“What must we do when culture is being destroyed?”

15.05.2015 - Interview

The international protection of cultural property is a political task. Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 15 May 2015.

The international protection of cultural property is a political task. Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 15 May 2015.


The world is out of joint – literally and figuratively. Natural disasters such as in Nepal, barbaric acts of destruction like those in Mali and the countries in the crisis region around Syria, terrorist attacks as recently seen in Tunisia – in many places and for very different reasons, human beings and peoples are currently facing threats to their cultural heritage.

Help from Germany is essential here. Beyond the level of cultural objects and current political and economic difficulties, one issue has become particularly significant in many parts of the world, that is, the development and protection of a cultural identity that safeguards our partners’ openness and future and can thus form the basis for a new order. Germany’s expertise is particularly sought after here, and our work in this field is very highly regarded. Interaction between the state and civil society plays a major role in this context. According to our interlocutors, we do more than almost any other country through such interaction to foster emancipation and progress through education, to develop free media, to increase social and cultural participation, and to protect the cultural objects that stand for our partners’ cultural identity.

Cultural relations and education policy enhances the trust that we need in order to reach political settlements. One example of the extent of this trust can be seen in the fact that Egypt has entrusted a team from the German Archaeological Institute, German universities and museums to research and restore Tutankhamen’s mask. Anyone who is aware of the almost religious status of this mask and what it means for Egypt’s cultural and political identity will agree with me when I say that joint work on protecting cultural property is a political task.

This is particularly true at a time when we are seeing images of barbaric destruction almost every day. Those who desecrate the homes of religion and ancestors destroy the symbols and bearers of a shared cultural consciousness and aim to rob countries and people of their identity. We know this, but so do the enemies of culture. This is why they are rampaging in Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra. They sell what survives destruction to unscrupulous traders, and through them to even more unscrupulous buyers, who accept the eradication of culture as a perverse basis for their private collections of cultural objects. The enemies of culture destroy and move objects that provide local people with sources of identity.

Germany has a particular responsibility here. This currently involves taking on responsibility within the framework of the UNESCO World Heritage conference. Historically, we bear responsibility for our past because we know that those who rob others of their cultural identity leave the ground of shared humanity. Conversely, when we protect cultural property in the world and safeguard its material identity, we protect the foundations of humanity. The rescue and restoration of centuries-old manuscripts from destruction by Islamists in Mali, which we undertook with partners from civil society, particularly the Gerda Henkel Foundation, thus does not merely help to preserve culture – it also preserves the foundations of cultural knowledge that is not based on religious fanaticism or intolerance.

The same is true of the endeavours by the German Archaeological Institute to preserve culture in Syria and many other places in the world. The collaboration between the state, civil society, research institutes and museums forms a major strength of cultural relations policy. In this joining of forces, cultural relations policy truly means practising and protecting humanity. Whether this involves cultural work in refugee camps or with urban refugees in host countries – including here in Germany! – or our efforts to preserve culture, the aim is to strengthen the social power of culture.

This is why we also need to enhance protection against illegal trade in cultural objects here in Europe and Germany. To date, existing legislation provides too few means for taking resolute action against this illegal trade. The Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media put this topic on the agenda of an international conference last winter. We also support the Commissioner’s draft of a new Act on the Protection of Cultural Property, which will finally place the onus on traders, who must present a licence to export goods from the country of origin, rather than on the countries that have been harmed, which so far have had to produce lists of protected objects.

However, we cannot simply stop at national legislation – and nor do we want to. This is why we previously sought special European protection for Iraqi – and subsequently for Syrian – cultural property in the EU a few years ago. We want to extend this protection in the future. Most importantly, Germany and Iraq jointly presented a draft resolution on the protection of world cultural heritage at the United Nations General Assembly last week in which we called for condemnation by the international community of this barbaric destruction. Further aims of the resolution are to tighten measures against illegal trade and to do more to prosecute those responsible – on both the international and the national level. We also need better international cooperation to protect, record and reconstruct cultural heritage.

However, we cannot simply stop at the legal level – and nor do we want to. Europe has a responsibility that goes beyond merely setting norms. Using Egypt as an example, the archaeologist Stephan Sedlmayer said, “Europe’s acquisition of knowledge about ancient Egypt also took the form of unlawful acquisition of cultural objects.” Given the destruction of cultural property in Syria and Iraq, this assessment entails a current task for our museums, research institutes and policymakers. Contemporary protection of cultural heritage also means making it available again in its countries of origin through joint research, joint cultural education measures and joint museum work.

As the Federal Foreign Office’s research institute, the German Archaeological Institute is setting international standards in this field. It works with outstanding partner organisations such as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and other German museums. We are planning to set up an Archaeological Heritage Network together to pool this expertise and make use of it in addressing current issues, such as the sustainable use of natural resources, via cultural education, joint excavations and restoration projects, and scientific evaluation. Above all, the aim is to safeguard access to the world’s cultural heritage here in Berlin and to work together to increase global knowledge. I am certain that an active cultural conservation policy of this kind will also play a positive role for the Humboldt-Forum and raise our awareness of the great connections between world cultures.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

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