Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses,

Thank you for this great honour. It appears that one of the reasons for my receiving this year’s Erasmus Prize is my alleged cosmopolitanism. Since cosmopolitanism, historically, was not always regarded as a badge of honour, I suppose this is a sign of progress.

Your Royal Highness, you and I have something in common. We were both born from parents of different nationalities. In this sense, our birth might be described as cosmopolitan. From the moment we could speak, we grew up realizing that people from different countries express themselves in different ways. This is nothing to be especially proud of; it doesn’t bestow on us any particular virtue. These days it is fairly commonplace. More so, at any rate, than when I was born in 1951. And besides, in your family, and in mine, for different reasons, it is hardly a new, or unusual experience. But it did create – in my case, at least – a lifelong sense of cultural self-consciousness, a feeling that nationality is not something one takes for granted, but rather something that can be examined, as it were, from the outside. I can behave more or less like a Dutchman, or more or less like an Englishman, depending on the time and place. But if I were to define myself in national terms, this sense of ‘more or less’ would be key.

Again, there is no special merit in this. Children of mixed marriages do not always behave in a cosmopolitan manner. Kaiser Wilhelm II  had a German father and a British mother. He chose, as though to compensate for this, to be anti-cosmopolitan, a super-German. People who make too much of their nationality are often from mixed marriages or areas on the margins of great nations. Napoleon and Hitler come to mind. But the fact that Winston Churchill’s mother was an American probably contributed to his sometimes over-romantic view of Britishness too.

Monarchs are now often required to act as typical models of their nationality, but this is a modern phenomenon. Most European kings and queens, even in the recent past, were foreigners in the countries whose thrones they occupied. Many of them were of course of German blood. But it was part of their aristocratic status to be above mere nationality. Their bloodlines transcended borders. They spoke the languages of the international upper classes: mostly French, sometimes German. They were as much at home in a German Schloss, as they were in an English palace, or an Italian palazzo. They were naturally cosmopolitan, in the narrow sense of being able to see the world from the point of view of their own kind in many different countries.

This is another thing, Your Royal Highness, that we have in common. My mother’s family was Jewish, as well as being of German descent, and natural cosmopolitanism is something many European Jews, because of migration and trade, shared with aristocrats. In modern times, they too sometimes have felt the need to act like super-patriots (the Wagner-worshipping super-German Jew, for example), for reasons that are too obvious to go into here. I did not know my two German great-grandfathers, who emigrated to England, but my grandparents, like Churchill, might be described as über-Brits.

The link between Jews and aristocrats, including monarchs, goes back a long way in history. Princes and dukes trusted their Jewish advisers precisely because they were outsiders, less likely to be involved in local conspiracies. And monarchs were often trusted by minorities because they were treated as equal subjects, and monarchs kept the majority populations at bay. Some of you might know the anecdote of Emperor Franz Josef, who was approached on a tour of imperial domains in Galicia by Yiddish speaking shtetl Jews. One of the emperor’s military officers said he couldn’t understand a word they were saying. “We do”, said the emperor. “What were they saying, Your Majesty?”, asked the officer. “That is between me and my subjects”, the emperor replied.

Cosmopolitanism, especially among the elites, can sometimes result in a certain degree of arrogance, of impatience with people who feel the need for narrower allegiancies. The postwar zeal to turn us all into ‘Europeans’ has been perceived as an effort to undermine national feeling, something which is now being successfully exploited by populists.

However, one good thing to be said for cosmopolitanism is that familiarity with different cultures and traditions tends to foster tolerance for perspectives one does not necessarily share. It has become fashionable in some circles to disparage this type of tolerance, and dismiss it as mere indifference, or, to use that wooden term, a form of ‘moral relativism’, or even nihilism. This is often said by defenders of so-called Enlightenment Values. I think this is regrettable, since tolerance was in fact one of the fruits of the Enlightenment.

But this line of attack on liberal tolerance has a history. Liberal democracy was despised by illiberal intellectuals in the early part of the 20th century because the liberal state, in their view, did not stand for ideals or values, for which people could sacrifice and die. In a liberal state, they lamented, there is nothing to believe in beyond material prosperity and comfort. I sometimes feel that some of our intellectual warriors for Western Values against ‘Islamofacism’ secretly rather envy their enemies, because at least the Islamists have something to believe in.

Now it is true that the liberal state does not presume to give us the meaning of life. Each citizen must find his or her own way to Jerusalem. This means that we must live with different choices, religious, cultural, or political, and be tolerant of other points of view. The only thing that is intolerable is the use of violence to impose them.

The common culture I still grew up with – pride in the war against Catholic Spain, and so on, problematic even in certain parts of The Netherlands, or a love for St. Nicholas – no longer offers enough social glue to bind our society together. Nor is the Erasmian vision of common Christianity an adequate response to the diversity of a modern European nation. Whether we like it or not, we will all have to become more cosmopolitan now.

This fills some people with dread, as though we are about to lose any sense of who we are. Or that democracy, as we know it, is at an end. But I do not believe that we need to conform to a common culture, or a common faith, to make liberal democracy work. What is needed in a cosmopolitan society is an agreement to abide by common rules of the democratic game. We must agree to obey the laws, created by our elected parliaments. We must learn to accept one another as equal citizens, whatever we choose to wear on our heads. This will not always be easy. But one thing is sure; without tolerance we are doomed to failure.