Former Laureates

Claudio Magris


The expansion of the European Union inspired the Foundation to make ‘Cultural Fault Lines’ the theme of the 2001 Erasmus Prize. This referred to the confrontation that takes place whenever boundaries – cultural boundaries in particular – shift. Two individuals were awarded the prize: Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik. The work of both laureates is strongly linked to the turbulent history of Central Europe. Both men have shown us how our perceptions of identity and events can be influenced by changes in the political system or by shifts in geographic borders.

Claudio Magris was born in 1939 in Trieste. Both the time and the place of his birth are symptomatic of the chosen theme. As Professor of German Language and Literature at the universities of Turin and Trieste, Magris grew to become one of Europe's leading philosophers of culture. He translates German literature and writes regularly for Corriere della Sera. From 1994 to 1996 he held a seat in the Italian senate. Magris wrote a dissertation on the Habsburg myth in modern Austrian literature, which led him to rediscover East European literature and to draw Italy's attention to East European culture. The book that established his name is Danubio (1986), a cultural history of the river Danube and the lands through which it flows, in which a colourful and multicultural panorama of European history unfolds. In his essays, Magris presents intimate mini-descriptions of places and persons which implicitly convey the message that we must not forget the past. Other well known works by Claudio Magris include Illazioni su una sciabola (1984), Un altro mare (1991), Microcosmi (1997), Utopia e disincanto (1999) and Alla Cieca (2005).


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism, and un-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means; a money prize is awarded to a person or institution under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Foundation, has confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2001 to Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik.

The prize is awarded to mr Magris and to mr Michnik jointly on the following grounds:

Through their actions and their writings, both mr Magris and mr Michnik have contributed to a democratic society based on values such as tolerance and acceptance of differences.

To convey their thinking in writing, both authors have used the genre of the essay in an optimal way, switching from personal experience to wide-ranging reflection and detailed description.

In their work, the laureates have insistently described the dilemmas of taking personal responsibility in times of repression and foreign rule.

Both men have demonstrated how our awareness of identity and perception of truth may be affected by a change in the political system or by shifts of geographic boundaries.

They have shown that the history and culture of Central Europe should be of concern to all those who are interested in European diversity and European integration.

In his essays, Claudio Magris presents intimate, micro-descriptions of places and persons, with an implicit message that warns us not to forget the history of the present.

In a rich and elegant narrative prose style, Claudio Magris demonstrates the effect of boundaries and frontiers on our perception of the world, forcing us to view the world from different perspectives.

In his essays, Adam Michnik explores the space between heroism and treason, between activism and collaboration, and demonstrates how he has mastered the art of compromise and tolerance.

In an original and persistent manner, Adam Michnik has been instrumental in building up a democratic and pluralistic society in a country where there is no strong democratic tradition, and has thereby set an example for similar non-violent transitions in other countries.

The Erasmus Prize is awarded to Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik jointly, because their qualities can be viewed as complementary aspects of the same message, a message that is perfectly fitting the 'Erasmian' virtues of tolerance and un-dogmatic thinking.


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is for me an honour and a pleasure to address you from this chair, on behalf of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. I shall do my best to express the warm commitment of the Patron of our Foundation to the cause of our celebration and convey his admiration for the two laureates who are our guests today. We are happy, Your Royal Highness, that you are prepared to present the Prize yourself, as of old.

Central Europe and the cultural dividing lines in that region are the regional focus of this year's Erasmus Prize. This is a common denominator in the work of our two laureates today. Central Europe is not just a definition for a geographic region between Germany and the countries belonging to the former Sovjet Union, it is also a rendering of the notion of Mittel-Europa, which is a concept of historical, geographical, political and cultural nature. This notion is controversial and has given rise to a lively debate on what precisely it stands for, and how it should be defined. Historically, there are good reasons - for instance in terms of religion and architecture - which justify the use of the term Mittel-Europa for a cultural-political region in the heart of Europe, an area, which broadly speaking has the contours of the former Habsburg Empire, or an even larger area covered by the mediaeval concept of christianitas. The problem is where exactly to draw the boundaries.

