An Interview with Klaus-Dieter Lehmann “Life’s reality is what’s decisive”

In view of the political changes in the USA, the work of the six Goethe-Instituts there is becoming increasingly important. In a video interview, President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann explains how the Goethe-Institut aims to strengthen transatlantic communication and cooperation. 



Mr. Lehmann, the transatlantic relationship is facing a radical shift. How is the Goethe-Institut reacting in this situation?

The Goethe-Institut is reacting in the same way that it always reacts in difficult situations. It is pinning its hopes on culture, on education and on an exchange of opinions and experiences. We have a series of programs that we believe in and that we will expand. We will appeal to the young, and we will appeal to the flyover states, and we will attempt to prevent the clichés that are threatening to emerge by demonstrating what is actually happening, by showing the reality. The reality of life is the key.

Which of these aspects is the focus for you?

Naturally I have a favorite project, one that is not in the flyover states but in New York – namely the German Academy. For me, this is one of the most important points of all in German-American relations. It used to be the home of the Goethe-Institut, on Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan Museum, and more recently is a building that has come to embody the transatlantic relationship. It is here that all encounters of an economic, artistic, cultural, political or academic nature between America and Germany have taken place from the post-war period to the present day.

How can the Goethe-Institut strengthen the dialog between the USA and Germany?

One major initiative in 2018/19 certainly deserves a mention: Germany Year in the US, which will see business, academia, politics and culture working together. The Goethe-Institut is running the project, and throughout the year we will be presenting our events all over the country. And we will not only be showing culture, high-brow culture or pop culture, but will be focusing on social issues. Social media and structural change, for instance; there are some good examples that we saw in Pittsburgh, and I believe this will make it clear that it is indeed possible to combine European and American notions about society, and that the idea of returning to the old coal and steel industries is not the right way forward.  

How will the Goethe-Institut in the USA succeed in reaching people outside of the major cities?

There are two programs that I think have really proven themselves, though they could be expanded in size. One is GAPP, the German American Partnership Program; it has been underway for a very long time now, with something like 350,000 students having already taken part. The principle is really quite simple: we approach schools rather than individuals. I think there are around 750 schools in Germany that are partnered with schools in 48 US states, so the school and the local community is the partner, not an individual person, which means we have a relatively wide reach. Now we have the situation that 5,000 German students travel to the US each year, with another 4,000 going to Germany from America. At first they stay at the partner schools but then live in host families and are the best ambassadors you could imagine – it’s a really great program. If we expand this even further, we will find ourselves in a situation where people can find out for themselves what Germany looks like, how it thinks and how it works, and of course vice versa. I believe this is very important, especially since two thirds of the schools are in towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. People there only get news that they actively seek out themselves. So that is one of the programs.
Then we have another program targeted toward teachers. Called TOP, it is a program that is based on the multiplier principle. In other words, we have something like 1,400 or 1,500 teachers and trainers in the program who come to Germany on a visitors’ program and develop their own teaching materials based on the impressions they got in Germany. Then they take the teaching materials back to schools and to education departments in the US and they teach and train teachers at schools. And every year we reach at least half a million students – via these teaching materials alone.