Don’t forget friendship to the world

A discussion about hostility with Christina Thürmer-Rohr, Sabine Hark and Ines Kappert.

Prof. (em) Christina Thürmer-Rohr (Feministin, Publizistin, Musikerin) Foto: Stephan Röhl
Prof. (em) Christina Thürmer-Rohr (feminist, publicist, musician). Photo: Stephan Röhl

Ines Kappert: Given the shift to the right in Germany and Europe, you said it was time to think about hostility again. What did you mean by that?

Christina Thürmer-Rohr: There was an interview with the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in Die Zeit. He said the Germans had made a tremendous error with their welcome culture in the past year: they wouldn’t recognise enemies as enemies; they would import anti-Semitism into the country via immigrant Muslims; and they would renounce defending European civilisation. He said Germany wanted to rid itself of its historical stigma by transforming all immigrants into others and thereby flout the boundary between others and enemies. People don’t dare call enemies enemies, he said, as whoever does that is a racist. He said that that out anti-racism has cost us a realistic worldview. Even if I reject Finkielkraut’s objection, I asked myself: What are we actually doing with the enemy issue?

I.K.: Is Finkielkraut right? Are Germans too timid because of the Holocaust to recognise their enemies today?

C.T.R.: It’s true that in West Germany we’ve been avoiding the word ‘enemy’ as much as possible for decades. We’ve preferred to talk about the others. Constitutional democracy is familiar with opposing views, the culture of dispute and controversies. ‘Enemies’ belong to the criminal world and are left to the judiciary and police to deal with – or even to the military. Enemies of democracy and the people, those who don’t break laws directly, therefore belong to civil society’s area of responsibility.

I.K.: What’s wrong with that?

C.T.R.: The question is how we understand the difference between others and enemies. Can we continue to avoid the term ‘enemy’, as we’ve been doing all this time? That’s in contrast to the GDR, by the way. The GDR had the class enemy, the West as the cardinal enemy, and dissidents were enemies of the GDR. In political education in the FRG, it was less about locating enemies but rather an attempt was made to uncover enemy images, which means understanding hostility as a projection and an error of perception, as our prejudice. You can see that as an achievement, I think. But it’s not the whole truth.

I.K.: But there is an increasing number of visible, vocal people who are organising themselves in democratically elected parties and countering democratic, diverse and anti-racist ideas of cohabitation.

C.T.R.: Yes, these aren’t just enemy images but actual people, xenophobes, misogynists, enemies of the people, enemies of the truth, enemies of facts, etc. And the question is how to respond to them. With flight reflexes? With play-dead reflexes? Boycotting, distancing, ostracising, integrating? I was happy that at last night’s German Unity celebrations Claudia Roth at least attempted to address Pegida people. It was certainly not about success in the spirit of common understanding but rather of safe opposition, of becoming visible.

I.K.: So it’s about not allowing yourself to be suppressed by hate and hostilities and instead remaining present in the debate. Does awareness of Pegida supporters give them added presence as enemies of democratic civil society?

C.T.R.: Yes. Only this way will the positions be recognisable and clear.

I.K.: I have reservations about the term ‘hostility’, as I link it with a militarisation of thoughts and actions. Enemies may be killed in case of doubt, with opponents I have to grapple with civilian resources, I have to consider their propositions, they are in principle legitimate.

C.T.R.: But in a democracy, everyone who breaks the law ideally lands in the judicial system where they are ‘processed’ because they have injured the state’s monopoly on the use of force. The question remains how we deal with the fact that civil society has its hostile as well as its ugly side.

Sabine Hark: It isn’t clear to me why we should only be able to think about hostility in a militarised or even war-oriented way. Classical sociology would now go along with Georg Simmel, who says: friend and enemy are the two ideal types of association. Both are legitimate ways to exist. It isn’t saying that those who don’t belong to me are the ones who should be destroyed. It’s mainly a way of differentiating between affiliation and non-affiliation. The paradox, as Simmel would say, is precisely that we need enemies. If we no longer have any enemies, we can’t define who friends are. So enemies have to stay alive; there must always be enemies. The really unsettling ones, at least in the modern age, are foreigners, thus those who come today and stay tomorrow.

I.K.: Even the majority in Germany thinks that there are too many people who came today or yesterday and will still be there tomorrow.

S.H.: In order to counter this unfounded talk of being overstrained somewhat, we perhaps have to learn less how to treat people as enemies than learn far more how not to see them as strangers. At the same time, we have to define the level on which we talk about enemies. Of course, the State has always defined enemies. In the 1970s, for example, the State clearly saw the Red Army Faction as an enemy. Many people on the left instead saw the State as the enemy. The sociologist Karl Popper became famous in the 1960s with his book The Open Society and its Enemies. In his view, these enemies were Stalinism and Fascism.

