An Interview with Johannes Ebert Competing Values

Education, culture, dialogue: Johannes Ebert about the responsibilities of cultural institutions.
Education, culture, dialogue: Johannes Ebert about the responsibilities of cultural institutions. | Photo: Loredana La Rocca

Cairo, Ankara, Beirut, New York: Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, talks about new risks and strategies for foreign cultural work and the boundaries of dialogue.

Mr Ebert, German classes and exams are being cancelled at the Goethe-Institut; teachers are losing their jobs. How did it come to this deplorable situation?

We are in a difficult situation right now. We have twelve Goethe-Instituts in Germany that offer language courses. We have long had permanent and freelance employees. At the moment, the German pension insurance is investigating this practice. In their first letter, they questioned whether these freelance teachers were actually self-employed. Based on earlier audits, we are certain that we did the right thing but for legal reasons we cannot put new freelancers under contract at the moment. In the beginning of my career, I, too, taught German at the Goethe-Institut and I know what it means. I greatly regret the situation. But at least we can keep two-thirds of our programmes running.

When will the situation be clarified? Language courses are needed for refugees as well.

We hope to reach an agreement with the pension insurance as soon as possible and operate as usual.

Yet this has done considerable harm to the image of the Goethe-Institut.

I don’t think so. We embrace our social responsibility and for this reason have long paid very good fees that allow for social security. We are presently in the process of hiring almost 70 teachers across Germany to bridge the gap for a limited period. And we are working hard on a solution. But it is an ongoing proceeding, so I’m afraid can’t say any more about it now.

You are entering your second term as secretary-general. There is hardly any place abroad where things are quiet; everywhere there are changes, threats, problems.

This makes our work all the more crucial. We are facing all sorts of problems. In Russia, the NGO laws are being tightened, which affects our partners there in civil society. In Poland and Hungary, the populists are suddenly confronting us with a completely different understanding of values. The Goethe-Institut remains an important address for critical artists, for people who deal with open, experimental forms.

You spent a few years in Cairo. What are things like there now?

We opened a new building in Cairo last October. During my time there, our headquarters were on Tahrir Square. On principle, the Goethe-Institut cooperates with government agencies as well as with independent cultural institutions. Otherwise we could not reach the people who want to move things ahead. We are collaborating on good projects with the Ministry of Education in Cairo, which works. Government apparatuses are never as monolithic as they seem, nothing is only black or white. The independent scene in Cairo is, however, under pressure, and many a writer is now not choosing to publish in newspapers. In such a situation, we offer a platform to talk openly and discuss problems.

Has the Goethe strategy changed?

I think it has been the same for the past twenty years. Our cultural work changed a great deal since the collapse of the Soviet Union and then the 9/11 attacks. Because it suddenly became obvious that there are other opinions and values that are critical or hostile to the west. In March, we will hold an event in Berlin on this theme called Competing Narratives. We have to ask ourselves what it is that we want to convey. We are encountering different counterparts with which we must seek dialogue and assert our own position.

A journey to Warsaw is enough for that. Nationalism and conservative Catholicism are dangerous for politics and culture.

Non-liberal concepts have become stronger in many places. Discourse, openness, all this, which seemed self-evident for so long, is being questioned. Where is Europe heading? I was just discussing this with colleagues from the British Council. You find this fifty-fifty split almost everywhere: in Brexit, the Trump election, the presidential election in Austria. Half of the population is for Europe, for liberal values, the other half does not want it or is critical of it. Cultural institutions have to try to enter a dialogue with the people in that half, as well.

Education, culture, dialogue, Goethe-Institut: Those are the enemies of the populists. Do you feel as if you’re under attack?

We are not yet the target of populist campaigns, but there are more and more negative comments on social media from that camp.

You are working in an ever-more aggressive world. How do you adjust to that?

We have an extended concept of culture. It is not just about art and music and literature. We need to define our target groups, for example in the United States. How do we reach people who live outside the big cities, who know little about Germany and Europe, who take propaganda at face value? Student exchanges, teacher training through the Transatlantic Outreach Program, these are some instruments at our disposal. The German language plays an important role. In Lebanon, we organized a football programme for refugee children. The Goethe-Institut has to move more in this direction.

This integrative role of Germany in the world is becoming more important, is it not?

The question is how do cultural institutions deal with people who are not open, who see things differently, who reject the consequences of globalization and feel threatened? We have not found an answer yet. Our digital offerings will change, that is certain. We will invest and develop new ideas and formats there.

How about in countries with glaring human rights violations, such as Iran? After the cancellation of the Tehran exhibition, the Goethe-Institut is continuing its Iranian programme in Germany.

It is imperative that this dialogue and discussion take place, and for this we first have to get together. Culture can be a platform on which people can meet beyond daily politics. Iran – and I’ve been there several times – has an incredibly vibrant arts scene that is not seen here. It benefits both sides to invite these people to us. It is increasingly important for us to perceive the discourse in other countries. Through our network as the Goethe-Institut we have direct access to it.

Are there no limits to with whom you can speak, what you can accept?

If we attempt to enter into cultural exchange with certain countries, it does not mean that we approve of all that is happening there. We reject injustice. This is also addressed. For me the limit is reached when artists, organizers or the audience are threatened or put in danger by programmes.

Where abroad will the Goethe-Institut become newly active or intensify its efforts?

In Iran, Goethe-Institut employees work under the roof of the German embassy. The same is true in Cuba and Algeria. In New York, we will be opening the German Academy together with the German Foreign Office. In Brazil we have already set up new residences. Over the next five years, we will be dealing with the question of latitude. It is the big subject of freedom, in Europe, all over the world.

But in a worsened security situation. The Goethe-Institut is a soft target.

It is a tightrope walk to protect our people and at the same time to preserve the open character of our institutes. For example, we will undertake construction measures in Ankara for safety's sake, and we train our employees on how to deal with threats.

What about the Goethe-Instituts in the Middle East?

In Beirut work goes on as usual. The institute in Damascus is the only one that we have had to close. We are trying to do something for the refugee Syrians in neighbouring countries.

And what happened with your staff in Damascus?

Many have gone abroad. We provided financial compensation. Two former employees recently organized the event Damascus in Exile in Berlin, one employee went to Tashkent. We opened a liaison office in Erbil, in northern Iraq. In these times of rollback, our tasks have become more important and extensive.

The interview was conducted by Rüdiger Schaper.

This article was published in the online edition of the Tagesspiegel on 27 February.