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Speech by Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs and Member of the German Bundestag, on being awarded the Prize for Understanding and Tolerance in the Jewish Museum Berlin

17.11.2019 - Speech

As a member of the Federal Government, and particularly as Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, you are occasionally given honours and awards. With time, you tend not to get so excited by such things. To date, I have received one prize which truly means a great deal to me – the “Gift of Remembrance”, awarded by the International Auschwitz Committee.

To have received an award from survivors of Auschwitz still feels to me like an undeserved present.

Today brings the second prize that is very special to me – the prize awarded by the Jewish Museum Berlin, this breathtaking place, this remarkable institution. I would like to express my gratitude.

I am honoured.

Ms Emcke,

In the run-up to this evening’s event, you told me that you didn’t really feel you could pay tribute like this to someone who is still alive.

But tonight you made an exception. For that I thank you most warmly.

I am happy that I lived to hear your speech. Otherwise I really would have missed something.

“DIE ZEIT” recently called you a moral authority.

I think it is your language that touches people most of all, because it is so radically humanist.

In the digital world we have more and more possibilities for sending words hurtling out into the world.

But despite – or perhaps precisely because of – this, we are losing our language more and more.

Your book “Against Hate” has been translated into over 20 languages. I do not find that surprising.

But it does make me think. The book is over three years old, and in some countries – most recently Brazil – new editions are still being printed.

The book has lost nothing of its topicality. On the contrary. Across the world, increasingly brutal language and everyday forms of hatred and marginalisation are poisoning our societies.

And for some years now we have seen our society, too, become ever more polarised. The fringes are becoming more radical, and opinions clash irreconcilably.

At the poles, we see the emergence of absolutist bulwarks which reject other views as a matter of principle and equate any attempt at debate with lack of principle. Compromise has become a dirty word. How awful!

For democracy needs compromise; and without compromise there can be no progress.

After all, freedom of opinion comprises two elements: freedom and opinion. And this freedom only begins when one or even many differing opinions can counter one’s own view. Without diversity, freedom of opinion becomes dictatorship of opinion.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The reasons for this polarisation are to be found not only on the margins – political or social.

Only the roaring silence of the majority allows the radical minority to sound so loud. That is what is creating the dissonance in our society. Far too often, the shrill tones are the loudest. Even though they come from a minority, they determine the sound.

But actually the problem is not the high and low notes at the extremes, but rather the lack of a mid-range. Without the middle notes, the whole composition is distorted.

The plurality of voices in our country is at risk. All too often, the majority falls silent in the face of the uncompromising noises made by the few. A “like” in your own echo chamber is no substitute for taking a stance.

Each and every one of us must ask ourselves: am I being loud enough?

Because silence, too, is a political statement.

And where debates do still happen, no one any longer listens. All that matters is getting one’s own opinion across, preferably without any contradiction at all.

And so the other side is discredited, mocked as a “do-gooder” or “centre extremist”.

Debate thus becomes pure simulation. There is no exchange of views, because there is no intention of looking for the best solution.

However, we must not demonise tussling between differing views. This tussling is often tough, sometimes painful and occasionally in vain. But not to engage in it will plunge us into a discursive coma. This cannot be allowed to happen!

To this end, we need what historian Timothy Garton Ash calls “robust civility”.

Arguments not primarily intended to injure those of other views.

Argument is and will remain the lifeline of democracy.

And at the same time the best training for tolerance.

It is no great achievement to be tolerant of those who think the same as you. Tolerance means getting out of your comfort zone. Only then is it of any value.

When you are given a prize like this one, a Prize for Understanding and Tolerance, it is only in part a reward for what you have already done. Rather, it gives you a task for the future. This Prize says: do something! Use the possibilities open to you!

And for that I thank the Jewish Museum, Mr Blumenthal, Mr Michaelis.

I happily accept not only this Prize, but also, and above all, the task it brings.

However, I have to confess that I am not tolerant of everything and everyone. Even tolerance has its limits. And these limits are determined by something that goes by many names: human dignity, decency, respect. In truth, though, it is all the same thing: respecting others as human beings.

Right-wing slogans, verbal attacks on minorities, the twisting of facts, horrible insults – all these things might come under the umbrella of free speech.

However, I do not have to tolerate them, and I will not tolerate them.

On the contrary, the freer we allow free speech to be, the more important it is to take a stance and join together in shouting out: that’s enough!

The problem is not that unacceptable statements are still covered by free speech. The problem only arises when no one counters the unspeakable – and it is at its worst when it happens out of indifference disguised as tolerance.

We got a painful reminder just a few weeks ago of what happens when inhumane views eat into society. In Halle.

On Yom Kippur.

Max Privorozki, head of the Jewish Community in Halle, whom I met there a few days ago, said after the attack:

“If we don’t take measures against antisemitism now, I don’t know whether the Jewish community still has a future in Germany.”

That is a painful sentence.

It fills me with shame when Jews have the feeling that Germany is not a safe home for them.

And, proper as all the measures are that have been taken against right-wing extremism in recent weeks, ultimately the fact that, in Germany in 2019, we need to have police officers guarding Jewish institutions, is but this: a damning indictment on our country.

In order to cut the roots of antisemitism, racism and right-wing extremism, we have to immunise society against hate.

The fight against forgetting the past plays a key role here. I am therefore pleased that, just this week, one building-block for the future of remembrance has been secured.

The Federation and Länder have agreed to together provide up to 60 million euros for the permanent maintenance of the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is appropriate, 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, to send a signal that Germany will continue to meet its historical responsibility.

Not least because the survivors will not be able to tell their stories in person for much longer, it is becoming more and more important to ensure that the memories are kept alive in those places where millions fell victim to genocide.

Never must we stop being aware of what people are capable of, and where contempt for human life can lead.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we do not like the high and low notes in the piece called society, the solution cannot simply be to cover our ears with our hands.

Or, worse, to put up with hate and incitement to hatred as an annoying buzzing in the background.

No! Tolerance means not accepting contempt for human life.

Even if those who incite to hatred raise their voices – we are louder! This is our country.

And this needs to be heard.

Let us speak out together!

Then we will change the sound.

Thank you very much.

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