Culture, citizenship and the European unification process: in remembrance of Günter Grass

By Steve Austen and Karolina Nowacki

Since 2004, the European Commission has launched various initiatives to promote the notion that European citizenship only can develop through means of cultural action. This idea however is not new.

In earlier years, citizenship, as a product of the implementation of human rights, came to the forefront of political cooperation between the two political blocs; the so called West and the socialist arena including the Soviet-Union. This finally resulted in the Helsinki agreements and the instalment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This development – nowadays known as The Helsinki Process – was a caesura in post-war times.

It had taken some time: the idea of a European security conference was already introduced in the 1950s by the Soviet government.

NATO agreed on further talks no earlier than the late 1960s. NATO insisted on bringing in humanitarian questions such as the free movement of people and information throughout the Eastern Bloc. By that time general human rights were not explicitly taken into account. Their role started to grow with the course of the actual process after 1973.

steve austen en gunter grass
Steve Austen en Günter Grass (Nobelprijs voor de Literatuur, 1999), oprichters van Gulliver (‘the informal working body of Gulliver, 1987, Amsterdam) tijdens een bezoek aan Felix.

In the Blue Book, the final recommendation of the Helsinki consultations of June 1973, it was suggested to organise the three main subjects in the so-called Baskets for Security, Economy and Humanitarian Questions. The equality of the baskets of the Helsinki Final Act presented culture as an actual means to overcome political barriers. Culture was slowly allowed to descend from an ideological platform and became a more practicable notion.

The power of the symbolic to instigate reality enabled the widening civic movement to secure civil and human rights by intervening with the actual political process as well as supporting its achievements from bottom-up.

Günter Grass

Artists and intellectuals took the initiative to take the Final Act as a guarantee of their civil, human and cultural rights and measured their current condition against the background of these agreed rights. Hence the follow-up process was dominated by efforts of securing these rights both from political as well as from civil perspective. Eventually, both efforts blended in and served the improvement of the whole situation on both levels.

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The_Helsinki_Process Grass A Soul for Europe

Picture above: Günter Grass visited the Felix Meritis Foundation in the fall of 2002. He was welcomed by: from the left: Job Cohen, Mayor of Amsterdam, former member board of trustees Felix Meritis Foundation (FMF); Linda Bouws, director FMF; Michael Zeeman, poet, critic and Gulliver member; Günter Grass; Ton Nijenhuis, director of Germany Institute Amsterdam; Ruud Bleyerveld, board member of the University of Amsterdam; Steve Austen, former director of FMF and co-initiator of Gulliver.