Dr. Despot, you have been in office for six month – how would you summarize the challenges the Foundation is facing so far?
Our current challenges are immense – and urgent, because consensus on remembrance is no longer a guaranteed certainty. Just think about the AfD’s statements and the way they trivialize Germany’s National Socialist history and the deadly injustices that took place. There is no question that the boundaries of what can be said have shifted to the right. Language and thought have become radicalized and, I fear, will continue to do so. Fake news and disinformation campaigns fuel the fire and transfer online violence to the streets. Right now, more than two anti-Semitic incidents happen every day in Berlin alone. Acts of violence motivated by racism and anti-gypsyism are also continually increasing, both here in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Another source for concern is that fewer and fewer young people know about the crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist regime. At the same time, history that is shared and experienced by living people is starting to fade as eyewitnesses pass away...
We at the EVZ Foundation will respond to these challenges in our future activities. The Foundation turned twenty years old this year. It goes without saying that it remains true to its founding mission as set out in its birth certificate, the Foundation Law. Particularly when it comes to supporting survivors of the Holocaust and Porajmos, former forced laborers, and other “forgotten” victims of National Socialist persecution.
At the same time, we have to ask ourselves how can we keep the memory of the darkest hour in Germany’s history alive while simultaneously convincing young people to stand up for tolerance, humanity, and human rights in the here and now? How do we do our work and provide support so we can fulfill our mission, for example in relation to online threats? In other words, my conclusion is that we have a great deal of work to do. A lot of ideas are flowing for our agenda for the future... innovative approaches and pioneering concepts are in the works! Together with our extremely dedicated team, we have started developing a concrete program for the Foundation’s work and funding in its third decade. We’re not starting at “zero” though, because we are benefiting from the projects, partners, and networks we have at the Foundation.
Your comments give us an insight on the “what” behind the funding. At the same time, trends in society are making the “how” part of the Foundation’s work an ever more important aspect. What steps have you taken in terms of approaching the practical side of funding in a new way?
We will be taking various approaches: remembering and learning in pace with the times – while remaining sensitive to diversity, critical of anti-Semitism, aligning our efforts with the realities of younger people’s lives and, ideally, involving them – are the be-all and end-all here! To this end, we will continue to develop our education work, especially with young people from throughout Europe and at very different learning locations.
We are also emphasizing “action,” the aspiration to change. We will step up funding for organizations created by the Sinti and Roma themselves. The goal is to combat inherent marginalization and discrimination. We are putting this in motion with coalitions and empowerment.
Our funding will draw a line – between remembering what is past on the one hand, and recognizing marginalization and risks to human rights today as well as opportunities to take mature action in a spirit of solidarity on the other. We will also enhance our focus on being digital and on digital spaces – for example by supporting offers that are oriented toward action and expertise. I’m thinking of projects against hate speech and disinformation and digital, gamified learning formats.
You’re an expert in historical and political education yourself – what links do you see between your expertise and the Foundation’s mission of “Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future”?
Remembrance provides us with orientation in the here and now. By understanding the present, in terms of our ability to make judgments, we can consider various conceivable futures and arrive at the “best” possible course of action for our democratic society.
This is the fundamental principle behind the EVZ Foundation, and historical and political education is key in terms of learning from history, acting according to a moral compass, identifying scope for action, and making use of this scope. All so we can take a stance against marginalization and for human rights “if necessary.” To put it in somewhat more specific terms, historical and political education that has real-life relevance and is designed to be participative has a preventive effect. This type of education has the capacity to embed this responsibility for an inclusive, open community in patterns of individual behavior.
You are currently putting together a future agenda 2024 with the team at the Foundation. What are the next steps here, and what do you hope to have achieved in four years?
The future agenda comprises a concrete work and funding program for the coming years, updating the way funding is provided, reorganizing our internal structures at the EVZ Foundation, and enhancing our public presence – in line with our founding mission.
Since June 2020, the new Board of Directors and the entire Foundation team have embarked on a new chapter and already taken measures based on intensive internal consulting – new funding programs are set to start in the new year. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be organizing digital round tables so we can enter into more effective exchange with our partners and fellow supporters in civil society, education, science, culture, and the media.
In four years, we not only want to have reached more young people and funded pioneering projects; we also want to have made substantial and effective progress in counteracting the challenges I mentioned earlier. And we want to enter into alliances with partner organizations so we can extend our reach and the impact of our work.
Can you tell us about a response, project, or encounter that you found particularly surprising in your new role?
Phew, there has been more than one surprise. But one figure made a big impression on me: the EVZ Foundation has reached around 37,000 survivors throughout all groups of victims with its project funding last year, the majority of them in Poland and Israel.