When Alexander von Humboldt was unable to quench his thirst for knowledge on his own, he wrote to researchers all over Europe and asked for advice.
It is said that he wrote over 50,000 letters. And so far, Humboldt experts have not been able to find either spam or videos of cute cats among them.
He was fluent in at least eight languages and his genius for communication built many bridges that we still use today.
Humboldt was a global scientist and a citizen of the world. His work still serves as a guiding light today for how we interact among ourselves and with nature. His views were defined by knowledge.
Our Humboldt year patron, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, even said recently that Humboldt was his role model.
Of the two Humboldt brothers, my first encounter with Alexander was only in the German Bundestag, where Professor Helmut Schwarz told me about the idea of this foundation, with all the passion that is so unique to him. I found his enthusiasm contagious.
Since then, I have met many very talented people and Humboldt experts through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. I have also met a few rather eccentric people.
We can certainly also learn from one another across borders at this conference. Humboldt's spirit is always with us. He is here with us in spirit in the way he was in body when he mingled with students in what was then the Friedrich-Wilhelm University to listen in on lectures in other fields.
However, at your events I have never experienced what was standard for Humboldt. Apparently, some people would not leave a gathering as long as he was still there because they didn't want to risk him talking badly about them after they had left.
The French physicist François Arago said that his friend Humboldt was the most generous person in the world, but also had the most wicked tongue he had ever known.
Role models can be something of a mixed bag, and Alexander von Humboldt was a bit of a rogue.
But even 250 years later, it is better to speak face to face than via social media.
And if Humboldt's ideals still seem worthwhile to us today, then we need to ask ourselves: What kind of letters do we send these days! What question do we ask of the world in which we live in today?
How does this discourse occur in the first place today and what do social media and global digital interconnection as a whole mean for humanity in all its diversity?
How does globalisation affect us?
And: if everything is in fact interaction, will what is special and extraordinary become more visible or will everything ultimately become more similar and uniform, so that it all blurs into one and becomes a sort of “Coca-Cola – one brand fits all”.
These are also cultural questions!
Ladies and gentlemen,
I believe that small and concrete things become more important in globalisation, while the big picture and international contexts shift ever further out of reach.
In the Federal Foreign Office, we support international links in academia and research.
This year's Humboldt y las Américas season also gives us an opportunity to create something for today out of what Humboldt developed in the past.
During Federal President Steinmeier's trip to Colombia and Ecuador a few weeks ago, Professor Pape and I experienced this on a visit to the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific, where invasive species, but more importantly microplastics in the oceans, pose a huge challenge to this natural paradise.
And the idyll is at risk. More and more plastic waste is being washed up on the coasts and beaches of the national park – a global problem that is painfully visible in Galápagos!
I feel very hopeful when I see the young generation in Germany and Europe who both recognise the importance of the environment and are familiar with social media and communication. This is vital because – like Humboldt – our goal must also be to reach people and discuss things with them.
The European elections will take place soon.
The main question here is do we believe that everyone's interests are well served when each person thinks only of themselves or do we believe that we can achieve more together.
Science has the answer to this.
Only by working together can we create prospects for a lasting future. In view of the wide-ranging challenges, which are in part a result of policies, it is more necessary than ever before that we join forces.
To put it simply, in the light of Humboldt's findings, it seems absolutely absurd to deny that climate change is caused by humans and to be unwilling to do anything about it.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Many good things have already been achieved through and in science. Science is a driving force of unity in and for Europe because it always strives hard to find the right answer, because it is able to learn and because it relies on the force of good arguments rather than on the law of the strong.
Education and knowledge are the keys to progress in science and society.
But we are also aware of international competition and of the investments that are urgently needed in innovation and research if we want to be able to provide answers to the great questions of our time.
We need not a swarm intelligence, but the intelligence of joint creativity.
The idea of European universities that President Macron described in his speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017 is thus a good idea that calls for political support.
That is why I was delighted to accept the invitation to the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. The fact that it agreed to work more closely internationally with universities in Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belgium forges a new and important bridge in European cohesion.
You are thus taking the first steps on the path to a European alliance of universities.
Rector, your university looks back on a long and proud history. Just last November, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Spanish counterpart Josep Borrell took part in a discussion here with students on the question of what sort of Europe we want to live in.
I see Europe as the bridge that connects us to our neighbours, a bridge that safeguards peace and prosperity, and a bridge that creates common ground.
However, we also see that with Brexit, an important member is leaving the European Union, something that would have been inconceivable to us only a short time ago. That is why one thing is particularly important – Europe's doors are open to our British friends.
When I did my Abitur, when I graduated from school in germany, European integration was something that all of us took for granted. But we all see again today that nothing is automatic in history.
Populism, anti-pluralism and anti-liberalism are currently challenging the way that the European Union defines itself and thus posing a challenge to all of us as democrats.
In this situation, close exchange in a spirit of partnership and trust, such as that we enjoy with Spain, is of great importance in the EU. Even in difficult times, Spain always maintained a cross-party, pro-European consensus.
That is impressive and something we were often not sufficiently aware of in Germany.
There are many ideas on closer cooperation between Germany and Spain. I think that we should become closer. I would be pleased if we did not only achieve this in particular policy areas through concrete initiatives, but if we could also build up a wide-ranging joint momentum for the future of Europe.
Spain and Germany are part of the pro-European heart of our EU and we want to continue building on that. There is consensus between us that we do not want any divisions in the EU. On the contrary, we want to overcome rifts and to speak with one voice in Europe.
We want a Europe that sticks together – a Europe United.
Together, all of us can and must counter these developments with a constructive discourse in support of Europe as a peace project.
We can use Alexander von Humboldt as a mentor and as a pioneer when it comes to transcending borders not only between countries and continents, but also between disciplines, schools of thought and terminologies.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Humboldt must have negotiated more than all of the diplomats in the world put together. Through the countless letters and talks with people from other countries, he conferred on the great questions of his time with a huge range of people.
His world view was shaped by the Enlightenment. He believed that all people were capable of reason. He did not see any people as superior or inferior, instead believing that the only differences between them were of an educational or cultural nature.
That is why he regarded education and knowledge as the keys to progress in science and society.
He worked until his death on his masterpiece, “Cosmos”, which could hardly have had a better title.
But somehow it did not unsettle him to know that he would never achieve his goal of “uniting” all knowledge about the world.
At least that is how I interpret what he wrote.
In this regard, he reminds me of Sisyphus. And as we know, we must imagine him happy.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If we want to search for answers and build bridges, then let us do so together. And if you can't find the answer, then write a letter to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation!
Thank you very much.