German sociologist Wolf Lepenies was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2006. The ceremony took place in Frankfurts Paulskirche (formerly St Pauls Church) before around 1000 invited guests, including Federal President Horst Köhler. The eulogy was given by Andrei Plesu, formerly Romanian foreign minister and now director of the New Europe College in Bucharest.
In his speech of thanks, Wolf Lepenies underlined the close historical ties of the West with the Islamic world, emphasising in this context the value and responsibility of scholarly disciplines for the dialogue between cultures. “We have no patent on democracy; it is not a commodity that we can export at will,” warned Lepenies. “For the West, this means strongly affirming the defining idea of an Islam compatible with modernity, an idea that is being developed and propagated from the midst of the Muslim world,” he said. Courageous academics had long played a leading role here. “It is legitimate to resist Islamism, but it is also legitimate to criticise Islam, just as any other religion can be criticised,” stated Lepenies. However, there should be no lack of critical scrutiny of the societies representing Western civilisation either.
“What we take for granted in our cultures needs to be asserted anew. However, we do not need to cast doubt on such basic convictions as human rights and freedom of opinion. And steadfastness is a foil for fanaticism,” Lepenies underlined. “What is lacking is the warmth with which we profess our values. Democracy can only be contagious if it is not merely a matter of routine or is not imposed upon others by force – it needs to be lived out with enthusiasm.” Here the capacity for self criticism and self-restraint is paramount, according to Lepenies. In view of the great responsibility of the sciences and the humanities, Lepenies criticised the financial cuts at German educational institutions as “crazy”. “While people are thinking aloud about a Christian reconquista of a Europe threatened by Muslim immigrants, the study of the Christian East is creeping out the back door of our universities,” he said.
In his tribute, Andre Plesu highlighted the fighting spirit of his friend and academic mentor. “The war of Wolf Lepenies is the peace-making war of knowledge and justice. Understanding and impartial judgement – that is the programme underlying his life and his research,” he stated. The peace towards which Lepenies aspired was one where the diversity of the world was an argument for its richness, and not a ground for division. “True peace will be attained when the differences are reconciled and at the same time maintain the whole glory and splendour of their diversity. Not just one language for all, but a worldwide endeavour to translate every language into all other languages,” said Pleºu.
“Peace begins where speech resumes, where conversations replace bullets, where understanding is sought and found through words and their interpretation,” said Gottfried Honnefelder, chairman of the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association (Börsenverein), in his address of welcome. “In the vast floods of words that human beings have engendered and that are beginning to get out of control, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is meant to be a sign that is also a kind of confession: that there are words deserving of trust, that ambiguity will not have the last word in the world of signs, and that words have their meaning.” Lepenies had made it clear that scholarship was able to profoundly mould cultural self-awareness and convey insights which, said Honnefelder, “enable us to better understand ourselves and the Other.”