“We only see the outside world when there’s murder, torture or killing somewhere.”

09.06.2015 - Interview

Why Palmyra must be saved, African pop music promoted and the Humboldt-Forum rethought: Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier shares his take on cultural policy. Published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (9 June 2015).

Why Palmyra must be saved, African pop music promoted and the Humboldt-Forum rethought: Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier shares his take on cultural policy. Published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (9 June 2015).


The Syrian city of ruins, Palmyra, risks being destroyed by the Islamic State. What can Germany do?

Palmyra is one of the sites which shows us where we’re from, which is part of our identity. In order to preserve these sites we must create international rules and also take some very practical steps. Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters is currently working on a law to improve the protection of cultural property. Together with Iraq, we put forward a draft resolution on improving the protection of cultural property at the United Nations General Assembly, and it was adopted by a large majority. Is that of any use for the cultural property that is currently under threat from ISIS? Probably not directly. Indirectly, however, it is, for we also want to curb illegal trade and cut off the sources of funding to ISIS. Moreover, we’ve made more funds available to the German Archaeological Institute in order to catalogue cultural property at risk, not only to identify them on illegal cultural markets but also to enable restoration at a later stage.

Is that not a capitulation? We cannot protect cultural objects so we’re digitising them in order to remember them?

I am also pushed to the brink of despair by the fact that we’ve not found a way of stopping these hordes of terrorists, who stop at nothing; by the fact that this mix of barbarity reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the internet, doused in religious fanaticism, attracts supporters not only in the Islamic world but amongst young people in Europe. In any case it seems to me that our Arab neighbours increasingly agree that things must no longer be allowed to take their course and that decisive counter-action must be taken. Until then, however, we are well advised – as in the case of Palmyra – to do everything possible to protect cultural property and not give up in the face of despair.

Should bombs have been used to protect Palmyra?

The idea that we could save cultural property in Syria or Iraq through even more military engagement is not very highly developed. Yet we’re doing everything in our power to support the forces fighting against ISIS. This includes supplying weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga, a decision which as you know was not only met with approval. In this respect, Germany is engaging far more than we could have imagined a few years ago.

Are our concerns about Palmyra not disproportionate? Should we not be above all looking after people?

That is exactly what we’re doing. We were amongst the first to get help to those who struggled desperately to get to safety and away from the advancing hordes of ISIS terrorists. Germany alone has spent one billion euros in the past three years on providing for the refugees and stabilising the countries which took them in, such as Lebanon and Jordan. And nevertheless we still quite rightly have to look after cultural property, too.


I recently inaugurated the Abbey of Corvey as a World Cultural Heritage site. Now you could wonder what the Abbey of Corvey has to do with Palmyra. At first glance, nothing. One is a Carolingian abbey in eastern Westphalia, the other an ancient, formerly thriving, oasis city. Upon closer inspection, however, they are connected in many ways. Corvey and Palmyra are sites which have written the history of mankind, on which you can see the levels of the development of humanity. These sites still make a significant contribution to forming our identities and serve as points of orientation. “The future needs heritage,” wrote the recently deceased Odo Marquardt. And thus in times of great uncertainty, in a world which is becoming ever more complicated, a world without order, preserving cultural heritage is vital.

You talked of the possibility of culture strengthening ’world reason’, something which we may need now more than ever before. But how is that supposed to work?

My modest aim is to help free foreign policy from its traditional constraints. Partner countries or regions with whom we work are too often perceived as the sum of the treaties that have been signed. What are we negotiating? What are our economic interests? Yet we’ll only gain a comprehensive view if we take into account everything that makes up the dreams and traumas of a partner and to fully understand it all.

Dreams and traumas?

The traumas of those with whom we have a conflict-racked history. The dreams of those who still seek to approach the standards of living, freedom and democracy that we enjoy in Europe. Indian writer Rajvinder Singh once described this to me as a foreign policy of six eyes: first of all we must attempt to see the world through our own eyes, then through the eyes of the other, and finally we must try to find similarities between these differing perceptions. That is not yet world reason but it is the endeavour to recognise its outline.

In the Arab world, only recently we hoped that culture would help to bring development and freedom. Today we know that this was a delusion.

That’s not how it was. Quite the opposite, when I think back to the beginning of my term in office, with our efforts with the book fair in Cairo or conferences on Islam held in our country, we were trying to make it possible to at least discuss the differences, and at the same time we feared that behind those we discussed publicly, more conflicts simmered in the background. The naive view that some people assumed we had, that we lived in complete harmony with the entire Muslim Arab world, was never held. Otherwise, I think that this form and idea of cultural relations policy would never have emerged, a policy which strives to understand what made the other tick, without falling into the trap of thinking that as a result we can correct them straightaway.

That sounds like a new concept of culture.

I’m not as much interested in the concept of culture itself as I am in how we can delve into and understand social processes in all their diversity. The desire for social inclusion, to bring one’s own identity to terms with the economic and political realities of globalisation manifests itself in very different ways in some Arab countries than it does for instance in countries in Africa. That is why cultural policy cannot limit itself to aesthetic labels but must extend to include political and social criteria. What I’m interested in is the social power of culture.

