Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Annual Meeting of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin

10.06.2015 - Speech

Professor Schwarz,
Professor Alt,
Colleagues from the German Bundestag,
Esteemed guests,

I am delighted to be here with you today. It is an honour and a pleasure for me to be the first German Foreign Minister in the 61-year history of the Annual Meeting of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to have the privilege of speaking at this event. The Humboldtians who have joined together here today are an impressive global family.

On my many travels, I have discovered time and again that these family ties indeed span the entire globe. Whether in Colombia, Kenya, or Korea – wherever I travel, I find that a Humboldtian has already been there. And if it wasn’t Alexander himself, it was one of you!

That is why you, my dear alumni, are often described as ambassadors of our country. This may be true, but I believe it is only half of the story. After all, you haven’t been recruited into the Foreign Service – although I must admit that sounds like a very appealing prospect. There are 51 Nobel Prize winners among you – I certainly wouldn’t mind having you working for me.

But this is not the case. You have come here to Germany because you are among the top scholars in your respective fields. Because you have been selected for a coveted Humboldt fellowship or honoured with an award. This is perhaps precisely what gives you such special credibility as Humboldt ambassadors.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have brought your knowledge and your experience to our country. You play an active part here. You conduct research together with German and international colleagues. You then take the experience and knowledge that you have acquired here, as well as your encounters and the friendships you have formed here, back with you to your home country. You are then, if you will, ambassadors in both directions, both to and from your home countries. Not as diplomats with a government mandate but as mediators and creators of shared knowledge and shared insight.

That is how you, esteemed ladies and gentlemen, stand in the tradition of the two brothers who are indeed an inspiration to your big global family to this day: Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt.

The Humboldt brothers, too, looked both inward and outward. They were citizens of their country and citizens of the world, one of them a linguist and educational reformer, the other a naturalist, world traveller and ‘second Columbus’.

Wilhelm von Humboldt once said of his brother: “Since our childhood, we have moved poles apart although we have always remained fond of each other. From an early age, his inclination has been to the outside world, while I preferred the inner life, even when I was very young.”

The Humboldt brothers shaped the educational landscape of Germany more than just about anyone after them. At the same time, they also shaped our understanding that we must open ourselves up to the outside world in order to share and acquire knowledge and thereby better understand one another and the world.

This spirit, ladies and gentlemen, has continued to shape the work of those of you here in this room today. In my view, this spirit also explains why promoting academic research is such an essential part of our foreign policy. In our globalised and ever more closely interconnected world, it is not even possible to solve the problems of our time alone.

It is the task of policy to make this exchange, this co-production, possible. This means, on the one hand, that we internally create the institutions and spaces for this. And, on the other hand, it means that we open ourselves up to the outside world in order to share our knowledge and invite others to collaborate with us. In our crisis-ridden world, however, this is not always easy. All too often, wars and violence block access to education and hinder free academic exchange.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is why it is our foreign policy responsibility to become even more involved in this area.


Professor Schwarz,

You yourself have repeatedly emphasised that individual support is structural support.

And because I am constantly travelling abroad – in crisis regions and among difficult partners, as well as among partners that are on a path towards greater freedom – I must concur with you on this. I’d like to offer one example: a few months ago I was travelling in Colombia. This is a country that is striving – and I say this with a view to recent events – to find a way out of its civil war and its internal strife. One of the key facilitators of this change is the Colombian Justice Minister. The Humboldt Foundation gave him a research fellowship years ago – and now this former fellow is changing his country’s structures. I think this is a lovely example in support of your motto, Professor Schwarz!

Scholarly and scientific work is essential; with a view to our own history I would like to stress that through our commitment today, we are also honouring the things that other countries did decades ago to benefit German scholars and scientists.


What do I mean by this?

I would like to mention two examples. First, the British economist William Henry Beveridge, who founded the Academic Assistance Council in London in 1933 in response to the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. And second, the German pathologist Philipp Schwartz, who built up the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaftler im Ausland, an emergency association of German scientists in exile, at the same time in Zurich.

Schwartz, a professor at the University of Frankfurt, was one of the countless German academics who were fired without notice due to their Jewish heritage at that time. From Switzerland and from the UK, Schwartz and his colleagues in the emergency associations helped hundreds of German scientists in exile; some say the number they helped was far more than a thousand.

Schwartz once said of this period that great hardship had induced him and his colleagues to form a community. This was not a matter of seeking positions that would help provide them with a secure income, he said. Rather, they closed ranks to fend off degradation of the spirit that had led them to develop their abilities, for they had, he said, been born to stand in the service of this spirit.

To this day, seventy years after the end of the Nazi reign of terror, we Germans remain deeply thankful to the UK, Turkey, the USA, Switzerland, and many other countries around the world for taking in German academics. This history also inspires and commits us now to take on our own responsibilities in this area.


Anyone who reads the newspapers or follows the news will be aware that flight and expulsion remain among the greatest problems of our era. Today there are more than 50 million displaced people around the world – as many as at the end of the Second World War, and more than at any time since then.

These people are seeking respite from war, violence, misery and deprivation, as well as from persecution, intimidation and repression. Academics, students and intellectuals who speak their minds openly and bravely often stand in the line of fire. From the Egyptian professor who criticises his government to the Syrian scientist who publically decries his country’s environmental policy, all too often it is the academic work of these people, the courage and boldness of their work, that in itself frightens ruthless rulers, making them a target of state violence.

At the same time, these dedicated people are the very people who are crucial to building up and developing their countries.

