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On the death of Ágnes Heller
A valiant voice that we shall miss

Agnes Heller
Agnes Heller | Photo: Robert Newald; © picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Ágnes Heller, the Hungarian philosopher and sociologist, died last Friday at the age of 90. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut, calls the holder of the Goethe Medal 2010 “a courageous defender of a liberal society”. Johannes Ebert, Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut, emphasises that she defended freedom to the end. An obituary by Michael Zichy and Jonas Lüscher.

There is no democracy without a cultural elite, which is essentially different from the political or the business elite. By this I mean people who are respected and emulated for both their spiritual accomplishment and their social responsibility.[...] It is not the number of university degrees or mass publications that makes someone a member of a cultural elite, but spiritual accomplishment, the promotion of human dignity and understanding. Ágnes Heller wrote these lines a few weeks ago in her contribution to our transnational discussion about the worldwide ascent of populism. Given her modesty, she would hardly have meant them to refer to herself. But now that she has left us, it is quite obvious that she herself, in her life and thought, was a shining example of that cultural elite that she considered vital for the very existence of democratic communities.

Tireless commitment to political discourse

Her undeniable intellectual acumen and the moving story of her life made her not only a major philosopher, but also an insightful witness and survivor of the horrors and upheavals of the 20th century, as recounted in a great many obituaries over the past few days. For us, however, it was always astonishing in our personal encounters how tirelessly she was, even in old age she actively participated in conferences and discussions and took up political causes.

Last summer, for example, when we were looking for prominent figures to endorse “#1EuropeForAll”, a call for a day of Europe-wide demonstrations against nationalism and for European solidarity, she was one of the first to sign. Quite tellingly, however, signing was not enough for her, so she got personally involved in bringing about a demonstration in Budapest. When requested to take part in the above-mentioned discussion of the rise of populism, Heller accepted without hesitation and, with almost youthful impatience, penned the very first contribution, displaying, as ever, an unflagging curiosity about her interlocutors, their arguments and experiences. In meetings and discussions with Ágnes Heller, her untiring commitment to human rights – to defending, first and foremost, her own freedom and that of others – left an indelible impression. But equally impressive was her keen desire to understand, to take the views and experiences of others seriously and subject them to incisive and rigorous analysis.

We will miss Ágnes Heller as a human being and as a thinker, as a contributor to public discourse and debate, a civil rights advocate and as an exemplary exponent of a cultural elite without which democracy is at risk, because, as Heller herself put it, “A stable democracy needs a cultural elite more than the political establishment because the latter is often more inclined to put emphasis only on quantity with little regard for quality. When ideals and role models are only measured by quantity, society degenerates, and demagogues or tyrants take control.”

A courageous defender of a liberal society

“Ágnes Heller, winner of the 2010 Goethe Medal, was an impressive personality and a courageous defender of a liberal society,” says Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut. “Heller insisted that living in freedom was decisive for human co-existence. Politics, history, art and science were her fields of inquiry. In her books, brimming with creativity, political wisdom, moral energy and intellectual integrity, Heller presented European culture as an invitation to engage in dialogue. Her critical and pugnacious voice will be sorely missed. She was a role model for us all,” Lehmann continued. 
Johannes Ebert, General Secretary of the Goethe-Institut, underlines: “With the passing of Agnes Heller, we have lost not only one of the pre-eminent women philosophers of the 20th century and a mainstay of German-Hungarian cultural relations. Up to the very end she defended freedom by raising her voice against authoritarian and populist systems. We shall miss that valiant voice.”