Indeed, in our effort to define cultural and geographic entities, we are constantly confronted with the complex history of boundaries. Central Europe in particular is a mosaic of old and new boundaries, separating people, cultures, ideologies, and nations. What we see is that old boundaries lead a tenacious life and continue to influence our thinking and our loyalties, even when they are no longer a physical reality. After the fall of Communism, for instance, older and deeply rooted cultural and ethnic loyalties came to the surface, and - in some areas - were exploited for political purposes, as we have seen on the Balkans. At the same time we are creating new boundaries. Against the background of the enlargement of the European Union to the East, for instance, the boundaries between the countries that will and those that will not yet form part of the European Union, will occupy us the coming years. It is also in these border areas, where the question of the relationship to Europe as a multi-cultural community will arise most dramatically. How far can Europe be stretched, while acknowledging regional identities and at the same time creating a new economic superstructure? How can we prevent the rise of sentiments of exclusion and humiliation?

Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik, among others, have chosen the essay as the vehicle to raise questions such as these. The essay is the medium par excellence in which such problems can be addressed. Unconventional in style, the essay cuts across the territories of journalism, academia and the arts, and combines seemingly conflicting characteristics: on the one hand the detachment needed for reflection and on the other a personal commitment of the author, a genre in which universalism as well as local roots find expression. A flexible genre therefore, which, in able hands, can be a pervasive instrument of expression and of self-reflection.

We found that this balancing act - between personal experience and the inclination to view things from the other side of the fence, as it were - is a characteristic feature in the essayistic work of Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik alike: We are looking at an oeuvre which is complementing and reinforcing each other, as it conveys different aspects of the same basic message, namely, that a truly democratic society ought to value cultural and political pluralism. Historical awareness and individual responsibility are preconditions for an understanding of our differences and allow us to practice tolerance and make wise decisions. By awarding the Prize to Magris and Michnik jointly, we think we are sending the strongest possible signal to highlight the importance of Cultural Faultlines in Europe, this year's theme of the Erasmus Prize. Through their writings and their conduct, these two men demonstrate a combination of sharp observation, compelling literary qualities, and personal commitment to the fascinating, multicultural chaos that is Mittel-Europa.

Mr Magris, the book Danube brought you international readership, on top of the academic acclaim that your scholarly work, for instance that on the Habsburg Myth in Austrian Literature, had received already. While masquerading as the description of "a sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea" the book Danube is in reality a profound analysis of the history and cultures of the whole of Mittel-Europa. It is the story of the river, which can be considered the spinal cord of Central Europe. The story follows the course of the river and at the same time makes the reader, who is used to viewing Europe from a western perspective, turn his face to the East. You have a well-known fascination for boundaries and frontiers. Boundaries separate and unite, boundaries are both perpetual and fluid, go underground and pop up again, they can or cannot be crossed, they are - in short - ambiguous, a subject that is featuring prominently in all your work. Your two best-known books, Danube and Microcosms, are pearl strings of portraits, persons, places and landscapes. Trieste, a provincial town at the crossing point between East and West and North and South, your home base and inspiration for much of your work, is the fixed point of reference in your book  Microcosms. The history of this border area between Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria, comes alive in the almost tactile descriptions of villages, landscapes and persons. Your style of writing follows the topics, sometimes rational and brief, occasionally baroque or full of melancholy. In your work you offer a wealth of observations, implying that variety and pluralism are of crucial importance in societies characterised by geographical division. The proclivity for an imagined purity, in your view, leads to excesses. It is rather a blend, a mosaic of peoples - which is the natural resultant of history - that best fits the human dimension. Apart from being a testimony to the great erudition of a professor of German literature, your writings are a struggle against forgetting and intolerance, and a deeply engaging personal account of your experience with the mixture of identities around you and - on closer inspection - also the identities in yourself.