So what does exchange which doesn’t widen the divides look like?

My philosophy is promotion without dirigisme. It would be naive to assume that every exchange leads to understanding, let alone agreement. It is also possible that exchange initially involves catharsis and requires repeated encounters before it starts contributing to understanding.

Could we have an example please. What about Russia for instance?

In that regard we’ve seen easier times than those since the annexation of Crimea. There were big joint German-Russian exhibitions, such as “Russians and Germans – 1000 Years of Art, History and Culture”, which were flanked by many other events. That was the time when we conceived the idea of a modernisation partnership, when we were curious about and interested in one another. Sadly we are far from this point at the moment. And I fear that we are currently moving somewhat more backwards than forwards in German-Russian cultural cooperation; our cultural discussion is focused on the past and a vision of a common future has fallen by the wayside.

Is the first thing that culture professionals in countries such as Russia or the Arab world expect from Germany not a visa so that they can come to our country?

When I hold speeches in universities in Russia I meet young people who want to know how to get together. That is why, especially in politically difficult times such as now, we must not stop working on retaining cultural contact. But we must take a broad approach to doing so, we cannot limit ourselves to exchange between museums and artists. Above all, we need to remain in contact with the countless academic institutions in Russia which strive to maintain exchange with the world and are not regressing into a parochial approach to academic discussion limited to Russia.

Does your concept of culture also include academia and perhaps even pop culture?

We’ve asked ourselves the same question, for instance when it comes to Africa. How can we gain an insight into how the younger generations in Africa communicate with one another across regions? And what crosses the barriers of speech, language and dialects? Ultimately the answer is music. We helped to set up the project Music in Africa. It is the first internal African exchange project on pop music that wasn’t masterminded by a large American or international record label. And it has grown astoundingly fast. We talked about it for the first time six years ago; today it has been running for two years and has offices in Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Dakar and Lagos. The number of participants is growing every year.

Are you plugging into the post-colonial era, when pan-African music emerged for the first time?

Today we need to go one step further when we think of cultural relations policy in the post-colonial era. Germany’s Cultural Relations Policy cannot and must not limit itself to exporting German cultural goods abroad and generously extending reciprocal invitations every now and again. If we want to act as equal partners then wherever there’s interest we must initiate cultural cooperation, make co‑productions and reach a new phase of cultural relations policy.

Do you have an example of what that would be?

Cooperating on music or film projects. Or if we think three steps ahead, about what we can display in the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin.

There are institutes which have long broken from traditional aesthetic ideals shaped by the notion of high culture and are tackling political and social issues. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin is a prime example of this. What can the Humboldt-Forum add to this?

It presents a terrific opportunity to broaden our horizons and expand our view of the world. The navel-gazing we sometimes get caught up in here in Germany often doesn’t equip us to understand what is going on in different places in the world and above all, why it’s happening. If it’s planned with the right ambition, the Humboldt-Forum can make a large contribution to helping us do so.

The collections of art from the Museum of Ethnology in Dahlem are set to be the centrepiece of the Humboldt-Forum. How does looking at hundred-year-old masks from West Africa help us to understand the world of today?

First of all I have absolutely nothing against the exhibitions. On the contrary. But if all that was planned was to bring the same collections to new, more attractive places in the centre of the city then this wouldn’t be enough. The collections themselves provide us with impetus to form a view of the world which the generations of discoverers could not yet have done. You can bring representatives of different cultures together so that they can hold discussions which could not be held anywhere else. And that itself will help Germans to understand themselves and to form a view of the world.

That sounds great but somewhat vague.

Listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, and German broadcasters: We only see the outside world when there’s murder, torture or killing somewhere. We have a very German view of the world which is hard to readjust unless there are really drastic developments. It would be a huge step forward if the Humboldt-Forum could help boost our curiosity for the world, beyond its conflicts. We’re not forcing this, but when we’re asked to help then naturally we’re willing to do so along with cultural mediators.

So what does Minister of State Grütters say about this idea? She is the hostess of the Forum, whereas you, though you did visit the construction site with the German Ambassadors last year, in fact, you’re simply an observer, aren’t you?

I’ve never felt that international cultural relations policy is seen as competing with national cultural policy. We are in constant contact with one another, as are our personnel. One does not take away from the other, in any case that’s my view. The Humboldt-Forum will most likely be many things, but it won’t be the centre of Germany’s work on the concept of culture.

No, if you can prevent that.

No, I don’t actually know anyone who wants that. I just find the way in which the Humboldt-Forum is being debated a bit too typically German. The place should be seen as an opportunity. It’s good for there to be public debate and discussion over the content and way the exhibitions are set up. And I think it’s a shame that, so many years before its opening, there are complaints that the Thursday opening hours are not yet fixed. Specifically because we still have time, and because I can imagine that director Neil MacGregor will even be promoting debate, we should use this opportunity.

Last of all, the saddest question: when will Palmyra be destroyed?

Following the experiences of recent weeks and the destruction of other ancient sites, there’s no reason to be optimistic.

Interview conducted by Andrian Kreye and Sonja Zekri. Reproduced by kind permission of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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