Acceptance Speech by Carolin Emcke


Wow. So this is what it looks like from up here.

In the earlier years, starting with the awarding of the Peace Prize to George F. Kennan in 1982, I watched this ceremony from below looking up: my parents, in their idiosyncratic way, had only two armchairs, which meant that we children had to arrange ourselves on the carpet in front of the television. And so I lay on the rug, listening intently to the speeches given by the male recipients: and I say male recipients deliberately here, seeing as the first thirteen years I watched from below looking up, it was only men who were awarded the prize. Even after I had long since moved out of my childhood home, I maintained this ritual; I watched the Peace Prize lying on the floor in front of the TV.  Somehow it just seemed the most appropriate perspective to take. And then, in each of the years since David Grossman received the prize in 2010, I sat where you are all sitting here today. In fact, as late as last year, on the eve of the award ceremony, I even conspired with a friend to sneak into the ballroom at the Frankfurter Hof to tamper with the seating arrangements at the pre-award banquet. (Embarrassingly enough, we were caught red handed). And now this, here...

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank the Board of Trustees of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers and Booksellers Association) for this award. It fills me with a deep sense of gratitude and happy amazement. 

Nobody grows alone. Some of the individuals who stood on this spot before me were existential for my own thinking. Indeed, the work of many Peace Prize recipients – and the opportunity to meet some of them in person – has made me the person who stands before you today: Martin Buber, Nelly Sachs, David Grossman, Jorge Semprún and, in particular, Jürgen Habermas and Susan Sontag. The idea of now being among their ranks prompts me to perceive this prize less as an award and more as a mission, a challenge.

Nobody writes alone. There were two people indispensible to my development as a writer, and I would like to thank them specifically. First of all, my friend, the photographer Sebastian Bolesch, who accompanied me on each of my travels abroad over the course of 14 years and without whom I would not have written one word. And, second of all, my publisher and editor, Peter Sillem at S. Fischer Verlag, who has helped me transcend my doubts since my very first manuscript and without whom no book of mine would ever have been published. 


Many – but not all – of the men and women who stood here before me spoke not only as individuals, but also as members of a specific group. They defined themselves as belonging to a faith, an experience, the history of a specific country or a particular lifestyle: they reflected upon what it meant to speak here in the Church of St. Paul as a Chinese dissident, a Nigerian author, a Muslim or a Jewish woman – here in Germany, with its particular history. 

For those individuals who have had the honor of speaking from up here, from this perspective, it often meant speaking from and about a specific perspective. They were chosen to receive this award because they had somehow dedicated themselves to working for a universal we; and yet, they often still spoke as individuals who belonged to an oppressed group, a marginalized faith or a broken, war-torn geographical area.

This is certainly worth noting, seeing as we cannot be entirely sure what it means »to belong«.

The modern Hebrew word for »to belong« is »shayach« and comes from the Aramaic; it immigrated, so to speak, from one language into the other, where it quite ironically became the term used to describe »belonging.« In fact, the word shayach refers to nothing else. Unlike most other terms in Hebrew, it contains no parts of another in itself. As it were, it belongs only to itself. When the word shayach is used to describe something, it indicates that the thing is relevant, worthy and important. This provides us with a useful line of thinking: to see oneself as belonging to a faith or a community implies that I am relevant to this community, that I am an important element in it.

However, belonging can also be thought of in the other direction as well; that is to say, not only am I important to the community, the faith is also important to me. Being Jewish or Catholic or Muslim makes a difference. It structures my thought processes, my habits and my day. Just as the giving of alms belongs to one person, saying grace at the dinner table or lighting candles belongs to others. 

In the German language, the term »to belong« has multiple meanings: i) to be the property of someone, but also ii) to be part of a whole, a necessary element, iii) to fit or be suitable in a certain place and iv) to be necessary for something.

If I am devout, am I in possession of faith? Is religiosity something that belongs to me? Or is faith something confirmed via a struggle? In other words, what does »belong to« mean in the context of faith? Does my faith belong to me, or do I belong to that in which I have faith?

 We haven’t even touched upon the question as to whether this belonging is something an individual can consciously take on. Although we can usually determine the precise moment at which an individual becomes a member of a church or a community by looking at the date of the relevant rituals of admission, it is much more difficult to pin down the moment when faith started belonging to a person. 

Could it not be argued that the Passions and Cantatas of Bach had already permeated and formed me from the inside out before I was even capable of professing a faith? Did this music not belong to me – that is, did it not already create the foundation for the person I would become – before I could ever have been able to declare my membership in a community?