Mr Michnik, in one of your essays in the volume Letters from Prison, you have thanked your captors for locking you up in jail, because this allowed you to study and write undisturbed. Your literary productivity during about six years of imprisonment has indeed been remarkable, as is attested by your book Letters from Prison. In these as well as your other essays such as Letters from Freedom, and L'Eglise et la Gauche, you have left us a rich oeuvre of thinking on different subjects related to Polish history, an oeuvre in which the commitment of the dissident and the detachment of the historian are combined in a unique way. Your interest regards the narrow path between subjection to foreign domination and the romantic stance of resistance; historical persons who were faced with hard choices; the borderlines between what can be considered a honourable agreement and treason. Where are the limits of a compromise in times of suppression? Faithful to the art of the compromise, you realized that factors such as the Catholic Church were a crucial part of the social reality of Poland. Your insight in the role of the Church in the Polish tradition has paved the way for a workable rapprochement between opposition forces during the communist regime, and this alliance gave rise to the solidarity movement, the first independent union in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s you kept reminding your colleagues to imagine what they would become when freedom arrived. You showed respect and understanding also for your adversaries and while you suffered under repression, you wrote: "I am not afraid of what they will do to us but of what they can make us into," and anticipating the victory over communism, you wrote: "I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards." You wanted a new Poland founded on civic rather than ethnic-national or religious principles. You wanted tolerance, even for communists, an attitude that was difficult to sell in those circumstances. The eighties of the last century now seem so remote and your essays of that time on the whole so optimistic in tone, that the modern reader tends to forget under which dire circumstances these pieces were written. We are now, so many years later, in a position to recognize how critically important the year 1989 was not just for Poland, but for the non-violent revolutions in other East-European countries as well. But your role did not end there. You remain an influential factor in Polish society. Your voice continues to be heard through the Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper founded by you, which has become the largest in Poland; you are an optimist and believe that Polish democracy is slowly finding itself, although it is still in many ways imperfect. The fact that pluralism and democracy have found their way in Poland at all can, at least in part, be attributed to your inspiring efforts. Your basic rule of conduct is of deceptive simplicity: "do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely."

Ladies and gentlemen, the essays of our laureates take us to parts of Europe where most of us know too little about. Even so, the problematic which Magris and Michnik address, is of crucial importance for all of Europe today and independent of the geographic areas, which are their specific points of departure. The European Union countries are facing the task to integrate not only new economies, but also the cultures of Eastern Europe, which have been separated from us for about half a century. Through this year's Erasmus Prize, we are expressing our admiration for two oeuvres, which deserve to have a lasting impact on our thinking about European civilisation, namely a Europe as a mosaic of cultural dividing lines. In the work of Magris and Michnik we find a vision on the practice of tolerance, which holds out a challenge and is a source of inspiration.

Gentlemen, armed with courage and an open mind, both of you have addressed intrinsic human dilemmas. You have delved deeply into the intricacies of compromise and the need for tolerant behaviour. In an engaging, personal style, you are exploring such existential questions as of where to position oneself between the extremes of principal resolve versus treachery, of zealotry versus indulgence, or between the poles of utopia and disenchantment. To these questions there is no single answer that is valid at all times. Your personal response is best described in two key words: imagination and broad-mindedness.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Some years ago, wandering in a secluded valley in Friuli, Italy, I went to the library of one of the local Cultural Record Centres to inquire about a poet who, a hundred years earlier, had written an intriguing Hymn to Matter.  But the librarian, clearly incapable of imagining that anyone might be looking for a book for  his own personal satisfaction, fixed me with a look and asked bluntly:  "But you, who do you represent?"

I had no idea, then, how to answer such a question.  I could have said that I represented many categories:  bipeds, teachers, husbands, travellers, fathers, sons, flat-owners, mortals ...  I felt that the luckless Self - my own, everyone's - was turning into a kind of stand-in.   Not for nothing was I born and reared in Trieste, a city of that Hapsburg Empire redolent of men without qualities; the city in which Joyce began Ulysses, and Ulysses, as we know, is Noman.

