Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair

15.10.2019 - Speech

Allow me to take a break from my role as Foreign Minister for the next ten minutes and speak to you on a personal note.

As one of the 82 million people who live in our country,

as one of five billion readers in the world,

and as someone who is thinking about where our society is currently headed.

These days, the word “society” is increasingly prefaced by the word “digital”. We talk about the “digital age” and the “digital revolution”.

Digital transformation has indeed long since reached each and every part of our lives:

how we live and work,

how we read and communicate,

and how we make friends, live and conduct our relationships.

And like every radical change, it poses a challenge to the old order and forces us to find a new one.

“Create your revolution” is not only a call for transformation, but rather a call to create this new order.

And allow me to say that the fact that Your Royal Highnesses are sitting in the front row of an event where “Create your revolution” is written in large letters on the wall is a sign of how modern Norway’s Royal Family is.

Your Royal Highnesses,

Other royal families could take a leaf out of your book!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Digital transformation creates enormous opportunities as regards knowledge, participation, transparency and civic ownership.

Just a few weeks ago, I met young people in the Sudan who had demonstrated against the Bashir regime. Without the power of social media, their peaceful revolution would probably have ended on the street or perhaps in prison – at any rate not in the government buildings in Khartoum, where they now find themselves.

So why do we increasingly have the sneaking suspicion that we of all people, the children of the digital revolution in western societies, will end up being the first to be devoured by it?

I think this has to do with bubbles, which do not only bode ill on the stock and property markets.

They are the flip side of the digital revolution.

Let’s not forget that major changes also give rise to a desire for affirmation and a sense of belonging; a desire for boundaries, which always mean a certain amount of exclusion; a desire for absolute truths.

And despite their name, the so-called “social” media are part of what is boosting this trend.

Why? Because they reduce complex reality to mere slogans and provide almost no scope for ambiguity and the different facets of life.

And the people who benefit from this are those who always have the simplest, shortest and fastest answers – knowing full well that the outside world cannot be explained in 280-character tweets.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We all know where this development can lead in the worst case.

Or why else are none of us surprised when we hear that the perpetrators of the attacks in Utøya, Christchurch or Halle were radicalised in their online bubbles?

Why are we not surprised to hear that they looked to the internet for confirmation of their contempt for humankind? And that they received it there?

Why does it not surprise us to learn that they found instructions in the internet on how to make their weapons, which they then used to turn brutal words into brutal acts?

It is no longer enough to simply feel appalled, as our words “never again” sound increasingly hollow with every new attack.

Naturally, right-wing terrorism – and that is what we are currently talking about in our country – must, like any other form of terrorism, be addressed in the first instance and with the full force of the law by the law enforcement agencies and the rule of law.

We were blind to that for a long time.

But that is not enough!

The Halle attacker was not only a perpetrator.

He was also a neighbour, a colleague, a family member, a friend and an acquaintance.

And that makes him a part of this society – of our society.

That is why we, this society, share responsibility when there are new victims of racism, antisemitism, hatred and hate speech every couple of weeks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is high time

that we, too, look up from our smartphones and take a broader view, instead of limiting our horizons to the size of the screen;

that we discuss, disagree, think laterally and also argue;

that we emerge from the comfort zone where we all think alike, as that, too, is nothing but a bubble.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Frankfurt Book Fair is a good place to talk about this because I believe that you, as authors, publishers and translators, play a very crucial role in drawing us out of our bubbles.

Literature does not only create scope for aesthetic experimentation – it also shows us new worlds and other points of view. In a world that craves fast and simple answers, the slow power of literature helps to protect us from authoritarian reflexes, simplistic answers and isolationism.

We find one example of this in the work of Saša Stanišić, who has just been awarded this year’s German Book Prize. Where others see a person’s birthplace as their sole defining feature, Saša Stanišić shows us how arbitrary it is to define what someone feels is their home purely on the basis of where they come from.

As Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel, who has produced wonderful translations of many Norwegian books, once said, literature is “the voice of the linguistic artist who by writing reveals a very special view of the world and takes a clear stance.”

That holds especially true for Norwegian literature. And it is one reason why Norwegian books are so popular in Germany.

Deeply rooted in Norwegian history and often narrated from a radically subjective point of view, they bring us face to face with the people around us, with their fates, dreams and fears.

Not only do readers of Tomas Espedal’s “Bergeners” fear that at some point they will end up getting caught in the rain that falls every single day in Bergen, they also see the city’s inhabitants and become part of their inner worlds.

Reading compels us to feel compassion.

And Norwegian books in particular do not spare us in this regard,

for example when they enable us to feel the pain of a family who lost a child in Utøya

or draw us so profoundly into the lives of two Muslim teenagers in Stovner, one of Oslo’s typical migrant neighbourhoods, that we start to doubt our own wonderful belief in the existence of equal opportunities and a culture of welcome.

Reading also means taking on other people’s points of view. And that doesn’t necessarily mean understanding them, but rather accepting and experiencing ambiguity.

No matter how paradoxical it may sound, we leave our bubble when we read.

And that is exactly why Toni Morrison was so right when she described reading as “a bold act of rebellion”.

That brings us back to the notion of revolution.

If literature is able to burst our bubbles, then reading truly becomes a revolutionary act.

That is why the question of whether and how we support literature and its authors and translators is not purely a matter for cultural policy, but an absolutely crucial task for society.

Ladies and gentlemen, Norway relies on the power of literature. On average, every Norwegian reads an impressive 15 books per year. And Norway does more than almost any other country to support the export of its literature.

That is another reason why Norway is a fortunate choice as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It serves as a role model and inspiration to us to ensure that more literature written in German is translated.

Erik Fosnes Hansen, in the run-up to the Book Fair you very rightly said that “without translators, there would be no world literature.”

And there would be less understanding, as in order to understand someone you first need to be able to comprehend what they are saying. As Foreign Minister, I have plenty of experience of that.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The history of the last media revolution shows that literature is more than simply black text on white paper

It began just a few kilometres from here in Mainz, which one might say was the Silicon Valley of the Middle Ages. Mainz was the birthplace of printing in 1450. Yes, I think there are similarities.

People also felt afraid at the time.

They feared that the new medium would be abused;

that people could be manipulated by it;

that knowledge would incite rebellion;

that chaos would ensue and the powerful lose control.

Much of that sounds familiar somehow.

In the same way that printing radically transformed the world, digital technology will revolutionise our world.

But it is also true that the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the humanism that influence – or at any rate should influence – how we think to this day would have been inconceivable in this form without printing. One might say that this invention reformatted people and catapulted us from the Middle Ages into the modern era.

And thus, ladies and gentlemen, digital transformation, despite all the concerns some people have about it, creates an opportunity to change our world for the better. It paves the way to an Enlightenment 2.0.

The direction societies take is not random. It depends on us. Algorithms are also made by people.

And it still holds true today that a society’s conduct is the sum of the conduct of all of its members.

And so, ladies and gentlemen,

Let’s leave our bubble!

Let’s discuss the right path to take by having a real dialogue – not a series of monologues!

Let’s accept other points of view! Indeed, let’s go further and have the courage to foster other opinions! There’s nothing wrong with contradicting someone! And the same goes for compromises.

All this may be tiring, uncomfortable and irritating.

But only in this way is the necessary space for debate created.

And only in this way will our revolution remain humane!

Thank you very much.


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