Philosophy, life inseparable for Goethe Medal winner Ágnes Heller
Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller is among this year’s recipients of the Goethe Medal, awarded by the Goethe Institute in Weimar, Germany, on 28 August for outstanding service to the German language and international cultural relations. The prize was established in 1954.
You were awarded the Goethe Medal in August for your life’s work. What does the award mean to you?
I received the Goethe Medal for the books with which I have contributed to European culture rather than for my entire life’s work. And of course I am delighted by it. Those who claim that awards are not important are sanctimonious. My motivation to work doesn’t depend on such prizes but it means a lot to me when I get recognition for my work. I am particularly happy about the Goethe Medal because since I was a child I have had a special relationship with Goethe. My grandmother was from Vienna and read Goethe every evening. She passed her love of Goethe on to me. Somehow he is part of my family background.
Your biography comes up repeatedly in your books. What has shaped you most?
That’s difficult to answer. It depends on the perspective from which you look at it. There are important political episodes such as the Holocaust and the 1956 Revolution in Hungary, and then there are important private events in my life like meeting my two husbands and the birth of my children, and there are academic experiences such as the discovery of the philosophy of history and ethics. Important turning points in my life were my move to Australia and later to the USA. America in particular was a big experience for me. All my experiences have left traces not only in me but of course in my books as well. They have all shaped me.
Which country has influenced you more: Australia or the US?
Both countries have influenced me but in different ways. In Australia I taught in the Department of Sociology, where I had to become familiar with authors previously unknown to me such as Max Weber. That naturally changed me. I also quickly developed a very good circle of friends there. America was a culture shock for me. Australia is more like Great Britain, whereas in the USA the people and their manners are quite different. I found the civil courage of the people, the way in which private individuals influence and participate regularly in public affairs incredible. I haven’t found that in either Australia or Europe. That is why America has had a strong influence on me. At first it was very foreign to me and then I grew to love it.
What was it like succeeding the influential German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt as professor in the US? Did that make it more difficult for you?
Not at all. There are no hierarchies in philosophy. Everyone is themselves and teaches what corresponds to their personality and way of thinking. I wouldn’t compare myself with somebody else for a second and I think all philosophers take that view.
Were there differences of opinion and philosophical debates between you on a professional level?
I see things quite similarly to Hannah Arendt, perhaps because there are always similarities in the way that women think. There is always something that the personalities of female philosophers have in common and that was the case with Hannah Arendt too. However we are very different in our philosophical approaches.
You once said “My work is my life”. How do you see that today as a retired person?
One of my lives is my work. I have many lives, all of which have interruptions at times, whereas philosophy is my only continuous life. Everything else has changed.
Doesn’t that make philosophy your life rather than your work?
For me it’s the same thing. That will remain the case although I have retired this year. I will continue to write and sometimes teach as well if I feel like it. Reading and writing is and remains my passion.
Coming back to your biography: what was your experience of the Second World War?
The Holocaust was the formative event for me rather than the Second World War in itself. When the Germans entered Budapest on 19 March, 1944, I was convinced that I was doomed to die. The question wasn’t whether they would kill me but when. On the day of the German invasion I told my parents that I would go to the Vigadó to hear Stravinsky’s Firebird for the first time. If I was going to die, then I wanted at least to go to a concert for the last time. My father understood and let me go. I was 14 then. Then came 1948 and everyone thought that we would have freedom and democracy. That was how it looked at the start.
What happened next?
In the Rákosi era between 1951 and 1952 people learned to live in permanent fear without knowing why they were afraid. I no longer needed to be afraid because I was a Jew but simply because at any time I could be denounced for my opinions. And then came the 1956 Uprising; the second liberation and the feeling of being able to change things. But that was an illusion as it later became clear.
Who do you blame for the Holocaust?
I said even in 1945 that the Holocaust is not a German question. The question is of what people are capable of towards their fellow men. It could happen in any country. I have never blamed Germany, perhaps also because I have a different connection to Germany as a result of my family history. Even at the age of 15 I asked myself what makes people become so inhuman that they are capable of such things. That question has occupied me my whole life.
Have you found any answer to your question?
I think it is like an epidemic. There are five, 10, 50 or 100 fanatical people who infect everyone else with this sickness. From that point on nobody thinks for themselves any longer. If I just think of the propaganda, “I don’t think, Hitler thinks for me,” I see it as a psychological infection that can take hold of anyone.
You have experienced two dictatorships and a number of democracies during your life. What do you think of Hungary’s situation today?
I find it sad, not the victory of Fidesz itself but what they are doing with it. Everything is based on symbolic politics and nationalism plays a big role. Moreover they have no understanding of economics. They are simply lacking rationality and an awareness of what one can and cannot do. It is fortunate that the government is limited in what it can do by the European Union because Hungary’s situation doesn’t look good.