Now the word membership is bereft of nuance. It suggests a uniform perception, as if it were of equal relevance to us whether we were Jewish, Protestant or Muslim. As if it always felt the same – to be Kurdish or Polish or Palestinian – wherever we went. As if it weren’t possible for this membership to be differently concise in different situations. For example, when asked what it meant to him to be Muslim, a friend of mine, the theater director Nurkan Erpulat, responded by saying: »It depends on the context.«

Sometimes the Argentinean origins of the Jacaranda plant are particularly obvious, for example when one sees its bright purple blossoms. But sometimes it is noticeably far away from these origins, especially in Berlin, when a helicopter flying over the city heralds the occurrence of a traffic jam rather than a military putsch – at which point that ingrained fear requires some time to dissipate.

For many individuals, their own Jewish faith becomes especially palpable when they taste the sweetness of apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah. For others, it emerges when they finds themselves sitting in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt listening to a speech in which the unimaginable suffering of their own families is transformed from a crime against humanity – one we have an obligation to remember as long as we live – into a mere »moral cudgel.«  I cannot stand here without calling to mind that terrible moment in the history of this prize – a moment that was extremely painful, not only for Ignaz Bubis.

In other words, is belonging something that manifests itself in connection with others, or is it something that appears when you stand out as the only one belonging to a community? In this case, the Jewish perspective was simply blocked out as belonging to our society. Which begs the question: Is belonging connected to happiness or sadness? Does a person belong when she or he is acknowledged as belonging? And, in turn, does she or he who is denied this acknowledgment belong?

In other words, who does this belonging belong to? To oneself or to another? Does this belonging come in only one or in many different forms? And, above all, how many different contexts and connections can be relevant and important to me in this sense? How many intersecting circles do I fit into and how many do I use to construct myself as an individual?

I am homosexual, and when I speak here today, I can do so only by also speaking from the perspective of this experience; that is, as someone for whom it is relevant to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, inter*, trans* or queer. Not only as someone who has this experience, but definitely because of it. This is not something one seeks out, however it is what I would choose to be again, if given the choice. Not because it’s better, but simply because it has made me happy.  

The first time I fell in love with a woman, I honestly had no idea that my love would be connected to a form of belonging. At the time, I still believed that whom and how I loved was an individual matter that distinguished my life and was of no concern to others, especially to strangers or the state. The idea of loving and desiring someone struck me primarily as an act or experience, not an identity. 

It is very strange when one realizes that something so personal is so important for others. In fact, it is so important to them that they insist on being permitted to intervene in our lives and deny us our rights and our dignity. It’s as if the way in which we love is more important for others than it is for ourselves: as if our love and our bodies didn’t actually belong to us, but instead to those who reject and pathologize them. There is a certain irony to this: it’s as if our sexuality defined much less our belonging and much more theirs. From where I stand, it often looks as if this is the same dynamic at work in the Islamophobic preoccupation with the hijab. It’s as if the hijab means more to them than it does to the people for whom it is a self-evident and self-determined choice.

In any case, a circle is formed into which we are enclosed; those of us who love differently or look different. We belong to this circle regardless of the circles in or between which we otherwise move; no matter what other things set us apart, no matter what abilities or inabilities we have or which needs and characteristics mean much more to us. In this manner, something that makes us happy – something that seems beautiful and appropriate to us – becomes connected to something that leaves us injured and numb. Because we still, every day, are obliged to provide reasons as to why we should belong – not just half way, but all the way. Not just a part of us, but the whole thing. As if there was a cutoff for humanity.

It is a strange experience:

We are permitted to write books that are taught in schools, but the way we love should only be »tolerated« – according to the wishes of some parents –  and in no way »respected« in school textbooks?

We are allowed to give speeches in the Church of St. Paul, but we are not allowed to get married or adopt children?

I sometimes ask myself whose dignity is being damaged here: the dignity of those of us declared as not belonging or the dignity of those who seek to deny us the rights that belong to us?

Human rights are not a zero-sum game. Nobody loses their rights when they are granted to all. Human rights are unconditional. They cannot be earned, nor must they be earned. There are no preconditions that must be met before a human being is recognized as such and protected. Affection or dislike, approval or distaste for individual lifestyles, social practices and religious convictions cannot be allowed to play any role in this realm. This notion is indeed the very essence of a liberal, open and secular society. 

Dissimilarity is not a sufficient reason for exclusion. 

Similarity is not a prerequisite for human rights.

