Klaus-Dieter Lehmann “Somewhat impetuous”

Goethe president Lehmann in his office: He made the honorary post a full-time job
Goethe president Lehmann in his office: He made the honorary post a full-time job | Photo: Bettina Siegwart

He turned the library system upside down, renovated the museum island and invented the Humboldt Forum. For the past seven years he has guided the fate of the Goethe-Institut as its president. Now Klaus-Dieter Lehmann is turning 75. What better reason to look back at an unusual and impressive career.

Just to be different, let’s begin with an exclusive disclosure: Klaus-Dieter Lehmann was once a theatre extra. It was in the late 1950s at the Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf. We allow that this episode in Lehmann’s biography, which would not appear to suit him at all, was merely an after-school job. Yet when we examine his later career it does draw a chuckle, even from Lehmann himself. Of all the words used to dub the Goethe-Institut’s president and former head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the newspapers, “manager,” “string-puller,” “cultural grandee,” “moderator,” “networker,” “the voice of reason in Germany’s cultural industry,” indeed even “sun king,” “extra” was never one of them. “I even worked my way up to first-class extra,” Lehmann relates with mock pride. “That’s a solo role. Still non-speaking, but all the same.”

When Lehmann sits in his office on the third floor of the head office of the Goethe-Institut in Munich and reports on his 75-year life, he seems like anything but a retiree who let himself be roped into taking over a representative honorary post and otherwise is looking back at his past success. On the contrary, “P,” as the president is called at the Goethe-Institut both reverently and affectionately, seems like someone using his biography to put himself forward for more work. Regardless of what phase of his career he speaks of, one can always feel the passion with which he tackled each task.

Lisa and Klaus-Dieter Lehmann during a business trip in Cuba: “I have always been very lucky” Lisa and Klaus-Dieter Lehmann during a business trip in Cuba: “I have always been very lucky” | Photo: Reinhard Maiworm And his is an out-and-out success story. One would almost think there was something strange going on. No matter what this man undertakes, he carries it through. Lehmann himself is somewhat baffled when asked about his greatest failure. “I have always been very lucky,” he says. Only after thinking about it a good while, he finally remembers one setback during his time as president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Perhaps it was a mere blemish. “I would have liked to have housed the painting gallery in the direct vicinity of the museum island. That would really have been the triumph. But it sadly didn’t happen.”

But let’s take one thing at a time. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann was born in Breslau on 29 February 1940 as the son of a seamstress and a civil servant. His very first childhood memories are peaceful: the sheltered back yard where the children could play when the bomber squadrons were still far from Breslau. But near the end of war, other memories blend in with these and burn themselves deep into his mind: sirens, fleeing into the air-raid shelter, burning streets, collapsing buildings, people running for their lives. And also the barking voices of Hitler and Goebbels from the radio. Finally, in January 1945, fleeing the city with his mother and grandmother on the last refugee train that his grandfather drove.

Window to the world

The small family found refuge in the small Upper Franconian town of Rehau, where Klaus-Dieter Lehmann spent a happy childhood after the end of the war. It was here that he discovered his love of books, which would mould his whole life. While other lads his age were dreaming of growing up to be engine drivers, he, the grandson of a real engine driver, already wanted to become a librarian. The family in Rehau who took in the Lehmanns had a massive oak cabinet full of books. It was here that he first came into contact with Wilhelm Busch at the age of five. There was another place in Rehau that would become an almost daily destination for the youngster: the lending library. He consumed the books he found there, from Karl May to Goethe, metre for metre. “My world was too small for me,” Lehmann recalls today, “but literature opened a window to the world out there to me.”

Conversing with the author and dramaturge Nike Wagner: “I could never just represent” Conversing with the author and dramaturge Nike Wagner: “I could never just represent” | Photo: Maik Schuck The way to the world out there led at first to Düsseldorf. Here, too, were two libraries – far larger ones – in which Lehmann spent a great deal of time. He also spent time in jazz clubs and the theatre, where he worked as an extra. “I love the atmosphere of the theatre, but I never felt that I had the talent for a career as director, dramaturge or even actor.”

Yet the career that the lover of the fine arts first pursued is surprising. Lehmann studied mathematics and physics – in part because the friends in his clique did and so they could remain together, and in part because he had become doubtful of whether literature was suitable as a bread-and-butter job. The natural sciences certainly were. And, as so often in his life, Lehmann did his job very successfully. Studies in Cologne and Mainz, then at the Max-Planck-Institut, and finally the Americans were knocking on his door. Lehmann had developed a mass spectrometric method of measuring small trace elements. Since US scientists did not have such methods at that time, they simply brought the stones that Armstrong and Co brought back from the moon in 1969 to Mainz to examine.

Mediating, communicating, forging alliances

Then came the apparent break: At 27, when Lehmann was already an established scientist and looking ahead at a promising career, he decided instead to try something new. He went back to university and became a librarian. In the meantime, literature production and sales were being organized with computers and networks, applications that Lehmann mastered due to his academic education. He still likes to tell the anecdote about the state and university library in Darmstadt where he first worked. It contained a patent specifications office. Technological innovations were housed in metres-high shelves spilling over with stacks of paper. Searching through them was quite a task for patent agents and inventors. How complicated and time-consuming, thought Lehmann, and went off to Darmstadt companies – while his colleagues were on holiday – searching for sponsors, purchased some machinery and transferred the patent specifications office to punch cards. The patent specifications were contained on them in a small microfilm window. By encoding the relevant key words on the punch card, the machine instantly weeded out the correct patent specification. The endeavour was, however, not without peril. “I had basically committed an act of insubordination.” But the library director recognized the great benefits of the unauthorized action of his clerk and waived disciplinary measures. “Later, he just wrote in my reference: ‘Somewhat impetuous.’ I really liked that.” And hence, in retrospect, the detour via mathematics and physics appears to have been an inevitable step on the pathway to his goal. “It paid off,” Lehmann says, “my passion and academic training merged together.”

