Dinner speech delivered by Ambassador Dr Thomas Fitschen on the occasion of the Annual Humboldt Dinner of the Australian Association of von Humboldt Fellows to celebrate Alexander von Humboldt’s 250th birthday
Canberra, Australian National University, 14 September 2019
Dear Professor MacMullen,
dear Professor Bachor,
distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to address this august assembly of “Humboldtianer” on the occasion of the Annual Humboldt Dinner, this year to celebrate Alexander von Humboldt’s 250th birthday. This is a great honor for me because I am not a natural scientist of any sorts, nor am I a historian, nor a Humboldt fellow, for that matter. I did spend some time as research assistant at two universities in Germany in my younger days before I joined the Foreign Service, but I am just a lawyer – probably the only one in this room.
All of you have encountered Humboldt many times in your professional lives and know everything about him already. So talking to you about our patron today is a bit of a challenge for me. I have to admit that what drew me to Humboldt was the beautiful novel by Daniel Kehlmann, Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World). It was a bestseller in Germany and many other countries, and I read it twice. I shall thus limit myself to some random and personal remarks on what Humboldt means to me today.
1. Humboldt the communicator
Humboldt’s global network of colleagues with whom he exchanged letters and opinions is legendary. But Humboldt was also keenly aware that he needed to reach beyond those scientific circles if he wanted to popularize the insights of modern natural sciences. For Humboldt it was not enough to report back to some Royal Commission offering a prize for a discovery, or to the King or Prince who supported his expedition. Nor did he think that the knowledge he or any other explorer brought home belonged to the state. In the early 19th century – when rising levels of literacy and “Bildung” were contributing to the rise of an ever broader bourgeoisie which ultimately clamored for more political rights and participation - Humboldt sensed that scientific knowledge also had to stand the test of an informed public opinion. That’s why he not only published loads of articles that he mailed to publishers and editors of magazines and newspapers from the remotest stops of his journeys. After his return to Berlin he also took to delivering public lectures that were wildly popular among students and the general public. And interestingly, up to half of his Berlin audience were women – more than forty years before women were allowed to enroll at universities in Prussia.
Always looking for ways to popularize his work (and also bearing in mind that he needed to sell his books), he also supported amateur scientists who traveled around the German states to present his thoughts to audiences away from the universities, and authorized abridged versions of his Kosmos to be printed.
That’s not “new media” yet, but it assured him an intellectual presence in scientific circles and in public opinion that few others would match. This openness also makes me think that he would have liked the graphic novel entitled “The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt” that his biographer Andrea Wulf and the US graphic designer Lilian Melcher have published recently.
2. Humboldt the human rights defender
As a diplomat who has worked on human rights issues in various UN bodies I was intrigued that while studying “nature” he did not lose sight of the human condition in it. Well versed in enlightenment thinking, and ever since his days in revolutionary Paris, he abhorred slavery. In various articles and in a book about Cuba he criticized in a very outspoken and adamant way how the Spanish invaders of South America and the missionaries who followed in their wake brutally mistreated the indigenous populations and exploited them in the harshest and most cynical ways. For him, there was also absolutely no excuse for countries in Europa and North America who profited, directly or indirectly, from the slave trade. He knew early on that the suppressive regime the Spaniards were exercising in South America would not hold very long. And yet, Humboldt would probably not have called himself a revolutionary. Depending very much on the benevolence of the Prussian king and the protection of Spain during his travels, he was cautious enough not to take sides too openly. But you don’t have to be a revolutionary to fight for justice and human rights. So I tend to believe that Humboldt would nod if I call him an early human rights defender.
3. Humboldt the environmentalist
My next observation is closely related to the previous one. Deeply convinced that “everything is connected”, it did not escape Humboldt that nature wasn’t nature as such – or only in remote places like the Amazonian rain forest – at least in the 19th century. Humboldt observed that wherever human activity occurred on a larger scale – whether through construction of villages or roads, the cutting down of forests to make room for agriculture, or through mining and the ensuing pollution of soils or water – it did have a direct bearing on nature which in turn affected the people living off the land; often in ways that the people were not even aware of. There is one famous case where Humboldt, on one of his travels to Spain, encountered a lake that had been drying up. The locals believed that an underground outlet must have opened up that made their water disappear. Humboldt, who often traveled by boat and knew a thing or two about the flow of rivers and oceans, measured and observed as he always did. And he was soon convinced that widespread deforestation of the area was indeed the main factor that had changed the flow of rivers and patterns of rainfall, so that the lake had fallen dry. He even warned US president Jefferson about clearing away more forest to expand tobacco plantations when he met him in Washington. So I am sure that we would have a very opinionated input from him in today’s debate about climate change, loss of biodiversity and the pollution of our oceans if he was still around.
4. Humboldt the multilateralist
Humboldt is well known for his enormous correspondence with all relevant scientists, publishers, academics of his time, writing and mailing letters from all corners of the world, freely exchanging views and insights with colleagues everywhere. During his great voyage to South America, borders were of little concern for him. For him, science was communication, and that communication knew no limits. But when he returned to Europe, he saw a continent in turmoil. Wars were raging, borders were being drawn and redrawn, checkpoints and barriers were sprouting like never before, passports and visas had to be presented every other mile, if travelling was possible at all. In addition, revolution swept over Europe in the 1840s. Again, Humboldt was cautious enough not to alienate the Prussian king and his entourage. His meeting with Napoleon was – in diplomatic terms – inconclusive. But he must have seen academic freedom and the possibilities to exchange views freely and openly across borders in peril. His scientific thinking and his whole way of carrying his research forward had always depended on openness. It was, to use a modern term for that, multilateral to the bone. Humboldt’s life as a researcher, communicator, publicist and networker reminds us of what we need today – more, not less cooperation; freedom of expression; the freedom of research; a multilateralist mindset when doing our business - any business.
5. Humboldt the modern man
In his last years, working feverishly on the remaining volumes of his Kosmos, Humboldt felt the growing tension between what he wanted to deliver single-handedly – the all-encompassing “Gesamtansicht” of nature – and the fragmentation and specialization of academic research in Germany and elsewhere. The days of the gentleman scientists were clearly over. Well-trained scientific teams from a whole range of new disciplines, working in laboratories and conducting experiments at universities – often with a view to their economic usability - were becoming the engines of scientific advances. At one point Humboldt must have admitted to himself that he was left with just too many facets and fragments from years of travel and observation; so many facts were left that quite literally he could not squeeze into his Kosmos any more.
And what is more, his insistence that gaining knowledge about nature was also a bodily experience that should involve all one’s senses, and that representing it in one’s writings had an aesthetic dimension, was increasingly at odds with the conditions of the modern labs of the late 19th century.
160 years after his death, and at a time of yet another explosion of human knowledge with the invention of the internet, this is a dilemma that all of you in your own research – and actually every thinking person who tries to come to terms with the world – must feel even more acutely today.
Oliver Lubrich, Professor for Germanistik at the University of Bern - who has just published Humboldt’s collected essays - gave an interview to Deutsche Welle recently where he advised that we should celebrate Humboldt a little less and actually read him a lot more. With all due respect, here I disagree.
I am convinced that we should indeed read and celebrate him, in any case today and here in Canberra, with friends and fans of the great Alexander von Humboldt around this table.
Thank you for your attention, and I wish all of us a cheerful birthday party.