The secret of freedom is courage

2010-09-08 - Angela Merkel


Ladies and gentlemen,

On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, a member of the politburo of the SED Central Committee, briefed journalists at a press conference on the outcome of a Central Committee meeting. After he’d finished, a journalist from the Italian news agency Ansa asked a question about the new travel law. Schabowski answered at some length and finished by saying, "We therefore decided today to adopt a regulation allowing every GDR citizen to leave the country via any of the border crossing points.” A West German reporter asked for further clarification as to when the new law would come into force. Schabowski replied, "As far as I’m aware … immediately, without delay.” We all remember what happened next: tens of thousands headed for the border crossing points in . These were opened just before midnight. The Berlin Wall had fallen – without delay.

Later, however, it emerged that Schabowski had made a mistake. He wasn’t actually authorized to make such an announcement at that point in time. The law wasn’t supposed to come into force without delay but the next day. The decision was, as it were, subject to an embargo. Schabowski had overlooked that – a mistake that changed the world.

The impact of asking a precise question at the right time, the freedom to ask it and, above all, the freedom to report the response – unabridged, unchanged and without delay, all of this is a precious gift. We must never take this precious gift for granted. That also goes for issues which don’t immediately change the world but concern everyday matters.

It’s therefore all the more important that your conference is focusing on "The Freedom of the Press in ”. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get on my soapbox. I believe that would be a waste of time and, what’s more, inappropriate – especially in the presence of today’s award winner Kurt Westergaard, who has feared for his life since drawing and publishing cartoons in 2005. So the very opposite would be more fitting. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Let’s talk about another embargo – one which is part of a debate that has dominated the last two weeks: Spiegel magazine and BILD newspaper both printed extracts from the book "Deutschland schafft sich ab” ( is abolishing itself) in advance of its publication. Reviews by journalists who received the book before the official publishing date were subject to an embargo of several days after these extracts appeared in Spiegel and BILD. At any rate, the extracts which appeared prior to the official book release triggered off a large-scale public debate.

In the days following publication of the extracts, the book shot to number one on the bestseller lists. Countless talk shows have looked at its analyses and theses. Comments, for example by me, have led to a debate, a broad debate on Article 5 of our Basic Law. It states that, "Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writings, and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship. These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons and in the right to personal honour. Art and scholarship, research and teaching shall be free. The freedom of teaching shall not release any person from allegiance to the constitution.” That’s what it says in Article 5. It certainly merits being read out in full at an event on freedom and freedom of the press such as this. It also merits our attention because alongside Article 1 on the inviolability of human dignity, Article 2 on the right to free development of personality, Article 3 on equality before the law and Article 4 on freedom of faith, it is one of our society’s greatest assets.

Last Saturday, in reference to this debate, the headline on page one of the BILD newspaper was "BILD fights for freedom of expression. We must be allowed to speak our minds.” Let me just say that if I seem to be singling out BILD here, then it’s only because it’s one of many media outlets which have taken the same or similar line and also because I’m convinced BILD can take it. Then on page 2, BILD went on: "Nine controversial opinions and the facts. It has to be possible to say these things because ....” The article contains sentences such as "I don’t want to have to apologize for being German; those who work shouldn’t be worse off; German must be spoken in the playground; paedophiles should be locked up for ever.” The attentive reader will have noticed that sentences on biologistic or eugenic questions don’t appear in this article on the defence of the freedom of opinion. But that’s just by the bye.

I know that newspapers don’t print such articles out of the blue. I know that these pages largely reflect the opinions expressed in a large volume of readers’ letters to newspapers. As I’ve already said, it’s certainly not only BILD that receives such letters. All sections of the media quickly focused on the question as to what is permissible to say in and what is not. However, the Sarrazin issue is not about the threat to the freedom of opinion but, for example, about the consequences a book may have for an author working for a key public institution.

Ladies and gentlemen, it goes without saying that I won’t be expressing any opinions on the legal issues pertaining to this concrete case. For that’s not at all necessary for the issue at hand. We can discuss our own experiences, for example in the media sphere. For instance, the articles of association of one of the major German publishing houses contain five socio-political principles, including promoting European integration, guaranteeing ’s right to exist and defending the social market economy. A problem with freedom of opinion? I suspect not.

I’m quite sure that today’s event can give us some orientation for our topic "The Freedom of the Press in ”. The man you are honouring today, the Danish illustrator and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, cares deeply about freedom of opinion and of the press. For him, it’s all about whether or not he’s allowed to publish Mohammed cartoons in a newspaper in a Western society with all its values; regardless of whether we find his cartoons in good taste, whether or not we find them necessary and helpful. Should he be allowed to do that? Yes, he should. He’s one of many illustrators in . is a continent where illustrators are allowed to draw something like this. Incidentally, this isn’t contradictory to the fact that is a continent where freedom of faith and religion, as well as respect for faith and religion are among our greatest goods. If a fundamentalist evangelical pastor in wants to burn the Koran on 11 September, I find that – to put it bluntly – grossly disrespectful, indeed abhorrent and simply wrong.

The debate about the publication of the so‑called Mohammed cartoons is thus about whether we in Europe with our values – I’m sure you remember the first five articles of our Basic Law which I mentioned – shy away from publishing this cartoonist’s drawings out of fear of vio­lence and mass demonstrations and whether they will be reprinted in other newspapers and, if not, why not.

I don’t want to criticize those who, for whatever reasons, didn’t do that at the time. You are forced to make judgements about what to cover every day; it goes without saying they are part and parcel of the media’s responsibility in exercising freedom of the press. Sometimes I’m faced with such questions myself: should the German Chancellor deliver the keynote speech at this event? Should she receive the Dalai Lama? Should she take seriously the letters she receives, for example, from Reporters without Borders and raise the issue of restrictions on the freedom of the press in with the new Ukrainian President during his first visit to or would it be better to wait until the second meeting?

