"The Narrator as Moral Witness"

Laudatory speech by Seyla Benhabib


Carolin Emcke’s book, Weil es sagbar Ist. Über Zeugenschaft und Gerechtigkeit (2013) [Because it is sayable. On witness-bearing and Justice], has as its title cover Paul Klee’s famous painting – Angelus Novus. In Thesis IX of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin who had purchased the painting in 1921, provides an interpretation:

»A Klee drawing named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the Angel of History... The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.« (Thesis IX)

It is not Benjamin’s historical pessimism that makes Klee’s painting a plausible point of entry to understand Emcke’s work. In her texts one neither finds historical pessimism nor messianic optimism. It is rather the astonishment on the face of the angel of history, who spreads his wings with »staring eyes,« and »open mouth« that shines forth on every page of her prose. Emcke is astonished that such things as take place in civil wars are humanly possible, that torture, rape, beatings, maiming and humiliation do really occur. Even though, as Benjamin says, one »cannot make whole what has been smashed,« one can redeem it by narrating it. It is this capacity to »say« it, to tell a story about it by refusing the silence that surrounds violence, cruelty and torture that distinguishes Emcke’s prose and makes her one of the most influential intellectuals of our times.

As the text of the Friedenspreis [Peace Prize] states, Carolin Emcke describes »in a very personal and vulnerable manner, how violence, hate and speechlessness can alter human beings. With analytical empathy, she appeals to the capacity of all concerned, to find their way back to mutual understanding and communication.« This »analytical empathy« is exercised by Emcke through her masterful art of narration. Walter Benjamin’s essay Der Erzähler (The Story Teller) can once more serve as a guide to Emcke’s craft. Benjamin begins with the observation that »experience has fallen in value.« »With the First World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience?« (362) What does it mean to say that »Experience has fallen in value?« In the first place it means that the communicability of experience has been replaced by information and by phrases.

Throughout her work, Emcke resists this impoverishment of experience through the silences that surround it; she rejects the speechlessness that is inflicted on those who have been tortured, maimed, beaten, and raped by those in power or by those who hide their own impotence through the pretense of having or being in power. Emcke, as story teller, has developed a unique blend of reportage, philosophical reflection, and literary construction through which she »bears moral witness« to human pain in armed conflict situations but also to another kind of pain and silence experienced by those who are different – different sexually, psychologically, religiously, ethnically. Such narrative redeems the pain of the untold; breaks down the walls of silence and hurt which create the trauma of the unsayable.

Recall the opening pages of Stumme Gewalt. Nachdenken über die RAF [Violence without words. Reflection on the Red Army Brigade]: how slowly, how carefully, how patiently the story begins. It exhibits a gentleness not only toward the victim, Alfred Herrhausen, who was Carolin Emcke’s »Patenonkel« [Godfather], but toward the taxi driver, who never was paid, as a stunned Carolin Emcke was removed from the scene.

»I am still thinking about the taxi driver. It was almost noon as the airplane from London landed in Frankfurt. I took the first best taxi in the ground floor of the airport and named without further explanation the address in Bad Homburg. He betrayed no expression on his face. However, he must have known whose house that was… Without a word, he took my old, worn-out leather bag and placed it in the trunk.« (9)

A few pages later, we are told, »I hardly thought about the taxi driver any more. He must have stood there the whole time on the pavement at the intersection. How long could that have been? How long had I stared at this car [meaning the car of Herrhausen, SB] How long had I lost myself in my own thoughts?« (13)

My emphasis on such narrative details in a work which deals with one of the darkest, and still not wholly explained, chapter of post-war Germany, with its obscure connections between the RAF, the Stasi, the Verfassungsschutz (Agency for the Protection of the Constitution) and spies and provocateurs of all sides, may seem inappropriate. Yet it is precisely Emcke’s art of approaching trauma through indirection, through the work of memory which never proceeds as a single coherent story-line, but which meanders, wanders down unexpected trails and focuses seemingly on insignificant details – it is this craft that makes her into a masterful »story teller.«

