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Rede von Staatsministerin Michelle Müntefering bei der Übergabe des Flügels von Thomas Mann in Los Angeles

17.10.2021 - Rede

Dear Frido Mann,
Igor Levit,
Dear Nicolai Blaumer,
Dear Caudia Gordon,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It was in 1944, one year before the end of World War II, when Thomas Mann asked his son Michael to buy a new piano for his home in Pacific Palisades. So, that April, this Wheelock baby grand piano was delivered to the house. Since then, it has had quite a life.

If it could speak, it could tell us many stories: about great musicians and philosophers who have played on it. About Thomas Mann, who improvised on it while he was writing Doctor Faustus. About heated political discussions that were held in its company.

Now, the piano has returned to this very same place. It’s the end of a long journey, from Los Angeles to Zurich and Munich – and then right back here, where it all began.

However, a new future also lies ahead for it, at this place for transatlantic encounter that is owned by the Federal Republic of Germany.

Professor Mann,
On behalf of the German Government, I want to thank you for this wonderful gesture of devotion.

I know how personally important this piano is to you. You told me when we talked for the first time - and I promised, we would made it here together.

In fact: You have worked tirelessly to make sure that this instrument can be returned to this place, where it for many years was an artistic and emotional focal point in the Thomas Mann household.

When you were born in Monterey, your grandfather Thomas Mann was not only a world-famous author and Nobel laureate, but also the voice of a different and better Germany.

This house, of which you have so many memories, was a home to many Germans.

Its guests included Theodor Adorno and Arnold Schönberg, the conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, the virtuoso pianist Artur Rubinstein, as well as fellow novelists Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler-Werfel and Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta Löffler.

They all shared a common fate – they had been forced into exile by the Nazi dictatorship.

And they shared a common aim: they wanted to strive for a better future for Germany, for an open society, and for a common transatlantic foundation of values after World War II.

They all believed this was their special social responsibility, as exiled intellectuals.

The U.S. had granted them protection. We Germans will never forget this. And we also know that this entails responsibility today.

That’s why we support people who are being persecuted and set up programs for scientists, artists, journalists, students and human rights defenders. More than we ever did and had to. We have allocated 40 million euro to this cause during the last legislative term alone. These are not programs we enjoy setting up. But these programs are needed more than ever.

Because: Even if there is progress in the long run, we see, unfortunately, so many people are in need in recent days.

Nationalism is once again on the rise. Spaces for social engagement are shrinking.

It is even more important to bring people together like we did with “Wunderbar together” in 2019: The biggest communication campaign of the Foreign Office so far.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Thomas Mann – unlike his brother Heinrich – was not a democrat at first. Yet during the course of his life he became one of the most determined voices for democracy and freedom – on both sides of the Atlantic. In October 1941, he said: “Not ‘America First’ but ‘Democracy First’ and ‘Human Dignity First’ is the slogan which will really lead America to first place in the world.”

We all feel: these words have lost none of their power and urgency to this very day.

Democracy is not a matter of course. The general hope in the 1990s that democracy and human rights will spread almost automatically throughout the world did not materialize.

Democracy is coming under both internal and external pressure.

Antidemocratic forces are trying to undermine our democracies. And in our own societies, as well, a growing number of people do not want to accept that democracy is built on diversity rather than simplicity – whether it be the AfD in Germany or the “alt-right” movement in the United States.

We must face up to this challenge and take a decisive stand against all forms of racism, discrimination, antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia.

We have to make sure that the internet does not divide our societies. This includes making sure that internet platforms are in the service of democracy, rather than aim to maximize corporate profits.

And we must make sure that the tremendous transformation that our countries are undergoing does not create new rifts and social divides.

I firmly believe that we can learn to build back better after the pandemic. Therefore we should agree that we do need a state of serving and a society of solidarity. And it is important to reach out in order to bridge the edge between people. Let’s stay strong, but be ready to connect and compromise.