And this is a great thing, because it means we don’t have to like each other. We don’t even have to understand each other or agree on what constitutes a good life. We can continue to see each other as strange, weird, old-fashioned, new-fashioned, petit-bourgeois or garish.

Allow me to put it in terms all of us here in the Church of St. Paul can understand: I’m a Borussia Dortmund fan. And, although it’s hard for me to understand how someone could be a Schalke fan, it wouldn’t cross my mind to deny Schalke supporters the right to freedom of assembly.

Tzvetan Todorov once wrote that »difference is corrupted into inequality, equality into identity.« This is the social pathology of our time: it divides and separates us, it sorts us into identity and difference, it segregates us according to concepts and skin colors, according to origin and faith and according to sexuality and physicality, so as to use these categories to justify exclusion and violence. 

For this reason, those who stood here before me and – as I am doing today – spoke of this strange experience of belonging to not-belonging, emphasized both, that is, both individual diversity and normative equality.

The freedom to believe something different, to look different, to love slightly differently, the sadness of coming from an endangered and damaged area, the bitter pain experienced by a certain we – and the yearning to use words to move beyond precisely these affiliations, to open up and call into question the codes and circles, to multiply perspectives and – time and again – to defend a universal we


At the moment, a climate of fanaticism and violence is running rampant in Europe. Pseudo-religious and nationalist dogmatists are propagating the doctrine of a »homogenous people,« a »true« religion, an »original« tradition, a »natural« family and an »authentic« nation. They come up with concepts that include some and exclude others. They divvy us up arbitrarily and decide who has the right to belong and who doesn’t.

Everything that is dynamic, everything that is multifaceted about our own cultural references and contexts is negated. They deny everything that is individually unique, everything that makes us what we are as people, everything that makes us people who belong, that is, our struggles, our vulnerabilities, but also our fantasies of happiness. We are sorted out according to identity and difference and packed into collectives, while all types of belonging that are vibrant, delicate and contradictory are dulled and smoothed over.

Perhaps these people – these populists and purity fanatics – are not themselves standing on the street spreading fear and terror; perhaps they don’t themselves throw incendiary devices into refugee homes, don’t themselves rip the hijab off Muslim women or the Kippah from Jewish men; perhaps they themselves don’t harass Polish and Romanian Europeans; perhaps they don’t themselves attack Germans with African heritage. In other words, they aren’t necessarily the ones actively doing the hating and the hurting. Instead, they are the enablers of hate.

They supply the discourse with patterns of resentment and prejudice; they manufacture racist product placements, all those small hurtful words and images with which others are stigmatized and devalued; and they provide the mode of perception with which people are humiliated and attacked.

This exclusionary fanaticism damages not only those it seeks to victimize; it also hurts all of us who wish to live in an open, democratic society. The dogma of the pure, homogeneous and Völkisch [nationalist-racist] constricts our world. It diminishes the space in which we can think and see each other.  It makes some visible and others invisible. It labels some as being valuable and other as worthless. It limits the imagination in which we give each other chances and opportunities. Indeed, a lack of imagination and empathy is a powerful antagonist to freedom and justice. 

This is exactly what the fanatics and populists of purity want: they want to take from us our analytical openness and ability to empathize with diversity; they want to take away the simultaneity of references that belong to us – and to which we belong; and they want to standardize this togetherness, this mishmash of religions, origins, practices and habits, physicalities and sexualities.

They want to convince us that constitutional patriotism and democratic humanism do not exist. They want to misinterpret passports as the indicators of a person’s inner constitution, just so they can play us off each other. Indeed, there is something grotesque about this approach: for decades, German society denied that it was a society of immigrants; for decades migrants – and their children and grandchildren – were seen as »foreigners« rather than as citizens; for decades they were treated as if they didn’t belong, as if they were nothing more than Turks. And now we accuse them of not being »German enough« and point to the fact that they have two passports?

My mother’s family emigrated to Argentina before the war. Every person in her family had different passports at different times, sometimes an Argentinean, sometimes a German one, and sometimes both. I still have them all, including my grandfather’s passport which was given to me by my uncle, and my mother’s passport. My niece Emilia, who is here today and, like all of her siblings, was born in the United States, also has an American passport. We are all multilingual, and we always were. But do the neo-nationalists really believe that anyone in my family is less democratic or has less respect for individual freedom and the protection of human dignity? Do they really believe that a passport says anything about that individual’s aversion to depravity and their willingness to engage in creating a democratic, open society no matter where?

