The Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm, the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor and the German-Brazilian cultural manager Eva Sopher were awarded Goethe Medals on 28 August by Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president des Goethe-Institut. This year for the 61st time, the Goethe-Institut conferred the official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany to honour figures who have performed outstanding service for international cultural relations. 

Ceremony 2015 Photo: Maik Schuck

“In a very special way the three awardees stand for an active cultural heritage and, with their enlightened, humanistic attitudes, make crucial contributions to tolerance in the world,” said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann of the choice of Sadik Al-Azm, Eva Sopher and Neil MacGregor for the Goethe Medal. The motto of the 2015 award ceremony was The Spirit of History. Lehmann underscored the topicality of this subject, noting that Eva Sopher’s personal biography directly demonstrates Germany’s historical responsibility in the present-day refugee crisis. “The goodwill that refugees are encountering in many cities from thousands of citizens is a prime example of true solidarity. At the same time we increasingly hear reports of assaults by radical cells and their adherents, who are not only violating the law, but also the basic principles of human decency.” Lehmann emphasized, “the Goethe-Institut condemns these actions in no uncertain terms; throughout the world we advocate open dialogue and oppose any form of discrimination. Knowledge of origins and of history forms the basis for an equivalence of cultures and the willingness to engage with other cultures,” Lehmann continued. “In their work, the three honourees each act uniquely to counteract the present ‘shattering of historical time’ and they trust in the educational power of the arts.”

The Goethe Medal conferment was held at the Residential Palace in Weimar and attended by Bodo Ramelow, Thuringia’s Minister President, Claudia Roth, Vice President of the German Bundestag, Maria Böhmer, Minister of State at the German Foreign Office, and Stefan Wolf, the mayor of the city of Weimar.

Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm is one of the Arab world’s most authoritative intellectuals. For decades, he has actively advocated the right to freedom of speech and for the rule of law and democracy while also championing understanding between the Arab-Islamic world and Europe. Al-Azm studied philosophy and later taught at the American University of Beirut. The philosopher has held numerous professorships worldwide, for example at the University of Damascus as well as in Berlin and Hamburg. Focusing on the works of Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, Al-Azm transfers the theories of the Enlightenment to the Arab-Islamic world, calling for its modernization through secularization. Because of the escalating violence in Syria, Sadik Al-Azm and his wife were granted political asylum in Germany in 2012. “Sadik was and is rightly celebrated in the West,” said the Islamic scholar Stefan Wild in his laudatory speech, while reminding us of Al-Azm’s difficulties in Arab countries. Although his books are widely read, they are never celebrated. “No Arab politician has ever adopted one of his theses. To my knowledge, no Arab university has ever dared to award him a prize.”

Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum, one of the world’s most-visited museums. In his exhibitions he links complex art historical and historical themes and uses his curatorial engagement to bring a broad audience closer to a new awareness of the past, most recently in the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation conceived for the anniversary of the fall of the wall. MacGregor became famous with a series of BBC radio talks in which he explained The History of the World in 100 Objects and a book by the same name. MacGregor grew up in Glasgow and learned German in his schooldays. His academic pathway reflects his wide-ranging interests. He studied French and German (New College, Oxford University), philosophy (École Normale Supérieure, Paris), law (University of Edinburgh) and art history (Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London). In 1987 he became director of the National Gallery in London. Since 2002 he has headed the British Museum. From October, MacGregor will be one of the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. In her laudatory speech, Marion Ackermann, artistic director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, emphasized MacGregor’s humanity and love of language. But he has something else, “which may seem natural for ... a museum director, but unfortunately is encountered all too rarely: his belief in the open, creative process.” MacGregor was one of the first to see the encouragement of artistic production as an additional function of the museum. “As we all know, during his time as director of the National Gallery he opened the museum to great artists and let them stay there day and night.”

Eva Sopher, the president of the Theatro São Pedro in Porto Alegre, made a fundamental contribution to the cultural landscape of Porto Alegre with her passionate commitment to the performing arts. With the renowned theatre, she created a unique international meeting place for performers of all stripes. Sopher was born in Frankfurt in 1923. As the daughter of a German-Jewish family, in the late 1930s Eva Sopher fled from the National Socialists and found refuge in Brazil. After saving the Theatro São Pedro from demolition in the mid-1970s, she created a venue that continues to stand out for its vigorousness and internationality today. Greats of German dance and theatre such as Pina Bausch, Susanne Linke and Hanna Schygulla, the internationally successful pianist Nelson Freire and musician and composer Tom Jobim performed here. Eva Sopher was unable to attend the ceremony in person but appeared via video from Brazil. “Art is my religion,” is Sopher’s credo, as actor Hanna Schygulla explained in her speech. “She made it her mission to open wide the gates for other artists from around the world and, of course, the arts that came from Germany.” Considering her personal history, the latter was by no means a given. “She allows space for the innocence of new relations,” said Schygulla.

The Goethe Medal was established by the executive committee of the Goethe-Institut in 1954 and acknowledged as an official decoration by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1975. The Goethe Medal is conferred annually on 28 August, the anniversary of the birth of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Since it was first awarded in 1955, a total of 338 figures from 62 countries have been honoured. The awardees have included Adonis, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Bourdieu, David Cornwell alias John le Carré, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Lars Gustafsson, Ágnes Heller, György Ligeti, Petros Markaris, Sir Karl Raimund Popper, Jorge Semprún, Robert Wilson and Helen Wolff.

The award ceremony is organized in close partnership with the Foundation of Weimar Classics and the City of Weimar. The event featuring awardee Sadik Al-Azm is held in cooperation with Kunstfest Weimar. The lecture by awardee Neil MacGregor was organized in collaboration with Kunstfest Weimar and the Foundation of Weimar Classics.