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An Interview with Günter Grass: “We were considered denigrators.”

Copyright: Martin Wälde
Nobel laureate Grass: “In dictatorships, the Goethe-Institut is a place of refuge for the opposition.” (Photo: Martin Wälde)

5 August 2011

The Goethe-Institut is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. It was first entered in the register of associations on 9 August 1951. Günter Grass calls the institute “one of the finest achievements of the Federal Republic.” In an interview, the writer looks back at five decades of a very personal bond.

Do you remember your first encounters with the Goethe-Institut?

Günter Grass: It was in the early sixties, shortly after the publication of The Tin Drum. I was having a reading at the Goethe-Haus in New York, which did not yet belong to the Goethe-Institut at that time. Then there was one appearance after another, first in European countries, later in Asia. I can’t count all the institutes I visited.

What did these experiences overseas mean for you as a young author?

These travels were beneficial to me. They were an opportunity to get out of the inner-German situation. I lived in Berlin and was confronted daily with the division and the wall. The political situation in Germany was scarred over. I always prepared my journeys very thoroughly and besides my readings, I wanted to gain insights into the social conditions of the country I was visiting. All in all, I have to say that I learned a great deal that way – also with the help of the Goethe-Institut.


You can find more about “60 Years at Goethe” at our anniversary website.

What did these travels bring about?

As a German back then you still were confronted with many prejudices overseas. Yet writers and other intellectuals who were travelling on invitation of the Goethe-Institut, did not hesitate to speak up about German grievances. In that way they contributed to a change in the harsh image of Germans. At home, however, it wasn’t always seen that way. In the sixties there were confrontations in particular from conservatives. We were considered denigrators because we were critical of our own country. They were not willing to see that as an asset.

Grass in Lisbon, 1998: “I can’t count all the institutes I visited.” (Photo: Marion Gullmann Costa)

Can you remember a particular event that caused polarization?

In the mid-eighties, the Goethe-Institut organized a wonderful event in Brussels that was attended by over a thousand people. I and the East German writer Stefan Heym had been invited to a dispute. The question that we asked and that hardly anyone had ever asked at this time was what will happen when the wall falls? At the time, I assumed that it would be a chance for the two states to draw closer together and to commence a confederation. Heym had similar, partly divergent views. In any event, both opinions were not popular.

What were the reactions?

The event triggered protests in the Federal Republic following a report by the embassy in Brussels. I wrote to the responsible man at the Foreign Office and pointed out to him that the point of view that the Foreign Office held was out of touch with reality. It was my political intention that we should do some thinking about the fact that the wall could fall at a time when no one in politics spoke openly about it.

Can foreign cultural policy use open dialogue and open platforms to be peacemaking, conflict-preventive – or is that overkill?

In regions laden with conflicts, in dictatorships or semi-dictatorships the Goethe-Institut was and is a place of refuge for the opposition, a breeding ground for possible developments. This does not apply in every case, but we must thankfully say that the institute has often been courageous and open to the opposition – even if it may have contradicted the foreign policy course taken by the Federal Republic. Yet, one thing is certainly wrong and that is when we imitate the error of politics and believe that we can simply transport democracy according to our western ideas of it. These ideas fail. What is happening in North Africa today is homegrown and points out the social problems of these countries. Moreover, we have stared at the problem of terrorism and too often sought dictators out as allies who do not fit into our ideas of democracy. That happened during the Cold War when dictatorships were supported because they were anti-Communist. In my experience, the Goethe-Instituts never made the mistake of appearing on the scene like colonial masters and simply transport our ideas of democracy. Incidentally, the democratic system within Europe is beginning to crumble, also in the Federal Republic. Populist, right wing, xenophobic parties are taking part in decision-making in old democratic countries, like the Netherlands for example. These things also need to be addressed. God knows we Europeans are no longer exemplary.

Can you recall examples of where the Goethe-Instituts were places of refuge for the opposition?

During the Greek military junta, I received an invitation from people in the opposition to Athens. I prepared a speech and had it translated into Greek. I carried 1,000 copies of this slim brochure in my suitcase. It all would have gone wrong if I would have had to go through the usual controls. But the director of the Goethe-Institut was waiting at the airplane in Athens and made sure that I could go through with my suitcase. So, after the event, which naturally was spied on by the secret police, the speech could be handed out. I repeatedly experienced that the institutes were places of refuge for the opposition, not just in Athens, but also in Portugal and in Chile. They were in a protected space there, could read the newspapers, get informed and talk with one another. In this way, the institutes developed into a sort of refuge.

How important is the independence of the Goethe-Institut?

I think that the relationship between the Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut needs to be clarified. The more independence the Goethe-Institut has, the better it is for foreign policy. When Joschka Fischer was the foreign minister, he forced cuts on the institute that led to closures. It got better under Frank-Walter Steinmeier and some institutes were reopened. It is also important that the language courses at the Goethe-Institut are promoted and further expanded. Wherever one goes, the German courses have high attendance. These are people who will later contribute to shaping their own countries. When you take up a language, you also take up part of the culture and that is where dialogue begins. No expense should be spared in conveying the language.

You have been travelling on behalf of the Goethe-Institut for five decades. That’s practically a long-term study. What has changed over this time?

For the longest part of that time, I was travelling on behalf of a Federal Republic that still had a neighbouring state called the GDR. Whoever travelled also travelled with this baggage. Of course, the institutes were burdened by that. The controversies that I mentioned all had something to do with that. On the one hand we are rid of this burden today, on the other hand now a certain risk of arbitrariness can arise. What else I see is that when I had an event in the sixties, seventies until the eighties, I was told that the ambassador was unfortunately unable to come. That has changed, eased. Now sometimes the ambassador is there. There is a new generation at work, also in the diplomatic body.

Did any journey with the Goethe-Institut have an influence on your work?

When I went to Kolkata and was confronted by the slums and the misery, but at the same time with the high Bengali culture and vibrant life, I initially was unable to write. Instead I drew and wandered about with my sketchbook. The drawing led me to a diary-like form of writing that then led to a longer Kolkata poem. These three elements – diary notes, the poem and the drawings – made up the book Show Your Tongue.
When it was published they said in Germany that it did not contain enough about culture. But, my attention was on the social conditions. It was also received controversially in India. Many Indians said, “Do we always have to look at this? Aren’t there more beautiful things in India that could be placed in the foreground?” But since I am used to controversial reception of my books, I would have been mistrustful if the book had met with approval everywhere.

What do you wish the Goethe-Institut for its sixtieth?

The public and the respective government should acknowledge that the accomplishments of the Goethe-Institut are among the finest achievements of the Federal Republic. If we bemoan that English is on the advance and that the German language is being ousted, then we should not make efforts to save money at the sake of its mediation. This kind of work by the Goethe-Instituts, teaching the language, should not only be preserved, but further expanded.

The interview was held by Maren Niemeyer and Arne Schneider

This is an abridged version of the interviews with Günter Grass. The full version (in German) can be found in the Goethe-Institut’s 2010/2011 Annual (to the PDF).

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