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Speech at Charles University

Federal President Joachim Gauck at Charles University in Prague Prague/Czech Republic, 6 May 2014 Federal President Joachim Gauck at Charles University in Prague © Jesco Denzel

I am delighted to be visiting you today.

Prague in springtime is always uplifting. What’s more, it awakens feelings and memories of the time I visited shortly after the Velvet Revolution. I wandered through the streets in a daze, fascinated by the beauty that showed through their still grey façades. I was high on the feeling that everything we had been cut off from behind the Iron Curtain – the whole world, the whole future – was now open to us. Today, we can already look back on a quarter century of freedom and independence. We celebrate that fact, particularly because we know it is by no means something we in Europe can take for granted. We will do everything possible to protect that hard-won prize.

Charles University, this venerable institution that is doing me a great honour today in presenting me its gold medal, has the founding principles to show us the way.

First of all, it stands for Europe.

Its founder, Charles IV, was what we would nowadays call a European. He was the elected Holy Roman Emperor at the same time as King of Bohemia. His father was of the House of Luxembourg, and his mother was a Přemyslid from the ancient royal dynasty in Bohemia. Charles IV studied in Paris and spoke five languages, Latin, German, Czech, French and Italian.

The university brought together students from four regions, or nationes: Bohemians, Saxons, Bavarians and Silesians studied together on an equal footing, taking their lessons in Latin. Perhaps we in Europe should remind ourselves every now and again of how much was already possible back in the day.

The second thing Charles University stands for is that academia can be both encouraged and endangered. The oldest university in Central Europe, it embodies one of those great ideas that have emanated from Europe to shape the world: from Paris to Prague, from Bologna to Cologne, and in so many places besides, the European university stands for the transfer of knowledge, freedom of research and teaching. In short, it stands for the act of intellectually comprehending the world within the autonomous community of teachers and students. The university, at bottom, stands for what no-one has put better since Immanuel Kant, the "courage to use your own reason".

However, the centuries have shown us that universities are not just places of inward and outward freedom. They have also been places where freedom of thought has been destroyed, conformity enforced and censorship internalised. Charles University has known both stages, has both pursued the ideal and been forced to betray it. Times of shared teaching and learning were quickly followed by times of division. Religious intolerance between Hussites and Catholics culminated in the departure of the German-speaking students. They left to form the University of Leipzig. Later, at the end of the 19th century, national tensions led the previously multinational university to split into two competing institutions, one Czech and one German. There was to be no more harmonious cooperation after that. Sometimes coexistence, at best, but often no more than hostile rivalry.

The tragic apogee of nationalist and even racist policies was reached with the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. The Czech Charles University was closed for three years. Twelve hundred students and professors were deported to concentration camps. After the National Socialist nightmare, there followed decades of Communist forced conformity. The university always reflected the developments of history, was always a pars pro toto of the wider political context. From its shining beginnings under a charismatic Emperor, it sank into the worst of totalitarian systems. Thanks to the resistance of many Czechs and Slovaks, it is once again a place of free discourse today.

I must express my deepest respect towards the university as I contemplate the independent, democratically minded students and professors who have been part of it. Not only did those independent spirits have to hold their own against various foreign rulers. As can be even more difficult sometimes, they had to stand up to intolerant opinion among their own people. That role demands great courage, given the danger of individuals being branded troublemakers or traitors to their country.

Take the example of Tomás Masaryk, who started teaching at Charles University in 1882. He cast doubt, quite rightly, on the authenticity of documents purporting to prove the glorious past of a Czech nation stretching back to the early Middle Ages. That courageous man was later to become the first President of Czechoslovakia.

In the 20th century, it took great bravery to offer resistance to the occupying powers. When the students of Charles University demonstrated against the German invaders in 1939, their protest was brutally crushed. Jan Palach was a Charles University student too. After he doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in 1969, in protest at the crushing of the Prague Spring, his funeral became a mass demonstration and Palach himself became a symbol of a free Czechoslovakia. Later, a good number of teachers and students from Charles University were among those who signed Charter 77. I am deeply grateful and honoured to be receiving an honour from this university today.

And another thing, ladies and gentlemen:

Charles University also stands for Prague itself, this magical, mysterious city steeped in so many different traditions. Certainly, Paris is Europe, London is Europe, Rome and Berlin are Europe too. But isn’t Prague in a very special way just a little bit "more" Europe? Franco-German Gothic, Italian Renaissance, Habsburg Baroque, Art Nouveau mouldings next to avant-guard Cubist and Bauhaus buildings. Like hardly anywhere else, Prague reveals a Europe indivisibly united in its many cultural parts – the Europe that is Latin and Greek, Catholic and Hussite, Jewish and Protestant, Czech, German and Polish too. A Europe that has combined all those elements to produce wonderful, unique things in this city.