In the introduction to her essay collection, Weil es sagbar ist. Über Zeugenschaft und Gerechtigkeit, Emcke tells of her despair as a young war reporter at her own incapacity to be able to tell of »dem Erlebten.« »How much time has lapsed since the lived experience which must be described? Was it a single act or a longer episode? Is it the first search for words for what has taken place? Is it a repetitive, hesitant, purposeless form of speaking? … Or are there questions, well-meaning or suspicious ones which serve the witness as a narrative path?« (25) Just as for Emcke herself, confronted with the violent death of her Patenonkel, the disconnected recollection about the taxi driver serves as a »narrative path« to structure the caesura in time, of such a nature that she can no longer recall how many minutes she stood staring at her uncle’s destroyed Mercedes, in one of the most beautifully told stories of Adem, a Bosnian refugee, it is his shoes that constitute the narrative trail. Adem’s refugee application is denied and he is returned from Germany to Belgrade, where his citizenship is revoked, he is beaten up, and then put on the plane back to Germany again. As Adem begins to tell his story, he says » >I had brand new shoes. And they were expensive,< he said emphatically.« She asks, »When? Why? What have all this to do with his escape from Yugoslavia? What did it have to do with his time as an asylum applicant without any protection in Germany, where he was cooped up in barracks, transported from one refugee home to another?« (38-39)

Trauma research as well as psychoanalysis establish that the inability to sort out what has happened in extreme situations constitutes the core of the trauma; violence and destruction in extreme situations lead to a dissociation (Entkoppelung) from former experience. The trauma scrambles one’s memory and can only be approached slowly, with care, with sympathy, through the patient listening to the voice of the other, »with analytical empathy,« as the victim begins to approach the site of pain and hurt. Trauma is sayable precisely because someone can form the sayable into an intelligible narrative that can be shared with others. This is not only an intellectual exercise but a form of moral interaction with the other as well as an art form. Hannah Arendt’s words about Isak Dinesen, alias the Danish storyteller, Karen (Tania) Blixen, captures very well Emcke’s mission: » >All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.< The story reveals the meaning of what would otherwise remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.« (Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 104) 


Carolin Emcke’s early war reportages and travels through Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Gaza, etc. collected in her book, Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter, appeared at a moment when the legal and moral confusions of liberal democracies around »humanitarian interventions« produced a distinctive genre of writing by Michael Ignatieff, Philipp Gourevitch, David Rieff and others. Scrambling the distinctions between reportage and moral and political commentary, these authors helped spell out the dilemmas and hypocrisies of humanitarian interventions: why not in Rwanda in 1994 but in Kosovo in 1998-99? Why in Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003 and in Libya not then but two decades later in 2011? And why not Syria today? While many have interpreted these wars as the neo-imperial ambitions of the world’s last hegemon, namely, the United States, they have ignored that a body of human rights and humanitarian law through which nation-states in the post- World War II period promised that atrocities like those of the years 1939-45 would never be repeated, has also been damaged in the process. The abuse of the concept of humanitarian interventions through the diplomatic dances of a Tony Blair, as well as the violation of international law and of the International Conventions prohibiting torture through the G.W. Bush administration have led to grave damage to human rights as well as humanitarian law. We are in the midst of such legal and moral confusions, that today, nearly twenty-five years after the Balkan Wars and the Rwanda massacre, we live in a moral mist about our moral, legal and ethical obligations to »suffering strangers.«

All across Europe, right-wing and xenophobic parties have mounted an attack on international law and human rights conventions. A reactionary nativism and nationalism threatens to destroy the fragile institutions of cooperation and post-sovereigntism, such as the European Union. The United States’ commitment to internationalism is being challenged by the return of an authoritarian, patriarchal ideology of the »white European stock« versus the brown and black people of the world – be they Mexicans or Syrians. The myth of the nation-state as the sole agent of world-history is being revived from Moscow to Trump’s New York towers and from London to Budapest.

