The Frankfurt Book Fair always ends with the Peace Award of the German Book Trade, which is handed over in the Paulskirche, St. Paul's, a secularized church which is one of the few places reliably prone to make me go sentimental in a way related to my country of origin. It's our big might have been: the place where the first German freely elected parliament took place in 1848, working on a constitution that never was, because the 1848/49 revolution was aborted and instead we got the Empire and lots of Untertanengeist
Anyway, the other reason why I'm prone to feel sentimental about the Paulskirche is that listening to the winners of this award usually is thoughtprovoking and moving. This year was no exception. It went to Carolin Emcke, who as opposed to some earlier winners (Susan Sontag, David Grossman, Svetlana Alexejivich two years before she got the Nobel, etc.) probably isn't known outside of Germany, but deserves to be, because she's fabulous. Journalist (first war correspondant, then columnist for several of our major media outlets), writer, activist; at least one of her books is also published in English (Echoes of Violence. Letters from a War Reporter. Princeton University Press, Princeton / Oxford 200), so you can check it out. She's also openly gay, and while she's not the first Peace award winner to be so, she's the first who made this a part of her acceptence speech; more about this in a moment.
One main reason why she got the award is that in this time of the public discourse going down the drains and hate speech becoming more and more acceptable for main stream politicians to use, she keeps writing on against this without letting herself be goaded into bashing rethoric as well. An early example of this was the first thing I've read from her, a meditation on the RAF and how to approach terrorists, by which if you're German you don't mean the Royal Air Force but the Rote Armee Fraktion, or the Baader Mainhof Group in English; this to MS. Emcke was no abstract subject, because her godfather, Alfred Herrhausen, was killed by them, and her description of the day it happened and the day after in the essay capture the numbness of shock, the devastation, so incredibly well that you feel it all over again.
Heinrich Riethmüller, the President of the German Book Seller's Association, who'd given such a moving openining speech on Tuesday evening, quoted both the poet Rose Ausländer and the philosopher Hannah Arendt in his concluding speech, both of whom of course in their time refugees and intimately familiar of what hate and nationalism can do. (I was briefly taken out of the mood by him referring to Odysseus as "literature's first refugee" whom we wouldn't know about if Homer hadn't written , though, because it makes my inner myth lover protest. Odysseus doesn't really fit the bill, Mr. Riethmüller, because his ten years gallivanting around the Mediterranean post war in Troy happened with the knowledge that he's got a kingdom awaiting, and they mostly were due to having pissed off one of the gods, Poseidon. If you really want to make a refugee comparison to survivors of the Trojan war, I'd go for the Trojans. Yes, I like the Odyseee better than than Aenead, too, but Aeneas and his followers to fit the bill: survivors of a city destroyed by war which they can't return to, seeking a new home.) The central idea of Riehtmüller's speech, which the laudator of the event, Seyla Benhabib, then evolved was how language - and the context between violence and language, violence and lack of language, which Carolin Emcke has written about - is instrumental to any hope we might have for change.
Seyla Benhabib - who as opposed to Ms. Emcke has an English language wiki entry I can link you to
- took as her opening image Paul Klee's Angelus Novus
and Walter Benjamin's famous interpretation of same, and related this directly to Carolin Emcke's writing in what was to me one of the most memorable descriptions of the day: "Even if, as Benjamin says, you can't put together again what was destroyed, you can redeem/release/deliver" - she used the word "erlösen", which means all of these in German - "it by telling its story. Carolin Emcke has the gift of naming issues and narrating them in such a way that the silence in which violence, cruelty and torture cloak themselves is broken apart."
Then it was Carolin Emcke's turn. And she started with a joke which at the end of her speech she returned into, turning it into a great reallying call in anything but a joking manner: "Wow," she said, "so this is what it looks like from up here, from this perspective", going on to mention how she used to watch the ceremony in the Paulskirche and the speeches each year from childhood onwards, first from the tv and then from the audience. Then she got serious, talking about the various way identity is constructed - religious, national, even musical - at which point you could feel the audience be just a little complacent and nodding along, when the first zinger happened; the referred to an (in)famous occasion in the 1990s when Martin Walser was the award's recipient (you can read about the controversy here
) and, quoth Carolin Emcke, the Jewish members of the audience like Ignaz Bubis had to sit there and listen to a speech "in which the terrible suffering of their own family was reduced from a crime against humanity to a 'moral club'". Talk about defining identity.