Nowadays, all of this is once more on display here, symbolic of an open and diverse Europe. Those who sought for ideological reasons to homogenise Europe to their own design brought death and suffering to the people and managed to temporarily suppress the project of European democracy. But the people in Prague and Warsaw, Berlin and Budapest reclaimed their rights, their culture and their freedom.

German Nobel literature laureate Heinrich Böll, himself once a soldier in Hitler’s army, was visiting Prague on 21 August 1968. He saw the tanks roll in and crush the Prague Spring that had triggered so much hope in Czechoslovakia – indeed, in the whole of Europe. He recorded those days in a moving report that still warrants a read today, full of fury at the oppressors and admiration for the men and women of Prague with their grief, their pride, their humour and their resistance.

He called his report The Gun Was Aimed at Kafka and wrote in it, "Outside the building where Kafka was born stood a tank, its gun barrel aimed at the bust of Kafka. Here, too, symbol matched reality."

The tank aiming at Kafka. That single poignant scene really encapsulates what it is that moves us, especially in Prague, especially in this country, when we think of the history and cultures of the people who have lived here and who live here today.

Franz Kafka stands for that particular blend of cultures, that Jewish-Czech-German life which was so characteristic of Prague. But the Czechoslovak state was broken up, all that was Czech was suppressed and all that was Jewish was wiped out; the Nazi crimes put an end to that unique cultural symbiosis at the heart of Europe. Kafka was spared that experience, having died in 1924, but his sister Ottla was killed by the Nazis in 1943 and Milena Jesenska, the love of his life, died in Ravensbrück concentration camp the following year.

The final act of the drama came after the liberation in 1945, when the Germans too had to leave their homeland – flight, expulsion, forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, odsun, whatever you want to call it – guilty and innocent alike. Nowadays, in spite of a complicated reality, we are moving towards a more differentiated understanding of history. It makes me optimistic to see academics, journalists, authors and artists, young people in particular, tackling the still emotionally charged events of the past. It is to the Czech Republic’s credit that in 2005 it explicitly recognised the Sudetenland Germans who had been resistance fighters and persecuted by the Nazi regime. We should also remember the many Czechs, often nameless, who offered their German neighbours protection in 1945, after the war.

There is no doubt that the history of German-Czech relations is a story of suffering. It sometimes seems miraculous that we haven’t suffocated under the weight of those memories. It sometimes seems miraculous that we can even look one another in the eye, speak to each other, find the courage to write the next chapter jointly, in a spirit of rapprochement and reconciliation. Yes, if we live in truth as Václav Havel would have us do, we can find the rights words and the right means to bring about reconciliation. Those who have walked ahead of us down that difficult road have our thanks.

The memory of the strength of symbiosis, dialogue, the strength of mutual permeation and cross-fertilisation between cultures and ways of life, languages and mentalities – that memory has proven more lasting than the violent imposition of a monoculture. Perseverance founded in insight, the single-mindedness of conscience proved harder to shift than oppression and dictatorship. The exactitude, indeed the truth of well thought-out, sensitive and insightful language proved stronger than lies and propaganda.

I am delighted to see Czech and German civil society so active. It is ordinary members of the public whose commitment really makes change happen. I’m thinking of the German-Czech Future Fund, the exchange students, the twinnings between schools and towns, but also of the people and initiatives working to keep our shared traditions alive and transpose them into the modern world. Take Lenka Reinerová or František Černý, for example, who founded the Prague Literature Center of German-Speaking Czech Writers together with Kurt Krolop. There are people like Pavel Kohout and, today, Jitka Jilková, who established the Prague German Language Theatre Festival. They and many others have my profound thanks.

We could not have all of these people doing what they are doing had it not been for the winds of change of 1989, which brought spring back to Prague. In 1989, we were finally able to harvest the fruits that, if you’ll pardon the paradoxical image, had to slowly ripen over decades of winter. Both Czechs and Germans had gathered experience of living under a system that Kafka could have described – simultaneously incomprehensible but effective everywhere, impersonal and merciless. And both Germans and Czechs learned what it was like to defeat such a system.

For me and others, Václav Havel was and remains the greatest of role models. Unflinching, incorruptible, unbroken even after years in prison, he led his nation to democracy and to Europe.

And so a peaceful shared future for Czechs and Germans in a shared Europe actually became possible. And it will remain a reality for as long as the great European values of individuality and freedom, justice and forgiveness, truthfulness and peaceability are shared, lived and given potency again and again.

And all of us in Europe know the duty that we share: never again to allow the tanks to take aim at Kafka. Not to permit diversity to be destroyed or violence to triumph over reason. Not in springtime, not in August – never. And nowhere.