Among the most important legal conventions of the post-war period, articulated in recognition of the deep links between genocide and statelessness, are the Geneva Conventions on Refugees of 1951 and their 1967 Protocols. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the paradoxes of »the right to have rights« in The Origins of Totalitarianism acutely showed how »statelessness,« that is the loss of protection by a recognized legal entity, left the individual so vulnerable to persecution. Human rights, which we assumed were intended to protect human beings insofar as they were human beings alone, were rendered nugatory in this condition. In 1951, when the Origins of Totalitarianism was first written, Arendt had little faith that international law and international institutions could offer solutions to this situation. However, already The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in Article 13, guaranteed the right to emigrate, that is to leave a country and to be able to return to it. Article 14 anchored the right to enjoy asylum, under certain conditions, which were further clarified by the Geneva Conventions. Article 15 of the Declaration proclaimed that everyone has »the right to nationality« and that »No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.«

Although international human rights law as well as humanitarian law, are much more developed than in Arendt’s time, today the theory and practice of refugee protection are in crisis. The definition of a Convention refugee was in the first place tailored to those persecuted by the Nazi regime and political dissidents. But under »generalized conditions of violence,« as we see in Syria and have witnessed in the past in Central and South America, refugees are not singled out as individuals but are subject as a group either to violence from their own government or by drug gangs and the para-military. In recognition of this condition that does not easily fit the one envisaged by the Geneva Conventions, in 1984 the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees was adopted by Central American countries as well as Mexico. This declaration states that »among refugees [are included] persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.«

The European Union should take into account this legal instrument which is also recognized by the UNHCR in order to alleviate the burden on »first countries of entry« such as Greece, Italy and Spain. Above all those refugees who are in the waiting period while their applications are being considered live in a kafkaesque situation: they stand »before« the laws and are subjected to them without, however, being equal in the »eyes of the law.«

Countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and the UK have resorted to a regressive sovereigntism in violation of the Geneva Conventions to deal with refugees as they see fit. Acts of unilateral border closings are declared with sovereign impunity, while ironically an increasingly autocratic and dictatorial government in Turkey is housing 2.7 million refugees.

It is little known that although Turkey subscribes to the Geneva Conventions, it recognizes as a Convention refugee only those originating from European territories prior to the »events occurring before 1 January 1951.« Refugees coming to Turkey from non-European territories are not regarded as Convention Refugees by the Turkish government. They fall under a Turkish directive called »The Temporary Protection Administration.« President Erdogan’s declaration to grant citizenship to eligible Syrian refugees, made shortly before the July 15 failed military coup of this summer, is certainly the morally and politically desired outcome for refugees. However, the poisoned mixture of moral and real-political considerations which has afflicted the refugee discussion in our times is visible in this gesture as well. President Erdogan, whose electoral dominance was first challenged in last summer and then again this summer, may be looking upon the Syrian refugees as a permanent majority of close to one million voters, who would secure his hold on power. 


Carolin Emcke has written not only about the »suffering of distant strangers,« but in her weekly columns as a journalist, she has regularly commented on the plight of refugees, reminding us that distant strangers are now our neighbors next door, who have come upon our lands and to whom we owe special moral obligations. She writes:

»But this is precisely what I am urging: that we develop a precise vocabulary for our suffering for and in democracies. We have to find increasingly more precise, more polite, more gentle words and description for what we are lacking; that we translate the concepts that hurt us, the practices that exclude us, the laws that discriminate against us into experiences that can also be understood by those who don’t know understand them, who are not familiar with them; that we thereby come to know what can be shared by all and what remains for the individual…« (178, Weil es sagbar ist.)

Suffering for and in democracies! This is our world-wide challenge today.

Dear Carolin, in conclusion, let me say that we met and got to know each other more than twenty years ago in Jürgen Habermas’s seminars at the Frankfurt University. Thus it is such a special occasion to celebrate your person and your achievements in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche, in a city to which we both have such deep attachments, where I lived for more than ten years and where my daughter was born. I celebrate you today not only as a public intellectual whose words and whose writing honor your country, but also as a dear friend.

I congratulate you heartily for this well-deserved prize!