Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the European Writers Conference “Europe – Dream and Reality” in Berlin on 8 May 2014

08.05.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Guests from near and far,

Together with Mely Kiyak, Antje Rávic Strubel, Nicol Ljubic and Tilman Spengler, I would like to welcome you to Berlin for this European Writers Conference.

The poet Tara Shevchenko was born 200 years ago in a village near Kyiv. He wrote his first volume of poetry in St. Petersburg, but in Ukrainian, which his critics ridiculed as a “peasant language”.

Censored and later imprisoned in St. Petersburg, Shevchenko was celebrated at home as his country’s national poet. Even today his statue dominates squares in towns and cities across Ukraine, including both Kyiv and Donetsk.

In 1809, just a few years before Shevchenko, another great literary giant was born in Ukraine: Nikolai Gogol.

Gogol wrote in Russian. He is buried in Moscow.

Moving into the present day: on the occasion of Gogol’s 200th birthday in 2009, Russian literary historians praised him as “one of the giants of Russian literature”. Gogol, they wrote, regarded his homeland “Little Russia”, in other words Ukraine, as a natural part of Russia.

By contrast, on the occasion of Shevchenko’s 200th birthday, which was just a few weeks ago, some people in Ukraine called for the country to follow his courageous example and finally ban the use of the Russian language in Ukraine.

Ladies and gentlemen, these two examples teach us, I believe, a clear lesson, a lesson which weighs all the more heavily against the background of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Namely: anyone who believes that political borders ought to follow cultural boundaries is gravely mistaken. The history of the nation state highlights more than a few such grave mistakes.

By the same token, anyone who believes that cultural boundaries ought to follow political borders is equally mistaken. The history of ethnic cleansings and other atrocities is a long one.

Quite simply, if cultural and political boundaries were always to coincide, how much poorer would literature be! How much stupider politics!

If that were the case, the Czech Franz Kafka could not have been a German writer. Joseph Conrad, Polish by birth, would not have become a force in English literature. And Albert Camus, who grew up in Algeria, would never have become one of the greatest voices of 20th-century French literature.

If that were the case, there would have been neither Adelbert von Chamisso nor all the fantastic winners of the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize over the last 30 years.

If that were the case, then neither Mely Kiyak nor Nicol Ljubic would be sitting here today.

Today’s conference creates a big triangle of literature, politics and Europe.

An exciting, thrilling triangle!

Bearing this triangle in mind, I’d like to start by asking three questions – and giving two answers.

The first question is this: what do writers want with politics?

The second: what does politics want with writers?

And the third: what does Europe want with writers?

Taking the logical approach, we could ask a fourth question: what does Europe want with politicians? But I think I’d rather leave that one aside for now ...

Why am I answering only two of my three questions? It’s very simple. It’s not up to a politician to answer the question “What do writers want with politics?”

Whenever politics tries to impose a purpose or meaning on literature, then art is in danger of becoming an instrument, a tool. Literature is in danger of becoming propaganda.

If writers are entitled to expect one thing from politics, it is a principle which we in Germany and Europe have learnt the hard way, by violating it far too often through the centuries. The principle is this: art must be free.

That’s the reason why I pose this question not to myself, but to artists and writers. And it’s certainly a question that’s likely to keep popping up during our conference.

However, this important principle – “Art must be free” – doesn’t invalidate the opposite question: what can politics expect from literature?

On the contrary. If we are to avoid instrumentalisation, then there’s absolutely no harm in politicians very deliberately examining their relationship with art and culture.

So let me, as a foreign policymaker, answer that question.

Foreign policy, as we are seeing on a daily basis at the moment, is about perception and understanding. And to reach an understanding you may not need to agree, but you do need to understand.

The United Nations comprises almost 200 states. If we were to maintain relations only with those of these 200 states with which we are in full political agreement, then I think the Federal Foreign Office could move into a much smaller building. And we could save on the rent for quite a few of our embassies as well.

However, foreign policy needs to deal with the real world. That’s why understanding is vital for foreign policy. So I find it rather absurd that some commentators just now are turning understanding into a fault or accusation: “understanding Putin”, “understanding Kyiv”, “understanding Russia”, “understanding Ukraine” – you know what I mean.

Basically these people are thinking completely in terms of boxes. Ready-made boxes which mean there’s no need to do all that troublesome thinking themselves. Boxes which save them from having to consider all the sides of an argument.