But today - as I receive this great honour paid me by the conferral of the Praemium Erasmianum, and having heard such generous things said about me - I know who I represent.  I represent all those who have built my life, who are part of me like the rings of a tree trunk and without whom I could not have experienced, understood, written or done so many things, including those that attracted the attention of the Jury of this Prize.

I think of the people in my life - my companions, parents, sons, teachers, friends - close to me in times both good and bad, who like so many brothers and sisters accompany me towards the end of the road.  I think, too, of brief encounters, people who have helped me to touch, if only by a smile or a challenge, some basic cord of life.   Without them I would not be here, which helps me to accept this prize with gratitude and humility, overcoming the melancholy that surprises us amid joy, when the bestowal of a great gift - such as this prize - compels us to reflect, to balance the books of our existence and to discover, as always, a deficit.

I am grateful for and proud of this great prize, and particularly  happy  to receive it together with that symbol and embodiment of freedom, Adam Michnik, a long-standing friend of mine whom I have long admired both for his books and for the good fight he has fought.
Moreover, I am glad to think that if I receive this prize it is because I have been able - despite all my mistakes - to bear witness to people whose achievements and destinies are far greater than, but which I cannot separate from, my own.  To write, for me, is to transcribe something greater than oneself, just as the light of evening is greater than the eye which nevertheless takes it in.  So the epigraph for one of my books is a parable of Borges' concerning an artist who painted landscapes, mountains, seas, rivers, and in the end became aware of having painted his own face.  Our face is there, outside, in the world, in the features and  destiny of others.

This has to do with my personal poetic and feeling for life, but also, I think, with what today is perhaps the central problem of our civilisation: tolerance.  Truly to accept and respect otherness, one must feel that the other is also a part of us, that he is us, that we would not be ourselves without him. Tolerance means knowing not only how to cross the border that separates us from the other, but also how to consider that border as a bridge where we stroll up and down , mixing with the passers-by, going from one bank to the other until we no longer know what country we are in. Thereby we rediscover goodwill towards men and the delight of the world.

Never so much as today has tolerance meant knowing how to shift or cancel borders, in order to find ourselves again in others.   In the vast global crucible where all identities are melted down, we shall be lost if we do not learn this capacity to rediscover ourselves in the other.  The laager mentality begets hatred and death. If the bridge becomes a drawbridge then the border becomes an idol - and idols demand blood sacrifice. Yet at the same time borders are essential to the defining and defending of values when we find ourselves confronting not simply different but also opposing values, irreconcilable ones, proof against all discussion.  A Liberal can and must negotiate with a Socialist, a Christian with an Atheist;  but whoever believes in dialogue cannot and must not negotiate with the racist or the exterminator.  This is the tragic predicament of tolerance, that in its impulse to overcome so many false borders of prejudice and fanaticism it must establish real borders  against fanaticism and inhumanity.  

Tolerance becomes more difficult to exercise in the context of a rapidly transforming world.  There is probably occurring today - in a mere couple of years instead of millennia - an anthropological mutation which will change the feelings and perceptions of the individual, his nature, his history, the experience and record of it; will produce, perhaps, the Ubermensch prophesied by Nietzsche, one who is not the traditional superman, but rather a "Beyond-man", almost a new stage in anthropological evolution, a new form of the Self, no longer a compact unit but composed - in Nietzsche's phrase - of an "anarchy of atoms",  a fluctuating multiplicity of drives and psychic nuclei no longer hierarchised in the age-old, millenary unitary structure of individuality and consciousness.

