithuania), exiled in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Odessa and Paris with intermezzi in Berlin, Venice, Florence, Naples, and Rome, deceased in 1855 in Constantinople while raising Jewish troops for Poland against Russia under a French mandate – a magnificent specimen of European biography!
So what was his œuve a specimen of? Poland, primarily. With his magnum opus Pan Tadeusz (published 1834 in Paris) he created the national epos for the state that did not exist during his life-time. Meanwhile, his Ksiegi Narodu Polskiego i Pielgrzymstwa Polskiego ("Books of the Polish people and the Polish pilgrimage", 1832) was a unifying signpost to Polish expatriates throughout Europe, and his dramatic cycle Dziady ("Funeral ceremony", first parts 1823) was scrupulously persecuted and confiscated by the occupying powers in Poland.
But the Romanticist with an eye for the humiliated and insulted had the big picture in mind, and to him the liberation wars were a pan-European phenomenon: "Europe's situation", he wrote in 1849, "is of the kind that it is unlikely that only one people for itself could embark on the path to progress; it would risk to be destroyed and at the same time to ruin the common cause." In 1848 French professors dedicated a chair to him, "the great Mickiewicz, whose words lead the worlds together, seemed to constitute a federation between orient and occident sounding from the Collège de France to Asia".
Perhaps the mystery of the bust in Weimar lies in a chance meeting, in 1828 he passed by the then village-like capital of Weimar, a politically meaningless but culturally ambitious duchy. It is here that he met Goethe, one of the greats of German and European Culture. Maybe the two had a nice chat on the idea of a "federation of free citizens and nations", grounded in a commonly shared culture and system of values, as Mickiewicz once wrote. The Polish romanticist was one of its forerunners for sure.
Photo By Most Curious [CC-BY-SA-3.0]