Jürgen Habermas

Rare Praise from a Philosopher

Juergen habermas by Axel Schmidt ddp
Habermas, the German government's newest fan.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Jürgen Habermas praises Germany’s open stance on immigration as an example of moral leadership.

  • Facts


    • Philosopher Jürgen Habermas works on critical theory and pragmatism in the Frankfurt School tradition and is known for writing about communicative rationality and the public sphere.
    • The Kluge Prize is presented by the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress for work in the humanities and social sciences.
    • Mr. Habermas won the prize for his lifetime achievement together with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas was awarded the Kluge prize on Tuesday, the equivalent of the Nobel prize for philosophy, for his work in the humanities. Sitting in a wood-paneled guest room in Washington’s Library of Congress before the beginning of the award ceremony, he talked with Handelsblatt about Germany’s actions towards Greece and in the refugee crisis – and the success or failure of Europe as a whole.

Handelsblatt: Professor Habermas, you criticized the German government for behaving like the “Europe’s chief disciplinarian” during the Greece debt crisis. Has Chancellor Merkel redeemed herself with her generosity in the refugee crisis?

Jürgen Habermas: I’m as surprised as I am delighted. For years, I haven’t been thought as highly of our government as I have since late August. Now, here in America, I keep referring to something she said which also keeps being mentioned in the German press.

You mean when she said, “we can manage?”

No, I mean her statement, “If we also have to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.” That’s a very strong sentence. Who would have expected that from Ms. Merkel, who has stuck to pragmatic, hesitant statements, oriented towards popular opinion for years? That was a decisive, normative sentence. I was so happy when I read that. And it wasn’t only Ms. Merkel, it was the whole government, and supported by different statements, visits to Heidenau and so on.

You’re all enthusiasm…

What delights me is that once our government finally made a normative statement and took a stand – and then the public reacted in an almost fairy tale way.

You said Berlin was taking a “hegemonic attitude” with Greece, for the first time in the post war era. Now, the right wing is making this same criticism about immigration policy, calling Ms. Merkel’s welcome culture “moral imperialism.”

Well, it’s not surprising that there’s been a reaction to Germany’s decisive policy of opening the borders and our emphasis on the normative content of our already restricted right to asylum. But I can’t take that seriously, the idea that this policy is being associated with a hegemonic attitude from Germany. It’s true that Ms. Merkel’s immigration initiative was a solo effort – followed by a justifiable attempt to create a shared European response.

That failed…

That failure was predictable. I wished all the more, given the disaster in Greece, that Germany and France would try to take the lead to create a shared European policy. I mean between countries which know they depend upon each other and have had to deal with that. But that’s not Ms. Merkel’s way, because she always wants to include the Brits, too. She’d prefer to have a non-compromise, as is now the case.

Conservative critics go further and say Ms. Merkel’s idealism isn’t coherent and that nice words won’t fix the refugee issue.

I would not agree with that. As far as I can see, the government is doing what’s necessary and currently in the framework of the possible – financially, but also, in terms of what’s possible with the administration, organization problems and accommodation and so forth. Those are practical problems of really unexpected dimensions and enormous challenges. No, I must say that I find myself in a rare agreement with both what our government is saying and doing.

Right now, though, Berlin is changing its tune; the initial enthusiasm is fading and people’s concerns are growing. President Joachim Gauck is already distancing himself from Ms. Merkel.

I heard Mr. Gauck’s latest speech. People know I’m not a fan of Mr. Gauck, but: respect! Without wanting to sound arrogant, just to express my feeling: I could not have said it better. He has considered all aspects of the problem and has said the right thing.

The sentence that stuck in mind, though, is: “our possibilities are finite.”

I read that people had interpreted it this way, this oppositional voice from the right. I don’t think it’s appropriate to just criticize certain parts of his talk without considering its tenor as a whole.

During the euro crisis, you complained about the “politics being subsumed to market needs.” Isn’t a liberal immigration policy also based on economic reason? Namely one where new work forces supply an aging society?

People shouldn’t be naïve: probably, our government would not have approached the issue as openly as it did without clear support from the labor market and industry interests. But that’s coincidental, and an additional reason, that shouldn’t devalue the other reasons.

People are also talking about what’s leading people to flee their countries. Has negligence from the West partly contributed to mass migration, through intervening in Iraq and not intervening in Syria?

That’s a very complicated question. A more general answer, if you’ll allow: I was asked about my support for the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Since then we have had a string of experiences, not only those you named, also in Libya, Afghanistan, and in Mali, that showed how devastating interventions can be even if they’re humanitarian, and agreed by the United Nations, if the powers that intervene are not prepared to subsequently put in decades of work that follows, to build a functioning state. Without this preparedness, it will rather be worse than better. We had to learn from our mistakes. What that means for now in Syria is a complicated question which needs further thought.

The Greek crisis preceded the refugee crisis. American intellectuals have been predicting Europe’s failure of late. Do you draw confidence from the fact that the allegedly doomed European Union still exists?

Now yes. First, about Greece, let me say: I had wished that the Greek government had in a sense been wiser in the negotiations with the E.U., that they would have shown their willingness for reform in areas where it’s necessary and unavoidable – the state apparatus, financial administration and so on. Because then, the Greeks could have presented that to the governments of the euro zone. But that didn’t happen.

Do you think the new credit program will enable Greece to become stable, economically?

No. If the program is implemented as it is, that’s the continuation of policy that’s wrong and likely to fail. I also think Ms. Merkel and the finance minister Mr. Schäuble know that. We will see. Without the refugee crisis, I wouldn’t have been completely pessimistic, but rather would have hoped that the policy would change in the coming years. However, through the refugee crisis, we are faced with a situation which in my view makes predictions extraordinarily difficult.

Because Greece and the euro crisis are now disappearing from the focus of politics?

Not only that. What’s happening now with the domestic political conflicts which involve the refugee crisis? How will the government deal with that? If Nicolas Sarkozy in France or Horst Seehofer in Bavaria react as usual and run after the right, then we are really lost. Then Europe will also be ruined.

Handelsblatt’s Moritz Koch is a correspondent for the United States. To contact the author: koch@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!