Obituary “She gave the Goethe-Institut its wings back”

Jutta Limbach
Jutta Limbach | Photo: Goethe-Institut e.V.

The Goethe-Institut mourns its former president Jutta Limbach (1934-2016). With language policy initiatives like “The Most Beautiful German Word,” between 2002 and 2008 she shaped international cultural dialogue and the promotion of the German language abroad, making it more accessible to a worldwide audience.

It is in deep mourning and with great sadness that we remember Jutta Limbach, who died on 10 September 2016 at the age of 82 in Berlin. She was a great individual, well respected and appreciated far beyond the borders of our country. From 2002 to 2008, she was president of the Goethe-Institut, a position that she herself called the best honorary post. And that is the way she carried it out, too, joyfully and with vigour.

Jutta Limbach was a serene and confident woman who was in the right place at the right time with her optimistic attitude and open method of communication. The situation of the Goethe-Institut was not necessarily rosy: The institute was in financial difficulties, its structures were outdated and policymakers were only moderately interested in foreign cultural policy. The situation was no doubt serious, but according to Jutta Limbach it was not hopeless.

Through her ability to address people at different levels openly and directly, she created a new internal sense of self-confidence. And outwardly, through her ability to open herself to political dialogue as a reliable and intelligent partner, she won the support of the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and of the Bundestag. With the institute’s two vice presidents, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and Volker Doppelfeld, she and the executive board laced up the reform package that is still effective today. With her pragmatism, she made strategic experiences immediately beneficial. The Goethe-Institut got its wings back.

It was not just the necessary administrative and structural efforts that marked her time in office and still reverberate positively to this day, but just as much the impressive large-scale projects that she drove forward with true passion to strengthen the German language. One was “The Power of Language” with events at 30 Goethe-Instituts around the world and another was “Languages Without Borders.”

I especially liked the approach of her graceful and witty initiatives “The Most Beautiful German Word” and “The Best Immigrated Word” and "The Emigrant Words.” The submissions from many enthusiastic participants were substantial and reflected the richness of the German language in a special way. The first places for the most beautiful German words, I still recall, were won by the words “Habseligkeiten,” “Geborgenheit” and “Liebe.” The immigrant words that I liked most were “Tollpatsch,” borrowed from Hungarian, and “Tacheles reden.”

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Jutta Limbach and Hilmar Hoffmann at the 60 anniversary of the Goethe-Institut. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Jutta Limbach and Hilmar Hoffmann at the 60 anniversary of the Goethe-Institut. | Photo: Andreas Teich Jutta Limbach was convinced of the beauty and the diversity of the German language. She knew of the pivotal effect of language skills for political, cultural and social success, also and not least as a key to integration. She is the one who coined the term, “English is a must, German a plus.” For Jutta Limbach it was not a fight against anglicisms and other foreign words; she simply wanted to revive the joy in the German language.

I am pleased that today the “German language window” is thrown wide open and that we record growing numbers of people learning the German language in the world every year. Politics, too, has understood how crucial it is to promote the German language. It is not only a tool but also provides points of access and ties to our country and our culture. But it is not a sure-fire success; it requires investments.

Europe was another big issue for Jutta Limbach. She once said, “The Europeans should align their ambition not only to finding common ground, but also to the knowledge of what distinguishes them from each other. European cooperation in matters of culture should preserve the diversity of the cultures and the multiplicity of languages.”

In closing, I would like to mention another two outstanding events associated with her name. The first was the ceremonial awarding of the Prince of Asturias Prize, which was directly related to her European commitment of the Goethe-Institut. The other was the opening of the reading room in Pyongyang, North Korea, which was associated with great hopes for a gradual opening by means of culture and education. That dream sadly did not come true, but the initiative itself was an important signal both at home and abroad. Goethe-Instituts need to be present in difficult countries. The appreciation of diversity, equality of others and intercultural skills of all involved: those were her guiding principles – and she lived them.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann

Jutta Limbach was the president of the Goethe-Institut from 2002 until 2008. Her successor, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, took office in 2008.