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Meyer-Clason and Marschall von Bieberstein: Goethe’s Pioneers

Lorenz Vierecke/Michael FriedelCopyright: Lorenz Vierecke/Michael Friedel
Two men who made their mark on the Goethe-Institut: Curt Meyer-Clason and Michael Marschall von Bieberstein (Illustration: Lorenz Vierecke; Photo: Michael Friedel)

25 January 2012

Within only a few days, the Goethe-Institut lost two outstanding personages: the two former institute directors Curt Meyer-Clason and Michael Marschall von Bieberstein. They put the much-quoted idea of “culture for all” into practice long before the term was coined.

Already highly esteemed while they were active, one can perhaps only properly appreciate the actual significance of their work in retrospect, for the Goethe-Institut’s Curt Meyer-Clason and Michael Marschall von Bieberstein were always a bit ahead of their times.

In 1969, when Ralf Dahrendorf became state secretary at the German Foreign Office during the first Brandt-Scheel government and in this capacity established the guidelines for foreign cultural policy, he ultimately mapped out what some of the directors of Goethe-Instituts, foremost Meyer-Clason and Marschall von Bieberstein, had already been putting into practice for years. With their cultural work, they paved the way as early as the 1960s for the following decades’ culture “by and for all.”

Certainly organizing language courses is part of it, but for the two Goethe pioneers it was never the highest priority. Even then, they by no means saw the teaching of culture as a one-way street. “Self-portrayal of the nation? That was not the meaning he saw,” wrote the Badische Zeitung of Marschall von Bieberstein on his eightieth birthday, but that would also have characterized his colleague Meyer-Clason just as correctly. Instead it was about “moderating a kind of swap meet where people compare societal models, laws, political experiences and the arts.”

“Icons in the best sense of the word”

“For me, they are Goethe icons in the best sense of the word,” says Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the President of the Goethe-Institut, “Marschall von Bieberstein as the fervent European, who would acquiesce to nothing, and Meyer-Clason, who opened up South American literature to us and played a pivotal role at the Goethe-Institut in Lisbon during the transition from the military dictatorship to democracy.”

Indeed, the editor, translator, and writer Meyer-Clason was given the job of taking over the institute in Lisbon in 1969, while the dictatorship was still in power. He brought the institute unscathed through the confusion of the Revolution of the Carnations. When he was forced to give up his office in 1976 – he had reached retirement age – there were even protests. He should remain, the press demanded. The newspaper of the capital city O Jornal wrote that the Lisbon Goethe-Institut had been “the only consistent and vital cultural centre of the city,” and “a stimulant, a refuge and an open door to Europe.”

The institute was the meeting place of Portuguese intellectuals, they conversed with one another in a way that was not possible in the nation, and arts were experienced there that were otherwise not permitted to be heard and seen. The guests that Meyer-Clason invited to the Goethe-Institut Lisbon, for instance Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Peter Weiss, Günter Grass and Franz Xaver Kroetz, contributed to this.

He gave the Germans Neruda

Admittedly, Meyer-Clason is known to a broader public chiefly as a translator, and in this capacity, too, was a pioneer: many Latin American writers have him to thank for their success in Germany; Gabriel García Marquez for example and Jorge Amado, but also Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. He translated far over 150 books into German. But his own autobiographical works Äquator and Die Portugiesischen Tagebücher also received attention. In the Tagebücher Meyer-Clason tells of his Goethe years in Lisbon.

The other man was simply known as “the Marschall.” At the young age of thirty, Michael Baron Marschall von Bieberstein took up the direction of a Goethe-Institut. It was in Rome in 1961. In the 1960s a great deal was happening at the Roman Goethe-Institut. Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer and Helmut Gollwitzer held lectures there, students came to listen to them, sometimes sitting on the corridor floor knee to knee. The Marschall later published the speeches in a book.

Artists residing there came in and out the doors, people like Ingeborg Bachmann, Alberto Moravia and Natalia Ginzburg. Marie Luise Kaschnitz was an aunt, Theodor W. Adorno was simply “Uncle Teddy,” and Elena, the daughter of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, was the godmother of eight of the Marschall children.

“He who does not think, out!”

Another guest, the historian Golo Mann, caused uproar in 1966 by demanding recognition of the Oder-Neisse border. The consequences were an inquiry in the Bundestag, a reprimand for the “wasted” taxpayers' money and the – unsuccessful – demand for the immediate dismissal of the irresponsible institute director. “The Red Baron,” as was soon the awry nickname of Marschall von Bieberstein, was a thorn in the side of Franz Josef Strauss in particular.

Yet the Marschall was no leftist, but rather first and foremost a fervent European. In his day, this was not a matter of course. Through his practical and pan-European integrated cultural work and through his conceptually oriented actions, he set a formative course that went beyond the Goethe-Institut.

After Rome came further stations in Europe: Paris, Strasbourg (in the Council of Europe), and Madrid. Yet Marschall von Bieberstein remains unforgotten mainly as the man in Rome. During the Marschall years the institute there, as a colleague recalls, was not merely the German cultural institute in Rome, it was also a recognized and understood part of the Roman scene. This was not exclusively, but to a great part, the merit of its director. He returned there in 1990 as his last station at the Goethe-Institut.

In a portrait, Die Zeit described him as a “silent mediator” and quoted him as saying, “One must be a man of the mind to assert oneself in the republic of scholars.” In authoritative type, his bookcase in Madrid displayed the slogan: “El que no piense, fuera!” or “He who does not think, out!”

Michael Marschall von Bieberstein passed away on 19 January in Au, Baden at the age of 81 years after a long illness. Curt Meyer-Clason died six days earlier in Munich. He was 101 years old.

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