Where to?
21 questions on flight and migration

The new issue of the cultural magazine “das goethe” just appeared. It’s all about refuge and migration plus a questionnaire answered by internationally renowned intellectuals in more than forty countries. Read here about what moves Alexander Kluge.

The initiative received its inspiration from the questionnaires of the Swiss writer Max Frisch in which he asked uncomfortable and probing questions that readers had probably never asked themselves before. In this way, the Goethe-Institut Tel Aviv attempted to enlarge upon the topic of refuge.

In the 32-page supplement to the 27 October issue of DIE ZEIT, you will find more questionnaires answered by Leonidas Donskis (Lithuania), Eva Illouz (Israel), Rasha Omran (Syria), Luiz Ruffato (Brazil) and Galsan Tschinag (Mongolia). The essay written by Olga Grjasnowa for the supplement is also entitled “Flüchten” (Flight). Also, Tobias Lehmkuhl reports about a walk with Nasan Tur to Berlin art galleries operated by immigrants.

The complete collection of questionnaires can be found online at www.goethe.de/wohin  
1. What does the term refugee mean to you?

The leader of the rearguard in Troy, Aeneas, is an impressive refugee. He crosses the Mediterranean Sea. Troy’s misfortune is glued to the soles of his feet. This way, although he brings his amorousness to the beautiful queen Dido, he brings little luck. He founds Rome. Rome destroys the Greek city of Corinth. This refugee is the messenger of long-term revenge for what the Greeks did to Troy.

An example of the opposite is my grandmother’s grandmother, Caroline Louise Granier, a refugee from France. In the southern Harz Mountains, she found her German husband. Later, they carefully read Goethe’s “Hermann und Dorothea“, the mirror image of their own fate. I would not be here today without this refugee woman. By the way, Huguenots – refugees just like this woman – were the engine propelling Germany forward by more than 50 years. These are strokes of luck. I associate the term “refugee“ with “luck“ and with “bringer of bad tidings“ and thus with a large number of tales and novels.
2. Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Flight for reasons of the heart and from distress is legitimate. Poverty, war or suppression do not make the difference.

3. And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Martin Luther repeatedly took a stand for his century on the question: When is one allowed to flee? When is it necessary to stay? Even when pestilence, devastation of the land and natural disasters are threatening. He differentiated the question for holders of office, i.e., priests, for those with political responsibilities, and for the simple population of the land. The Dutch Republics came into being in defense against the ecological disasters of the Northern Sea. The Dutch built dams and thus developed strong republics which were able to successfully withstand the “Catholic flood” that invaded the country from Spain under the leadership of the Duke of Alba. Fleeing from ecological catastrophes is not generally justified. Their evaluation is split into the question: Is resistance possible? Or is it totally futile? If the climatic conditions of our planet lastingly deteriorate, masses of people will be on the run. I would not like to be the judge.
4. When does one cease to be a refugee?

In some areas of the heart and as far as the sensation on the skin is concerned, never. But one escapes the “fate of a refugee“ where new ground emerges. Traditionally speaking, this would mean: When one builds a house, plants a tree, has a child. In the 21st century, this is more complex: Where is the chance to get established on new soil to be offered, in concrete individual cases? I practically stop being a refugee when I found a new home. When I become a patriot in a new way. I can be a patriot for holy books, concerning my profession and, as mentioned, when I build a new house.
5. Is there a natural right to asylum?

Asylum is a basic right. The strongest legitimation of the church was that it had the power to grant asylum. Immanuel Kant – in modern times – derives the right of asylum from the general right to hospitality. Persons who respect themselves (and therefore also societies with self-respect) must accommodate a stranger who is in distress, unless “one’s own destruction is imminent”. We as persons of letters must provide tales in order to reinforce the right to asylum anchored in our constitution with as much imagination as possible.

6. If yes: Is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

As with every right, the right to asylum can be forfeited when it is abused.

7. Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Every society can do this in a limited manner. As for unlimited acceptance, societies can do this only for short periods of time and in historic cases of luck. This was true for the USA but does not apply there anymore.

8. If yes: Where do you draw the line, and why?

It is especially difficult to express such limits in the form of a definition. The self-respect required to not draw such lines or to keep them limited in scope and the bitter distress resulting from knowing that oneself has objective limits concerning one’s voluntariness and generosity towards strangers, are struggling with each other. It is important to sound out this tension. Within this context, Heinrich von Kleist tells a terrible story in his text “The Foundling“. The merchant, who takes in a foreign child from a town afflicted by pestilence, finally ends up in hell because of the consequential costs of his spontaneous and good attitude. There is something that is called “sentimental opportunism” which tries to do good deeds without being able to afford the consequential expense. This is not an idol.
Just yesterday, I was baffled by a text from Ben Lerner’s “The Lichtenberg Figures”. Although it does not directly concern the refugee question, his phrase shows how subtle the use of the subjunctive, the interference with so-called fate, can be in practice. The poem says, “When I first found the subjunctive, she was broke and butt-naked. Now she wants … bullets designed to expand on impact”.
A country’s absorption capacity is not the only question. The attention of every individual can be stretched when a stranger has to be welcomed, but it cannot be tugged at, at will. This question will continue to strongly concern us in the course of the 21st century. If one observes the cell tissue of a living body, the cells absorb and they discharge. They are permeable. If they did not have their membrane which defends it against the outside, we humans all would suffer from edema. All this cannot be put into rules, but into tales, and it is a challenge for every writer walking in the footmarks of Max Frisch.

9. Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

In almost every country, there are privileged refugees, and there always have been. Refugees, who bring treasures of qualifications with them, are not only welcome, but there are incentives for them. Rich countries are able to plunder the talents of other countries by attracting privileged refugees. In the era of enlightenment, in the 18th century, such practice was a sign of a minister’s qualifications.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, minister of foreign affairs, and Johannes Ebert, secretary general, reading the new "das goethe" at the "Goethe-Institut Damaskus in Exile". Frank-Walter Steinmeier, minister of foreign affairs, and Johannes Ebert, secretary general, reading the new "das goethe" at the "Goethe-Institut Damaskus in Exile". | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig 10. Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Any generalization here would be exaggerated. But I am nevertheless pleasantly surprised how much legwork and attention can be observed in individual cases. And I am proud of the words of our Chancellor who reacted, in a very specific moment, with a sense of proportion. Nevertheless, it would be too much to use this to make assumptions that there is sufficient justice in our country.

11. Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

For a political stance that is based on self-respect, also cuts in the social system must be accepted. This is the price for liking myself.

12. What are the requirements for successful integration?
- on the part of the refugees?

The good will to learn a country’s language. Loyality towards the country’s laws (not the customs). Minimum requirements for the human ability to use one’s powers and thus contribute to self-help. But I do not wish to be the judge concerning this question.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

Ability for empathy. Strain the capacity to put oneself into someone else’s head. By the way, in the evolution of homo sapiens, this is the turning point, when our forebears were able to put themselves in the position of something foreign, be it things, animals or people.
13. Do you know any refugees personally?


14. Do you actively support any refugees?

If I meet them within the framework of my profession or in practical life.

15. How will the refugee situation in your country develop
a) over the next two years? b) over the next two decades?

Even for such a short period of time, predictions have always been wrong. The Hungarians, who, in 1956, crossed the border of their country, fleeing the Red Army, crossed our Federal Republic and some of them today have statutory posts at Harvard and Stanford. Their countrymen, who crossed the same border in 1989, have all been integrated in the meantime. Each wave of refugees is different than the following. I am convinced that one cannot predict anything certain for the next two to ten years. The one thing you can strengthen and preserve is your own attitude: Whatever will happen!

16. Can you imagine a world without refugees?


17. If yes: What does it take?


18. Have you or your family ever been refugee?

Only in relation to the two social systems in our own country and, as my family and I experienced this individually, this was a relatively harmless experience. We were lucky.

19. Did you think you would ever be a refugee?
- If yes: why?
- How did you prepare yourself?

The safety of the moment provides an illusion. Nobody can exclude becoming a refugee during his life. At least he cannot do so for his children.
20. To which country would you take refuge to?

In the course of the Cold War, I have dealt with the question which country I would flee to in case of an emergency. I was thinking of New Zealand. In April of 1986, when the clouds contaminated with nuclear radiation watered the vegetable fields with rain, in the year of Chernobyl, my young wife and my children who were still very small, fled with me to Portugal. To the farthest end of our continent, so to speak. The question was not: To which country? But rather: How can I get away as far as possible? We stayed for several months. Because of the children. 

21. How much “home” do you need?*

They say about Till Eulenspiegel that once, when he was threatened by persecution in the land of Hannover, he sew himself into the skin of a horse when his persecutors tried to get hold of him. He told them that this was his home. His persecutors accepted it.

Another example: In the course of an air raid on my hometown of Halberstadt, my father, my sister and I were lying stretched out on the basement’s floor and were afraid. The basement was the rest of home. Distress makes one’s home shrink.  No person can live without a remainder of home. It is some sort of skin. In normal life, and for the feeling inside of us (which, as is known, has no obligations towards realism), home is as wide as the horizon. You see, the term of “home” is always on the move.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.

Alexander Kluge, born in 1932, is a writer, film maker and producer. Placing society and political critique at the centre of his works, he was a key figure of the New German Cinema. His most important films include Yesterday Girl (1966), Germany in Autumn (1977, Episode) and The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985). Apart from his films Kluge created a substantial body of both literary and essayistic texts, for which he was awarded the highest literary award in Germany, the Georg Büchner Preis.