On the death of Hilmar Hoffmann A courageous champion of culture

Hilmar Hoffmann
Hilmar Hoffmann | Photo: Salome Roessler

Hilmar Hoffmann leaves us a legacy: domestic and foreign are not separate worlds. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann writes a personal obituary.

Hilmar Hoffmann was a passionate, independent and courageous champion of culture. For him, culture was not the playground of artists and intellectuals, but the foundation of our society, the chance to think innovations and to be open. The freedom of art and science was not negotiable for him, but the prerequisite for a sustainable society. He believed in the power of culture as an independent factor, not reduced to a decorative element of commercialisation or as a means of political instrumentalisation. He lived this conviction!

He inspired and was inspired

Now, at the age of 92, he has died in Frankfurt am Main, the city he shaped for twenty years, from 1970 to 1990, as Cultural Affairs director. He transformed the City of Capital into the City of Culture with the largest municipal cultural budget. He did not tread the beaten path, but instead created new pathways that took the elitist approach of culture existing for the educated middle classes and opened it up with his slogan “Culture for All” to be ideology-free and accessible with the Museumsufer, an embankment of museums along the Main River with novel museum types, strung like a string of pearls, the neighbourhood libraries as educational institutions, the theatre as a learning community. He grasped early on that cultural education is what makes people and that the tendency to assess every sphere of life only according to market principles endangers the community and acts of solidarity. He stood with his feet firmly on the ground, was a pragmatist with an intuitive sense of the feasible and could not be dissuaded from his convictions. He loved people, he inspired and was inspired.

The right man in the right place at the right time

At the age of 68, when others retire, he began a new career in 1993 as president of the Goethe-Institut. He held this honorary office until 2001. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. For him, domestic and foreign were not separate worlds. Culture as an elixir of life does not end at the borders of Germany, but is only confirmed in its value if it opens itself for cultural dialogue and respects the appreciation of diversity and the equality of others. Hilmar Hoffmann, with his powers of persuasion and his independence, but also with his network, was able to mobilise and form alliances. It was the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and a new multipolar world order, a time marked by political upheaval. Hilmar Hoffmann deliberately devoted himself to expanding the network of the Goethe-Institut in Central and Eastern Europe and saw the responsibility for a common European cultural space as a primary goal, not as uniformity but as desired coexistence. This approach remains central to us. But these years of the new world order were also a difficult time for the Goethe-Institut. Because of the drastic closure of institutes – against his will – the Goethe network was at risk of breaking up. Hilmar Hoffmann tried to prevent the worst by raising funds, but it was not until the grand coalition in 2004 that a viable solution could be found. It’s not surprising that President Johannes Rau called him a gifted beggar.

For me, Hilmar Hoffmann was a friend and long-time companion. He came to Frankfurt in 1970, I arrived in 1972 as director of the City and University Library. He was my department head. We had many common convictions in this close constellation. He was then also on the supervisory board of the Deutsche Bibliothek, I became its director general in 1988. Our fundamental convictions remained and I see myself confirmed as his successor to the office of Goethe president in Hilmar Hoffmann’s views: Foreign cultural and educational policy is neither suitable for the competition of systems nor for being instrumentalised in the service of hegemony and economic development. Its independence is a precious asset.