So what about the values and interests, both political and economic, which are so important to our country – to both you and me? For myself, I answered "yes” to all three questions raised above. I did so for one single reason which has guided me in my political work from the outset: ’s policies represent its interests based on values – both at home and abroad. Values and interests belong together. Anyone who regards them as incompatible is already on a slippery slope.

So we have to weigh things up. But an illustrator’s work and the consequences it has for him and his family to this very day should serve as a warning to us that we must always be careful about how we address issues, regardless of the number of letters or the intensity of a debate on whatever issue. That can’t be the only criterion on which to base a decision.

Yes, let’s give people a voice – in political parties as well as in the media. But let’s also try to convince them that the least important issue in our country is what is permissible to say. The right decisions, deeds rather than words – these, in contrast, lead to the core of what is needed, for example to ensure that integration succeeds and doesn’t fail, to ensure that parallel soci­eties are prevented from developing and aren’t encouraged, to ensure that youth violence is curbed and not simply accepted, to ensure that the social state helps those who need it and not those who abuse it, and much more.

Politicians have failed in the past. In some cases, the right conclusions have been drawn during the last few years and this course must be continued. As so often in a democracy, this will probably cost some effort and almost certainly involve compromises. These compromises are good if the advantages outweigh the drawbacks and if the principle already mentioned is adhered to: ’s policies represent ’s interests based on values, both at home and abroad.

First, freedom doesn’t come without any strings attached. That applies to our personal life, it applies to politics, it applies to the responsibility of the media, indeed it applies to us all. Freedom always brings with it responsibility for everyone. Freedom never stands on its own, it is never an end in itself. It’s a coin with two sides: on the one side there is the freedom from something and, on the other, the freedom to something. When we talk of freedom therefore, we’re actually always also talking about the freedom of others. What distinguishes us in and is how we deal with our diversity, our freedom and the freedom of others. We Germans and Europeans have learned in the course of our history to make the most of diversity. The quality which enables us to do that is tolerance.

Second, tolerance is a demanding virtue. It makes demands on our hearts and minds. But it’s not to be confused with a failure to take a stand or an "anything goes” attitude. It has never left room for intolerance, for violence from either left or right-wing extremists or for violence in the name of a religion. Tolerance digs its own grave if it doesn’t protect itself from intolerance. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that, in case of doubt, the Sharia takes precedence over the Basic Law. Tolerance doesn’t mean looking the other way or applying double standards. And respect doesn’t mean submission.

Third, freedom in responsibility – that also applies to business. A social market economy based on freedom offers the scope which allows people to act responsibly. The painful lesson we learned from the financial and economic crisis must be taken to heart by everyone. Since the days of Ludwig Erhard, the state has been the guardian of our social market economy.

Fourth, the secret of freedom is courage. This quote from Thucydides is just as relevant today as it was in the 5th century BC. To live freedom requires courage, again and again each and every day, in both trivial and important matters: when a teenager no longer takes part in bullying a classmate and risks being excluded and marginalized, when a manager is no longer pre­pared to be involved in dodgy practices in his company and jeopardizes his career, when in a dictatorship people strive to be able to look at themselves in the mirror every day; Joachim Gauck and I know what I’m talking about. Or, let’s use the words of Wolf Biermann, who once defended the so‑called rebellious scaredy-cats. Biermann used this expression to describe those in the GDR who closed their windows and drew their curtains before listening to a record by a musician frowned upon by the state. Such a person was showing resistance, Biermann stated, even if it was only resistance to his own faint-heartedness. And he was right: courage begins with overcoming one’s own faint-heartedness. I’m certain that each and every one of us has experienced something like this, even those who didn’t live in the GDR.

Fifth, freedom is challenged by the seemingly endless possibilities of the digital revolution. I, too, am fascinated by the possibilities of the World Wide Web. Nevertheless, you won’t find any photos of my last birthday party on the Internet – at least not any I put there. But seriously, I’m concerned about how willing people are to give up their privacy, the sanctuary of individual freedom, and publish sensitive personal data on the Internet. I’m at a complete loss to understand this when I recall the heated debates in about the video surveillance of public areas or a census. We politicians and the media need to raise awareness and, indeed, to educate people so that they deal with freedom more responsibly in this sphere.

Sixth, our foreign policy is also based on values. I’m concerned about the abuse of freedom and tolerance by dictatorships and autocratic states. Let me remind you, for example, of the third UN Conference against Racism held in 2001. Unfortunately, this Conference and its follow‑up meetings were dominated by representatives of dictatorships and states under authoritarian rule and that turned the original idea behind these conferences on its head.

In these contexts, we are often asked: isn’t it a sign of cultural, Western, European and Christian arrogance that we believe our values and civil liberties are universally valid? My answer is clear: no, this isn’t arrogance on our part. Nearly all states are members of the United Nations and have recognized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration’s 30 great articles make it clear that anyone infringing on these rights doesn’t have the welfare of humankind at heart. No cultural difference can justify disregard for these rights.

Incidentally, I’m convinced that if we stand up for our values with self-confidence, we will gain more respect and recognition around the world than if we do so timorously.

Ladies and gentlemen, freedom – as I’ve often said – is the happiest experience of my life. Even now, almost 21 years after receiving this overwhelming gift of freedom when the Berlin Wall fell and 20 years after the establishment of German unity, there’s still nothing I’m more passionate about, nothing that drives me more, nothing that fills me with more positive feel­ings than the force of freedom.

On that note, let me congratulate you on this event and wish you all the best and every success with it.