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October 22, 2020



German President: Diversity must not be destroyed, violence must not triumph

Prague, 27.5.2014 2:01, (ROMEA)
German President Joachim Gauck. (Photo: Archive)
German President Joachim Gauck. (Photo: Archive)

On 6 May 2014, German President Joachim Gauck was awarded a gold medal by the Rector of Charles University in Prague, Tomáš Zima. The prize was awarded for his service to the development of cooperation and understanding between nations.

On that occasion, Gauck delivered a speech on the topic of "European Diversity - European Wealth". He spoke of the complicated relations between Czechs and Germans, calling them a story of suffering. 

"All of us in Europe know the duty that we share.... Not to permit diversity to be destroyed or violence to triumph over reason," Gauck ended his speech. News server brings it to you in full translation below:

Speech by German President Joachim Gauck at Charles University in Prague

Prague in springtime always makes an exhilarating impression. For me, the spring here prompts both new impressions and memories of a visit I made here just after the Velvet Revolution.  

In a daze, I walked through streets that fascinated me with their beauty even though their facades were still grey. I was intoxicated by the feeling that those of us who were cut off behind the Iron Curtain would finally have the entire world and a whole future open to us.

This year we are celebrating 25 years of freedom and independence. We are able to appreciate this fact precisely because in Europe it is not at all axiomatic.  

We are doing everything we can to protect these hard-won values. Now Charles University, this worthy institution, has bestowed upon me the great honor of this gold medal, and the fundamental idea of this university can serve as a guide to us.

In the first place, this university personifies Europe. Its founder, Charles IV, was in his time what we today call a European.

He was elected both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. His father came from the Luxembourg dynasty and his mother from an ancient Czech royal dynasty, the Přemyslids. 

Charles IV studied in Paris and spoke five languages:  Czech, German, French, Italian and Latin. The university he founded drew students from four regions which in those days were called nationes.

Bavarians, Czechs, Saxons and Silesians were equal at the university and united by their language of instruction, Latin. Today we in Europe would do well to recall, from time to time, everything that was already possible so long ago. 

In the second place, Charles University personifies both the chances for and the risks of science. As the oldest university in Central Europe, it embodies one of the European ideas, that of our co-creation of the world. 

A European university, whether in Paris or Prague, in Bologna or Cologne, or in any other city, is a place for the mediation of knowledge, for freedom of research and teaching, simply for acquiring the intellectual world in a autonomous community of teachers and learners. Lastly, according to the unsurpassed formulation of Immanuel Kant, a university personifies the courage to use one's own capacity for reasoning. 

From centuries of experience, however, we know that universities have not been and are not only places of external and internal freedom, but also places where the spirit of freedom has been destroyed, places of conformity and self-censorship. Charles University has lived though both the following of an ideal and the forced betrayal of one. 

After the times of common teaching and learning soon came times of division. Religious intolerance between Catholics and Hussites resulted in the departure of German-speaking students from Charles University and the establishment of the university in Leipzig.

Later at the end of the 19th century, national tensions again led to the division of a university of nations that had previously been connected into two competing Czech and German institutions. Cohabitation ceased to exist.

Perhaps the nations were now only living side by side, but often there was a hateful living against one another. The sad culmination of this was the nationalist and even racist policy of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany.

Charles University was closed for three years and 1 200 professors and students were deported to concentration camps. After the Nazi nightmare ended, the decades of the Communist brand of egalitarianism began.

This state of this university, therefore, has always reflected historical events. From its glorious beginnings under a charismatic emperor, it fell into the abyss of totalitarian systems.

However, thanks to the many Czech and Slovaks who resisted, today Charles University again comprises a place for free discourse. Democratically-minded, independent professors and students today show their deep respect for their predecessors.

Those independent spirits had to perform their advocacy not just against various foreign dominions, but what was even more difficult, sometimes, was to stand up to the intolerant views held by their own countrymen - that is a role that requires a lot of courage, as those solitary fighters risked being labeled as those who foul their own nest and as traitors. One example is Tomáš Masaryk, who taught at Charles University starting in 1882. 

In his own day, Masaryk correctly questioned the authenticity of documents attributing a glorious past to the Czech nation in the early Middle Ages. That brave man went on to become the first President of Czechoslovakia.

Resistance to occupying powers demanded enormous courage during the 20th century. When, in 1939, Charles University students demonstrated against the German occupiers, their protest was brutally suppressed. 

Jan Palach was also a student of Charles University. After he poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square in 1969 to protest the suppression of the Prague Spring, his funeral became a massive demonstration and Palach became a symbol of the fight for the freedom of Czechoslovakia.

No small number of instructors and students at Charles University later belonged among those who signed Charter 77. I am grateful and I feel honored to received this honor today from this university.

Charles University also represents Prague itself, this magical, mysterious city based on so many traditions. Certainly Paris is Europe, London is Europe, and Rome and Berlin are Europe - but isn't Prague, in some special way, a little bit "more" Europe?

