The German literary and cultural studies scholar Aleida Assmann and the German Egyptologist and cultural studies scholar Jan Assmann were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today at a ceremony attended by roughly 700 invited guests in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt. The speech honouring this year’s recipients was given by the German-American literary scholar Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.
In their joint acceptance speech, Aleida and Jan Assmann emphasised the importance of a diversity of opinion and debate in a democratic society, while also pointing to where democratic exchange must draw a line: “In a democracy, the work of thinking cannot be delegated to experts, performers or demagogues. […] While it is true that democracies gain in strength through disputes and debate, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is subject to negotiation. A democracy must have inviolable convictions and be based on a shared consensus, for example, in the form of a constitution, the separation of powers, an independent legal system and human rights. Not every dissenting voice deserves to be heard. A voice that seeks to undermine the pillars upon which the diversity of opinion is built forfeits in that moment any respect it may have had. In other words, democracy thrives not on disputes, but rather on good arguments. Loutish behaviour, verbal attacks and the increasing use of polarising symbols, such as we saw recently in Chemnitz, can only lead to a state of general confusion, which, in turn, inevitably leads to a paralysis of democracy, ultimately rendering it incapable of carrying out important tasks”.
Jan und Aleida Assmann argued that the process of remembering has become more important and demanding at the same time: “The national memory, which served as a pedestal for honour, pride and heroism for a long time, has become more complex, more inclusive and more self-critical. Indeed, it is not only a pedestal that makes the nation larger and more powerful, but also a mirror of self-knowledge, remorse and change. The nation is not a holy grail that needs to be protected from defilement and desecration […]. Instead, the nation is a union of people who are also capable of remembering shameful episodes in their history and taking responsibility for the monstrous crimes committed in their name”.
This year’s award recipients noted that solidarity must be strengthened at the level of society but also continuously cultivated and displayed on a global scale: “It simply cannot be the case that we endorse a neoliberal freedom of movement with regard to capital, goods and raw materials, while migrants are stranded at national borders and we forget the people, their suffering and their future.The key question here is no longer whether or not we are going to succeed at achieving integration, but instead how we are going to go about achieving it. At the moment, it almost appears as if this development is moving backwards. When the scope of public discourse is narrowed down to include only a few issues, this serves only to fan the flames of the debate while doing very little to assist in clarifying and handling current problems”.
According to Jan and Aleida Assmann, the cultural realm has no fixed borders: “Cultures are able to cross borders through the import and export of books, but also by means of translations, appropriations and reinterpretations. Through this contact with other cultures, all cultures are transformed: they overlap with one another, inspire each other and leave lasting changes on one another. It is not possible to bring cultures to a standstill, nor can they be confined to national boundaries”.
In his laudatory speech, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht highlighted the “lifetime achievement in two voices” of the recipients, who, he argued, developed a “two-fold energy” thanks to their dissimilar yet complementary talents. “By means of the sober clarity of her thinking and her language, Aleida has succeeded in regaining a right that was perhaps squandered in an age of all too pretentious theories, namely the right to be heard and taken seriously”. Gumbrecht praised what he called Jan Assmann’s “risky thinking” and his “persistent delight in the surprising and often counter-intuitive ideas he finds”. He also noted that his own words of praise would be lacking “if they did not mention the family of Jan and Aleida Assmann and their love – in a time when especially love and family have lost much of their self-explanatory nature”.
Heinrich Riethmüller, Chairman of Börsenverein (the German Publishers and Booksellers Association) referred to the award recipients as “pioneers in laying the groundwork for a smart and enlightened culture of remembrance”. He argued that this culture was of fundamental importance for the peaceful coexistence of humankind on the basis of the human rights proclaimed 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The work and research of Aleida und Jan Assmann 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”, said Riethmüller.
First launched in 1950, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has been awarded annually by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair ever since. The first husband-and-wife team to receive the Peace Prize were Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, and other previous recipients include Albert Schweitzer, Astrid Lindgren, Václav Havel, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Sontag, David Grossman, Liao Yiwu, Navid Kermani and, last year, Margaret Atwood. The Prize is endowed with a sum of €25,000.