Interview about German Reunification “Not Only the Sunny Side”

Permeable wall in 1990: “There’s a good reason to celebrate”
Permeable wall in 1990: “There’s a good reason to celebrate” | Photo: Jurek Durczak / Wikimedia Commons

Horst Harnischfeger was the longest incumbent secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut. He held the reins from 1976 until 1996 and experienced German-German history up close. We interviewed Harnischfeger about his memories of German reunification.

In 1989, the Goethe-Institut had almost 150 institutions abroad, while the GDR operated its Cultural and Information Centres at ten locations in the Middle East, Northern and Eastern Europe as well as in Paris. Did you visit any of those facilities? Were they competitors?

I can remember visiting two of the Cultural and Information Centres of the GDR, namely in Paris and Budapest, incognito. The reason was sheer curiosity because cooperation or official visits were certainly out of the question. The employees of these GDR Centres were not allowed to have any contact with the Goethe-Institut. We did not perceive these institutions as competitors. The two German states were represented in the International German Teachers’ Association by the Goethe and the Herder-Institut and there was even a degree of cooperation, for example in the organization of international German teacher conferences.

How would you describe the foreign cultural policy of West Germany before 1989?

Ever since, in the mid-seventies, a Bundestag commission of inquiry had submitted a report on this field of policy, an emphasis on dialogue and cooperation and against representation was the common understanding even among the different political camps. Processing our Nazi past was considered just as important as problematic aspects of politics and society. There were nuances and sometimes controversy over individual actions by the Goethe-Instituts, which often were regarded as suspicious leftist tendencies among conservative politicians. A speech by Franz Josef Strauss at the meeting of the Goethe-Institut in June 1986 is notable. He called for more “light colours” and emphasis of the “sunny side” of our country and our culture while at the same time denoting the policy of the GDR as a shining example. Interestingly enough, this aspect has disappeared in the discussion since the end of the Cold War.

What did West Germany’s claim to sole representation mean for the work of the Goethe-Instituts?

Horst Harnischfeger experienced reunification as the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut Horst Harnischfeger experienced reunification as the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut | Photo: privat Actually, the claim to sole representation meant nothing for our work, because it was all about a constitutional statement that had already been abandoned in 1969 by Brandt’s government. In fact, the Goethe-Instituts always provided information about the GDR, because foreign partners were also interested in that part of Germany and could only learn about it here. Apart from Paris, the GDR Cultural and Information Centres were only located in Eastern Europe.

When you look back at the past 25 years what changes did reunification bring about for the Goethe-Institut?

German reunification and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc are closely related. They mainly allowed the institute network to extend to the countries of Eastern Europe, which was a not an easy task. The need for information and assembly was huge and could hardly be satisfied. The German language was also booming, especially in countries where Russian was eliminated as a compulsory language. Meanwhile, the situation returned to normal. Ultimately, we were able to open domestic institutes in East Germany. Reunification did not change the basic orientation of the work of the Goethe-Institut as far as I can see. It continues to be a successful model.

How and where did you yourself celebrate on 3 October 1990?

I simply cannot remember, which may be because I didn’t approve of the choice of that date and preferred 9 November.

How should the Goethe-Instituts celebrate the anniversary of reunification in 2015?

I think there’s a good reason to celebrate. It is an opportunity to have a party and invite the partners and friends of the institute. I can also imagine, because the event was, after all, 25 years ago, that the historical events surrounding the fall of the wall and reunification and the growing together or not growing together of the two parts of Germany could be discussed, for example in exhibitions or symposia.

The interview was held by Jörg Schumacher.