Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the presentation of the Ignatz Bubis Prize

10.01.2017 - Speech

-- Check against delivery --

Mayor Feldmann, Peter,
Ida Bubis,
Tom Koenigs,
Salomon Korn,
Members of Frankfurt City Council,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this prize that bears the name of the great citizen of Frankfurt, Ignatz Bubis. The very fact that a prize for reconciliation is awarded today bearing his name, bearing the name of man who himself suffered so much exclusion, violence and injustice, is an impressive reflection of the life’s work of Ignatz Bubis. For me, it is a great honour to be associated with him by receiving this award.

My friend Tom Koenigs, in your speech you described the City of Frankfurt’s open approach to foreigners and how it welcomes them. There were however some rare exceptions to Frankfurt's welcoming culture. Historically, people here in the Paulskirche were anything but keen on those holding office in Prussian Berlin. That makes me all the more grateful for your kind words!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let’s stroll together back through history. We can do that right here, here in the Paulskirche. But in a different Paulskirche. The Paulskirche of 1848 and 1849. Back then, it wasn’t so bright and airy. Not just where you are sitting today, but also up on the gallery, between the pillars which were yet to be built, people were squeezing in. Parliamentarians, spectators ‑ at times more than 2000 onlookers ‑ were shoulder to shoulder with newspaper staff, diplomats and with belligerent, sceptical and passionate Germans. Just imagine for a second, ladies and gentlemen, the vibrancy of the place! A cradle of discussion and dispute, a cradle of democracy. The minutes of the very first meeting get straight to the point noting “general disorder and confusion”. This democratic space in the Paulskirche did not appear by magic here in Hesse. It was fought for courageously and had to be defended from the very outset. In its inner confusion but also from outside. After all, beyond these walls, the Assembly was heavily criticised, both by the Left and the Right. Marx and Engels called the Paulskirche an “assembly of old women”, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung newspaper described it as a “gossip club”. But even back then, many parliamentarians knew that to make their democratic space more stable, it had to be open. Those standing outside should come in and be part of the debate. One of the first to speak in the Paulskirche emphasised that they had come together in spirit through the press, and that railways made it possible for people to come together quickly.


Today it is not the press and railways but the Internet which is increasingly changing the way in which we communicate and access information, penetrating our daily lives. The diagnosis is paradoxical. The more networked and seemingly borderless the global village becomes, the more society is split into small groups and sections. Public space is fragmented, people hide away in echo chambers and filter bubbles meaning they develop categorical views and feel permanently confirmed therein. An opinion retweeted often enough becomes the “subjective truth”. This withdrawal into supposedly familiar spaces ‑ whether online or offline ‑ goes hand in hand with a dwindling readiness to even register other opinions and facts, never mind recognise these as valid.

In foreign policy, one experience made a major impression on me. Only if we are prepared to understand the positions of our interlocutors and not to dismiss their argumentation immediately, can a real conversation take place. In diplomacy and elsewhere, to understand does not mean the same thing as understanding. And certainly not the same as acceptance. And if wanting to understand has become a dirty word, then foreign policy is rendered incapable of reaching agreement and resolving conflict.

Ignatz Bubis, ladies and gentlemen, worked relentlessly to break through the walls that separate us from one another. After the crimes of the war and the Holocaust, which for Bubis himself meant expulsion, ghetto and murder of his father and two siblings in the Treblinka concentration camp, was this Germany ever going to become a place of living, pluralist democracy once more? His answer was yes. And as a Jew in Frankfurt, Ignatz Bubis helped build this new, more resilient German democratic space.

It was not to be a monotone, monochromatic space but a place for debate. Not any old space, but a place with walls to bear the weight of what was happening there. This includes tolerance, responsibility for our community and its history, and the clear rejection of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. In democracy, unlike the Internet at the minute, it isn’t a matter of “anything goes”. To my mind, we need more than ever to create a democratic space today in which we can argue in a respectful manner, a space where many can voice their opinion but just as many are listening, a space where differing interests and views can be expressed but where we can differentiate between fact and fiction. And for this, we need to be ready to recognise that for democracy this ability is a matter of survival.

