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The Goethe-Institut in times of global crises
A policy of quiet sounds

Contribution by Carola Lentz in Politik & Kultur 11/2022.

This November I have been in office for two years as president of the Goethe-Institut. Global crises - from the COVID-19 pandemic to increasing restrictions on freedoms in countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Belarus and Iran to Russia's brutal war of aggression in Ukraine - have shaped these two years in ways that were hard to predict. They radically challenge international cultural exchange and the work of the Goethe-Institut. At the same time, the institute is confronted with massive budget cuts and enormous cost increases due to global inflation, rising energy prices and the fall of the euro. The largest German cultural mediator has not faced such challenges, both in terms of content and strategy as well as financially, for 20 years! A new chapter should be added to my book about the history of the Goethe-Institut, written for its 70th anniversary.

We are in the midst of a radical change. However, while in Germany and Western Europe there is often a discussion of a turning point, this diagnosis is by no means shared globally, as I was able to learn in conversations during my travels to the USA, Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa. There, the concern is rather that other profound challenges - such as other wars, terrorism and drug-related crime, underfunded education sectors and youth unemployment, or climate catastrophes - are being lost from view. Nevertheless, it is clear: the consequences of the Ukraine war are being felt everywhere, not least through the global economic crisis it has triggered. And the Goethe-Institut has to deal with it.

The new geostrategic polarisation has made the debate climate in Germany harsher. The disputes about documenta 15 and the role of the Holocaust and/or colonial crimes in the German culture of remembrance, but also discussions about the legitimacy of the previous Eastern policy and our relationship with Russia: the tone is becoming sharper, the mutual condemnations shriller. The specific attention economy of the opinion-shaping social media also contributes to this.

What role can the Goethe-Institut play in these times of crisis and in this noisy debate space? In the two years of my tenure, I have come to know the institute as flexible, prudent and highly self-reflexive. It is a multi-voiced, democratic organisation that thrives on the creativity of its staff. It observes and accompanies cultural and social developments abroad as well as at home instead of intervening hastily (without being asked) - a basic attitude that I am familiar with as an ethnologist and which, incidentally, creates more friends for our country in the world than loud statements at any price.

Three working methods distinguish the Goethe-Institut. Firstly, through its worldwide network, it brings the most diverse actors into dialogue with each other in encounter formats such as residencies, co-productions or workshops, who would otherwise not or hardly ever meet - and this within individual countries as well as transnationally and transcontinental. This promotes democratic attitudes without lecturing. And by playing back international voices, it also enriches German discussions and scenes. Secondly, the ethos of listening allows one to question one's own self-evident truths and, where necessary, to put them into perspective. And thirdly, through its close worldwide contacts in different local scenes, the Goethe-Institut can set new impulses by identifying future topics and introducing them elsewhere.

What contribution can such a policy of quiet tones and respectful exchange make to currently virulent issues and challenges? Here are a few examples:

On the topic of anti-Semitism, post-colonialism and German remembrance culture, for example, a discussion event in Weimar with the South African-Israeli historian Tali Nates, one of the winners of the Goethe Medal 2022, offered further ideas. Nates relies on the concept of “connections” in her “Johannesburg Genocide & Holocaust Centre”, which primarily conducts educational and awareness-raising work among South African youth, but also documents Jewish life stories. The tracing of biographical and social connections between different histories of violence, according to Nates, does not imply a relativisation of the Holocaust, but makes it possible to address the apartheid regime in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda. Similar arguments - but also objections - to “multidirectional memory” according to Michael Rothberg were also discussed in a very constructive way at the recent conference “Beyond: Toward a Future Practice of Remembering” in Frankfurt, organised by Meron Mendel and supported by the Goethe-Institut; myself a participant in the final panel, I was positively surprised at how objectively and respectfully the future of German remembrance culture was discussed here. And at a panel organised by the Goethe-Institut at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I discussed the topic of the “fundamental right of artistic freedom” with the French author Cécile Wajsbrot and the Polish cultural manager Basil Kerski. It became clear how much national sensitivities shape media perception and public discourse. And how important it is, therefore, to sharpen the view for specific historical and social framework conditions.

The Goethe-Institut's close contacts to the local cultural scenes in Africa, but also Southeast Asia, are important for its contributions to the topic of colonial heritage. In the 2010s, for example, the Institute was already involved in projects dealing with Germany's colonial past, connecting African actors in particular, but also providing impulses for the German discussion. In the “Museum Talks” initiated by the Goethe-Institut with African cultural workers, questions about the restitution of objects from colonial contexts were discussed, which were then taken on by the museum makers themselves and worked on further on their own. The current project “MuseumFutures”, which networks curators from various African countries under African leadership, is about the future design of museums in Africa. Here, too, the Goethe-Institut is not acting as an exporter of European expertise, but as a platform for exchange between culture makers from the Global South. And it brings these perspectives into the discussions in Germany.

The question of how cultural work and free spaces can be supported in illiberal contexts is also a central theme of the Goethe-Institut. Providing places for free exchange is becoming increasingly difficult. This is coupled with the flight of numerous cultural workers. The recently opened “Goethe-Institut in Exile” is a response to these developments. Initially projected to run for two years, it offers cultural workers who can no longer work in their own countries, or can only do so with difficulty, due to life-threatening circumstances, a stage as well as a place for discussion and exchange - among themselves and with German and other European partners. And here, too, the Goethe-Institut pursues a policy of rather quiet tones in order to protect staff and partners and not endanger their families.

Making global connections and promoting polyphony, exploring new issues and making them fruitful for debates here, and finally taming current polarisations through an ethos of listening: This policy thrives on trusting cooperation with our partners around the world. And to be able to guarantee this, we need sufficient funding. The 10.5 per cent cut in institutional funding compared to 2020 and 2021, combined with high inflation and the weakness of the European currency, is therefore hitting the Goethe-Institut and its work around the world hard. Already, the cuts for 2022 have meant that many institutes abroad will have to massively reduce their cultural work by the end of the year. Future investments in digital German offerings; the training of German teachers, the preparation of urgently needed specialists; the support of cultural actors who stand for social openness and plurality worldwide, or sustainability: these and other topics of the Goethe-Institut would have to be drastically reduced with the further cuts from 2023.

The Goethe-Institut is working intensively to consolidate its broad network in such a way that it is future-proof and able to meet the new geopolitical challenges. Foreign cultural and educational policy is not a “nice to have”, but the basis for a smart, unagitated and at the same time change-ready and continuous positioning of Germany in the world.