Jürgen Habermas is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. He studied philosophy, history, psychology, literature and economics and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the works of German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. His two-volume work entitled "The Theory of Communicative Action" was published in 1981. Habermas (89) has long been a passionate defender of the European idea, for which he received the German-French Media Prize this week in Berlin. This is his acceptance speech.
When I graduated from high school, my career aspiration was listed on my diploma: Habermas wants to become a journalist, it said. Yet once I began working for the Gummersbach section of the Cologne daily Kölner Stadtanzeiger, and then again when I wrote under Adolf Frisé for the culture pages of the Handelsblatt, it was repeatedly made clear to me that my writing style was far too complex. Even the extremely charitable Karl Korn, who fervently urged me to practice during my time as a university student in Bonn, later declared that I should perhaps stick to my academic proclivities. It is a critique that continues to be reflected in reader mail, and at my age, improvement isn't likely. All of which makes me even more delighted about the invitation, extended to me by the director general of Saarland Broadcasting in conjunction with the German-French Journalism Prize, to follow in the footsteps of such distinguished predecessors as Tomi Ungerer, Simone Veil and Jean Asselborn. My connection to Asselborn is that he too prefers blunt honesty when speaking of Europe. With the prize presenter and laudator having found such complimentary words for my efforts – endeavors which are otherwise simply derogated as euro-romanticism – you will certainly not view it as a transgression of good taste if I, against the backdrop of our disintegrating continent, merely repeat that which I have often stated before on this subject.
I will refrain from addressing the symptomatic clamoring coming out of Bavaria, a ruckus that triggered a government crisis while shoving the more pressing issue – the lack of cooperation in the EU – into the background. The culpability lies with that sort of pro-European who shies away from admitting to the real reservations they in fact hold against a Europe of practiced solidarity. Jean-Paul Sartre explained the term mauvaise foi as an elegant contradistinction to bonne foi. Who among us is not familiar with this quietly murmuring uneasiness? We act bona fide, in good faith, but in moments of reflection, we sense a gnawing doubt about the consistency of the assertively argued convictions we hold – as if there was a weak spot in the river bank over which the waters of our argument are flowing unnoticed. My impression is that Emmanuel Macron's appearance on the European stage has exposed just such a weak spot in the self-image of those Germans who patted themselves on the back during the euro crisis, convinced as they were that they remained the best Europeans and were pulling everyone else out of the quagmire.
Allow me to add that the imputation of such a mauvaise fois does not imply moral reproach. Those afflicted are neither completely to blame nor entirely free of blame for the rotten state of such a belief structure, decaying as it is from the inside out. In this respect, our German pro-Europeanness is not dissimilar to the rather different phenomenon of the frame of mind apparently widespread among the monks in the Cistercian monasteries of the 11th century who were beset by qualms about their faith and who consequently fell into a melancholic torpor. This dejection, which came to be known as "acedia," was not punished as a sin because it did not transgress the cognitive threshold of explicit heresy. On the other hand, this so-called "monk's illness" likewise did not fulfill the clinical definition of depression – which would have exonerated those concerned of all responsibility. The monks were not disciplined for their acedia but were expected to take some responsibility themselves. It is precisely this vacillating, this blurring of the lines of accountability, that characterizes the profane mauvaise fois, as well.
To be sure, many critics not only considered the German-inspired austerity policy to be misguided, but also suspected a bias lurking behind the façade of the vociferous claims of solidarity. But the tenor of the leading media outlets ensured for years that the population's faith in the solidary role played by Germany in times of crisis went unquestioned. Broadly speaking, the German government's altruistic role as vigilant crisis manager and generous lender was seen as credible. Did it not consistently have the welfare of all member states at heart – even including the unsuccessful attempt to show the Greeks the door? But now, in the face of the completely unanticipated challenges associated with a radically transformed global political situation, the first cracks in this pleasing self-image have become visible. As an example, I would point to a recently published editorial about that notorious night several years ago when the French president squeezed an early morning concession out of the German chancellor, an agreement that she would not force the Greeks out of the European currency union. Only now, three years after the fact, may the always clear-sighted Cerstin Gammelin recall in unvarnished clarity this low point of our unabashed national economic egoism (Süddeutsche Zeitung from June 21, 2018).
In the old West Germany, there really had been good reasons for the German self-image as good Europeans. Those reasons were born out of the country's military as well as moral defeat – and yet they still weren't entirely self-evident. In my view, the shift in mentality toward the celebrated normalcy of a reunified nation-state since 1889/90 has lent and perpetuated a new inflection to this self-image. Ultimately, in the course of the banking and sovereign debt crises along with the noise of contradictory crises narratives in different countries, this image became more and more self-centered and entrenched – and increasingly took on the characteristics of a mauvaise fois. The rotten stain in this good-faith self-deception is our mistrust of other countries' willingness to cooperate – particularly when it comes to southern Europe.
If you listen closely to the German chancellor, it is striking that she makes rather peculiar use of the words "loyalty" and "solidarity." During a recent appearance on a talk show hosted by Anne Will, Merkel demanded joint political action on asylum policy and in the tariff conflict with the United States, and in this context called for the "loyalty" of the EU partners. Generally, it is the boss who expects loyalty from her employees, while joint political action generally requires solidarity rather than loyalty. Depending on the constellation of interests, it is sometimes the one, sometimes the other, who must subordinate their own interests to those of the whole. When it comes to asylum policy, for example, not all countries – because of their geographical locations, for example – are equally affected by migration nor do they all have the same capacity to take people in. To take another example, tariffs on automobile imports threatened by the U.S. would hit some, Germany in this case, harder than others. In such cases, joint political action means that one party takes the interests of others into consideration and takes on its share of responsibility for the jointly approved political resolution. Germany's interest is obvious in these two examples, just as it is in the insistence on a joint European foreign policy.