On the dais with Chancellor Angela Merkel: Lehmann is well-networked in Berlin On the dais with Chancellor Angela Merkel: Lehmann is well-networked in Berlin | Photo: Goethe-Institut The brief expedition into the natural sciences was also worthwhile for him on a personal level: at university, Lehmann met Lisa Schiep. This year he and she, a geophysicist, are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Their two children are now in their early forties and at the midpoints of their careers; their son as an attorney and their daughter a psychotherapist.

Ultimately, the next 25 years were dedicated to libraries. It was a time in which a lot of persuading had to be done, but also a tough battle to be won now and again. Lehmann is not the kind of person who is satisfied with merely administering circumstances as he finds them. Wherever Lehmann goes, everything is put under close scrutiny, much is modernized, new services are developed for customers, and workflows are optimized. This was the case at the University Library in Frankfurt, where he became director at the young age of 33, and it was the case at the German National Library, which he began running in 1988 and which he merged with the German Library in Leipzig after reunification. At that time, Lehmann’s core competencies were in demand as perhaps never before: mediating, enabling, communicating and forging alliances. “That’s what I do very well.”

“I’m a great initiator”

In 1998, it was time again for something new. “I had done it all.” Lehmann became the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. “That was surely a crowning moment. I was in charge of a state library, a classified state archive and eighteen museums. And it was my job to reorganize all of it.” It was no easy task for the eighteen museums had, of course, eighteen self-assured directors. But then, who cares for easy tasks? The invitation to Lehmann’s installation said, “Put something warm on!” Of course, it can be read literally since the event was held in the winter in the ruins of the Neues Museum. But, it can also be read another way.

Cultural dialogue begins with the attire: While travelling, Lehmann sometimes enjoys dressing in the national garb Cultural dialogue begins with the attire: While travelling, Lehmann sometimes enjoys dressing in the national garb | Photo: Sabine Hartert The Neues Museum is still Lehmann’s pride today. “I went through a lot there. But it was clear to me: when I leave, this place has to be finished.” And as strong as the headwinds were at first for him and his collaborator, the architect David Chipperfield, at the reopening only applause was heard. The same held true for Lehmann’s “invention,” the Humboldt Forum, which practically happened in passing. The reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace was well underway when Lehmann suggested people stop talking not merely about the façade, and start thinking about the content. Of course, he already had an idea: the non-European collections in Dahlem could be housed here. It’s an idea that he still, in spite of his modesty, calls brilliant today. “It is simply fantastic that the most stately place in Berlin, right across from the museum island, displays the world’s coming-into-being in the world’s cultures.”

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann has been the president of the Goethe-Institut since 2008, but he has accompanied the fate of the cultural institute far longer. He became its vice president in 2002, and Lehmann and his predecessor, Jutta Limbach, were a winning team. It was she who then presented the proposal that he become her successor in such a clever way that any resistance seemed futile from the outset. Lehmann turned the position, which is actually an honorary post, into a full-time job. “I could never just represent.” Rather, he sees himself as “a great initiator.” Together with Johannes Ebert, the secretary-general, and Bruno Gross, the business director, Lehmann concerns himself most of all with the strategic principles of the Goethe-Institut. His time in office has coincided with far-reaching structural reforms involving decentralization, regionalization and budgeting. It may sound sober and bureaucratic, but in reality it has resulted in the Goethe-Institut achieving renewed flexibility. After hard years during which the institute was out of the focus of politics, things were now looking up. The best signs for this were the new establishment or re-opening of Goethe-Instituts worldwide from Novosibirsk to Myanmar to Kinshasa. Active cultural networks have also been established with partners around the world. Lehmann and the Goethe-Institut found support, both for reforms and endowments, particularly from Foreign Minister Steinmeier, for whom cultural dialogue is of great importance for the design of foreign cultural and educational policy.

Lehmann on Herr Lehmann

In addition to his job at Goethe, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann has numerous other responsibilities. For example, he is on practically all the important book award committees, is the patron of the Komische Oper, belongs to the supervisory board of the Deutsches Museum, is an honorary professor of two universities, et cetera. The astonishing thing is that he still finds time for the thing that began it all and is still most important to him: books. “I always have a book with me.”

Whether Gabriel Marcía Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude , Günter Grass’s Tin Drum or Nino Haratischwili’s Das achte Leben – he prefers to read realistic novels. “For me, it has to be great narrative. I like to let myself be drawn into a story.” But Lehmann naturally also reads more contemporary German literature, for example Herr Lehmann, the original German title of Sven Regener’s Berlin Blues. “Yes, of course I’ve read it. With pleasure. It’s a wonderful story.”

Like many of those born in Breslau, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann has made Berlin his home, but he finds moving between Berlin and Munich invigorating. He had a special plan for later in life: to save a few old lead typesets and printing machines from decay. “And when I retire, I thought I’d set up my own printing shop and make my own books.” It’s a lovely notion to see Klaus-Dieter Lehmann in a smock at the old machines watching over the printing. But, it will probably remain a mere notion. Retirement is not for someone like Lehmann.