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An interview with Klaus-Dieter Lehmann: “Our work is not cultural development aid”

© Manu Theobald Project 'Into Johannesburg': 'A new intensity in cultural perception'. Copyright: Manu Theobald

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann is utterly satisfied. After over a year in office, the president of the Goethe-Institut still calls it a dream job. He is especially pleased about progress made on the „forgotten continent“. He doesn't see deficiencies there, but chiefly potentials. Yet Lehmann is also pursuing new ideas in big cities like New York and Istanbul.

18 June 2009

A little over a year ago, you became the successor of Jutta Limbach as president of the Goethe-Institut. How many times since then have you regretted the decision?

Lehmann: Not one single time. It's been a wonderful year.

What was so wonderful?

For instance that the government began a targeted policy, backed especially by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, by which culture again played an essential role in Germany's relations to the outside world without instrumentalizing or politicizing it. The reform of the Goethe-Institut was made possible and we received a considerably larger budget. This means that we could, for example, spend an additional 5.6 million euro per year in Africa. We also used the funds to open new institutes and language learning centres.

The financial crisis hasn't reached the Goethe-Institut?

Not yet. And I don’t intend to pull a plan B out of the drawer for the financial crisis. Of course, the policy has to be clear: foreign relations evolve not only from economic aspects, but also from cultural aspects. In a crisis in particular, investments in cultural education are a long-term asset.

When you arrived at the Goethe-Institut, what surprised you the most?

In the positive sense how little bureaucratic this large apparatus is. Our decision to hand the responsibility over to the regions – to make of a few actors in the head office again many around the world – certainly resulted in deep cuts. Nonetheless this reform was accepted with surprisingly rapid willingness.

In the negative sense?

The thing that somewhat bewildered me was that there is still major differentiation between our foreign and domestic work. The 135 Goethe-Instituts in over 80 countries do amazing work, but too little is heard about it in Germany. Yet it is so important that the Germans themselves recognize that what the Goethe-Instituts overseas do is also decisive for their own country.

Katharina Wilhelm
„Opening of the Goethe Institute in Luanda“


You already mentioned Africa. On your taking office you spoke of the "forgotten continent" and made Africa one of your focal points. What has been done since then?

The Goethe-Institut has been in Africa since the 1960s, but there has never really been a focus on the continent. Yet, in Africa we have the advantage that we don't need to deal with serious colonial traumas to the extent that other European countries do. For this reason, the Germans have a rather good reputation in Africa. That's my experience, at least. In addition, we don't have a monolithic economic policy like nations such as China or the USA that preferably keeps its eye on trade. We are able to build up a form of relations that is based on language, culture and knowledge of the countries. Here, business and culture can complement one another wonderfully in the application of cultural competence.

You've just returned from Angola...

Yes, this week we opened a new institute in the capital city of Luanda; the second in Africa since Dar es Salaam in 2008. This is also the first time that we are present in Portuguese-speaking Africa. We now have presences in 25 of the 47 countries south of the Sahara.

Now, cultural work in sub-Saharan Africa is naturally completely different than, say, in North America.

That is true, but our work cannot be seen as a sort of cultural development aid. Development aid goes where there are deficiencies and it sees those deficiencies through its European or its German eyes. I, however, do not want to reduce Africa to these deficiencies. On the contrary; I see the potentials. For example the film industry. Nigeria has a lively film festival and an impressive film output. The same applies to music and to fashion and dance; these are all things for which there is lots of creativity in Africa, but they often lack the solid structures or the funds to implement innovative trends.

The Goethe-Institut is also very active in big cities like New York. What can you offer there that they don't already have? There is certainly no dearth of culture there.

Our new approach is to enter the art scene ourselves to stand out. We therefore opened an exhibition space in New York's Lower East Side, brought young German art there and encouraged dialogue. This means we have a main location – in our case a reputable address on Fifth Avenue – and a base in the art scene.

Residencies appear to be the trend now...

Rightly so! I hold these programmes in very high regard. They create a new intensity in cultural perception. We dispatch artists, writers or musicians from Germany to a city for a longer stay and provide them with all the connections to the local scene. Besides these residencies at Goethe-Instituts, we are also planning to set up houses for this purpose. With the Tarabya artists' academy in Istanbul we are designing a place that will bring together German and Turkish artists in fine arts, architecture, music and literature. Both the parliament and the government support this project. We are planning a similar residency in Kyoto.

One of the important tasks of the Goethe-Institut is, of course, also teaching the German language. How has this work developed in the past year?

There is a special project that I'm very enthusiastic about: for the first time in the history of the Goethe-Institut we launched a language offensive with support from the Foreign Office, with worldwide funding of 45 million euro and – together with the schools overseen by the Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen – that will result in 1,300 schools that teach German up to higher education entrance qualification. We don't operate any schools; we train teachers. We have years of experience in this. Then, for example, there will be a very appealing German department at a school in Jakarta or a school in Windhoek that will pull in those interested in learning German like a vacuum cleaner.

What role does the German language play anymore in the globalized world? English is the undisputed lingua franca. And today Spanish, Chinese and Arabic have long gained greater significance than German.

I have a dual strategy: for one, I would like to emphasize the German language far more as a cultural medium. German is a wonderful language for poetry, philosophy, art... Secondly, Germany is a world export champion. In this respect it is beneficial for the personal vocational and life plans of many people to learn German, both in economic and academic aspects. Look at how many branches of German companies there are overseas! Of course, we cannot compete with English. That is why we very strongly pursue, in Europe in particular, the policy of multilingualism. We want all schools to teach a second foreign language besides English. Here, German can be a winner.

The Goethe-Institut is also involved in the controversial language test for immigration of spouses. Why?

Until now, no one has put the condition into words for the immigrants who live and work here: if you want to be integrated, you have to speak German. Multiculturalism was considered an asset and what happened? Parallel worlds arose that cannot communicate with one another. In Germany 40 percent of our immigrants are school dropouts – because they do not have command of the language. That is why I support the policy of making family members of immigrants who wish to come here familiar with a minimum of German. To me, it is also a form of emancipation. A young woman from Turkey or Croatia comes to Germany and can at least move about here independently, can go shopping, go to the doctor. In our experience, those who work to acquire these skills perceive it very positively. The Goethe-Institut wants to support integration – more than before – even within Germany. Immigrants ought to be perceived as assets.

The Bundestag elections are this autumn. You have said very positive things about Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Does that mean you hope that he remains the foreign minister? He won't like to hear that...

We are now being supported by a multipartisan coalition in the German Bundestag and also in the government. That gives us wings. But, of course, the initiative is always taken up by certain individuals and in this case it was certainly Minister Steinmeier. I think that even a new government will be "Goethe-minded". We have successfully carried out internal reforms, we are able to use our operational instruments professionally so that the taxpayers' money is spent transparently and efficiently and we have programmes that stand at the centre of social and cultural policy issues. I therefore am unperturbed about the election results.
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