Tilman Zülch, founder and longstanding Secretary General of the Society for Threatened Peoples, passes away
STP honors Zülch as a visionary and an unfaltering advocate for persecuted people all over the world
“On March 17, we lost our founder, father of the association, friend, and longstanding initiator of our human rights campaigns – Tilman Zülch – who died in Göttingen at the age of 83. We are deeply saddened by this loss. Our thoughts are with his family and his friends all over the world,” stated Burkhard Gauly, Chairman of the Board of the Society for Threatened Peoples, on behalf of the board and the entire office.
Tilman Zülch was a visionary in the field of human rights work. His focus was on persecuted members of ethnic and religious minorities and on indigenous peoples, and his selfless commitment against genocide crimes and expulsion is a shining example of international human rights work – as the last decades have shown that it is especially members of minority groups, stateless peoples, and indigenous communities who are defenseless against persecution and other threats, even extermination. It was one of Tilman Zülch’s guiding principles that these people need an international lobby to vehemently speak up for them. For Zülch – who was born in East Prussia, from where he and his family were later forced to flee, and who was strongly influenced by his experiences of National Socialism and the post-war era – it was evident that knowledge of the Shoah is an obligation to take responsibility today in order to prevent further genocides and violence. In our daily commitment to help persecuted people all over the world, we, the Society for Threatened Peoples, will take heed of these principles and Zülch’s approach of focusing on the human being, of feeling and showing empathy, and of providing selfless assistance to people in need all over the world. Together with Klaus Guercke, Tilman Zülch founded the “Aktion Biafra-Hilfe” in 1968 (the basis of the STP) to advocate for the ten million members of the people of the Ibo who were subjected to a hunger blockade by the Nigerian government, with military support by the Soviet Union and Great Britain. With the church-organized airlift, Zülch had flown to the encircled area of Biafra where he witnessed the starvation which, ultimately, cost two million lives. In October of 1968, Günter Grass held a much-noticed speech in the course of the first large-scale Biafra-demonstration in Hamburg. Personalities such as Ernst Bloch, Heinrich Böll, Paul Celan, Helmut Gollwitzer, Erich Kästner, Siegfried Lenz, and Carl Zuckmayer supported the activities of the Biafra-Hilfe. In the following decades, Zülch managed to get many people interested in the STP and to inspire lasting commitment for the organization: celebrities, representatives of minority groups, members of the association, and more than 30,000 supporters.
With Tilman Zülch at the helm, the STP often swam against the current, showing commitment for population groups that nobody talks about – or, in German, “von denen keiner spricht“, which is the title of one of the books Zülch published. As of 1970, the STP continuously advocated for the Kurds, the Yazidis, and the Assyrians, Aramaeans, and Chaldean Christians in the Middle East. Thus, the STP brought to light that German companies were involved in the construction of the poison gas industry and a fleet of military helicopters in Iraq – which led to the killing of 5,000 people in the Kurdish city of Halabja. In 1977/78, we organized the first large round-trip through Europe for indigenous delegates from 16 countries in North and South America – with overwhelming resonance.
In the period from 1979 to 1981, the STP had shone light on the Holocaust of the Sinti and Roma, which had been tabooed up to then. The breakthrough came with the publishing of “In Auschwitz vergast, bis heute verfolgt” (“Gassed in Auschwitz, persecuted until today”), with an introduction by the recently deceased philosopher Ernst Tugendhat; with a memorial march to the concentration camp memorial Bergen-Belsen – organized in cooperation with the Association of the German Sinti, led by Romani Rose, with the then President of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, and the then President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Heinz Galinski, as participants – and, finally, with the International Roma Congress (1981) in Göttingen, under the auspices of Simon Wiesenthal and Indira Gandhi, with 400 Roma delegates from 26 countries and five continents. The German Federal Government acknowledged the genocide crimes: stateless Sinti were given back their German citizenship, the term “Sinti/Roma” was established to replace the derogative term “Zigeuner” (“gypsy”), and the newly founded institutions of the population group became state-funded.
The STP was probably the loudest and most insistent voice in the German-speaking area when hundreds of thousands of Europeans, Bosnian Muslims, were forced to run for their lives, got trapped at closed borders, and were killed in concentration and rape camps, in summary shootings, and in the bombing of their cities. The massacre of Srebrenica marked the tragic culmination of their ordeal. In 1993, the STP organized the Bosnia-demonstration in front of the concentration camp memorial Buchenwald – with Marek Edelman, last commander of the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, and the President of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis. This was followed by a huge Bosnia-demonstration in Bonn, with 50,000 participants (1994), the founding of the Bosnian Forum (1994), the construction of a symbolic cemetery in front of the residential house of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1995), and the congress on the Bosnian genocide in Frankfurt (1995). In this context, we are also indebted to personalities such as Rita Süssmuth, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, and Martin Walser for their support.
As early as in in the 1980s, the STP was one of only a few organizations that advocated for Soviet dissidents such as the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev. Thus, it was logical to work intensively against the wars in Chechnya (1992 to 1994, 1999 to 2006), to denounce the horrendous crimes committed by the Putin regime there, and to express strong criticism of the German Russia-policy in the 2000s. Led by Tilman Zülch, the STP also took sides with the indigenous Crimean Tatars and with the indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, who were affected by uncompromising raw materials extraction projects and suffered from racism.
In 1999, Simon Wiesenthal wrote a letter to Tilman Zülch, praising him for (co-)founding and establishing an organization that, as he pointed out, serves as a contact point for people who are threatened – whether the threat is directed against an individual person or against groups: “You have advocated for the rights of so many people, focusing your efforts on the persons themselves – without regard for possible disadvantages or criticism. You have achieved a lot, and you serve as an example. I was always glad to be able to count on your cooperation. I hope there will be many more successful years and initiatives to come for you and your colleagues!”
Zülch, publisher of a series of books on genocide and expulsion and of the magazine “bedrohte Völker – pogrom”, was honored with many awards for his tireless efforts as an insistent admonisher – for example the Federal Cross of Merit, the Lower Saxony Prize for Journalism, the “Göttinger Friedenspreis”, Honorary Citizenship of the City of Sarajevo, the Citizenship Prize of the Central Council of the German Sinti and Roma, and the Srebrenica Award against Genocide. According to Zülch, these awards were also to be seen as a recognition of the work of the employees and the regional groups, as well as of the commitment of the members and supporters of the STP.
His energy and his determination – uninfluenced by ideologies or party politics – his great willingness to advocate for the rights of the weaker ones, will always be an example to us. We, our association, will keep him in loving and honorable memory.