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Speech given by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the 11th Hannah Arendt Congress in Hanover, 4 October 2008

06.10.2008 - Speech

– Translation of advance text –

"For me, Germany means my mother tongue, philosophy, and literature," Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers on 1 January 1933. At the time, this sentence was intended to be clearly critical of the nationalistic tendencies that Hannah Arendt detected in Jaspers' words and thought.

We know today that a renewed focus on the arts, of literature and philosophy, did not save Germany from the manic grip of national socialism. And that Hannah Arendt spent the rest of her life considering questions of identity – her identity as a Jew, as a German intellectual in exile, but also the identity of a nation, of a country and people.

It is only at first glance that all these questions have nothing to do with today's theme, "Quo vadis Turkey".

On closer inspection, Hannah Arendt's search for identity is still highly topical in our Europe.

Shortly after the Second World War, Hannah Arendt called for a decentralized Europe, which accepted that national sovereignty was no longer a valid political concept.

This idea took hold in the minds of many key figures in post-war Europe, and came to influence government action.

The European Union as we know it today is very much the result of this process.

States limit their national sovereignty in order to be able to respond together more sovereignly to the expanded challenges of today's world. In particular, they give up sovereignty, they communitarize their forces, because they have learned from the centuries of strife and civil war in Europe.

Because they have realized that this is the only way to forge ahead with Europe as a peace project – by sharing sovereignty and building a European identity piece by piece.

This was the path taken by the now 27 member states of the European Union, and I believe it is precisely the path on which Turkey has already embarked – towards a European identity and as part of our European peace project.

The great Orhan Pamuk – who is not always uncritical of his government – put it thus in his acceptance speech for the 2005 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade:

"Anyone who believes in the European Union ought to see that the choice we have is between peace and nationalism."

He continued: "I for my part am convinced that the idea of peace goes to the very heart of the European Union and that Europe cannot afford to reject the offer of peace extended by modern Turkey."

Let me look a little more closely at this key idea of the European peace project and at Turkey's contribution to it.

We have all had an anxious eye on developments in Iran for the past three years and more. But, in my experience, some of our Western partners greatly underestimate the stabilizing power of Turkey.

The fact that Turkey borders Iran is not of itself worth special mention. But the fact that this border has existed since 1514, for almost half a millennium, is indicative of the extraordinary contacts and experience that Turkey has acquired over the years.

And if I may say so, we greatly appreciate that Turkey has fed the knowledge gained through its centuries of interaction with Iran, its centuries of expertise in maintaining stability and peace in the region, into the international endeavours.

This ability to serve as a bridge between East and West, as a linchpin between Europe and the Near and Middle East, is a contribution that cannot be valued highly enough and that was apparent for all to see in Turkey's efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria.

I am certain that the closer Turkey comes to the European Union, the further it advances through the accession process, the more Europe as a whole will profit from this ability.

I would like to mention another recent example of Turkey's contribution to the European peace project.

The military conflict in the Caucasus this summer could not have been defused and calmed without the concerted efforts of the European states and Turkey.

I can still remember very clearly how it was Turkey which first perceived the regional dimension of the military dispute between Georgia and Russia.

And how, by thus broadening our perspective, too, it generated the first ideas towards defusing the situation.

I am thinking in particular of the Turkish Government's present initiative for a stability plan for the Southern Caucasus. This initiative makes a point of including Armenia and Azerbaijan, and creates an opportunity not only to make progress on resolving the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, which has been frozen for decades, but also to put Turkish-Armenian relations on a new footing.

The historic visit by President Gül to Erevan was not just an important symbolic step. It also sparked off debate in Turkey about the country's past.

From our own experiences, we know that such a debate can be as painful as it is necessary.

But we also know something else, something that brings me back to Hannah Arendt and the search for one's identity.

The very revisiting of one's own history, one's traditions, religion and culture, is part of our European identity.

It should not supplant our present identity, but should complement and enrich it.

This process is not easy, as various examples show.

This year we have all been concerned by the dispute over the headscarf ban and the subsequent attempts to ban the governing AKP.

Many people, especially here in our country, viewed the attempt to relax the headscarf ban as an attempt to Islamicize the country and a departure from the road to Europe.

Some in Turkey no doubt had such motives. It would be astonishing if they didn't. But in my experience they are not representative of Turkey as a whole. On my visits to the country, during which I did not avoid the topic, I saw something different. Something that is much more revealing of the domestic Turkish debate. Something that was recently described by Seyla Benhabib, who grew up in Istanbul and is today a Yale professor and one of the most renowned Hannah Arendt scholars, as follows in a German newspaper:

"The headscarf debate is really about the pluralization of a post-nationalist democratic society and not a sign of regression back to an Islamic republic."

If she's right, then I would say that we need to re-examine our perceptions. It is quite possible that the picture conjured up in our minds by a traditional Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is totally different from the meaning attributed to it by Seyla Benhabib.

Gustav Seibt recently reached a similar conclusion in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He views the present upheaval in Turkey as part of the liberation of religion from the "state detention" in which it has been held, and draws very similar conclusions to Benhabib from this conviction and from his decades-long observation of domestic Turkish affairs.

In his opinion Turkey is on the road to modernization, a road that entails the separation of a modern, rule-of-law based state from individual piety.

