Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the opening of the 58th Frankfurt Book Fair

03.10.2006 - Speech

My distinguished colleague Arjun Singh,
Ambassadress Shankar,
Minister of State,
Dr Honnefelder,
Mr Boos,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

As Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Among the many tools of man the most astounding is without doubt the book. … It is an extension of memory and imagination.”

An extension of our cultural imprint in many ways and in at least two directions, if I may be so bold as to expand on this thesis. Backwards, as it were, by preserving memories, writing history and supplying a context for our own experiences. And forwards, into the future, by highlighting possible consequences of our actions, broadening our horizons and providing a door to unfamiliar worlds.

The book thus helps us to an insight we have not yet adequately taken to heart in areas other than culture: Introspection and extroversion, the interior and exterior, are inseparable in a globalized world. The familiar cannot be understood without the unfamiliar. By participating in this debate between the familiar and unfamiliar we ourselves grow, and we refine our culture and our society.

Rajvinder Singh has lived in Germany for the past twenty years and writes poems in German which Ilija Trojanow has likened to little memento vitae. He once said: “Overcoming individual, linguistic or religious-based unfamiliarity is the most important step in the development of the individual into a human being.”

For this reason, too, I am delighted that this year's guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is India, and that the long series of events organized during the India Year 2006 is thus bestowed with a cultural climax. In the current months – and today of all days – India has a greater presence in Germany than ever before. India arouses the curiosity and interest of many Germans – and not only because it is one of the most dynamic economic regions in the world, but now also because of our consolidated and ever closer political cooperation.

Indeed, today, on 3 October, I would like to recall that India was one of the countries that from the outset actively supported the process of German reunification. We are grateful to India for its support.

Our close partnership is based on a common conception of the politics of international relations. We both advocate multilateralism and the authority of international law and the United Nations. We are both pressing for reform of the United Nations and have submitted joint initiatives to that end. And we both work together in many regions – such as the Congo and Afghanistan – for stability and peace.

And we decided in April to extend this partnership to other fields that are important for the future, such as energy, research and technology. This, too, is vital! But it by no means exhausts our vast potential for cooperation. There are still a number of almost virgin territories to be explored in the field of scientific and cultural exchange. In this respect too, it will be well worth Germany's while to take a closer look at India. This will help us understand a culture older than our own, a culture and a country that is in many ways also far more modern that we sometimes realize. And taking a closer look at India can also help us better grasp the challenges that we face here in Europe.

Let me mention a surprising but topical example from the world of politics. Next year, Germany will assume the Presidency of the European Union and will be responsible for making progress with the European project. We face the task of finding new common ground for 450 million people in 27 countries with 22 different official languages and diverse religious communities.

But this common ground can no longer solely or predominantly be based on the past. It must rather be built on the will to find a shared vision for the Europe of the 21st century that tells us why we want to learn and work together and why we want to live in a shared political space.

I believe that contact with “unfamiliar” India can help us understand our own Europe better. For contact with India is contact with the world's largest democracy, which unites over a billion people in 28 states and 7 union territories in a country in which more than 400 languages and dialects are spoken, over 20 of which are recognized as national languages, in which the Prime Minister is a Sikh, the President a Muslim and the largest political party is led by a woman with a Christian background. This India sometimes appears paradoxical to us, when we see how many different ways of life, cultures, languages, religions and beliefs coexist, and despite all internal antagonisms, both apparent and real, are bound together by the constitution and the state.

Perhaps we should remember these dimensions more often when we are in danger of growing despondent in the face of our tasks at national or European level. And from our insight into the difficulties that India has to master as a state, we can draw strength and courage for the further construction of our united Europe. The Frankfurt Book Fair provides an outstanding and important opportunity for this. At a time when many people view culture as a solid unit of inherited convictions, values and beliefs, it shows that precisely the opposite is true: Culture is a never-ending process of getting to grips with the major questions of life and humanity. That is why in an age of ever closer intercultural contacts, cultural cooperation, cultural exchange and joint discussion on cultural matters are so terribly important.

Günter Grass is a prime example for the artistic links between the continents with his visits to India, and his literary and pictorial reworkings of what he saw and experienced there.