But anyone who wants to resolve a conflict needs understanding. And only people who take a look at the unfamiliar, who open their eyes and ears, who open windows and doors, can reach understanding.

And that is precisely what literature does. Anyone who writes, but also anyone who reads, will discover cultural bridges which cross political borders, or will get a sense of cultural differences within the same political borders.

Anyone who reads will also read between the lines. And they’re what’s important in foreign policy. Because all too often what’s said is not exactly what’s meant.

That’s true in the current situation too. If one were to be guided in the Ukraine crisis exclusively by the words blaring out of the domestic policy loudspeakers, one would simply allow all sides to drive each other on in a spiral of escalation and eventually into a position of no return.

A grand old man of foreign policy – one whose views don’t perhaps tally with those of many here in this room – said that “diplomacy is perception”.

Foreign policy, Henry Kissinger said, begins with perception, with seeing the world through different eyes.

It begins with seeing several truths in one reality, and with seeing how they relate to each other.

Often our own reality is not the right one, and you can guarantee it’s not the only possible one.

All of us – politicians, writers, journalists – move in a large number of different realities.

For instance, anyone who equates the European Union’s political borders with Europe’s cultural boundaries is shifting reality. Europe’s cultural realities are not the same as Europe’s political realities.

That’s why a European Writers Conference has to include authors such as Lal Lales from Turkey, Michael Shishkin from Russia or Faruk Šehić from Bosnia.

Policymaking in particular needs to work at its perception. Because policymaking means acting, often with powerful instruments and heavy equipment. So the danger is all the greater if the action starts from false premises.

There’s a wonderful story from Mozambique which I heard a few weeks ago when I was in Africa and which illustrates all this perfectly.

A monkey, the fable has it, was walking along the side of a river when it saw a fish in the water. The monkey said to itself, “The poor thing’s underwater. It will drown. I must rescue it!”

The monkey snatched the fish out of the water and the fish began to flap around in its hands. To which the monkey said, “Look how happy it is now!”

But of course the fish died out of water. Then the monkey said, “Oh, how sad. If only I’d got here a bit sooner, I’d have been able to save it.”

A perfect example of someone starting from completely false premises.

Now, anyone who reads cannot be a monkey. Literature heightens perception and perception is the starting-point for all diplomacy. That’s why, to my mind, “cultural policy” is not just a policy of culture, but a culture of policy.

So, to conclude: what does Europe want from literature?

Over the past few years, political Europe has been all about crises and crisis management. Crisis management took the form of packages worth billions, of bureaucratic monstrosities like the ESFS, ESM, banking union or the Fiscal Compact.

And gradually the citizens’ confidence in Europe, and their delight in “project Europe”, crumbled.

As a response to this, I still keep hearing calls for a “new narrative” of Europe. A “new narrative” that will make people enthusiastic about Europe again. As if this technocratic jungle were shaded by a cosy, bright umbrella that people were happy to huddle under. And because politics can’t afford that, then maybe writers could help things along with their well-chosen words.

You’ll guess that I’m sceptical about whether that will work.

I don’t believe Europe will ever have one final, definitive narrative.

It doesn’t need one: what it needs is a lively public in which Europeans can talk with each other and not just about each other, both within and outside their political borders.

I don’t think Europe will ever have only one single identity.

Again, it doesn’t need one: what it needs is the space for the diversity of its identities, and a political culture which seeks not to erase our differences, but to value them.

And I don’t think Europe will ever only speak with one voice.

It doesn’t need one of those either: what it needs are mechanisms, instruments and agreements which enable its many different voices to act together.

The first European Writers Conference took place here in Berlin back in 1988. One of those who attended was Agnes Heller, who enriched the proceedings with her sharp intellect, as she is doing again today. A warm welcome to you, Agnes Heller!

The 1988 conference was called “A Dream of Europe”. Today, 26 years later, Europe has made progress, despite all the crises. Some parts of that old dream, Agnes Heller, have become reality.

The dream of Europe is still being dreamt. And not only in Europe. As Jeremy Rifkin has said, the European dream is dreamt not just by Europeans.

The dreaming goes on and the reality remains a work in progress.

Europe has no end state.

Which is why, Tilman Spengler, when a small group of us were coming up with the idea for another writers conference, you said that what we were planning wasn’t really a conference, but rather a permanent conversation among authors that never seems to come to an end.

That’s exactly how I see it too, and I’m very much looking forward to lively discussions with you all.

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