Talking to ... Hugo Portisch: Europe needs unity and solidarity

Dr Hugo Portisch is a cosmopolitan, humanist and staunch European. Born in Bratislava (in what was then Czechoslovakia) in 1927, he and his family moved to his grandparents’ house in St. Pölten after the war. He is one of the most eminent journalists in Austria, and his television programmes have shaped the historical consciousness of an entire nation. He became an honorary citizen of the city of St. Pölten in April 2018.

Hugo Portisch © Florian Müller
Hugo Portisch visits the Museum of Lower AustriaMichael Duscher, Hugo Portisch, Siegfried Nasko (former councilor for Cultural Affairs of the City of St. Pölten, Christian Rapp (Scientific Direktor of Haus der Geschichte), Jakob Redl, Thomas Karl (Head of Department of Culture and Education of the City of St. Pölten)

Dr Portisch, you spent a lot of your childhood and youth in St. Pölten. How has the city changed in recent decades, and what is its greatest potential for development?

When I think of what St. Pölten was like in my childhood, I find it to be completely changed. My grandparents’ house was in Oberwagram, a small village from which people sallied forth to visit the city. And the city only started beyond the Traisen. From there, Rathausplatz square was within easy reach, and that was more or less it. Today, St. Pölten is a modern city.

The bid for European Capital of Culture is often described as a major project for the future. This of course raises the matter of the European dimension as a point of reference. In your opinion, what challenges is our Europe facing at the moment?

Those are two questions in one. Becoming a European Capital of Culture is always a positive challenge; every former Capital of Culture has faced this task, created many new buildings and cultural sites, and made major gains in terms of confidence and perspectives for the future.

Europe’s challenges, on the other hand, must be tackled jointly by all its members. First, this calls for unity and a will to resolve problems together and with great solidarity. At the moment, this shared willingness is lacking; nationalism and populism are being widely misused by politicians in various countries to consolidate their own power.

Many changes in European history happened partly because of crises. What roles can cities and regions assume in this context, and what are the opportunities and tasks for St. Pölten?

It depends on the type of crisis. So far, we have mainly had to deal with financial crises. It took a joint effort to handle them. Those challenges had to be mastered, first and foremost, by the governments of the member states. Individual state capitals were able to contribute, but they did not play a major role.

However, if another serious economic crisis occurs, a city like St. Pölten would certainly play a significant role in tackling the resulting challenges. Right now, Europe is mainly dealing with a refugee crisis. And here, every single local authority counts; the community and its political functionaries must show courage, philanthropy and determination.

You have travelled widely and experienced historical developments and transformations in person. Do you believe it is possible to define a European culture, and if so, how would you describe it?

Of course there is a pronounced European culture that differs greatly from cultural developments on other continents. This is because there is no other place in the world with as many different small and large peoples as Europe. Their coexistence over many centuries, their shared world view, which is strongly shaped by Christianity, and the Renaissance that emerged from that view have contributed strongly to the development of a shared European culture.

What are your hopes for the European Union in the next 50 years?

Mainly unity, solidarity, and a shared willingness to deploy Europe’s formidable potential to tackle major challenges. For instance, a joint European project to save Africa, something like the Marshall Plan, which the United States developed to save Europe. We Europeans need to understand one thing: we can only save Europe by saving Africa. Interestingly, China has already recognised that, though it probably has different objectives.

18 May 2018

In response to an invitation issued by mayor Matthias Stadler, Hugo Portisch, legendary contributor to the Austrian broadcasting corporation ORF, visited the state capital in mid-April 2018 and declared his support for St. Pölten’s bid to become European Capital of Culture 2024.

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