“Strengthening the social power of culture”

11.06.2015 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier marking the topping-out ceremony for the Humboldt-Forum. First published in the news weekly DIE ZEIT (11 June 2015).

Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier marking the topping-out ceremony for the Humboldt-Forum. First published in the news weekly DIE ZEIT (11 June 2015).


With the topping-out ceremony for the Humboldt-Forum, an important step, in construction terms at least, has been taken towards the creation right at the heart of Berlin of an agora for the 21st century. Congratulations from the field of cultural relations and education policy! For we are convinced that the intended purpose of the Humboldt-Forum has much in common with what Willy Brandt once called the challenge of cultural cooperation – namely to work on world reason.

Once again this task sorely needs our attention. Twenty-five years after the end of the division of Germany and Europe, the illusion of the “end of history”, of a linear progression towards liberal democracies, no longer holds. The Ukraine conflict has brought war back to Europe. In Iraq and Syria the IS terror group is on a killing spree and is obliterating humanity’s millennia-old cultural heritage. In Libya, state structures are eroded, and in Nigeria Boko Haram is on the rampage. Crisis mode seems to be the new standard for now. The world is out of joint, in the broader sense too, as it is no longer “joined up” in the way our thought patterns expect. We have to react to this, and not by resorting merely to the traditional tools of foreign policy. Rather, we need to make use first and foremost of our cultural relations work. Why? Because even before politics comes into the picture, cultural relations prepare the ground; without cultural work, there is no possibility of political understanding and thus crisis prevention and crisis management.

We need to make even more use of this potential than we have done to date, both in responding to acute crises and in finding long-term solutions to ensure peace and security. At the end of February, following the Federal Foreign Office’s review of our foreign policy in a crisis-ridden world, I defined crises, order and Europe as our main strategic focuses.

For cultural relations and education policy this means, firstly, that we must respond to and intervene in crisis situations. If culture is a constituent part of a society, then cultural relations and education policy must play its part, particularly in situations where a society’s identity and cohesion are under threat.

The German Bundestag is allocating additional funding so we can pursue this new approach, and for that I am very grateful. Let me give you four examples. In Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries, but also in the Baltic states, we are strengthening cooperation with civil society, providing support for the development of independent media and facilitating joint cultural, scientific and academic projects across political borders. The Goethe-Institut too is very active in this field. In cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service we have quadrupled the grants available for Syrian students, and we want to work with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and other partners to set up a “scholars at risk” programme for academics in exile.

Our work also focuses on the preservation and protection of cultural property. Cultural sites provide security and orientation and are a constituent part of social identity. That is why, among other moves, we have made increased funding available to the German Archaeological Institute, which, in cooperation with the Museum of Islamic Art, is compiling a digital archive of Syria’s cultural treasures, to ensure that they are not forgotten and to provide a starting-point for reconstruction later. At the same time, by making images of cultural artefacts available on the internet, we are helping to stop the illegal art trade. In cooperation with partners such as the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the Federal Foreign Office Cultural Preservation Programme has helped to save ancient manuscripts from the terrorists’ clutches. These manuscripts are symbolic of precisely what the terrorists want to destroy: an open, humane and diverse society.

Secondly, we need to take a fundamental look at new models of order or – given the situation – disorder. This is a conceptual task which calls for “cultural intelligence”. We need to understand more of the dreams and traumas which affect societies. And we need to make their critical potential useful to ourselves again. This is why we are working with partners such as the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin – Institute for Advanced Study, the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to see how we can better use this critical potential.

Thirdly, the connection between crisis and order opens up a European dimension. It is a matter of practising a European approach when it comes to dealing with and taking a forward-looking stance on policymaking, with the common weal, as Carolin Emcke recently put it. This is particularly true in respect of Europe’s achievement of an open society seeking social justice. We will only succeed in this aim if we face up to criticism and formulate our own self-confident positions.

Crisis – Order – Europe. In order to meet this triple responsibility, we need scope for cultural exchange, but also places here at home where we can have an ongoing debate about our relationship with the world, with other cultures, religions and traditions. The Humboldt-Forum has the potential to be just such a place, and this is precisely what our partners abroad expect of us.

Cultural work in times of and regions in crisis requires stamina, not least because we know that there is no transmission belt which immediately translates our efforts in the cultural sphere into peace. To that extent, cultural relations policy is one aspect of foreign policy which itself is an untiring yet unillusioned endeavour towards peace and stability. This means, then, that it is all the more important to make even better use of the potential inherent in culture, science and education. Quite simply, culture does not merely perform a “compensatory function” in society, as the late Odo Marquard said; above all else, its function is to provide perspective. Culture shows what might be possible. Culture provides the scope for practised and practical humanity. Cultural relations and education policy trusts in this social power of culture and wants to strengthen it. That is why it is indispensable for peace and security.

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