"How much poorer would Germany be without the influence of French culture, and how much poorer would France be without the Germans?" German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair on Tuesday night.
She echoed words spoken by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the evening, as he said that the "identity of language lives through the confrontation with other languages." And with France as this year's guest of honor at the world's largest publishing industry trade event, for the second time, French language literature will be celebrated with the slogan "Francfort en francais / Frankfurt auf französisch ("Frankfurt in French").
At the opening, Merkel also stressed the importance of Franco-German cooperation for Europe, emphasizing the solidarity and friendship between the two countries that is also fostered through literature. "Authors can be creators of ideas and bridge builders," she said.
The German chancellor further described the long-running "cultural exchange" between Germany and France, mentioning the French Huguenots who came to Berlin, and the fact that German poet Heinrich Heine lived mostly in Paris.
Books as weapons
During his speech opposing rising populism and nationalism in Europe, Macron spoke of the unifying power of literature.
"We fight for our books and our culture," he said. "Without culture, there is no Europe.
Books are the best weapons," he added. "Nothing is more effective than the book. [It's] the most precious thing we have in our world."
Emphasizing the importance of the printed word, Macron and Merkel printed the first page of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a replica of the Gutenberg printing press, invented some 600 years ago in nearby Mainz. The German chancellor later also talked of the importance of the printed word.
"We need the intellectual and creative impulses emanating from literature in all life situations," she said. "The book invites us to dream and expands the horizon."
Macron said young people should be free to move between countries and languages, and that there should be European universities that seek to reassert Europe on the foundation of its diverse languages.
On the subject of European unity, threatened by Brexit and the rise of far-right euroskeptic parties like the Alternative for Germany, Merkel concluded her opening speech by stating that "every author of the book fair contributes to making Europe stronger."
German Culture Minister Monika Grütters reiterated this theme when she said that the Frankfurt Book Fair aims to counteract "right-wing populist tendencies in parts of Europe with the power of culture and literature as an expression of our common values: pluralism, openness, tolerance and social participation."
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The speeches confirmed the strong political subtext at this year's global book industry gathering. Speaking at the opening press conference, book fair director Juergen Boos pleaded for book producers to counter "the spread of fear and hatred."
"The Frankfurt Book Fair brings people together who represent a variety of different opinions," said Boos. "The presence of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron at the opening ... symbolizes the close relationship between Germany and France and their commitment to a strong, unified Europe."
This point was reiterated at the opening keynote address by literary agent Andrew Wylie, who implored the book industry to foster diverse voices in increasingly nationalistic times.
"Autocrats and autocratic societies are doomed to fail," he said. "People want more. They want to … encounter different perspectives, because that's the way the world is. This is the human condition."
Wylie went on to describe a diversity of viewpoints in contemporary literature.
"We have international projects from abroad showing us not different things, but different views on experiences of realities that we all endure," he said. "Whether it be Karl Ove Knausgaard examining in microcosm his family life in Norway; or Chimamanda Adichie reflecting on the expatriate life of a Nigerian woman in the United States; or Salman Rushdie reflecting on the voices of India in the modern world; or Edouard Louis, on growing up gay in rural France. These authors are not seeing different things, they are seeing things differently."
Book fair organizers also plan to highlight concerns about freedom of expression in Turkey, where several German nationals have been detained in what Germany has described as politically motivated cases that have strained ties between Ankara and Berlin.
The former editor-in-chief of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, who faces imprisonment in Turkey, will speak about writing in exile, while supporters of Germany's jailed Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yücel will stage events calling for his release under the banner #Freedeniz.
sb/cmk (AFP, dpa)