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Honourable Members of the Bundestag,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Goethe Medal is being awarded today for the 58th time. It honours individuals who have a special connection with Germany and the German language for outstanding accomplishments in a range of cultural fields. The Jury has this year once again chosen three deserving recipients: Irena Veisaitė, Dževad Karahasan and Bolat Atabayev.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that culture belongs to the sphere of freedom. It reflects people’s yearning for freedom, particularly when they are oppressed. This is the great service provided by writers, artists and musicians. They resist social conventions to create a space in which to express their ideas of freedom.
Three such individuals are today being honoured for their outstanding services to freedom, democracy, human rights and a strong civil society. They haven’t always had it easy. On the contrary, they have at times been compelled to cross the boundaries laid down by society and the political class. But they had the courage to explore their artistic and creative freedom, even at the risk of losing yet more of their personal freedom.
The travails of Mr Atabayev in Kazakhstan have recently illustrated this point. Bolat Atabayev is a political artist. In his German-language play, Lady Milford aus Almaty, he showed us how difficult it is for some of the so called Russlanddeutschen (Russians of German descent who have moved to Germany) to make a new home for themselves here. He is a true friend who is not afraid to criticize wisely. His play “The Avalanche” perhaps best illustrates the issues that drive him. The inhabitants of a mountain village spend months in silence, fearing that a single sound from one of them could set off an avalanche. Finally someone breaks the silence – and the feared catastrophe does not occur. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of any democracy. It is what Bolat Atabayev is fighting for, both as an artist and as a citizen of his country. The Kazakh theatre director deserves our respect and recognition for his commitment to this cause. And that is why we are honouring him with the Goethe Medal today.
As a citizen of the former GDR, I too know what it means to be restricted in my personal rights and denied freedom. In 1980 I went to study in Poland. This was a period in my life that marked me forever. My time in Poland coincided with the start of the protests against the ruling regime. I had never before witnessed such a revolt against state authority, but for me it was a first whiff of freedom. Today, I can say from my own experience that freedom is the greatest good there is, and that it is worth fighting for. For this reason I would like to tell today’s Medal winners that I feel the greatest respect for them, and that their dedication and hard work has been worth while.
Theodor Heuss once said that culture cannot be forged through politics, but that politics can perhaps be pursued through culture. We, the politicians, are not the ones to say what is or is not culture and how it is to be created. Our job is to promote culture and give it the space it needs to flourish unfettered. Artists can however make political statements through their work, contributing to the political dialogue. This is illustrated by an endless stream of incidents in which politicians try to limit artistic freedoms, but only end up sparking debate on their own methods.
That’s the reason I feel so concerned and troubled when I see developments that are likely to restrict people’s freedom of expression. The way in which the musicians from Pussy Riot have been treated in Russia is a particularly blatant case in point, and the sentence is in no way proportional to what they did. Activists and artists, and their freedom to express themselves, should be part of any vibrant democratic society, in Russia as elsewhere. The way we treat those whose views differ from our own, and the opportunities they have to contribute to public debate and express their opinions – whether in the media, at rallies and demonstrations or in parliamentary or local government bodies – are a yardstick of a society’s political maturity.
It is and will always be in freedom that artistic flourishing and creative development are best possible.