I rather suspect that all of those people who were once driven out of their homes, who know what it means to flee a country or simply migrate, who feel at home in different places in the world, who are plagued by homesickness or wanderlust, who love the different sounds of irony and humor, who go back and forth and mix things up when moving from one language to another, who remember songs from their childhood that the generation after them will never know, who have experienced the ruptures of violence and war, those for whom the fear of terror and repression has become a subcutaneous experience – these people know quite well the value of an open democracy and of stabile institutions under the rule of law. Perhaps they even know them better than those who never had to fear living without them.

They want to intimidate us, these fanatics, with their hatred and violence, so that we lose our orientation and our speech, so that we become full of dismay and adopt their concepts, their false opposites, their constructed others – even their level of intellectual gracelessness. They do damage to public discourse with their superstitions, conspiracy theories and that peculiar combination of self-pity and brutality. They spread fear and terror and reduce the social space in which we should be able to meet one another and articulate ourselves.

They want to create an environment in which only Jews defend themselves against anti-Semitism, where only gays protest against discrimination and where only Muslims fight for freedom of religion; this enables the fanatics to denounce those who protest as being Jewish, members of the gay lobby or inhabitants of a parallel society. The fanatics want a world in which only black citizens rise up against racism and only feminists protest sexism and toxic masculinity so that they can devalue these groups as being »angry« and »lacking humor« respectively.

In actual fact, it’s not about Muslims or refugees or women. Fanatics want to intimidate everyone who commits themselves to the freedom of each unique, different individual.

For this reason, it is imperative that all of us feel that we are being addressed here.

For this reason, it is imperative that we do not simply delegate to »political leaders« our response to hatred and contempt. State prosecutors and investigative authorities are responsible for handling matters of terror and violence, but for all the everyday forms of disrespect and humiliation, for all the acts of shaping and ascribing carried out in supposedly homogenous collectives – these are things for which we are all responsible.

What can we do? 

In 1958, Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition: »With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world and this insertion is like a second birth in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance for which we, as it were, take on responsibility.«

We must not allow ourselves to be rendered defenseless and speechless. We can speak and act. We can take on responsibility. In other words, we can intervene actively with word and deed in this increasingly brutalized world.

In order to do this, we need to have trust in what makes us human: the capacity to begin.  We can go out and interrupt something. We can be reborn by inserting ourselves into the world. We can question what was passed down to us, we can determine whether it was fair enough, we can sound out the things that we were given to see if they are good, inclusive and contain enough freedom – or not.

We can start over again, as individuals, but also as a society. We can shatter our inherited inflexibilities, dissolve the structures that constrict and oppress us, move forward and discover new forms together.

We can start fresh and weave the old stories anew like the thread of the remains of chains; we can tie and untie, we can merge diverse stories together and tell a whole new story, one that is quieter and more open, one in which each and everyone is relevant.

But we cannot do this alone. It requires the participation of all actors in civil society.  Democratic history is made by all of us. A democratic story is one that is told by all – not just by professional storytellers. Every individual is relevant, and this includes the elderly and the young, those of us with jobs and those of us who are unemployed, those of us with more education and those of us with less. Drag queens and pastors, entrepreneurs and officers, retirees and students, each and every one of us is important when it comes to telling a story in which we are all addressed and made visible. The people responsible for this are parents and grandparents, caregivers and teachers in kindergartens and schools, policemen and women and social workers just as much as club owners and bouncers. Our democratic story of an open, plural and collective we needs images and role models, in public offices  and government authorities just as much as in theaters and films – so that they can show us and remind us of what and who we can be.

We can no longer be permitted to merely claim to be a free, secular and democratic society – we have to actually be it. 

Freedom is not something one owns; instead it is something one does.

Secularization is not something we can finish; instead, it is an unfinished project. 

Democracy is not a static certainty; instead, it is a dynamic exercise in dealing with uncertainty and criticism.

A free, secular and democratic society is something we must learn. Again and again. By listening to each other, thinking about each other, becoming active together in word and deed. In mutual respect for the diversity of ways of belonging and individual uniqueness. And, last but not least, in reciprocal admission of our weaknesses and our ability to grant forgiveness.

Is this difficult? Yes, absolutely. Will there be conflicts between different practices and beliefs? Yes, certainly. Will it be tricky to create an equitable balance between different religious references and the basic secular order? Definitely. But why indeed should it be easy?

We can always start again.

What is it going to take to do this?

Not much: some strength of character, some cheerful courage and, last but not least, the willingness to change one’s perspective so that more and more of us find ourselves saying:

Wow. So this is what it looks like from up here.

Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.