“The European Union was the most beautiful response to the tragedy of the Second World War”

November 17 is Volkstrauertag (National Day of Mourning) in Germany. This day of remembrance honors the victims of war and violence in all nations. This year, Rafał Dutkiewicz addressed the German parliament. In our interview, the former mayor of Wrocław, Poland, explained the role that cities play in European integration.

Ronja Nayeri | November 2019
Maciej Kulczynski

About

Rafał Dutkiewicz is a politician, entrepreneur, university lecturer and activist. From 2002 through 2018, he was mayor of the city of Wrocław. Prior to his tenure as mayor, Dutkiewicz served as a university lecturer for over ten years, teaching logic and mathematics. During the period of martial law, he was active in the underground Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in Wrocław. During his term as mayor, Wrocław recorded its highest public investment of the postwar period. 

Mr. Dutkiewicz, as mayor of the city of Wrocław, you had a “Monument to Shared Memory” erected there in 2008. What exactly does this mean?

During the Communist era, Wrocław’s old cemeteries were removed – and along with them, the gravestones of Wrocław citizens: Germans, Jews, Czechs, … At the beginning of this century, people had the idea of buying up all the remaining gravestones and using them to construct a “Monument to Shared Memory.” It was important to me that the relatives of the people who were buried there would have a place to go where they could light a candle. As early as 2008, when the monument was erected, residents of Wrocław also came there and lit candles. Since then, this has happened every year.  

So is there a shared culture of remembrance?

As far as the culture of remembrance is concerned: In the case of Wrocław, it really exists. We have double roots, as it were. When the Germans were driven out of Wrocław (German: Breslau) at the end of the war, and the Polish people – some of whom had been driven from their homes – came to Wrocław, there was a complete “exchange” of the population. But the story of the city is still important today. A young person from Wrocław might say, “We had ten Nobel Prize winners from Wrocław.” But that is part of Wrocław’s history, not Poland’s. Nevertheless, a young person from Wrocław would emphasize that these are “our” Nobel Prize winners. To me, this phenomenon seems to be a European one, in the sense that we have accepted the city’s complex history.

Joerg Glaescher

You come from a small village and came to Wrocław/Breslau for the first time in the 1960s, and you were the mayor there for 16 years. As a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, you now live in Berlin. What connects these two cities for you?  

Before the war, Kurt Tucholsky said, “Every respectable Berliner comes from Breslau.” When I look out of my office window here, I see St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. St. Hedwig is a saint from Lower Silesia – and up until 1939, Berlin was part of the archdiocese of Breslau. From a historical standpoint, the cities are closely connected. Wrocław was the cultural capital of Europe in 2016, and we implemented projects in both cities in connection with that. The Luneta/Fernrohr (Telescope) project was a multimedia installation that took place in front of Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse railway station and Wrocław’s main station. People could see and hear what was happening in the other city through monitors and microphones, and school classes and artists could talk to each other. It worked wonderfully. So it is not only the history and the administration of the two cities that come into contact; it is also the citizens and the artists.

On the National Day of Mourning, we remember the victims of war and violence in all nations. What can memories of the past teach us in the present?

The Second World War began 80 years ago. So you might say, “That was so long ago!” Maybe we think that peace and democracy have always existed. But that is not the case: We have to strive for these things. In Europe today – also in my country – there are considerable problems with liberal democracy and the rule of law. It is our duty to remember that peace is not something we can take for granted forever, and that the European Union was our continent’s most beautiful response to the tragedy of the Second World War. So the National Day of Mourning is a link between the past and the future.  

We think that peace and democracy have always existed. But that is not the case.

You are a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. What do you work on at the Academy?

At the Academy, I focus on two subjects: First, the expansion of European integration and the question of whether cities and communities could play a more significant role here. Second, the subject of Ukraine and Ukrainian integration. There are currently more than 100,000 Ukrainians living in Wrocław, who immigrated to Poland for economic reasons.

Nowadays our daily life takes place primarily in cities. The national level still plays a role, but it can only achieve its goals in an international context. In our case, that means with the help of the European Union. At the moment we can observe two phenomena: European integration is in the midst of a crisis, as demonstrated by the example of Brexit. On the other hand, participation in the European elections was much higher than in the past, and a clear majority of Europeans said, “We are committed to Europe.”

So when the people say, “Europe is important to us,” then local politics should also get more and more involved here. What is most important to me is exchange – human, personal and intellectual exchange – so that people can benefit from Europe’s cultural complexity. And that often happens in cities.

About Wrocław

The city of Wrocław in southwestern Poland has had an eventful history. In 1741, as a result of the Silesian Wars, the city fell under Prussian, and later under German rule. After World War II, the German population was almost completely relocated, and Wrocław once again became affiliated with Poland. With the German-Polish Border Treaty of November 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany officially recognized Wrocław again as part of Poland.

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