Martin Kobler interviewed by Rory MacLean
Martin Kobler is a globe-trotting diplomat. In his office above the soaring glass and marble atrium of the Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin he told me, ‘I wanted to see the world from the earliest age. So at the age of 14 I wrote to the Foreign Office, asking them what subjects to study at school. The broad areas of their work – diplomacy, political, cultural and economic affairs – really appealed to me. I wasn’t interested in becoming a specialist. I wanted to join the so-called generalists here.’
After military service, Kobler studied law then Asian Philology, learnt Indonesian and attended Pajajaran University in Bandung. In 1983 he joined the Foreign Office and over the next 25 years was posted to Cairo, New Delhi and the Balkans, worked as an election observer in Nicaragua, Haiti and Cambodia, served as Joschka Fischer’s Chief of Cabinet and rose to rank of ambassador to Egypt and then Iraq.
Today Kobler – his face lined yet youthful, his olive eyes at once sharp and warm – is Director General for Culture and Communication. He and his staff plan, coordinate and steer German cultural relations and education policy, as well as communication and media policy. Simply put, he is Germany’s cultural ambassador to the world.
‘Because of our history no single national body is responsible for culture within Germany,’ he said, recalling the Nazis’ abuse of the arts, explaining that the sixteen federal states undertake the duty. ‘It’s a similar arrangement outside Germany,’ he went on. ‘We provide funding and target topics – say climate change or the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – but give the partner and cultural organisations autonomy to achieve the goals.’
Those independent organisations include among others the Goethe-Institut, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa), Deutsche Welle and the Central Agency for Schools Abroad.
‘We want to show Germany in all its diversity, not just its government’s view.’
The innovative strategy also encourages projects that go beyond national commercial and political objectives.
‘I have a personal interest in Palestine, Israel and Middle East. Under the Oslo Agreement I headed our Representative Office in Jericho,’ he recalled, shaking his head at the experience of being a German living in Israel without diplomatic status in Palestine, commuting every day between the places. ‘Have you heard of the heart of Jenin?’ he asked me.
In 2005 a 12-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in the West Bank city of Jenin by Israeli soldiers. Despite their grief, his parents consented to donate his organs to six Israeli children whose lives were on the line: one of the boy’s kidneys went to an Orthodox Jewish girl and his other kidney went to a Bedouin boy. His heart now beats in the chest of a Druze girl.
A Stuttgart documentary team – led by director Marcus Vetter – brought the story to the world, and told Martin Kobler of the father’s idea to reopen the war-damaged Cinema Jenin in his son’s name.
‘The courage, the symbolism of these actions is so strong that it endures,’ said Kobler. The Foreign Office contributed €250,000 to the cinema and participated in its international fund-raising campaign. The project – a moving vision of common humanity and hope – illustrates that while political, economic and cultural relations (including education) are the cornerstones of German foreign policy, the cultural element often has the greatest long-term impact.
‘At the same time – again because of the burden of history – our relationship with Israel is unbreakable and unshakeable,’ Kobler adds.
The Auswärtiges Amt aims to ‘awaken an understanding of European values’. I asked Kobler to define those values. ‘We have a constitution based on the values of the Enlightenment,’ he said. ‘We embrace freedom of thought and expression. It is unacceptable to say that certain thinking is not allowed.’ He admitted that Western individualism can be at odds with the beliefs of certain societies but stressed that the objective was not to encourage change but rather to improve communication between people.
‘It’s a dialogue,’ he told me. ‘I strongly promote the link between culture and politics. Culture can play a role in avoiding crises, or defusing them in places where they already exist. For example, we offer special scholarships to Afghanis, Iraqis and Palestinians. We’re working now on what we can do in Yemen and North Korea. We aspire to preserve good cultural relations, even through difficult political circumstances, because all conflicts end eventually.’
At the same time, Kobler underlined the importance of cultural exchanges closer to home, especially with France and Poland.
‘If we are incompetent in Europe, we are incompetent abroad,’ he said. ‘We take responsibility for our history, we discuss it, but we must not neglect the future. We have to win over each new generation.’
Martin Kobler is a thoughtful and moral man, welcoming and candid, enthusiastic and open-minded. He has a natural ease with people, expressing sincere interest in them. ‘I’m glad to be a German in Europe,’ he said, ‘and I am thankful to live today in a country based on the Rule of Law. I am also glad to have the chance to work in the cultural management field, trying to spend taxpayers’ money in a useful way.’ He looked out of his office window across the wintry capital towards the Dom, thinking perhaps of his lifelong passion for foreign places. ‘I am glad to be working in Berlin but working abroad is even better. I’d love to go back to Jakarta one day, to go anywhere in fact that’s abroad.