Next, she spoke about being queer, and this was when you felt a part of the audience sit up and another, who'd been ready to nod along to the general "nationalism and hate speech evil" message, be uneasily reminded of their own prejudices. Because yes, we've had a vice chancellor who was openly gay, but good lord, we're far from being no discrimination paradise. Carolin Emcke talked about how she was quickly disabused of the notion that falling in love with another woman was in society regarded as a private matter that only concerned her and her partner: "It is a truly weird experience that something so deeply personal should be so important to others that they claim for themselves the privilege of entering our lives and take rights and dignity from us. As if the way we love matters more to others than too ourselves, as if our love and our bodies don't belong to us but to those who oppose to pathologize them. There's a an inherent irony here: it's as if our sexuality serves less to define ourselves but them. Sometimes the obsession Islamophobes have with the headscarf appears quite similar to me. It's as if the headscarf means more to them, who never wear it, than to those who chose to."
Her detailing how sexual identity is treated culminated in this passionate appeal: "So we're allowed to write books which are taught in schools, but the way we love is supposed to described in school books according to the wishes of some parents only as something 'to be tolerated' and most certainly not as something to be respected? We're arrowed to speak in the Paulskirche, but not to marry or adopt children? Sometimes I wonder whose dignity is damaged here: ours, as we're declared to not quite belong, or the dignity of those who want to reduce our rights? Human rights aren't a zero sum game. Nobody loses theirs if they're given to everyone."
(Go figure: our right-oriented meda like the FAZ predictably reacted to this in their commentary with 'we're with you about how hate speech is bad, but did you have to mention all this queer stuff?' Reminded me of the conservative reviews of The State versus Fritz Bauer
last year , which: Bauer noble, Nazis boo, but why did the movie have to keep mentioning that Bauer was gay?
Which is exactly why Ms. Emcke has such a point. See, that's why I read the left wing SZ instead.)
The last third of her speech was devoted to a dissection of "the climate of fanaticism and violence currenctly pervading Europe", the revived dogma of "the 'homogenous' people, the 'true' religion, the 'original' tradition, a 'natural' family, and an 'authentic' nation: "No, they probably don't stand in the streets themselves and spread terror, these populists and purity fantastics, they don't throw fire bombs into refugee shelters with their own hands, don't strip Muslim women of the hijab or Jewish men of the kippa, they don't hunt Polish or Romanian Europeans, they don't attack black Germans themselves - they don't hate and hurt on their own. Sie lassen hassen.
(Hard to translate exactly, because "They let hate" doesn't mean the same thing, nor does "they make hate happen".) They deliver patterns made of resentments and prejudice to the public discourse, they manufacture racist product placements, all these little vicious phrases and imagery used to stigmatize and to take away dignity, used to humiliate and attack people.
"They manufacture racist product placements" sums it up exactly. If you've noticed the repeated mention of the word "dignity", btw, this is not least because the preamble to our constitution, written with the Nazi experience directly behind us, starts with "Die Würde des Menschen ist uinantastbar" - "human dignity shall be inviolable". Against a patriotism that excludes and defines itself by being against others, Carolin Emcke suggested "Verfassungspatriotismus", patriotism defining itself by love of the contitution. I thought that was a marvellous idea, and evidently so did our head of state, President Johannes Gauck, who was in the audience and who later at the post award lunch said in a short speech of his own that he was sick of all the hate speech in the name of patriotism (no wonder, given that he and Chancellor Merkel were shouted at as "traitors" in Dresden at this year's national holiday): "Ich bin ein Verfassungspatriot." ("I am a patriot of the constitution.")
The question of what to do in these times: "Keep starting again",
said Carolin Emcke. "We can always start again, both as individuals and as a society. (...) Nobody can do this alone. It needs all in a civilian population. Democratic history is created by everyone. A democratic story -" the German word for story and for history is the same, "Geschichte" - "is stold by everyone. Not solely the professional narrators. (...) Freedom isn't something you own, it's something you do. Secularization isn't something finished, it's an eternally unfinished project. Democracy is no static certainty, but a dynamic exercise of how to deal with uncertainties and cricitism. Being a free, secular, democratic society is something we need to learn. Again and again. By listening to each other. By thinking about each other. By mutual respect for the diversity and individual uniqueness. And not least by allowing each other flaws and offering forgiveness. Is this hard? Oh yes. Will there be conflict between various practices and convictions? Absolutely. Will it be difficult at times to balance different religious practices and the secular order? Definitely. But why should it be easy?
We can always start again.
What do we need for this? Not much. A bit of Haltung" -
that's another hard to translate word, as it can mean morale, poise, bearing, conduct - "a bit of laughing courage, and not least the readiness to change the direction of your gaze now and then, so that it happenes more often we all can say: 'Wow. So this is what it looks like from this perspective.'"
And with that elegant return to the beginning of her speech, Carolin Emcke ended it to everyone jumping up and applauding her for eons.