“Creating prospects”

09.12.2016 - Interview

Published in the 106/2016 edition of Humboldt Kosmos issued by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier on the Philipp Schwartz Initiative. Published in the 106/2016 edition of Humboldt Kosmos issued by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


The civil war raging in Syria, which is now in its sixth year, the terrorism of IS that has found its way into Europe, the ongoing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine – the many crises and conflicts in a world without an overarching order are coming thick and fast.

There are currently more than 60 million refugees in the world – more than at any time since the end of the Second World War. They are seeking protection from war and violence, many of them are also trying to escape personal threats and repression. This is especially true of scholars, students and intellectuals, who often, through their academic work, courageously shed light on shortcomings in their home countries, making themselves central targets for state violence and oppression. It is therefore all the more important to give these people prospects outside their countries of origin.

With the Philipp Schwartz Initiative we are enabling persecuted academics to freely continue their research so that they can subsequently re‑assume responsibility for a better future in their home country. By so doing we have clearly demonstrated, in cooperation with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, that the protection of persecuted academics in a conflict‑ridden world is a long‑term task that we are pursuing specifically with cultural relations and education policy resources. In view of its own history, Germany has a special responsibility which we are embracing. The man after whom the initiative is named, the Jewish pathologist Philipp Schwartz was himself forced to flee during the 1930s – from Germany to escape the Nazis. Because he was Jewish. In exile he founded the Emergency Society of German Scholars Abroad. Thanks to this engagement, hundreds of scholars found employment abroad. It is therefore absolutely right for us today to be helping persecuted academics.

The importance of this initiative becomes even more evident when we hear the moving personal accounts of the scholars – especially those who, like Syrian geography professor Hussein Almohamad from Aleppo, had to conduct their research in the most difficult of circumstances and who barely escaped death and destruction.

I am therefore delighted that in July 2016 the first 23 researchers received a scholarship to work at German universities and that in early 2017 another 40 or more academics whose lives are at risk are due to come to Germany for a research residency.

The potential of the initiative for both sides is huge, both for the scholars and for the universities. When an archaeologist from Damascus or a social scientist from Düzce researches and teaches at their host institution, through their personal experiences they help us broaden our own perspective and become more aware of the situation of academics who have had to flee their homes or whose lives are at risk.

At the same time the Philipp Schwartz Initiative offers scholars opportunities for networking, both with one another and on an international level, so that they can once again assume responsibility upon returning to their homeland. Hussein Almohamad is a good example of how this can work. In spring 2016, his host university in Gießen organised a conference in Syria – he himself is now a central partner for the network of Syrian geographers that has grown up from this and which is focusing on reconstruction plans for a post‑war Syria. Likewise Professor Abdulrahman, former Director of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Damascus, who will research and teach for two years at the University of Tübingen, is hoping to be able to help rebuild cultural property in his homeland that has been destroyed by IS militias.

The Philipp Schwartz Initiative is just one of many components of the crisis work of our cultural relations and education policy. It also stands as a role model for the freedom of science, the protection of cultural identity, for academic networking and last but not least for humanity in practice. For this reason the Philipp Schwartz Initiative plays a vital role in creating prospects for academics at risk – and hence also for their home countries.

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