Ladies and gentlemen,
In a world rife with conflicts and new challenges, we need spaces for dialog and engagement. And places for open minded and mind opening people.

That is what we want with our international cultural policy. We want to reach out across borders and give people opportunities to get to know each other and work together.

Because we are convinced that this is the only way we will be able to solve the huge global challenges we are faced with such as social cohesion, the digital transformation - and also the fight against climate change cannot wait.

Exchange between Europe and the United States remains central to these efforts. I will not deny that the last years were not easy. But now we have an opportunity to make a fresh start.

The parties who are currently forming a new government in Germany- the so called traffic light coalition- came out yesterday with the first mission statement in which they also underlined their conviction of a partnership between our countries:

“We support and strengthen initiatives such as the Alliance of Democracies. The transatlantic alliance is a central pillar and NATO is an indispensable part of our security.”

And that’s for sure. We are bound by shared values and common objectives. We have to work together to strengthen multilateralism and to manage globalization in a fair and social way.
The minimum global tax which Olaf Scholz and Janet Yellen have negotiated shows how much we can achieve, if we work together.

And finally, it is also important to establish a joint strategic understanding of the big foreign policy challenges of the 21stcentury.

On the pivot to Asia we really need a European-American exchange, particularly after recent disagreements.

And China: a partner, for example when it comes to tackling climate change. But at the same time an economic competitor and a systemic rival.

But maybe most of all we must also build new social bridges across the Atlantic. The strong network of personal relationships, friendships, partnerships, and cooperation spans the Atlantic.

These ties are not to be taken for granted. We must do everything we can to ensure they remain resilient.

Thomas Mann’s former residence became - again - an important place for this.

Dear Professor Mann,
As both a German and U.S. citizen, you have worked to promote both transatlantic and internal American dialog.

“Democracy will win” is the famous Thomas Mann quote from 1938 that you made the motto of your lecture series, and you recorded the experiences you gained during these travels in a book of the same title.

Democracy will win – this sentence exudes confidence, and at the same time it is an encouragement to us all.

Because democracy is built on our shared engagement for a common future; it requires mutual respect for our differences, and that we see strength in diversity.

Our second honorary guest is strongly committed to this same goal.

Dear Igor,
when Frido Mann told me about his plan to talk you into this ceremony and literally that surrounding over here, I was sure the Thomas Mann House would be a place you would love and the return of the piano a story you would appreciate. That’s why I called you suddenly that day. No one would fit better in here.

Because: You are not just a brilliant musician. You have also taken a strong stand against rightwing extremism, antisemitism, and racism. And you are working to advance the cause of climate protection.

Dear Igor, the New York Times has described you as “one of the essential artists of his generation,” and I am especially pleased to welcome you here today, too.

With the music you play and the political messages you send, you encourage people of all generations and from all geographic and social backgrounds to listen to each other.

That is precisely the understanding of art and responsibility for which Thomas Mann set an example throughout his life.

Thank you so much for being here today.

This evening, we will hear you play a piece that holds special significance in terms of this piano’s history. Thomas Mann paid literary tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 111 in his novel Doctor Faustus.

Ladies and gentlemen,
With the donation of this piano, a piece of history has returned to the Thomas Mann House.

Together with the fellows, it will now significantly contribute to the future of this house – of that I am certain!

The fact that, after all of the injustice that was inflicted on the Mann family during the Nazi era, Igor Levit will officially inaugurate Thomas Mann’s piano today in the house in which he lived and worked, truly means a great deal to me.

Last but not least I want to thank Villa Aurora and Thomas Mann House for hosting this notable event.

Having said this I also like to thank the many fellows and scholarship holders of the Thomas Mann House and its neighbor, Villa Aurora, – already a respectable total of 469.

You all will continue to fill this house with the spirit of democracy; you will engage in debates that tie together continents; and now, thanks to this piano, you will also fill the air with music that is understood everywhere, across all borders.

And maybe next time I’ll bring my travel guitar.

Thank you all.


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