66 Years of Goethe
When the world is spinning even faster

Goethe-Institut Lomé, 1976 – Two students take a short break while the gentleman between them takes care of the equipment
Goethe-Institut Lomé, 1976 – Two students take a short break while the gentleman between them takes care of the equipment | Photo: Michael Friedel

It is another anniversary for the Goethe-Institut. It’s not a milestone year and repdigits are far too overestimated as it is. But there’s no way around acknowledging this anniversary, and not just for Lida’s sake.

On a day like today – to be more precise, on the day the Goethe-Institut turns 66 years old – allow us to take a brief look back. For example, at an idyllic mountain meadow in the Alps in the 1950s: Around the bend comes not a forester, but a group of hikers from all corners of the earth. They encounter an old man wearing a traditional feathered hat and smoking a pipe. A young Iranian asks him in German, “Excuse me, how far is it to the next town?” The man replies, “So oanahoib Stund.” The woman seems confused. “Pardon me?” A man in a plaid shirt intercedes, explaining, “It’s dialect. He means, one and a half hours. Or an hour and a half.” To which the old man protests, “Des hob’ i ja gsogt! (That’s what I said!)”

The scene is from a short film called Lida lernt Deutsch by the young director Edgar Reitz. Reitz, who would later become famous with films like the family saga Heimat, was commissioned to make a spot to interest international students in Goethe-Institut language courses.

At the time, they had just begun. The first language courses in the Federal Republic were launched in Bad Reichenhall, Upper Bavaria in 1953. In the late 1960s, the institutes were located mainly in scenic rural towns and villages. At the time, the idea was that the countryside was a good place to learn in peace and quiet. For some students from well-off families (others could not afford a stay in Germany), the single shared toilet per storey and the typical shower only once a week were cause for amazement.

From Bad Reichenhall to Novosibirsk

There is no Goethe-Institut in Bad Reichenhall anymore, but instead in 159 other towns in 98 countries from San Francisco to Novosibirsk and from Helsinki to Wellington. More than 200,000 people attend a language course at the Goethe-Institut in 2016/2017. 3,300 people work for the establishment. And “Goethe” has long been just as much a cultural as it is a language institute organising 5,000 cultural projects in 2016/2017.

The Goethe-Institut is proud of its achievements so far. “Sixty-six years of the Goethe-Institut, sixty-six years of cultural mediation abroad, international dialogue and the opening of free spaces where people can think and discuss,” summarises Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the institute. “I hope that the Goethe-Institut is able to expand its role as a globally recognised cultural ambassador, language teacher and bridge builder and act as a guarantor of freedom of expression – especially in these difficult times when dialogue and cooperation are more important than ever.”

CEO Johannes Ebert sees it the same way, saying, “The world is moving and the Goethe-Institut is right in the middle. That can be said for each of the past sixty-six years. Today, in particular – you get the feeling – the world is spinning very fast: the demands on culture and education as platforms of communication and fields of global dialogue are growing. Fortunately, at the age of sixty-six the Goethe-Institut is not an old lady – quite the contrary. And if it is? Then we’ll borrow the line from Udo Jürgens’s song: ‘Mit 66 Jahren, da kommt man erst in Schuss. Mit 66 ist noch lange nicht Schluss.’ (At sixty-six, you’re in your clover. At sixty-six it’s far from over.)’”

Strauss is not amused

Yet even this young lady has gone through many changes throughout her history. At the beginning, the main aim is to renew the image of Germany in the world, which was severely damaged by the Nazis, and to support its return to the international community. During the Brandt era, foreign cultural policy is realigned and, as a “third pillar,” it now enjoys special appreciation alongside traditional diplomacy and foreign trade policy. The work becomes more critical, more socio-political. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe becomes the focus, as well as intercultural dialogue even before 11 September. “The dialogue between cultures is an indispensable part of European and global peace policy,” said former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher once. “Today, where talk of the supposedly inevitable ‘clash of cultures’ is on everyone’s lips, this cannot be emphasised enough.”

In its work, from the outset the Goethe-Institut has been autonomous and independent of the government, which in some cases had its price. These included scandals – or what they considered scandals at the time. For example, when the Goethe-Institut organised an exhibition of Klaus Staeck in London in 1974 with provocative posters about Franz Josef Strauss, the subject was not exactly thrilled. But the Goethe-Institut did not bow to the man in power.

To predict what the coming decades might be like for the Goethe-Institut would be presumptuous. But Lehmann is certain of one thing: “Only what changes has staying power.”