C.T.R.: Zygmunt Baumann described the clear, distinct friend-enemy differentiation as a “comfortable antagonism­”. This means that enemies are always what ‘we’ are not; the opposite of ‘us’. This friend-enemy opposition was an effective means of creating modern order was intended to separate right from wrong, good from bad: a means of cleansing one’s own from ambiguity and ultimately paving the way for the politics of genocide: ‘we’ settle into our identity, our national or ethnic or other identity, we can presume to define who belongs to it and who doesn’t, i.e. who is already categorised as an enemy. People seem to know enemies. This is the difference with the term ‘foreigners’. These spark in between. They confuse identities because no one knows if they will turn out to be friends or enemies. What are they thinking? What do they do? What do they want? What are they planning? You can’t assess them. Their non-transparency may make them temporarily attractive for some people, but its mainly threatening. It leads to unusual behavioural uncertainties, to the loss of the key, of knowing how to classify things in the usual categories. This is why all violence and aggression is currently being explained by fear, with a loss of faith in the neatness of the familiar world.

I.K.: Pegida supporters are very foreign to me, in the same way that nationally minded compatriots are too, although they belong to Germany and its history. They appear to me to be more of a threat to an open, post-migrant society, and also to me as a woman* and feminist, than the newcomers.

C.T.R.: In my view, Pegida and the like are not threatening as ‘foreigners’, but as actual enemies. They have clearly turned out to be enemies. We can know them or think we know them. On the other hand, foreignness and foreigners embody ambivalence and we don’t know what’s behind it. It’s this eeriness that differentiates them from real enemies. And this foreignness, this not knowing, isn’t only a characteristic of newcomers, as Julia Kristeva, for example, has shown. It’s a change of perspective whereby no imposition is made on foreignness but it is instead a condition of our existence in an ever-heterogeneous world. We’re all foreign! We carry foreignness in ourselves. In this world, we’re not native in the sense that we qualify for a perfect view and a safe place. We have to, or want to, live with this foreignness, even with one’s own lack of transparency, instead of repositioning foreignness in a threatening external world. There’s no reason for thinking that we could really see through this world, ourselves and other people. I’m already old. My generation comes from the dreadful 20th century and experienced National Socialism, the war and everything that followed. Lasting sorrow and shock has persisted and never goes away. What I’m trying to say is that life wasn’t necessarily meant to feel ‘native’. I was always able to understand the formulation “no place, nowhere” really well.

I.K.: Is there also no home in feminist ideas?

C.T.R.: Feminism was naturally a major inspiration and a great change. It was an attempt to settle and get a foothold, a new attempt to understand. And every attempt to understand is related to getting a foothold: that means that we belong here. Feminism was a way of finding this place. That doesn’t mean that foreignness disappeared as a basic state, however, but I don’t consider that a catastrophe. After all, the fact that we’re foreign is a fact, a dowry. We’re undetermined, incomplete, open beings who can always start thinking afresh all over again. We have no right to a clearly defined identity and classification and fixed definition of what we are, what others are and where and how our “homeland” is, at least unless we want to become dumbed down.

I.K.: The narrowing of the present to the familiar means becoming dumbed down?

C.T.R.: Yes, whoever thinks that women with headscarves don’t belong here and that Dresden is the most beautiful city in the world and should stay as it is – this total nonsense mainly reflects the claim that one place in the world should be my place, that it should stay as I know it. And that the political world should ensure that it stays this way and that I can stay as I am, people like me, too – but only those people. And the others? We don’t want anything to do with them if they don’t become like us.

S.H.: As Hannah Arendt said: enemies are those who deny others the right to be in the world, also in my world. This means that Pegida and the attacks on democracy from the right that we’re currently experiencing around the world are the problem. Viktor Orbán’s referendum on ‘refugee quotas’ failed recently in Hungary. However, 98% of those who took part in the referendum voted in favour of them, so 40 per cent are in favour of Orbán’s nationalist policy. We’re experiencing similar in Austria or the Czech Republic. We’re experiencing it in Poland. We’re experiencing it in France where we could possibly have a President Marine Le Pen next year. That’s rather a lot of enemies of democracy, equal rights, and equal participation in society. So I would say that Christina Thürmer-Rohr is right. We need to think more closely about the enemies of open society, as Karl Popper put it, i.e. about those who are reclaiming the world for themselves, who think they can decide where to erect fences, determine what they are and who is allowed to live with them inside these fences

