Not every opinion deserves the same respect, with those undermining freedom of expression deserving none, the winners of the German book trade’s Peace Prize said as they received the prestigious award in Frankfurt yesterday.
“In democracy, thought cannot be delegated and handed over to experts, performers or demagogues,” the cultural specialists Aleida and Jan Assmann said in the city’s historic St Paul’s Church.
Aleida Assmann, a 71-year-old literary scholar, made a name for herself with her studies on the culture of remembrance, while her 80-year-old husband Jan, an Egyptologist, has initiated international debates on the cultural and religious conflicts of our time.
The kind of street protests seen during racially motivated clashes on the streets of the eastern German city of Chemnitz following a killing in late August tended to paralyse democracy, the couple said.
Democracy depended on argument, rather than conflict, they told an audience of around 1,000.
While society needed a national memory, it was no longer possible to link up seamlessly to “old fantasies of pride and national greatness,” they said.
Memory was also a mirror for self-recognition, repentance and change.
Turning to the debate on migration that has upended German politics and lay at the centre of the Chemnitz protests, they said the main question was not “whether or not we cope with integration, but rather how we cope with it”.
The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, which is worth €25,000 ($29,500), is one of the country’s most important cultural awards, honouring writers, philosophers and scientists from Germany and abroad since 1950.
The council awarding the prize described the work of the Assmanns as “of great significance for contemporary debates and in particular for peaceful coexistence in the world”.
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood received the award last year.
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