Despite all the resentment and prejudice, Bubis overcame divides and sought out dialogue particularly with those who did not share his convictions, not to mention the existential, life-changing experience that the Shoah and expulsion represented. For him, dialogue also meant talking directly, one person with another. He had an extraordinary connection with young Germans. At the end of his life, his notes revealed that he had met half a million school pupils and students to talk to them in person. Ignatz Bubis, I am told, was so open to direct conversation that his home telephone number was even in Frankfurt’s telephone directory. But, of course, I ought to explain to the young people with us today, we once had big yellow books where you could google telephone numbers by hand.


“We are the people!” The first German democrats, also here in the Paulskirche, chanted this, as did the peaceful revolutionaries in the GDR. Ever since the powerful line of Freiligrath’s poem started echoing through German history, it raised a difficult question that is constantly in flux: who is this “we”?

Recently populists transformed Freiligrath’s ode to revolution into a rejection of diversity, into a battle cry for building barriers. When Pegida demonstrators chanted “We are the people” in Dresden, a fantastic placard was held high at one of the protest demonstrations. All it said was, “Nope, we are the people”. That is precisely it. The democratic “we” is not a homogeneous “we”, the democratic “we” has many faces and voices, and this phenomenon is going to become more pronounced in the 21st century. As Jürgen Habermas pointed out, the people only appear in the plural. The recent repeated attempt to revive ethnocentric thinking is much more than an intentional breaching of a taboo and a leaning towards elements of National Socialist ideology. It betrays the legacy of the European Enlightenment and disavows the very substance of pluralist democracy! The nationalist thinking, which our historical memory still recalls, prides itself on the end of dialogue. Critics were simply rejected as representatives of hostile system. Then, there is only one’s own truth and other people ‘s lies. In a uniquely perceptive way, the great historian Fritz Stern, who like Bubis came from Breslau (now Wrocław), laid bare the fateful connection between contempt for reason, indeed a deliberate irrationality that many downright celebrated, and the collapse of German democracy in the 1930s. Only those who know nothing about the catastrophe of wrong turns taken in our authoritarian past can think that such paths might work in the future. But does our cultural memory last longer than three generations?

Ignaz Bubis recognised early on that our knowledge of history fades or can be blanked out. And even today we are seeing that contempt for facts and reason seems to be becoming socially acceptable again. With this, one decisive point of reference in political dialogue threatens to evaporate. Politics is, of course, not guided solely by reason, but by passion, by conflict over ideas and by the fight to gain majorities. But these struggles which are so important for our democracy, the struggles to find the best way forward must not sacrifice reason as its yardstick. Such struggles need the willingness to doubt, verify and question. And they need the willingness to recognise facts as facts, to distinguish them from moods and opinions. After all, post‑factual is not only a catchy name for the latest form the post‑modern world is taking. The post‑factual era entails a deadly threat to our pluralist, democratic society. That is why we need to put a stop to populists when they want to undermine democratic diversity. When their views are presented as categorical, when criticism is blanked out, when doubts are defamed as betrayal. When populists say “We are the people”, they are actually saying: “We ‑ and only we ‑ are the people”. But, ladies and gentlemen, democrats must never let them get away with this populist knee-jerk approach. In this democracy, thankfully, no-one can claim the sole right of representation.


Honoured Board,

I would like to thank you for the great honour bestowed upon me today with the Ignatz Bubis Prize. The Prize is, of course, a great accolade but it above all serves as an entreaty. After all, this was Bubis’ approach, “When Ignatz Bubis remembered the horrors of the past, he focused on looking forward. He meant the future.” That is what Roman Herzog wrote in his obituary for his friend Bubis. Now Roman Herzog himself has passed away, a great constitutional lawyer, statesman and politician. I knew him as a wise and straightforward man. I met him time and again also in the years after his time as Federal President and greatly valued his considered opinion. Roman Herzog rendered great service to our country.

For me, therefore, this Prize is not so much recognition of what we have achieved but more of an appeal for our future. After all, we all face the task of bringing our democratic space into this new era, charged as it is with tension. We can learn from those who created the first German democratic space, from their successes and their shortfalls. And we can learn from Ignatz Bubis, who helped build a new German democratic space and at the same time always reminded us of its fragility. I am happy to take on the entreaty that this Prize represents and I hope that we will together fight for this democratic space ‑ with respect, but determined not despondent. Just like the Jewish saying teaches us, “A cat in gloves catches no mice”.

Thank you very much.

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