The Franco-German Gothic, the Italian Renaissance, the Hapsburg Baroque, the Art Noveau stuccos next to the avant-garde Cubist and Bauhaus-style buildings. In Prague we find Europe like nowhere else, inextricably combined in all of its cultural elements, a Europe that is Latin and Greek, Catholic and Hussite, Jewish and Evangelical, Czech, German, and also Polish.  

In this city, a Europe has been created out of all these elements that is something remarkable and unique. All of this we have once again before our eyes as a symbol of a diverse, open Europe.

Those who wanted, for ideological reasons, to create a homogenous Europe according to their own notions brought people only death and suffering, and succeeded, for a time, in suppressing the European project of democracy. However, people in Prague and Warsaw, in Berlin and Budapest, have recovered their culture, their freedom, and their rights.  

Heinrich Böll the German author who won the Nobel Prize for literature, was once himself a soldier in Hitler's army, and he was visiting Prague on 21 August 1968, when tanks rolled over the Prague Spring that had awakened so much hope not just in Czechoslovakia but throughout Europe. He wrote a moving report about those days that is still worth reading today, a report full of bitterness at the oppressors and full of admiration for the men and women of Prague and their humor, ingenuity, pride, rebellious spirit, and sadness.

He called his report "A Tank Aims at Kafka" and wrote the following:  "In front of Kafka's birthplace stood a tank with the barrel of its gun aimed at the bust of Kafka. Here, too, the symbol matched reality."   

The tank aiming at Kafka. That single, poignant scene really encapsulates what it is that moves us, especially in Prague, especially in this country, when we think of the history and cultures of the people who have lived here and who live here today.

Franz Kafka stands for that particular blend of cultures, that Czech-Jewish-German life that was so characteristic of Prague. When the Czechoslovak state was broken up, all that was Czech was suppressed, and all that was Jewish was wiped out; the Nazi crimes put an end to that unique cultural symbiosis at the heart of Europe.

Kafka was spared that experience, having died in 1924, but his sister Ottla was killed by the Nazis in 1943 and Milena Jesenská, the love of his life, died in Ravensbrück concentration camp the following year. The final act of the drama came after the liberation in 1945, when the Germans too had to leave their homeland – flight, expulsion, forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, odsun, whatever you want to call it – the guilty and the innocent alike.

Nowadays, in spite of this complicated reality, we are moving towards a more differentiated understanding of this history. It makes me optimistic to see academics, journalists, authors and artists, young people in particular, tackling the still emotionally-charged events of the past.

It is to the Czech Republic’s credit that in 2005 it explicitly recognized the Sudetenland Germans who had been resistance fighters and who were persecuted by the Nazi regime. We should also remember the many Czechs, often nameless, who offered their German neighbors protection in 1945 after the war.

There is no doubt that the history of German-Czech relations is a story of suffering. It sometimes seems miraculous that we haven’t suffocated under the weight of those memories.

It sometimes seems miraculous that we can even look one another in the eye, speak to each other, find the courage to write the next chapter jointly, in a spirit of rapprochement and reconciliation. Yes, if we live in truth as Václav Havel would have us do, we can find the right words and the right means to bring about that reconciliation.

Those who have walked ahead of us down that difficult road have our thanks. The memory of the strength of that symbiosis, of dialogue, the strength of mutual permeation and cross-fertilization between cultures and ways of life, languages and mentalities – that memory has proven more lasting than the violent imposition of a monoculture.

Perseverance founded in insight, the single-mindedness of conscience, have proved harder to shift than oppression and dictatorship. The exactitude, indeed the truth, of well thought-out, sensitive and insightful language has proven stronger than lies and propaganda.

I am delighted to see Czech and German civil society so active. It is ordinary members of the public whose commitment really makes change happen.

I’m thinking here of the German-Czech Future Fund, the exchange students, the twinnings between schools and towns, but also of the people and initiatives working to keep our shared traditions alive and transpose them into the modern world. Take Lenka Reinerová or František Černý, for example, who founded the Prague Literature Center of German-Speaking Czech Writers together with Kurt Krolop.

There are people like Pavel Kohout and, today, Jitka Jilková, who established the Prague German Language Theater Festival. They and many others have my profound thanks.

We could not have all of these people doing what they are doing had it not been for the winds of change of 1989, which brought spring back to Prague. In 1989, we were finally able to harvest the fruits that, if you will pardon the paradoxical image, had to slowly ripen over decades of winter.

Both Czechs and Germans garnered the experience of living under a system that only Kafka could have described – simultaneously incomprehensible and effective everywhere, impersonal and merciless. Both Czechs and Germans have also learned what it was like to defeat such a system.

For me and for others, Václav Havel was and remains the greatest of role models. Unflinching, incorruptible, unbroken even after years in prison, he led his nation to democracy and to Europe.

A peaceful, shared future for Czechs and Germans in a shared Europe actually became possible. It will remain a reality for as long as the great European values of individuality and freedom, justice and forgiveness, truthfulness and peaceability are shared, lived, and given potency again and again.

All of us in Europe know the duty that we share:  Never again to allow the tanks to take aim at Kafka. Not to permit diversity to be destroyed or violence to triumph over reason.

Not in springtime, not in August – never. Nowhere. 

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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