Opinion piece Thomas Brussig on freedom

Freedom | Photo (detail): © Visions-AD/Fotolia

Authors and representatives of public life write personal opinion pieces for goethe.de/kultur about a particular concept that influences their life. Thomas Brussig grew up in East Germany and believes that a free society does not automatically produce free individuals.

YouTube features countless videos of people leaping from aeroplanes and hurtling towards the ground in free fall – laughing, screaming, whooping with joy and waving. It is the kick they are seeking, a kick that they are willing to pay for and that gives them a sense of identity. After all, why otherwise would they make the film and publish it in the first place?
Although I have never jumped out of an aeroplane, I am familiar with this kind of kick. Though in my case I experienced it during a demonstration that was not permitted, at a time when participating in an illegal demonstration was treated as a crime against the state. The demo at which I experienced this kick took place on my country’s national holiday, which threatened to antagonize the authorities even more. ‘Today I’m going to get hurt’, I thought to myself beforehand. ‘Perhaps I’ll be hit by a bullet, or perhaps I’ll be beaten up. But I no longer want to carry on living like this.’ When I left my flat I did not know whether and when I would return to it.

“A word that is often misused”

Thomas Brussig Thomas Brussig | Foto (Ausschnitt): © Vincent Eisfeld/vincent-eisfeld.de/CC-BY-SA-4.0

However, when I was walking down the street in a crowd of perhaps 3,000 people, I started after a little while to act as if I had just jumped out of an aeroplane: I laughed, screamed, whooped with joy and waved. The others clearly felt the same, as they did likewise, and the presence of the other demonstrators gave me the same sense of security that a skydiver gets from the parachute on his back. So that was the kick. But what was new to me was that I was able to experience freedom by demanding it – loudly, unmistakably and together with others.

In political debates there is probably no other word that makes such a strong appeal for this feeling as the word freedom does. “We need freedom like we need the air we breathe!”, revolutionaries like to shout, or: “Rather die on your feet than live on your knees!” People everywhere have always agreed throughout the ages that happiness is impossible without freedom. Which makes it entirely understandable why the word provokes such upsurges of emotion. Yet freedom is also a word that is often misused. Every despot promises freedom, and wars of aggression are also waged in the name of freedom. That the word freedom has not become worn out despite its frequent misuse and continues to shine is thanks to its core of truth. For the promise of freedom people are willing to risk death, to travel to an unknown country or to begin a new life. Anyone who hears the word freedom knows immediately what is meant by it – it is just that everyone means something different by it.

“Only novels can describe freedom”

While many Americans believe that freedom also means the right to carry a gun (and view any restrictions of this right as a curtailment of their freedom), most Germans are frightened by the idea of any general legalization of weapons: the threat of gun violence makes everyday life not more free but less free. Irreconcilable viewpoints are defended in the name of freedom.
The freedom that is discussed in philosophical treatises is not the same as the freedom that is screamed from the barricades during street battles, depicted on cinema screens or sung about in pop songs. As a writer, I always claim that only novels are really in a position to describe freedom. When philosophers address the concept of freedom, their clever ideas lack the inspirational and indeed irrational element that is part and parcel of the notion of freedom. Revolutionaries appeal to people’s yearning for freedom in order to recruit followers, while cinema films and pop songs simply want to make money and thus present freedom as an experience.
When I experienced that kick during the demo, I really believed that I only had to live in a free society in order to be free. What a misconception that turned out to be! It is by no means the case that a free society automatically produces free individuals. And it is equally wrong to believe that freedom is impossible in a dictatorship. It is possible at any time to search for and preserve a life in freedom. Even in the Nazi concentration camps there were freedoms that the inmates were able to defend – this at least is what the psychologist Viktor Frankl describes. He survived three years in a concentration camp and wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that although the inmates could have almost everything taken from them, it was not possible to take from them “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 
Of course it is easier to achieve freedom in free societies than in unfree ones, and it is easier to do so with money than without. We use a thousand excuses to avoid facing up to this responsibility. Yet a slogan that can sometimes be seen daubed on the walls of buildings may well be true: “A person who does not seek freedom will die in it”.


Thomas Brussig

was born in East Berlin in 1964. His first successful novel was “Heroes Like Us” (1995). His book “Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee” (1999) was made into a successful film by Leander Haußmann. Brussig’s works have been translated into 30 languages.


Authors and representatives of public life write personal opinion pieces for goethe.de/kultur about a particular concept that influences their life.

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