Some weeks ago I received news that the embassy in Berne had unsuccessfully been trying to contact me under FSFE’s old office address in Zurich. This was a bit odd and unexpected. So you can probably understand my surprise to be told by the embassy upon contacting them that on 18. December 2009 I had been awarded the Cross of Merit on ribbon (“Verdienstkreuz am Bande”) by the Federal Republic of Germany. As you might expect, my first reaction was one of disbelief. I was, in fact, rather shaken. You could also say shocked.
Quick Wikipedia research revealed this to be part of the orders of knighthood, making this a Knight’s Cross. Can you hear the whinnying of the horses, the clinking of armour and the sound of steel on steel? So where does the tapping of keyboards and blinkenlights enter into this?
According to the rationale, the Cross of Merit was awarded for my work for Free Software and Open Standards, starting from my being speaker of the GNU Project, including my very first speech, my work on the Brave GNU World, over driving the creation of Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), to the work done around the Open Document Format (ODF) and the work for Open Standards in general with a variety of hats. The initial proposal originated in the Foreign Ministry from what I heard, which has been a champion for Free Software and Open Standards, especially the Open Document Format (ODF) for years, resulting in one of the most efficient and strategically sound IT environments of all German ministries.
So this is the most important message: By awarding this Cross of Merit, the Federal Republic of Germany recognises the importance of both Free Software and Open Standards. After Matthias Ettrich was already awarded the Medal of Merit in November 2009 for his work on KDE, this sends another strong message of support for Free Software and Open Standards and for the importance of the work carried forward by associations such as the Free Software Foundation Europe. This work, by the way, is an ongoing process, and it needs your support. So if you can, please join the Fellowship right now.
But there is another, more intimate meaning to this for myself, and an inherent challenge.
A born Helgolandian, the German FAZ credited this background in a very kind article for my strong emotional ties to freedom, always keeping an eye on the horizon. Most of my childhood was however spent in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. And as a truly free hanseatic citizen, one does not accept any foreign masters, which established the tradition of the Hanseatic Refusal.
So, why did I choose to accept the Cross of Merit?
There is possibly enough of a Helgolandian in me to not accept the traditions of the Pfeffersäcke of the Hanse. As you might not be aware, Helgoland was one of the primary hideouts for the pirates that plundered the ships of the Hanse, heavily laden with pepper and other goods. These Likedeelers, the “equal dividers” as they called themselves, had a much more participatory society than essentially feudal cities such as Hamburg which ultimately caught up with Klaus Störtebeker, decapitating him in the Hamburg harbour. Naturally I do not expect to fare a similar fate for my little act of rebellion against hanseatic tradition.
Despite the above I would even maintain that my acceptance constitutes “Hanseatic Acceptance” because the city of Hamburg is – seemingly ignorant of its having acted as the cradle to the Open Document Format (ODF) – as heavily Microsoft dominated as few others. At the time of the great battle around MS-OOXML, an image that once more brings up associations of blood, gore, and treachery, it has pained me greatly to see the role Hamburg played in the subversion of Open Standards and standardisation process at the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the German standardisation body (DIN).
Hamburg truly has allowed itself to become the “Proprietary and Locked-In City of Hamburg” when talking about matters of Information Technology, whereas cities like Munich have become champions for freedom. Sadly, at the current point in time, there is more freedom to be found outside of Hamburg than there is to be found within.
The award is based on values of freedom and independence, and originates with people in the government who have done more for these values than the government of Hamburg. So I shall kindly thank for the award, accept it in the name of everyone who has come before me on the path of Free Software and Open Standards, and remain my own master, as the city of Hamburg should have done.
Because only Free Software truly is Sovereign Software.