Laudatio Joachim Gauck

It all started without Kurt Westergaard, who is today’s guest and award recipient. More than five years ago, one of his compatriots was putting together a book about the prophet Mohammed. Motivated neither by racism nor by malice, he wanted to bring children closer to the people they encounter in their neighbourhoods: foreigners, with a different culture and a different faith. The author looked for an illustrator for his book and couldn’t find one. This perplexed the chief culture editor of the major newspaper Jyllands-Posten and compelled him to find out exactly: In a free nation of free Danes, does self-censorship exist? So he asked 40 illustrators in Denmark if they would draw a picture of Mohammed. Twelve responded in the affirmative. The works were published exactly five years ago. Which now puts the spotlight on our prize-winner. He was one of the twelve. His work is provocative; it is daring, because it combines that which is sacrosanct to many people (and, to them, cannot be illustrated) – with something that is truly evil: a bomb. The illustrator is not a scientific illustrator; he is a cartoonist. Thus, the tools of his trade include extremes, along with irony and sarcasm.

Now something odd happens: a citizen does his job, which he has been doing for years and decades. He is an older man, not a revolutionary. He worked as a teacher for a long time and then decided to become an artist at a mature age. So he comes to Jyllands-Posten and sometimes submits drawings on a daily basis for his paper. His work is driven neither by hate nor by xenophobia. But he can’t avoid seeing that extremists abuse the Muslim faith. The terrorists he is angry at “use one part of Islam as spiritual ammunition,” according to Kurt Westergaard.

Next, things take an all too familiar turn. The drawing is given an invidious spin, and reaches broad segments of the Muslim world accompanied by other partially distorted works. Various media get involved in an anti-Danish campaign. Embassies burn, people die. The fanatics among the Muslims seek revenge. Fear penetrates a hitherto peaceful Denmark. At first, governments and the newspaper bravely and unconditionally stand up for freedom of the press; later, as the danger escalates, as assassination attempts on our artist are planned and executed, courage vanishes, doubt proliferates and the same old question emerges in the same old format: What is more important – freedom of the press or security?

Soon, citizen and artist Kurt Westergaard will ask himself: What happened to solidarity among Denmark’s intellectuals? Neither Denmark’s PEN nor the Danish artist’s association stood clearly behind him. As he told Der Spiegel magazine, “the intellectual class” would “drink coffee and nurture its cultural relativism.” He has a right to speak like that. He saw his murderer, in his own house. He saw the hate, the axe, the knife. Good, he survived. But he will never forget it.

The whole world would understand if, after the murderer’s visit, he resorted to cowardice. Cowardice confuses many people less than courage does. The intellectuals are no exception there. For instance, there was once an important author here in Berlin, Heiner Müller, who one day went so far as to state that cowardice is a “human right.” The unspeakable utterance did little to rouse anyone here. That is why it is so fundamentally important to distinguish between that which gives us valid values, goals and direction and that which is, in fact, unique to human beings (fear), but which separates people from their best potential (RESPONSIBILITY).

Anxiety and fear: because they are as incessant as ubiquitous in the individual and society as a whole, it is they who minimize our capacity to shoulder responsibility. That is why it is so important to gain COURAGE, to practice courage and to promote the knowledge that without courage, we become slaves to our fears, or in other words: the prey.

It is primeval – the flight response, the very human tendency to escape any danger by flight, and any dominance by surrender and submission.

To our honoured guest, Kurt Westergaard, let me just say that this is something that both the German chancellor and I could speak about at length and intensively. Having lived under a dictatorship, we have also learned how “common” fear and conformity can really become. Here in Germany in 1989 and in other historical situations, we experienced what happens to people who no longer let themselves be controlled by their fear. It is amazing that he who was once a victim can become he who shapes society, and that responsible citizens can become fit framers of society. We must always be aware of this capacity within all of us. We would like to preserve our values and potential, our ability to act responsibly; we don’t want to lose ourselves; that is why we acknowledge and reward attitudes that can create a future for everyone.

You are the person who inspires us to be courageous today, Mr. Westergaard, because COURAGE is what the jury is honouring today. But as is always the case when prizes are awarded: We praise and extol that which we find lacking in ourselves. So our delight in your visit involves various interconnected elements: a tribute to you as a person, for your courage and your love of freedom, which is expressed in your commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the media. We thank you with the utmost sincerity, and congratulate you.

At the same time, today’s prize is an appeal to all persons who hold positions of responsibility in governments, in culture and in the media: be steadfast, value-oriented and also COURAGEOUS when irresponsible persons and powers undermine or relativise our values of freedom. It is a virtue to yield to a convincing argument, but it is cowardice to yield to a threat from enemies of freedom. (Even if this cowardice were clad in the guise of reason.) And it doesn’t always take fanatics or dictators to pose a threat: in today’s modern global society, our values are just as imperilled by lethargy, egomania, vulgar hedonism or the zeitgeist of generations, in whatever form the spirit of the time wishes to express itself. And not least we expect from ourselves, from us, the citizens, that such a prize will boost our own capacity to be courageous and act responsibly.

We actually know that we can do more than be fearful.

And lastly, a question for those responsible for the media, who generally see things before the average citizen does, and know better than those who govern. Is it possible that – through this honorary distinction, a few of you are also issuing an appeal to yourselves, to your own future? Or have all media shown enough courage on the cartoons and Westergaard matter? Clearly, the question is rhetorical, but it is still appropriate here. Is the question also polemical? Not so much. Because the person asking it (and we should all ask at some point) is asking if he or she has enough courage to really say “YES” to the value of freedom. Kurt Westergaard, we thank you for saying YES to our European values. You encourage us to articulate them anew, wherever and whenever it is necessary.