The Goethe-Institut is “a chameleon”. This is how the German cultural institution is described by the president Carola Lentz and the ethnologist Marie-Christin Gabriel in their new book marking the 70th anniversary of the association.
The history of the Goethe-Institut is one of “permanent reinvention,” Lentz told DW.
Carola Lentz became president of the Goethe-Institut last year
It all started in post-war Germany, when a new association was formed in Munich in 1951 to replace its predecessor, the Deutsche Akademie, which had to close its doors six years earlier.
The Deutsche Akademie, founded in 1925, had become a tool of the Nazi state, and by the end of the war the American occupiers dissolved what they saw as a “Nazi propaganda and espionage center operating throughout the world. Europe ”.
The creation of the Goethe-Institut therefore marks a new political start.
A new start with German lessons
The Goethe-Institut first worked with German teachers from all over the world, who were invited to come and train in Germany.
The Goethe Medal is the institute’s annual award to honor the contribution of non-Germans to the dissemination of German culture
The institution quickly began to focus on offering German courses abroad.
For this purpose, various institutes have been founded; the first was opened in 1952 in Athens. In 1961, 53 other institutes were created. Today there are 158 Goethe-Institutes in 98 countries.
Between 1958 and 1963, the Goethe-Institut focused on Africa and new branches quickly opened across the continent.
However, German cultural ambassadors have been sent on tour to Goethe-Institutes around the world.
For example, jazz musician Albert Mangelsdorff made several popular stops in Asia with his quartet, and electronic psychedelic music from Germany could be heard in Kabul.
The Cold War led to one of the most gripping chapters in the history of the institute. While the Eastern and Western blocs were engaged in their arms race, the struggle for power and influence also had an impact on foreign cultural policy.
The former East German state, which had also founded its own cultural institution, the Herder Institute in Leipzig in 1951, began to establish cultural and information centers abroad and also offered German courses. as a foreign language. Some institutions were in direct competition with the Goethe-Institut.
Competition between East and West continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Pope Francis also learned German with the Goethe-Institut
In the 1970s, a London exhibition funded by the Goethe-Institut sparked controversy in Germany. Poster artist Klaus Staeck satirized German politicians in his work, and they were outraged that this type of art was created with taxpayer money.
In 1977, leftist terrorists attacked the Goethe-Institut in Paris and Madrid.
The lives of other notable personalities have been marked by the institute. In the mid-1980s, the man who would later become Pope Francis learned German at the Goethe-Institute in Boppard, a town in the West German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The Pope kept in touch with the family who hosted him at the time.
Comedian Rudi Carell sparked a diplomatic outcry in 1987 when he portrayed Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in a short satirical television sketch, covered in female underwear – gifts for the eighth anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The next day, Iran expelled two German diplomats and canceled all flights to West Germany. The Goethe-Institut in Tehran had to close temporarily.
Expansion to the East
When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the Goethe-Institut began to establish its first institutes in the countries of the former Eastern bloc.
In 1992, the then Federal Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel opened a Goethe-Institut in Moscow, which was previously inconceivable.
The network also continued to expand into the former states of East Germany.
New challenges since September 11
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 also affected the work of the Goethe-Institut, leading to a greater emphasis on intercultural dialogue and understanding.
Street art in Ethiopia, a project supported by the Goethe-Institut
The Goethe-Institut continues to focus on strengthening civil societies and preventing conflict. “Our biggest challenge right now is the phenomenon of ‘shrinking spaces’, that is, the fact that illiberal tendencies, authoritarian regimes are increasingly trying to restrict the spaces for artistic and intellectual activities”, explains Carola Lentz, president of the Goethe-Institut.
For the Goethe-Institut, it is a question of determining where the work can still be done and where it cannot be done temporarily – as is currently the case in Belarus.
According to Lentz, it remains important to continue to develop formats which will nevertheless facilitate exchanges and meetings.
Lentz, born in 1954 and living in Mainz, is an ethnologist and expert in African studies. She has been running the Goethe-Institut for a year.
The institution “carries a very diverse, differentiated and multifaceted image of Germany” to the world, she said. The Goethe-Institut’s approach is thoughtful and non-arrogant, she adds. It is about developing common answers to global questions, in collaboration with international partners.
“Through the diverse and extremely exciting literary, musical and artistic projects that we are happy to present, we hope to initiate conversations with people from other societies.”
The president of the Goethe-Institut considers that her institute is “well equipped” for its role as a global network. She hopes to see the new coalition government in Germany “recognize that culture must be an essential part of foreign policy”.
For Lentz, national and foreign cultural policy are directly intertwined. The Goethe-Institut is already increasing its representation in Germany, with events such as the Weimar Cultural Symposium.
The 70th anniversary program of the Goethe-Institut in Berlin is another demonstration of this approach. On November 29, the multimedia exhibition “Take Me to the River”, offering artistic shots of global environmental changes, opens at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, alongside the exhibition “Nation, Narration, Narcosis”, which explores the role of museums in the culture of remembrance.
Finally, the interactive installation “Vanishing Wall”, presented in the Reichstag building, is an exploration of European diversity.
This article was translated from German.