Hoffmann’s Ninetieth Birthday “I’ll talk to the Chancellor”

A man of vision: Hilmar Hoffmann in his house in Frankfurt am Main
A man of vision: Hilmar Hoffmann in his house in Frankfurt am Main | Photo: (c) dpa – Report / Frank Rumpenhorst

He was one of the most influential presidents the Goethe-Institut ever had. With him at the top it defied many threats during difficult times. Now, Hilmar Hoffmann is turning ninety years old and we take a look back at his turbulent tenure. By Christoph Mücher

Was Hilmar Hoffmann a great president? An affirmative answer is inevitable inasmuch as Hilmar Hoffmann stood out immediately at 1.93 meters tall, with his silver-grey hair and ever watchful eagle eyes. Nonetheless, the office of president at the Goethe-Institut is “only” an honorary post. Rather than a generous salary, it pays an expense allowance and involves a lot of work if one is so inclined.

Hilmar Hoffmann was. As soon as Hoffmann took over the presidency in 1993, it was clear that a highly active president had come into office who wanted to bring his decades of experience in municipal cultural policy to the global business of Germany’s cultural institute. As founder of the Oberhausen Short Film Festival and the Frankfurt Museum Embankment, to name but two major achievements of his long career, the author of Kultur für alle (Culture for all) was well connected in Germany and the world and hungry to use his knowledge, contacts and visions for the network of Goethe-Instituts around the globe. For him, the reward and incentive was the feeling that he “governed a realm” where the sun never sets, as he liked to emphasize. Accordingly, it was appalling for him if individual sites created in a finely spun network over decades of work were at risk. Again and again, he boarded planes to rescue institutes like those in Genoa or Toulouse from closing through on-site negotiations. The meeting of the highest Goethe committee remains unforgotten, during which the news broke about the “Eichel Plan,” a reduction of the budget by eleven percent, which would have resulted in the closure of at least 20 Goethe-Instituts.

Brilliant networker

As general gloom and silence spread through the room, a bolt went through the president, who once again lived up to his name Hilmar (“proven in combat”), announcing, “I’ll talk to the Chancellor.” In fact, he was able to explain to Gerhard Schröder in a personal interview that a closure of German cultural institutes, for instance in Bordeaux, Thessaloniki, Oslo or Glasgow, would contribute little to Germany’s or the chancellor’s fame. The chancellor amended the decision and halved the reduction.

Grasp of the intersection between culture and industry: Goethe president Hoffmann Grasp of the intersection between culture and industry: Goethe president Hoffmann | Photo: Antje Meinen The fact that Schröder and Hoffmann belonged to the same party was not the decisive factor. Hoffmann had remarkably good contacts with like-minded people across all party boundaries. This was especially true for a “species” that German cultural diplomats of the Goethe-Institut before the Hoffmann era had shunned contact with: representatives of German industry. As an instinctive politician, Hilmar Hoffmann early grasped the intersection between the interests of a cultural republic re-positioning itself globally in the post-1945 era and export-oriented German industry. He understood their concerns and thinking, and one of his greatest achievements in the eight years of his presidency was probably being able to “win over” the entire institution to this stance. He also gained millions in funding for major projects like persuading Berthold Beitz to finance the beautifully equipped function hall in Washington, DC, an international cultural fringe program for Expo 2000 in Hanover (funded by the utility PreussenElektra), and the first multimedia German course, for which he won over Porsche’s powerful executive Wendelin Wiedeking.

Under Hoffmann’s leadership the Goethe-Institut learned to think in terms of large-scale projects. Often the eloquent and experienced Hilmar Hoffmann skilfully manipulated his male contacts, which would be a hard act to follow for the subtle and non-partisan former supreme court judge Jutta Limbach who took Hilmar Hoffmann’s place in 2002 (very successfully, I mention here in passing). When the Goethe team arrived at the headquarters of a German corporation and the agile president prepared himself for duty by combing though his silver-grey hair one last time, he would ask his sponsoring consultant the famous question, “How much do we need?” Often enough, upon leaving the building an hour later, the amount cited had been “extracted.”

So, was Hilmar Hoffmann a great president? Undoubtedly. He was – and still is today – a fearless fighter, who never spared himself (nor his compatriots), looked little to his own advantage, always lent an ear to the concerns of all employees and helped one of the greatest and yet most enigmatic institutions of post-war Germany to new professionalism and networks. Today, when high-profile board members of German DAX giants strategically advise the German cultural institute in the economic advisory board, when a separate sub-committee of the German Bundestag knowledgeably and committedly accompanies foreign cultural and educational policies and when German taxpayers are well informed about the work of “their” Goethe-Institut, this is also the merit of a great president.