And I say that if we want to help Turkey along the road towards the European Union, a perspective that was first promised more than forty years ago, that has been repeatedly reaffirmed, and that took concrete form three years ago with the launch of the accession negotiations, then we should support all steps that point in the direction of such modernization.

Only four months ago, Turkey itself seemed to be putting stones on its path to a place in a peace-loving Europe. We held our breath when the application to ban the governing party was lodged with the Turkish constitutional court. For a long time, it seemed more likely that the application would be granted than not.

I don't know what ructions a ban would have caused in Turkish society. Because it didn't happen, despite what many people here had expected and feared.

I'm not sure if the outcome of the case is already evidence of the irreversibility of Turkey's progress towards becoming a modern, European state. But it does show great statesmanship, democratic maturity and is indicative of a burgeoning civil society.

And that's why I say that much has already been achieved in the past years, but perhaps not yet enough to take the final decision on EU accession.

In particular, Turkey needs to strengthen freedom of opinion, the rights of children and women, the trade unions and the recognition of equal rights for all religions, and to anchor these more firmly in the minds of the population at large.

Turkey's progress towards a European identity needs to work a change of attitude!

This is a question of "acquis communautaire" in the literal sense of the words, namely values that Europe has acquired and shares, and that Turkey has to adopt of its own volition and for its own sake.

I was thus very glad to learn from my Turkish colleague Ali Babacan that another reform package containing 130 legislative amendments is to be tabled with the aim of harmonizing Turkey's laws with EU norms.

May I say to the sceptics in our ranks – once Turkey has successfully completed these reforms it will be a different Turkey from the one pictured by the anti-accessionists.

It will be more in the mould envisaged by Orhan Pamuk:

"I see Turkey's future as being in Europe, as one prospering, tolerant, democratic country among others."

The answer to the question "quo vadis Turkey" would however be incomplete and perhaps not entirely honest without also turning our attention to the people who posed it.

We live in a country that is home to almost 3 million people of Turkish origin, in which the German writer Feridun Zaimoglu is currently one of the favourites to win the German Book Prize and in which a good part of our shared prosperity is generated by people who came from other countries, first and foremost Turkey.

In a country like ours, the process of Turkey's integration into Europe must be complemented by the integration of Turks here in Germany.

All of us here in Hanover can remember how, back in the 1970s, making the short journey from Hanover-Linden, the birthplace of Hannah Arendt, to Garbsen was like travelling from Turkey to Germany. Much the same is still true in Berlin if you go from Kreuzberg-Neukölln to Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf.

It is in Linden and Kreuzberg, in Wilhelmsburg (Hamburg), in Neue Vahr (Bremen), in Dietzenbach (Hesse) and in Chorweiler (Cologne) that we will see whether integration in Germany can succeed or not.

We have repeatedly seen that integration only succeeds, in Germany as in Europe, if we ourselves learn to deal with multiple identities.

We must realize that a Hanoverian, a Lower Saxon, does not necessarily have to be someone born in Lower Saxony. They could equally as well have been born in eastern Westphalia or perhaps in Antalya.

It is my conviction that people with experience of more than one culture – and not just of regional differences within Germany, but people who are familiar with societies as different as German and Turkish society – these people are the key to mutual understanding and the capacity to devise common solutions across geographical and cultural divides.

We will need more such people in the years to come. Perhaps for the first time in the history of mankind, we will only be able to solve our biggest problems by working together.

I am absolutely certain that if we manage to draw more on the wealth of German-Turkish experience that exists here in our country, we will strengthen our country!

Incidentally, it was partly for this reason that I launched the Ernst Reuter Initiative two years ago with Abdullah Gül, then my counterpart and now President of Turkey.

By being named after Ernst Reuter, the imitative seeks to remind people that in the 1930s Turkey was an important destination for Germans fleeing persecution, where several hundred intellectuals from Germany took refuge. One of them was indeed Ernst Reuter, the first post‑war mayor of Berlin, who was reviled as "the Turk" by his rivals – even then – because of his time spent in exile.

Together with figures from the media and culture, business and civil society, including Mario Adorf, Fatih Akin and Edzard Reuter, we launched this initiative with the aim not only of strengthening dialogue between our countries, promoting cooperation projects and enhancing mutual understanding.

But also because we want to help show that a European future for Turkey and our aspirations for a cosmopolitan Germany go hand in hand.

Many German-Turkish projects, in particular in the field of cultural exchange, have sought a home under this initiative. Each single one is important. And one is especially ambitious and therefore particularly close to my heart – the establishment of a German-Turkish university in Istanbul. Early this year I signed the founding charter together with Federal Minister Schavan and Foreign Minister Babacan, and I hope that we will be able to lay the foundation stone before the end of this legislative term.

That would be a great step forward.

Another step is being prepared: It will be my great honour to open the Frankfurt Book Fair in a few days time together with the Turkish President. Turkey is finally to be the guest of honour at the world's largest book fair. The event itself, the presence of so many contemporary writers from Turkey here in Germany, and the huge number of new translations will introduce many German readers as yet unfamiliar with Turkey to its diversity and cultural wealth.

Politics needs input like this. From the worlds of culture and business, from civil society. So that politics can develop itself further, can come up with new ideas and implement these for a better future.

Hannah Arendt once said that politics is an island in the sea of natural or automatic processes.

That is precisely the challenge that politics faces. And I am convinced that we can only live up to at least part of this challenge if we all work together to build a European future with Turkey.

Thank you!

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