Greeting Heinrich Riethmüller

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."


Almost 70 years ago, on 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in human history, countries from all continents agreed on a document that granted individual rights to every human being regardless of their nationality or ethnicity.

The Declaration of Human Rights can also be read as a reaction to the terrible events and experiences of the Second World War, and in particular to the atrocities committed in the name of the German people. Many if not all of the rights contained in the declaration – every one of which is self-evident for us today – had been severely disregarded in that era, and some of them continue to be ignored to this day in many parts of the world.

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Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The past, present and future come together in this declaration of human rights. Indeed, if the peoples and nations of this world do not strive to habitually remind themselves of their past with the goal of recalling its both positive and negative aspects, then it becomes increasingly likely that future generations will repeat the same mistakes. A culture of remembrance that manifests itself in a collective memory is of fundamental importance for the peaceful coexistence of humankind.

The annual Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is one special component of this enlightened culture of remembrance. All of our award recipients, from Max Tau to the two individuals we are honouring today, Aleida and Jan Assmann, have shown us how important it is that we engage in the act of remembering and keeping history alive.

This culture of remembrance, however, comes in for criticism time and again. And it is true that if this culture is merely backward-looking, that is, if it loses itself in a posture of overly dramatic pauses of reflection, then the only thing it serves is to reflexively ritualise the act of remembering the past, without generating any connection to the present. In taking this approach, it runs the risk of becoming vulnerable to attack and losing the very impact it ought to achieve. A truly effective culture of remembrance always includes a reflection on our potential common future, thus helping to warn the living against engaging in a repetition of history.

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Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Memories and the act of remembering gain a special urgency and persuasive power when they are conveyed to us by actual witnesses to historical events. In this context, the acceptance speech given in the Church of St. Paul by Saul Friedländer, recipient of the 2007 Peace Prize, is among the most unforgettable. Friedländer responded to criticisms aimed at the ritualisation of memory with the following: “When we listen to these cries [of the victims], we are not engaging in some ritualised or institutionalised remembrance. […] Instead, these individual voices shake us to our core with their innocence and by virtue of the unawareness of the victims, who knew nothing of their fate. […] To this day, however, we are moved above all by the voices of those who faced imminent extermination, precisely because of their utter helplessness, their innocence and the solitude of their despair”.

In 1999, the great historian and Peace Price recipient Fritz Stern noted the following in his acceptance speech in the Church of St. Paul: "It is only right that there are reminders against forgetting. And it must be noted that these voices do not seek to place blame on today’s generation, but instead they ask us to take responsibility, to broaden our knowledge about the mistakes and crimes of the past. We can learn from the past, we can come to understand that the path of history is open, that it is shaped by people. The belief in historical inevitability is a dangerous misconception. It can only lead to passivity“.

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Article 21: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

Silence and passivity, fatalism and indifference are the real enemies of democracy. Indeed, democracy can only exist – can only thrive – when people actively participate, when we get involved and when we have the courage to express our own opinions while also respecting those of others. The award recipients of the Peace Prize have always been and will continue to be individuals who admonish us to keep history ever-present and take every opportunity to learn from it.

And yet, learning from the past means more than just gaining knowledge and understanding; it also involves taking action. Especially in an era such as our own, which is again being shaped by racism, anti-Semitism and populism, the virtues of solidarity, compassion and participation are anything but old-fashioned, nor are they the attributes of do-gooders or so-called Gutmenschen. Instead, they are the very approaches that make up civil society; they work against a growing trend towards self-centeredness that prompts many people to want to withdraw from the world.

Especially those of us who meet here every year to gain intellectual momentum for our own worldviews, we must once again articulate and express ourselves more vigorously than before. Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations who passed away recently, was right when he said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is the silence of the majority”. 

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Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

A new edition of a work by Aleida Assmann was recently published under the title Menschenrechte und Menschenpflichten (tr; Human rights and human duties). In that short book, she describes what she calls the “human duties” that form a kind of social agreement and generate the basic foundation of cultures. In this sense, these human duties also represent a necessary complement to human rights.

And it only follows that if we make these human duties – all of which are deeply anchored in us – the basis our actions, they can help us overcome the current divisions of our society and, for example, master the challenges associated with immigration and migration. And we must do so with empathy and respect, that is, with those virtues that are practiced in almost all cultures and give us the foundation for our peaceful coexistence.

It is my hope that we return to this insight time and again, that we keep in mind those voices from the past and that we continue to pursue an honest and vigorous examination and confrontation with our history.

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Article 27: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Today’s award recipients are pioneers in laying the groundwork for a smart and enlightened culture of remembrance. Their work and their research provide a blueprint of how a modern society can learn from its past so as to be able to live in freedom and peace. And for us – that is, for booksellers, bookshops and publishers in Germany – conveying these values is our own very special human duty.

On behalf of the Börsenverein, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Aleida and Jan Assmann on receiving the 2018 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.