Man, Nietzsche wrote, is a bridge that must be crossed, and we today may well be that bridge, soon to be passed over.  Tomorrow man may be something else, totally different in the way he experiences individuality, family, sex, generation.  Perhaps the distinction between man and the other living forms of nature, upon which our civilisation and our morality are based, will be challenged.  Perhaps, in the face of some new laboratory creature, we shall have to ask ourselves  the question, albeit in a different sense, posed by Primo Levi: "whether this is a man".  In the meantime, however, we are on that bridge, we are that bridge, and we do not want to see the centuries-old face of the man we have learnt to love disappear.  Our poor humanistic self, beset on all sides, defends itself like a guerrilla against the armies of the great.  In this process - which both enriches and impoverishes, frees and binds - it will be difficult to fix the limits of tolerance, what to tolerate and what not, what to say yes to and what no.

But sometimes one is assailed by a fearful doubt,  the doubt as to dialogue itself and its efficacy. As one notices from certain pauses, signs, silences in his debate with Luther on Free Will, no one so much as Erasmus, the humanistic genius of tolerance and dialogue par excellence, has experienced this particular doubt.  He refers to a mysterious sensation which invites him to doubt the struggle in which he nevertheless engages all his energies.  The rational humanist, believing in reason and the word, perceives that what really matters has been decided before the word, in the shifting, elusive depths of life, in the obscure affinities or rejections which inexorably draw men close or drive them apart.  One becomes aware that in dialogue one convinces only the already convinced, and that the fate of the word and of reason is to be misunderstood.
Such awareness is no less tragic than the Lutheran view of sin. The greatness of Erasmus, however, consists in his ability to transform this doubt into an element of faith in reason, in the symbiosis he effects between faith and irony, which helps us in vicissitude and enables us to live.  Never so much as today have we needed - so as not to be depressed when even the local librarian challenges our ego - the virtues of Erasmus.   His reticence, his evasion, his ironical smile are the expression of an amiableness preserved even when looking into the void - or into what seems the void at that moment. They are the expression, too, of the strength of mind of one who , though conscious of the precariousness of his ratiocinations, stubbornly continues to follow reason because he refuses to believe that that void is the final truth.

Such tolerance and such steadfastness help us to pass through the chaos of life, from its first to its last uncertainty. Man, so runs a Chassidic proverb, comes from dust and is destined to dust, but in the interval he can drink a glass of good wine.  Wine befits prizes. In 1619 Ben Jonson received a poetry prize, which consisted of a cask of wine to refresh his imagination. With the munificent Praemium Erasmianum I should be able to fill an entire Usselmeer with wine and offer a drink to all those - beginning with myself - who feel their imagination drying up.  Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends all, one of the many men without qualities thanks you from the bottom of his heart for the great  honour now received by
Claudio Magris


Claudio Magris (Trieste, 1939) is Professor of German Studies (special field of interest: Austria at the end of the nineteenth century) and studied at the University of Trieste and several German universities. As writer and translator he is one of Europe's leading cultural philosophers. From 1968 to 1970 he taught at the University of Trieste; from 1970 to 1978 at the University of Turin and since then again at the University of Trieste. As of 1990 he is director of the section 'Literary Language and Scientific Language' of the interdisciplinary institute SISSA. In the years 1994-1996 he was a member of the Senate in the XIIth legislature of the Republic of Italy. Claudio Magris is a member of several Italian and foreign scientific academies. He writes regularly for the newspaper Corriere della Sera and several other European newspapers and magazines. As translator he introduced the work of Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Büchner and Grillparzer in Italy. He wrote many essays on Ibsen, Borges, Canetti, Rilke, Kafka and other German and European writers, and a number of novels, such as Inferences from a sabre (1990) Danube (1999), A different sea (1993) and Microcosms (2000). For the last book he received the 1997 Premio Strega, the most prestigious literary prize in Italy. Claudio Magris has won a great number of Italian and foreign honours and prizes and holds doctorates honoris causa at the universities of Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Klagenfurt and Szeged.

November 2001

Bridges and Faultlines

Claudio Magris received the Erasmus Prize in 2001 in the field of 'Cultural Faultlines'.