One parable about the coexistence of the religions that I found particularly telling comes from a book by the Indian writer Kiran Nagarkar, which has recently been published in Germany and which I just read at the weekend. In “God's Little Soldier”, Zia, the eponymous protagonist, grows up in the cultural and religious maelstrom that is Bombay. Zia can change personas like masks. But whoever he is, he always remains the same self-righteous fanatic, be it as an Islamist in Cambridge, a terrorist in Kashmir or a Trappist monk in California.

And because his idealism knows no gradation, no grey, but only black and white, Zia is ultimately not the pious person he always considers himself to be. He rather commits the greatest of all blasphemies: to impose his own will in the name of God, and in effect to make cynical self-righteousness the yardstick of his own actions.

“A religion which rashly declares war on reason will not be able to hold out in the long run against it.” This insight comes to us from Kant. (And I fervently hope he is right.) This same insight is really brought home to us in Kiran Nagarkar's book.

Culture lives more than any other social phenomenon from free exchange and debate. We should not forget this. Especially not in Germany, where culture has often been pressed into service as a tool of exclusion. The European nations, and the German nation too, have all in fact gained culturally from migration.

People of Indian, African, Caribbean and Asian origin live in many European countries. They enrich our European cultures and the culture of Europe in many diverse ways. I have already mentioned Rajvinder Singh as an example of someone who enriches and refines our German culture in this way. Another Indo-European example is Vikram Seth, whose latest book, “Two Lives”, is about his German-Jewish aunt and Indian uncle. His examination of his relatives' past shows us our own German history, the history of Europe and the world history of persecution, exile and diaspora in a new light and from an unaccustomed perspective. And precisely because looking at things in such a new light enriches our cultural memory by adding fresh insights, this book is an important contribution to the discussion on German and European identity.

Identity – and expressly cultural identity – is not an immutable fate determined by a limited number of factors. On the contrary, the reduction of cultural identity to one or two dimensions is prejudicial to people's free choice and search for their own identity. With all the frightful consequences we know from our own history.

Amartya Sen, the Indian social philosopher and economist, once called this reduction of identity “the miniaturization of human beings”. Anyone who defines identity as a static quality reduces cultural memory and ignores people's curiosity, imagination and desire for change.

If we learn from Amartya Sen, we will see that the Europeans should take the other path. They should not miniaturize human beings, they should not fall back on any one cultural identifier. They should rather broaden their cultural options, which in turn also enhance the identity-giving strength of a society.

This diversity in unity is attainable. Indeed, because in our societies we do not allow people to be reduced to their cultural or religious affiliations, because in our societies people of the most diverse cultures and religions can live together if they adhere to the clear and simple rules of these societies; and because we Europeans have set clear and satisfiable conditions under which aspirations to join the EU can lead to membership of the European Union, we can put the European project on a new footing for the 21st century, and we want to work for and with the people of Europe to help make the world a more just and peaceful place.

If culture provides the point of departure and the framework for individual and collective identity, the most important cultural medium is thus perhaps the book. This is true in part because the book is the earliest and internationally most widespread medium of a culture of dialogue. Books have always been the natural intermediaries between cultures and arts. The cooperation between the Book Fair, the Berlin Film Festival and Indian cinema is an impressive confirmation of this thesis; the international activities of the Book Fair connect cultures and create platforms for dialogue.

I myself was recently able to witness this when I visited the Book Fair in Cairo. Such practical cooperation projects do far more than most theoretical debates to give as many people as possible direct access to unfamiliar cultures and to discover how much these “have to say” in a most literal sense.

Cultural products, and in particular books, can overcome borders – linguistic borders through translation, geographical borders through trade. By altering our perspectives and combining introspection with extroversion, the familiar with the unfamiliar, books can guide us as we discover new common paths. Books could thus be called the foreign ministers of the arts.

And because German foreign policy is well aware of the important role played by culture, because it knows that the classic methods of economic and political contact need a cultural foundation, we are working to ensure that as many people as possible are able to partake of culture and, conversely, that artists' copyright is respected and protected – in our country too. We are currently also pressing for more funds to be devoted to foreign cultural and education policy. For investment in culture is investment in the future. This is true at governmental, societal and individual level.

As Foreign Minister of a country which at least co-invented the printing press, it is my special pleasure to open the world's largest book fair today, on the Day of German Unity. I hope that this Book Fair will be a complete success – both as a business event and cultural festival – for publishers, traders, writers and the general public alike.

Thank you.

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