Johannes Ebert am 5. Dezember 2017
Grußwort zum „Treffen der 90 / Freiraum“ in Warschau

Grußwort von Johannes Ebert anlässlich des „Treffens der 90 / Freiraum“ im Polin Museum in Warschau

Ladies and gentlemen, partners, colleagues.

I am very pleased that you are participating in this meeting and the Freiraum project and would like to sincerely thank you for your interest and commitment. Let me start with a saying in English. “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

This gives us a sense that freedom is no simple matter. There are fists that swing and noses that want to be left alone, and if the two get too close to each other, the noses, at least, are in trouble. In other words, their freedom to remain unharmed is in danger. This affects us all. The greater the fear, and the more unrestrained the assertiveness of those forces that limit the freedoms of others, the more warped the overall fabric becomes. If it is an everyday thing for the noses to have to anticipate swinging fists, then their fear and the latency of violence impair us all.
We are perceiving this imbalance in the overall fabric in many places in Europe these days. It seems as if the fists have a great deal of energy right now. We see examples wherever we look: When Manaf Halbouni, a German-Syrian artist, set up an installation in the centre of Dresden a few months ago to commemorate the destruction of Syrian cities, he was hit by a wave of hostility with an aggressiveness that made him speechless. Dogan Akhanli, a German writer of Turkish origin, recently spent a night in jail in Madrid and was not allowed to leave Spain for several weeks because he was wanted by the Turkish judiciary for an international arrest warrant. The legal reasons for this were flimsy. We all remember when armed men stormed the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, killing eleven people after the Paris satirical magazine published cartoons that were considered insulting. In Hungary, the prestigious Central European University has been endangered since the amendment of the higher education law. These are just a few of the many possible cases that I could list.

Since its founding, the Goethe-Institut has worked to provide protected spaces for artists, intellectuals, and civil society actors as soon as they come under pressure because societies become rigid. It seems to us that it is imperative today to open such protected spaces – here in Europe, right on our doorstep.
In this, we see a central mandate for Freiraum, for the project that we are meeting here in Warsaw to advance: to offer such a space to those who encounter resistance, hostility and arbitrariness in their countries.
There is something else: In today’s Europe, with its differentiated societies, there are more and more situations that make it difficult to decide who the nose is and who is the fist. What does it mean when students in Berlin demand that a poem be removed from the facade of a university? A poem that many think is beautiful and some think is sexist. What counts in this kind of situation? The freedom of art and speech? The freedom of young women to move about unmolested? Is the desire to remove the poem from the wall an expression of censorship as long as the poem is read, recited, published in other places? You see, it’s not easy. Another example is the discussion about burkinis on French beaches. It is disturbing to see police officers ask a woman who is enjoying the summer to remove the clothing covering her whole body. It is an intervention in the freedom of the individual, because she decides what she wants to wear, what she likes and deems appropriate.

At the same time, we can ask ourselves whether the rise in the wearing of religious clothing in public spaces is an act of coercion: the pressure on others to behave according to religious rules. Here it becomes clear that a free space is not a given, but something that first emerges in the conflict of different interests. It is important to actively negotiate and shape it, and we must ensure that other, less privileged, less powerful people can also enjoy it.
All these are questions that come up in the framework of the Freiraum project. The basic idea here is to share viewpoints because, as a Goethe-Institut with our international perspective, we also trust that, in addition to one’s proximity to the event sidestepping, distancing, and detaching oneself from one’s own position form a foundation that allows change to happen. A problem that is considered unsolvable in Warsaw or Krakow or Paris could be perceived as less complicated in the eyes of partners in Thessaloniki, Oslo or Riga. Hence, we envision a first step towards a solution in a shift of perspective. Indeed, perhaps it is a first, decisive step, if some can imagine a little better how the others are feeling and vice versa. For example, if in Brussels, the centre of the EU, they better understand what moves Brexit advocates in Carlisle or, if in affluent Oslo they realise how the crisis is eating away at daily life in Athens.

Maybe in this way the fists will learn what it feels like to be a nose, and the noses get an idea of what it means to be a fist. This is the basic idea of the Freiraum project, which we would like to pursue together with you and numerous project partners in the countries.
I would like to sincerely thank everyone involved for the effort they have made so far and I would be delighted if we could jointly guide the Freiraum project to success. Now I would like to hand the floor over to the philosopher Mériam Korichi. Ms Korichi has travelled here from Paris; she is a philosopher, a Spinoza specialist and published the book Traité des bons sentiments last year. Since 2010, she has conceived and organised the Philosophical Nights; she is presently preparing an edition for Rio de Janeiro. To my delight, Ms Korichi has taken on the job of presenting and analysing the contradictions and ambivalences inherent in the concept of freedom for us in an opening presentation.
Thank you very much.

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.