Much More Than a Partnership of Convenience

13.06.2018Much More Than a Partnership of Convenience

Is there a common European identity? If so, what exactly does that mean when it comes to politics and culture? Hermann Parzinger, president of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK) and also the current executive president of Europa Nostra, talks about his vision for Europe’s cultural heritage – and why he considers himself Bavarian, German, and European as well.

The interview was conducted by Claudia Fritzsche

March 2018: Hermann Parzinger and Emmanuel Macron in Paris
March 2018: Hermann Parzinger and Emmanuel Macron in Paris © Élysée-Palast

Mr. Parzinger, why is there a Year of Cultural Heritage?

Because it is important to put the spotlight on Europe’s cultural heritage, to pay more attention to it. Cultural heritage has a local, regional, national, and of course a European dimension – but the people in Europe are often not fully aware of the latter dimension. For that reason, we would like to strengthen this aspect for the long term during the European Year of Cultural Heritage. We are also convinced that cultural heritage can make an important contribution to strengthening European identity.

What is specifically European about the European Year of Cultural Heritage?

Unity in diversity is what makes Europe and its cultural heritage unique. We need to make people more aware of what binds us together, the things that our respective national cultures have in common. We should no longer allow cultural heritage and history to be connected solely to nation-state narratives. Projects across borders, like Fürst Pückler Park in Bad Muskau on the German-Polish border or Danewerk near the German-Danish border, place especially important, visible emphasis on this.

The logo of Europa Nostra, the European network of non-governmental organizations that is committed to protecting its common cultural heritage
The logo of Europa Nostra, the European network of non-governmental organizations that is committed to protecting its common cultural heritage

Is it good to make resolute boundaries to non-European cultural heritage?

It is impossible for this kind of boundary to exist, since Europe’s borders are flexible; part of Europe’s history and thus its cultural heritage has always been its relationship to other cultural areas. The Mediterranean Sea does not separate us Europeans from North Africa or the Near East. Instead, it connects us because it has always been an region of intense communication. The borders in the east are especially difficult to define. Where does Europe’s culture stop: in Moscow, the Ural Mountains or in Vladivostok? People from all over the world are coming to us in increasing numbers. The issues of how we should deal with this, what it means for our society in Europe, and how we can really accomplish integration are a challenge for all of Europe. But the most pressing goal of the European Year of Cultural Heritage is undoubtedly to strengthen the European identity and feeling of solidarity of the people who live in Europe today.

How can culture and cultural heritage help to strengthen European identity?

It is important for the people of Europe to realize that Europe will only have a future if we don’t see it as just a partnership of convenience that will only function if everyone gets something out of it and threatens to fall apart as soon as serious problems arise. We are currently faced with this today. Cultural heritage is materialized history in the form of buildings, monuments, artworks, everyday objects, and more; we encounter some of these things every day. This gives cultural heritage an enormous power of identification and a political and social dimension. Showing what we have in common can strengthen our emotional ties to Europe. That is exactly what we want to do.

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“It is important for the people of Europe to realize that Europe only has a future if we view it as more than just a partnership of convenience.” Hermann Parzinger

What does it mean to you to be European?

After all the confusion, wars, and animosity over the centuries, we have made enormous progress since 1945. Europe has become a region of peace, but in the recent past we experienced first how people are gradually forgetting this or are taking it for granted. They think that they do not have to do anything to help it remain so. Second, these accomplishments are now in danger. These are the reasons why we need to take action and not leave Europe to the politicians. For me personally, being European means that I always keep the European aspect of my existence and my cultural self-identity in mind. I am not just Bavarian and German, but I also happen to be European.

The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz helped to organize the European Cultural Heritage Summit, which met in Berlin from June 18 to 24. What was the summit’s goal? What did you want to achieve?

There have been positive developments recently on the level of European institutions and the European Commission. They appear to have recognized the strategic significance of culture and cultural heritage for Europe’s further development. Various funding programs are being discussed and a New European Agenda for Culture is on the drawing board, for example. So the European Year of Cultural Heritage and particularly the summit in Berlin at the end of June took place at just the right time. We always said that for us, the Year of Cultural Heritage and the summit are not just nice events with speeches: in the end, something that creates sustainability must be part of the final result.

European Cultural Heritage Summit 2018

Together with Europa Nostra and the German National Committee for Monument Preservation, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz organized the European Cultural Heritage Summit “Sharing Heritage – Sharing Values.” The summit agenda offered a week of political, specialized, and public events on the subject of “Sharing Heritage – Sharing Values.” The events were organized either by one of the three summit hosts or one of the many partners from all over Europe.

European Cultural Heritage Summit 2018

This includes establishing and financing European funding programs that build on national activities – since the EU member states are responsible for preservation of cultural heritage – and above all, strengthen their European dimension. This includes supporting innovation and cooperation in Europe and including young people and civil society as a whole to an unprecedented extent. We need to develop a common strategic vision for Europe’s cultural heritage.

The Winzerberg project in Potsdam is one of this year’s recipients of the European Union Award for Cultural Heritage
The Winzerberg project in Potsdam is one of this year’s recipients of the European Union Award for Cultural Heritage © Roland Schulze

Can you name a cultural preservation project that has particularly impressed you?

The nice thing is that there is an infinite number of excellent projects – this is encouraging. Take Fürst Pückler Park in Bad Muskau as an example: the cross-border German-Polish dimension is impressive and both countries are committed to it. Or Der Winzerberg – königlicher Weinberg im Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam (Winzerberg – the royal vinyards at Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam), a project in which more than a thousand people from all walks of life volunteered to prevent the ruin and complete loss of this monument. This shows the power of identification that cultural heritage can have and how it can mobilize people.

What risks are involved with neglecting cultural heritage?

People who neglect cultural heritage forget their own history and eventually lose their identity. When cultural heritage is not maintained, but rather allowed to fall into ruin or even be destroyed, it is irretrievably lost and that is final.

How should we deal with (ostensibly) difficult cultural heritage?

It is hard to give a general answer since the difficulties can be in very different areas. There is cultural inheritance with problematic provenance, for example, Nazi confiscated art and the colonial collections in our museums. Monuments left to us by criminal governments are also difficult; educating visitors is of central importance here, and then the monuments can play a major role in a successful culture of remembrance. Basically, the point is to face a difficult cultural heritage with the largest degree of openness, criticism or self-criticism, and transparency, and not to hide anything or permit ideologically motivated misinterpretations, exaggerations, and attitudes, no matter where they come from.

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