Background Report: The Charlemagne Prize


AACHEN The Aachen Charlemagne Prize is the oldest political distinction awarded by the German Federal Republic in the area of foreign policy. It honours merit in ,,Europe and European unification". It is awarded yearly on Ascension Day in the Coronation Hall of Aachen's Council House. Those honoured include prominent European politicians, heads of state and government, amongst others Alcide de Gasperi, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Vaclav Havel, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Since 1997 the ,,Charlemagne Prize Foundation" (,,Karlspreis-Stiftung") has been co-ordinated with the prize. Its purpose is to ,,publicise the ideal and aspiration of the Charlemagne Prize throughout Europe". High ranking representatives of business, the German Minister for the Economy, the Minister President of North Rhine Wesfalia and the political advisor Werner Weidenfeld1) serve on its committees.

Those honoured by the Charlemagne Prize (the first was Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi2) are chosen by the ,,the Charlemagne Prize Society" (,,Karlspreisgesellschaft"), a circle of influential members of the Aachen establishment whose discussions are secret. It was called into being in 1949 by the efforts of the Aachen textile merchant, Kurt Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer, who had previously been a member of the Nazi Party and of five other Nazi organisations, maintained that he had always tended to a ,,fundamental belief in Europe". The ,,Charlemagne Prize Society" was founded by him with the intention of awarding a ,,European prize which should be associated with the Imperial Ideal (Reichsidee) of the Emperor Charlemagne, his palace and burial place" (both in Aachen).

,,Uniter of the Branches of the German People"

Supposedly the Charlemagne Prize is connected with Charlemagne because of his empire (Reich), set up around 800 AD, which could be reckoned a forerunner of the German-French ,,core of Europe". In fact the Charlemagne Prize, first awarded on May 1st 1950, was connected most closely with the Charlemagne myth which was very popular in the German Reich from 1871, especially in the Aachen area because of his ,,Imperial Idea" and supposed role as ,,Creator of European unity". The Nazis legitimated their plans for a European New Order with heavily emphasised allusions to Charlemagne. The post war image of Charlemagne as ,,Unifier of the Christian West" was preceded by his Nazi portrayal as ,,Unifier of the German tribes". Charlemagne was compared with Hitler, his Reich, Greater Germany. The Nazis identified his policy with the Germanocentric New Order of Europe and cited his campaign against the ,,hunnish" Avars in support of their war of annihilation in the East. The then Gauleiter, Josef Grohe, declared at a ,,festive hour" (Feierstunde) on the twelve hundredth anniversary of Charlemagne's birth in April 1942 that Aachen was the ,,starting point for the formation of the German people".

The Charlemagne Prize Proclamation of 1949 and the official speeches of the Aachen burgomasters of the early Fifties are heavily stamped with national (,,voelkisch") thinking. They show the Charlemagne prize had become associated with the folk-myth of Charlemagne and the German Reich. This association was favoured not least because ,,The milieu which had carried and realised the aggressive pan-germanic myth of Aachen" was in agreement with that ,,which also established the Christian-Western Charlemagne Prize". This is clearly exemplified by the career of the Aachen Professor of Philosophy, Peter Mennicken, who had authoritative influence over the symolism of the Charlemagne prize and the ,,liturgy" of its award ceremonies.

,,Culture" as a Bridge to the Post-War Era"

Mennicken joined the SA (Storm Troopers) in 1933 and the Nazi Party in 1937. He used his lectureship at the Technical High School of Aachen in the service of expansionist ,,Western research" and worked for two so-called ,,societies for (international) understanding" which were informal offshoots of the Propaganda Ministry, used for German propaganda in the Netherlands and Belgium. Through him the Aachen elite tried to convey a sympathetic picture of Germany and to mobilise ethnic, regional and separatist resentments on the other side of the border in subtle ways - through the medium of apparently non-political cultural exchanges which offered a ,,border-surmounting" and ,,community-building" picture of Aachen. This would serve as a bridge into the post war era. Correspondingly, Mennicken succeded after 1945 in making a clerical-conservative new edition of his ,,Aachen mysticism" after 1945.

,,Building Stone of Imperial Europe"

To this day the Charlemagne Prize stands in the tradition of the ethnically (,,voelkisch") imprinted German Imperial Ideal. ,,Charlemagne wanted, as we do today, to preserve the diversity of peoples whilst simultaneously leading them together" - so it was said in the encomium for the then German Federal President, Roman Herzog, in 1997. A critic summarises: ,,The short-circuiting of Middle Ages and modernity, of Reich and Europe, produces a 1200 year original myth (Ursprungsmythos) for an integrated Europe and its German-French core (...). The Charlemagne Prize transforms the political leaders of European integration into heirs of the once and ancestors of the future European Reich. The myth of the European mission of Charlemagne and his town belongs among the building stone of imperial Europe."

1) A highly influential foreign policy advisor (see previous reports)
2) Founder of the Pan-Europa Union

Thomas Mueller: Der Aachener Karlspreis. In: Grenzen auf fuer Deutschland? Aktuelle Analysen zu Pan-Europa, Revanchismus, Ost-Expansion