It is clear to us that we must help ensure future prospects for the present generation – and thereby for their home country. That is why we started a scholarship programme for Syrian students and future scientists a year ago together with the German Academic Exchange Service – because we cannot let a generation grow up lost as a consequence of the Syria conflict.

And that is why we would like to go further in this direction together with you, who have assembled here in the name of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We want to launch a new initiative to support scientists and scholars at risk.

In my view, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is destined to take on a leading role here. And I am confident that there will be no shortage of support from German universities and research institutions. The German research community is already actively involved. This is very good. And I’m pleased that the business sector, as represented by the Federation of German Industries, has also shown interest in getting involved.

The strength of public engagement and of the cooperation of superb scientists and scholars and equally superb organisations is evident here. I especially welcome this!

I hope that we will be able to present a joint concept by the end of the summer. In any event, you can count on our support. And also, I am sure, on the counsel and dedication of the Humboldt family.

This is precisely what you here in this room demonstrate to us, and what the spirit of the Humboldt brothers represents: that we need each other, that we need one another’s knowledge and experience to face the urgent questions of this world.


For our world is changing extremely rapidly. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my second point. This is the reason why we need you perhaps more than ever – and more urgently – today as advisors and guides:

“The time is out of joint,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said. From the terror of ISIS in Syria and Iraq to the Mediterranean refugee crisis to natural disasters in Asia, we are living in a world of countless crises and rapid change, both technologically and in other ways. Many things that we considered to be firmly entrenched for decades now appear to be in flux.

The crisis in Ukraine has made clear to us that the twentieth-century order of peace with which my generation grew up appears to no longer be in effect. Or: perhaps it is still in effect, but some people no longer accept it. But that is not the only thing.

Our very notions of order itself have been called into question. We find ourselves in a world that has no overarching order at present. A world that has, with the end of the Cold War, lost one form of order without gaining a different order in its place. It is a world in search of a world order.

At the same time, our world appears to be growing even closer together at a rapid pace through technological progress, trade, migration and data flows – a phenomenon with which many of you are engaged in your research.

This raises many questions:

  • What form of political order do we need?
  • How can change flourish in the world without leading to chaos?
  • How can technology aid us in this pursuit? And where might it stand in the way of it?


We have a responsibility to contribute to a peaceful, just and sustainable order.

It is clear that no laboratory in the world, no single academic discipline, and no government in the world can answer these questions alone. For that we need discoverers and cross-linkers like you.

And that is why I would like to thank you very much, Mr Schwarz, for the fact that the Humboldt Foundation wants to take up this major issue of order together with us and other partners in lecture series and other events. I am confident that new points of reference can be gained only from the cross-fertilisation, listening and interplay among all disciplines and faculties. This is the only way that we can scrutinise ourselves and, above all, create new knowledge and new possibilities of order together.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This way of reflecting together without blinders is something we need more than ever. And, as Wilhelm von Humboldt recognised so early, we need spaces for this. One such space is being created not far from here, a new institution that will breathe the Humboldtian spirit: the Humboldt Forum on Schlossplatz.

We want to make the Humboldt Forum a marketplace of ideas for the twenty-first century. This would be a marketplace in a European spirit, an agora, a place of changing perspectives, and a place of debate.

That is why we, together with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, would like to launch a special programme to bring together the inside and the outside, and culture and science, at the Humboldt Forum. We want to create a scientist-in-residence programme that cultivates the connection between the arts and sciences. I am convinced that every common action in science and culture is a building block of the house of common thinking.

At the heart of this programme will be a pairing: one German and one international award winner. At the Forum they will cooperate with scientists and artists in working groups, opening up their project, their collaboration and their way of thinking to debate and discussion. The Humboldt Forum should thereby become a place of dialogue among the world’s cultures in the heart of Berlin – here new forms of interaction between scientific and artistic ways of working are to be joined together and presented with new dialogue formats, in order to impart an understanding of the globalised world.

This will be done in a form in which we bring together local and international, cultural and academic expertise and experience. I have been told that Ms Völckers, the President of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, has already been recruited to join this endeavour. I’m very happy about this, for this is how we will ensure that enough recognition is given to the artistic side.

By including the Wissenschaftskolleg and, I hope, additional research institutions in Berlin, we intend to involve the Land of Berlin closely in the process. And, of course, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation also has to be on board to ensure productive exchange with this city’s excellent museums.

In my view, this is the right approach to tackling the most pressing issues in our interconnected world. And straight away, this also stands for the new departure that we need in research and academic relations policy.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The people who contribute to the Humboldt Forum should be part of our community – just as you fellows are during your time here with us in Germany. There is a lot of discussion in Germany these days about the culture of welcome. It seems to me that the Humboldt Foundation has been living out such a culture for years.

The Foundation accompanies its fellows to administrative offices, schools and nurseries. They celebrate holidays and birthdays together. Wherever in the world I speak with Humboldtians, this culture is what they rave about to me.

“My children learned German in Berlin and now they speak it better than me,” one person said.

Another told me, “My former colleagues from my department in Hamburg come to visit every summer.”

And then I’ve also heard, “I miss those big German joint breakfasts with Black Forest ham.”


We are delighted that you are here with us. We thank you for living here with us, sharing your knowledge with us, and enriching our country.

I wish you great continued success with your projects. And I hope that after your stay in Germany you will return to your home countries full of knowledge and drive – enriched by new insights, new friendships, and perhaps even a new fondness for Black Forest ham.

Thank you very much!

Related content


Top of page