C.T.R.: We can’t just get enemies to disappear. They are there. The term ‘diversity doesn’t help, namely confidence in variety that looks like a field of flowers and is put on a par with social wealth and economic productivity. That’s all well and good, but it trivialises the problem. It leads to discourse infarct. We have to say clearly what it’s about, a cohabitation that isn’t simply colourful diversity. The political principle of plurality also sets limits. It requires a distance between everyone in order to cope with difficult cohabitation. And it requires understanding the location of others and is more than emotion and empathy. It’s about an image of humanity that allows people not to become hateful monsters. Hannah Arendt interpreted the famous sentence from Socrates – “It is better to suffer evil than to do it” – as meaning that no one should live with an evildoer or a murderer. After all, doing evil means that I would now have to live with myself as an evildoer, i.e. with an inner counterpart that would make violence and all the wickedness into my constant companion. And that would poison the inner dialogue and make it impossible. But dialogue with oneself is the basis of any kind of thinking. And I should be able to speak to my friend rather than my enemy, a friend who doesn’t tell me what I want to hear but has a friendly relationship with me and helps me in all these completely insane antagonisms and questions that are part of life.

I.K.: Isn’t it important at this point to thing about self-criticism and complicity? I think it falls short when we declare Pegida or even the xenophobic party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as enemies and don’t ask ourselves: how have we as enthusiastic democrats helped to produce what to us are hostile thinking and acting?

C.T.R.: As feminists, we didn’t talk about enemies, not even at the beginnings of feminism, but about ‘perpetrators’. This is no coincidence. When you talk about ‘perpetrators’, you talk about people who have carried out deeds, violence and wrongdoing. At the same time, as a whole person, they’re not necessarily and completely on a level with this deed; person and deed remain different, as people can change. They can emancipate themselves from their deed; they can regret it. I think it was good that we did without the distinct friend-enemy dichotomy. Particularly the thought of the complicity of women – I don’t mean ‘female complicity’, but ‘complicity’, i.e. ‘with the perpetrator’ – thwarts the unambiguous friend-enemy split. There aren’t the ones, the women, the good ones, the unspoilt ones, and the others, the men who cause completely patriarchal mischief. Complicity means that the repressed half of humanity was and is in a position to support, approve and hush up these patriarchal deeds without opposing them with an emancipatory response. It was an attempt to find ways of getting away from the avalanches of normative and other violence, i.e. not doing the same, not even from a subordinate position, but finding deviating answers, doing something else. At that time, at the end of the 1980s, everything revolved around armament, around the East and West overkill, also around the shocks in the ecological field, keyword Cher­nobyl. Alternatives had to be found, we had to do something that no one had really done before: women’s projects sprouted out of the earth like mushrooms, new places opened and offered new forms of communication and friendships. That was a massively important step. Talking about perpetrators and accomplices was due to the insight of not being able to make any distinct differentiation between friend and enemy. We knew that women are in a position to go along with all the fatal deeds, even from a non-dominant place.

Dr. Ines Kappert (Leiterin Gunda-Werner-Institut), Prof. Sabine Hark (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung ZIFG, TU Berlin), Prof. Christina Thürmer-Rohr (Feministin, Publizistin, Musikerin) Foto: Stephan Röhl
Dr. Ines Kappert (head of Gunda-Werner-Institut), Prof. Sabine Hark (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung ZIFG, TU Berlin) und Prof. Christina Thürmer-Rohr. Photo: Stephan Röhl

I.K.: We started our discussion by sounding out thinking spaces that can open up consideration of hostility. You now come to the conclusion that the friend-enemy dichotomy is too simple. However, identifying hostile, racist and nationalist motivated people as perpetrators could even now be an appropriate approach. It makes sense to me. Even if the relevant persons, groups and parties were to assume responsibility and weren’t able to hide behind a stated “I’m scared of strangers”. At the same time, the middle of society also seems to be an accomplice, as it always went along with and reproduced social inequality, Islamophobia and racism. Which ways of dealing with hostility make sense?

