Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Germans Boost Bach, Sideline Sauerkraut

In a jovial jab at Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Clinton, pundits referred to their meeting in Milwaukee, Wis., last week as the "Sausage Summit."

The nickname hinted at some beloved German contributions to the Western culture: hamburgers (from Hamburg), frankfurters (from Frankfurt), and wieners (from Vienna).

About these ads

But Germans would also like to remind the world that their cultural exports include a wealth of music, literature, philosophy, and theology - from Bach and Brahms to Thomas Mann, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Luther.

Reinvigorated by unification in 1990, Germany has been trying to encourage recognition of these latter contributions in particular, both in the former East Germany and abroad.

One of the most prominent instruments for disseminating German culture is the Goethe Institut - an organization that teaches German to more than 100,000 students a year worldwide and sponsors cultural events such as film festivals and lectures.

Willy Brandt, former West German chancellor, used to speak of cultural policy as the "third pillar" of foreign policy, along with security and economic policy.

Germans admit that their language itself is far from overtaking English as the universal tongue. "We acknowledge that English is no longer a foreign language, it's the second language you do business in," said Hilmar Hoffman, the Frankfurt-based president of the Goethe Institut. "We don't expect German to be a lingua franca."

But they do hope to give their culture a little more weight. The Goethe Institut opened a branch on May 8 here in Weimar, the adoptive hometown of its namesake, the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is the first institute to be opened in the former East Germany, symbolizing the effort the nation is making to rejuvenate a positive, unified image of its heritage. It is also the first within Germany to be focused on culture, rather than language instruction.

Teaching the German language is a major item on the institute's program, but many point to the need to encourage cultural exchange on a broader level. At a time of increasing political and economic dominance of Germany over its neighbors, nations must "promote intellectual encounters," said Jiri Grusa, the Czech ambassador in Bonn. Others say that international understanding is important for the opposite reason: "So much ignorance is not good for a small country as dependent on its external relations as ours," said the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger last year.

About these ads

Such observers may hold different views, but both are concerned about cuts in the Goethe Institut's budget of $230 million, which is supported by the Foreign Ministry. The Weimar opening, for example, came just days after Mr. Hoffmann announced the closing of five institutes abroad due to budget cuts. Hoffmann has been willing to practice "lean management," closing institutes only as a last resort.

Hoffmann explained that the Goethe Institut fosters international dialogue on sensitive topics - "not just our recent history," he says, referring the the Nazi era, "but also more contemporary issues, such as the xenophobic violence we have had." He decries those who regard cultural institutions as "dispensable." Germany, he observes, tends to see itself as an economic unit, and a welfare state, rather that a Kulturstaat, a cultural nation - as the French, for instance, see themselves.

When Chancellor Kohl visited Weimar to inaugurate the new institute, it was clear that residents are proud to reclaim their heritage from its Communist past. The European Union has designated Weimar a "cultural city" for 1999, the 250th anniversary of Goethe's birth. But typically for Germany under Kohl, German culture is being anchored in a European tradition. "European identity will have to be twofold: Europeans will be stamped by their national traditions as well as by their common European heritage," Kohl said.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.