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Frankfurt Book Fair goes to bat for freedom

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October 19, 2016

"Literature has always managed to overcome dictators," wrote jailed Turkish author Asli Erdogan. Her words marked the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which focuses not just on publishing deals, but also human rights.

"This is what we share" poster at Frankfurt Book Fair
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

At the opening of this year's Frankfurt Book Fair on Tuesday, Heinrich Riethmüller, director of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, read aloud a letter written by Turkish author Asli Erdogan. She had attended the fair in 2008, when Turkey was the guest country, but is currently in prison in Turkey.

In her country, conscience is being trampled with an "unbelievable brutality," she wrote, and people are blindly trying to "kill the truth." She added, "Even though I don't know how, literature has always managed to overcome dictators."

Hundreds of visitors listened to her powerful words, including King Philippe of Belgium, Kind Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.

Asli Erdogan
Asli Erdogan is currently in prison in TurkeyImage: Imago

Riethmüller said that publishing houses, booksellers, authors and translators are in a position to help shape society's opinions.

"Especially now, society needs strong and independent ideas and conveyers of content who are able to explain, question and differentiate information and events," said Riethmüller. He added that the situation in Turkey is particularly dire: At least 140 media organizations have been closed, including 30 publishing houses. More than 130 authors and journalists have been imprisoned.


"Freedom of the word is a human right and is not negotiable," said Riethmüller. "But the political world is silently watching the events without taking action."

In an online petition using the hashtag #FreeWordsTurkey, the German government and the EU Commission are being called upon to defend freedom of opinion and freedom of the press without compromise. So far, the initiative of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association and the PEN Center Germany has been signed by some 80,000 people.

Martin Schulz
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, appealed to Turkish President Erdogan to release imprisoned intellectualsImage: picture alliance/Sven Simon/V. Essler

And their appeal has been heard. "We have to defend our European social model against the enemies of freedom," said Martin Schulz in Frankfurt, calling for an "uprising of the decent people" against the growing populist movement in Europe. European unity is a gift - even a miracle, he said.

"As Europeans, we have sworn to each other to do things better in this century than we did in the last. Now we have to prove it," said Schulz. He expressed his solidarity with the appeal from the German book industry, calling for the release of all imprisoned authors and journalists in Turkey.

"Let these people go," he appealed directly to the Turkish government and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Ensaf Haidar gives prize for courageous journalism

During Tuesday's press conference at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, it became known that blogger Raif Badawi, who is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, faces yet another round of lashings. Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Badawi, arrived in Frankfurt just before this news broke. She is to hand out an award for courageous journalism on Wednesday.

Ensaf Haidar
Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, is a human rights activistImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heinl

"We must raise our voices," said Jürgen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Quoting Timothy Garden Ash, he demanded "a culture of open discussion and of robust civility."

Freedom of opinion was also the central theme of last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Author Salman Rushdie was invited to attend the kick-off press conference in 2015. The Indian-British author, who continues to be threatened by fatwas pronounced against him by radical Islamists, passionately advocated a worldwide struggle for the freedom of opinion.

This theme continues at this year's fair. "The world is in uproar, which has become a permanent state of things. Conflicts are burning at old and new fronts worldwide, the European idea is falling apart, populism and nationalism are on the rise," said Heinrich Riethmüller.

"The Future Will Be Confusing" was written on a banner at the fair - an idea echoed by director Jürgen Boos said. "What we are experiencing is a kind of complexity that cannot be easily understood. We are observing a new one-dimensionality in political views, where national and religious identities are pitted against each other."

He said he sees the world's biggest book fair as a place where "the fragmentation of the world, as well as its diversity" become particularly apparent. According to him, people are ready for debates on the future. Boos quoted Italian author Umberto Eco, who died earlier this year, in saying, "Literature can help to sort out the world."

'That's what we share' - a slogan for Europe 

The common language of Flanders and the Netherlands has created a common cultural region which is at the center of this year's fair. The region's slogan "That's what we share" can be applied to the whole of Europe, said Jürgen Boos. "All of us in Europe share common values."

A Flemish coastal landscape adorns the Frankfurt Book Fair
A Flemish coastal landscape adorns the book fairImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

Publishing houses are presenting 454 new publications this year and roughly 70 Flemish and Dutch authors will present an extensive literary program starting Wednesday. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and the King and Queen of Belgium, Philippe and Mathilde, officially opened the guest country pavilion on Tuesday evening.

The guest region is presenting itself digitally with a virtual reality show during which visitors can virtually enter the Barcelona Pavilion created by Mies van der Rohe in 1929.

 'The Arts+' - museums and cultural institutions

Beyond literature, the arts play a very important role at the 68th Frankfurt Book Fair. This year's big star is not an author, but a painter. David Hockney presented his "A Bigger Book," a large-format volume published by Taschen-Verlag. The work consists of almost 500 pages of images and explanations and goes for a price of 2,000 euros ($2,200). For another 4,000 euros, fans can acquire one of the digital paintings created on an iPad.

During the press conference, it was unusually silent while Hockney presented some of his paintings and their digital production process to hundreds of journalists. As Jürgen Boos put it, he did that "in his own fascinating way of storytelling."

British artist David Hockney flips through his "A Bigger Book"
British artist David Hockney flips through his "A Bigger Book"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

Hockney is by far not the only artist present at the fair."The Arts+" was initiated as a fair within the fair. Famous museums, among them New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as institutions such as the Google Cultural Institute, present themselves in this newly created fair segment as publishing houses, artists and authors. From year to year, the Frankfurt Book Fair extends its concept of literature. 

A place for discourse and deals

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs through Sunday. More than 7,000 exhibitors and hundreds of authors will be discussing freedom of opinion, the integration of refugees and digitalization with journalists, the public, their colleagues and - during the last two days - also the public.

In addition, dozens of awards will be handed out. The most prestigious one will be the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade handed out at the end of the fair on Sunday to publisher Carolin Emcke.

Countless book deals will also be worked out over the next few days - perhaps also with the representatives of six publishing houses  from Syria. That would be a sign of hope for the war-torn country.