C.T.R.: I don’t think we can skip over religious statements about hostility, as they belong to the occidental tradition, e.g. the New Testament sentence: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” You can of course say that this sentence is wholly naïve, that you can’t love enemies, it would be a totally excessive demand. But this sentence is less about a feeling than it is about including even enemies in the principle of non-harming and concern. You should retain access to them. Otherwise there’s only a hateful enemy, that’s Satan. We don’t have him any more because we no longer believe in him, so we can’t delegate evil to him. We have to get to grips with it here and now. It’s interesting that Arendt didn’t speak about hostility but “evil” – an escalation and abstraction of the term ‘enemy’ into an almost metaphysical dimension. The evil in the example of Adolf Eich­mann and the Holocaust is that which is unforgivable, cannot be made good, is unjustifiable and cannot be expected of the living and future generations. After all, no one can be ready for the fact that people, a Nazi clique, presumed to decide who may inhabit the Earth and who not, as it surpasses our ability to act responsibly. That is what is ‘evil’ for Arendt; megalomania that is used to decide which people may be present in the world and which people may not. We don’t have to decide which people stay and which people disappear. We have to live with those who are present. Even those we didn’t seek out, as Judith But­ler never tires of repeating. We have no choice here. We can’t choose whom we find suitable or unsuitable, we have to act with everyone.

S.H.: But isn’t the term ‘enemy’ the bigger challenge then? Precisely because we, as Judith Butler said, are committed to those who we haven’t sought out, who we would never seek out, who we can’t make into our own, who we don’t want to make into our own, that we’re committed to precisely these people? That we’re committed to our enemies? We don’t have the right to deny their right to be in the world.

C.T.R.: If you put it that way, you’re continuing to assume that enemies are very different to who we are ourselves.

S.H.: That’s true. Then we shouldn’t focus on strong us-and-them differences but recognise that there can be enemies within those we’ve defined as friends. And are therefore mainly guide us towards deeds. Chantal Mouffe made a very helpful decision for me. She says: We have to transform the friend-enemy pattern into an agonistic relationship in which there can be and must be different, opposing views for the sake of plurality.

I.K.: Do you actually have any favourite enemies?

C.T.R.: You’re asking if I have any enemies in my private life? I don’t know. I always rather withdrew into my private life whenever I didn’t agree with anybody. But even from the political field, I couldn’t name any names. It was different earlier. I once played in a band called Außerhalb (Outside). In one song in 1980, shortly after the NATO Double-Track decision, we listed the names of those responsible. The song was called “We don’t need you”: Ronald Reagan, Yuri Andropov, Helmut Kohl, Erich Honecker, Menachem Begin, Caspar Weinberger, Pershing I, Pershing 2, Richard von Weizsäcker, Axel Cäsar Springer, Friedrich Zimmermann, Heinrich Lummer, Wilhelm Kewenig and the Bhag­wan and the Pope. And then came only first names: Ronald, Richard, Helmut, Cäsar, Henry, Friedrich, Werner, Lothar, Norbert, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Hans Dietrich, Karl, Peter, Jürgen, Michael, etc. We designated them all as enemies. I wouldn’t do that today. Today, it’s about not lapsing into hate, and also not into fear.

I.K.: As a philosopher and musician, you worked with your partner, the pianist Laura Gallati. Music and philosophy considered together. You asked the same questions of both disciplines. What is the relationship between music, or your music, and concepts such as hostility or complicity?

C.T.R.: There is naturally hostility against certain types of music. And there is music that supports hostilities – e.g. hate songs, military music and marches. We know from the NS era how songs stimulated people and strengthened hate. Of course there’s that. Music isn’t from another world. But I’m interested in music that deals with its material in a dialogic way, with the different tones and sounds. As ‘enemies’, they’d crush each other and finish each other off. In my opinion, music as an art form follows more of a dialogic principle, which doesn’t rule out controversies. For me, music is an indispensable resource in order not to forget something, namely friendship to a world produced by people. Music doesn’t fall from the sky – although it sometimes sounds as if it does. It’s made by people, wisdom or ‘beauty’ in a non-reactionary sense. It can be a life partner that reconciles despite all the terrible things that happen in reality. Not to turn away from them, but to insist that there is also something else, and that people can do something else. I hope that I can make music for a long time to come. I’m not a church person, or religious, but I go to a church every week because that’s the only place I find my instrument: the organ. It’s an amazing invention. It makes spaces wide and maybe even transcendent, which means that it can skate over everyday ugliness and awfulness. It’s a beauty that can lead to not forgetting friendship to the world, despite its cruelty.

Christina Thürmer-Rohr, professor emeritus at the Technical University Berlin, social scientist and musician is one of the outstanding feminist thinkers in the German-speaking region. Her work revolves around criticism of forms of rule, violence, complicity – and friendship. Her forward thinking is still an inspiration today.

The discussion with Christina Thürmer-Rohr was conducted by the WIR MACHEN DAS co-founder Ines Kappert (director of the Gunda Werner Institute) and Sabine Hark (director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies at the TU Berlin) on 4 October 2016 in Berlin. It is a co-operation between the Gunda Werner Institute of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the feministische studien (feminist studies) magazine and was initially published at

Translation: Nickolas Woods