Literature is more powerful than tyranny

Unable to travel to Munich to attend the presentation ceremony for his Geschwister-Scholl Prize, writer Ahmet Altan penned a message against hatred and nationalism from his prison cell in Turkey. Read out by his close friend Yasemin Congar, it formed his acceptance speech

By Ahmet Altan

In a person's life, there must be something that is more precious than life itself; something that is so precious that it is worth staking your life on. For what seems like an eternity, humanity has drifted along with an immutability that is as dark as a winter's night. The exception are those people who have a goal in life – a goal on which they are willing to stake their very lives. When such people light a candle in this darkness, they themselves become visible and the light illuminates those who are invisible.

The beginning of life, birth, where one living thing emerges from another, is a miracle. Death too – so untouchable, so unavoidable and such a vast unfathomable mystery – is a wondrous thing. Life, on the other hand, in sharp contrast to the miracle of its beginning and the dignity of its end, is one long series of tedious repetitions. Unless a person adds something to his or her life that is more precious than that life, that person's earthly journey will never be anything more than an episode in this commonplace series of eternal repetitions.

With an instinct that is common to all living things, humans believe that there is nothing more important than being alive. Living – in whatever shape or form. The vast majority of people follow this instinct; they consider the preservation of their existence and their interests to be the highest logic, and on their death, they disappear with millions of other living things into the void.

Fear and hostility as the root cause of racism

Caught in eternal darkness and stumbling helplessly through an impenetrable sea of people towards one's demise is fear-inspiring. And fear breeds violence. People who cannot generate any light in their own lives become enemies of the light that is so alien to them. They see this hostility as a kind of salvation; they cling to each other in the darkness and declare their hatred of all those who are not like them to be the foundation of their existence.


I believe that this fear and this hostility are the root cause of racism and militarism, which have seized our entire world. Such people see hatred and killing as a way out of their own obliteration.

People who have been infected by militarism and racism do everything they can to feed themselves at the expense of the humanity to which they themselves belong – as self-cannibalising animals do. They do not understand that when they take the life of another part of humanity, they are killing themselves.

The fact that some people on this isolated planet in one corner of endless space spend the short span of their lives raising themselves up and making other people feel their superiority ultimately brings nothing but harm to us all. The hatred that they feel on their dark journey into nothingness serves merely to intensify the senselessness of that darkness.

"We're all going to die!"

I have to admit that I am sometimes tempted to give in to the desire to scream at the top of my voice like a child throwing a tantrum "We are all going to die!" If children were to stop being born today, this strange planet would be completely devoid of people in 90 years at the latest. So is it not senseless that a species as helpless as this claims to be a more superior living thing to another?

Humankind must have been created in a hurry: the result was a living creature in which all kinds of incompatible feelings exist side by side. In humans, compassion and hate, good and evil, wisdom and stupidity exist simultaneously in the same body.

When concentrated doses of nationalism, hate, badness and stupidity come together, they create a toxic blend. Compassion, goodness and wisdom act as an antidote to this deadly disease. However, the mask of sanctity behind which the ugly face of nationalism hides, must be ripped off too.

At a time when the flags, marching, weapons and violence of racism and militarism are once again sullying humanity, we cannot shout it too loudly that the common welfare of humanity lies not in its division, but in its unity.

No human life ends happily. After all, at the end of every life is death. So what benefit does anyone derive from filling his or her life – which in most cases is insignificant and destined to end unhappily – with hate?

No one benefits from hate

If now is not the time to say that such hate benefits no one, when is? And who will say it if we won't? Are we not willing to accept that we all have a "fulfilling obligation", namely to stand up and fight for the good of humanity, to speak the truth and, in so doing, to enrich our lives with something that is more precious than life itself?

Let us not forget either that at the moment of death, every desire, every rage, every effort, every struggle for profit we have felt and encountered in this brief period of time called "life" will lose its significance and even become ridiculous.

Ahmet Altan is re-arrested in Istanbul (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Erneut verhaftet: Ahmet Altan, der als Kritiker des türkischen Präsidenten Recep Tayyip Erdogan gilt, war im Februar 2018 wegen angeblicher Verbindungen zur Gülen-Bewegung zunächst zu lebenslanger Haft verurteilt worden, inzwischen wurde die Strafe auf zehneinhalb Jahre reduziert. Ein türkisches Gericht hatte Altan Anfang November nach drei Jahren Untersuchungshaft unter Auflagen freigelassen. Wenige Tage später wurde er jedoch wieder inhaftiert.

The lives that cannot be robbed of their meaning by death are few and far between. After all, only those people who add something to their lives that is more precious than their lives can face the power of death with defiance and are not exposed to ridiculousness by death.

You have gathered here today to witness the presentation of an award that bears the name of two young people who could not be trivialised by death because in their short lives; there was something more precious to them than their own lives.

Saving other people's lives, protesting against the oppression suffered by these people and putting a stop to dreadful injustice: these were values that the Scholl siblings deemed more precious than their own lives. They used words to stand up to weapons and violence. They remain a lodestar to this day. Their flyers instilled fear into a bloody despot who had at his disposal arms, tanks and bombs.

These two young people not only showed us how a life can prove its strength in the face of death, they also made it clear what a powerful form of resistance and life the written word is.

I was in a prison cell when I learned that you deemed my book worthy of being honoured with an award that bears the name of these two young people. I am still in a prison cell as I write these lines. That is why I cannot be with you this evening.

This award has transferred to my life some of the strength that was an integral part of these two outstanding people and strengthened my power of resistance within these walls. I am convinced that the memory of the Scholl siblings will also strengthen your resistance to nationalist tendencies.

I would like to thank you all most sincerely for making me part of two lives that were not forgotten after their deaths. Once again, you have confirmed to me that literature is more powerful than tyranny.

Ahmet Altan

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan