People on the Move - Article by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier

09.04.2016 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier, published in the newspaper “Die Welt” on 9 April 2016.


Whether the civil war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine, the refugee crisis or the series of terrorist attacks from Paris, to Istanbul to Brussels – the large number of crises that we have to deal with show that the world currently lacks an overarching order. It almost seems as if the permanent crisis mode is the new norm. ISIS’ barbarities in particular show the extent to which conflicts in the world are being coloured by religious or pseudo-cultural ideologies and interests.

We must react to this new complexity with all the tools of foreign policy at our disposal – also and above all with the instruments of cultural relations and education policy, which plays an indispensable role in the realm between crisis mode and the efforts to get to grips with new systems of order. Differentiation – closer scrutiny and listening and, above all, shared cultural exchange and educational work – is the only thing that can overcome ideological mindsets. Even before politics comes into the picture, culture prepares the ground; without cultural work, there is no possibility of political understanding and thus crisis prevention and crisis management. Culture creates spaces in which social topics can be prepared and peacefully negotiated.

Protecting these artistic and scientific spaces is a political task. In terms of our foreign policy, this means that we must go beyond what, from our own perspective, appears to be obvious. For this, we need a comprehensive view that includes the dreams and traumas of the societies with which we are faced. Only then will we be able to understand and deal with the ramifications of developments and help to build up vibrant civil societies and thereby viable structures of order.

Seen from this perspective, culture and education are practised and practical humanity that involve drafting joint concepts, making education and culture possible and facilitating access to them – both in our partner countries and here at home. This applies particularly to difficult partners. I am aware of the fact that this can lead to controversial debates in certain cases – Saudi Arabia is an example of this. And yet crossing such lines is unavoidable when it comes to supporting societal opening‑up and change. Merely commenting on events from the comfort zone of Berlin is not enough in this regard. If we want to make a difference, we should seek dialogue and deploy the enormous potential of culture and education.

And this is precisely what I aim to achieve, namely a cultural policy that strengthens the power of culture. We are sending clear signals in this area – with our efforts to consolidate our programme to develop civil society in the countries of the Eastern Partnership, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative to help threatened researchers in conflict regions, the scholarship programme Leadership for Syria for Syrian students, the special commitment of our mediators in the refugee crisis, and with all of the many measures to preserve cultural heritage.

We intend to continue to build on what we have already achieved. The news of the liberation of Palmyra shows the symbolic power inherent in the cultural heritage of humanity – and how strong the hope for an end to the violence is bound up with what humans perceive to be their shared cultural origins. Sites such as Palmyra in Syria or the Abbey of Corvey, which I recently inaugurated as a World Cultural Heritage site, have one thing in common, which is that they continue to play an essential role in the formation of identity to this day. They give people orientation. This is precisely why we have launched the “Stunde Null” (New Start) project with the German Archaeological Institute and other partners, which will digitise the treasures of ancient sites and offer Syrian and Iraqi archaeologists opportunities for further training. This project aims to preserve cultural heritage that is crucial to the formation of identity in Syria and Iraq. The aim is to strengthen civil society approaches that have the potential to form a state in the truest sense of the word. And the aim is, through working together, to create new prospects for a region, prospects that this region urgently needs.

This example shows how closely connected domestic and foreign policy are. Just as the people who came to Germany as guest workers decades ago shaped our society’s culture, the many people currently seeking refuge in our country will also leave their mark on our society. We therefore need a co‑productive approach particularly in our cultural work with the outside world. When joint cultural practice changes both sides already on the domestic stage and causes new perspectives to emerge, then this should be reflected in cultural practice abroad.

This is precisely where the forum “People on the Move” comes into play. In the coming week, the broad spectrum and the joint successes of cultural relations and education policy will be presented for the first time and combined with cultural practice in Germany. Our aim is not only to acquire food for thought for cultural relations policy, but to develop a common cultural policy dialogue that includes this spectrum and uses this to its advantage.

For this, we are bringing to Berlin the partner school initiative PASCH that I launched in 2008, which, by promoting the German language, fosters understanding of Germany in the world and also an idea of what drives and occupies other societies. Some 1800 PASCH schools now teach around 600,000 pupils around the world – more than are taught in Land Rhineland-Palatinate. Moreover, with a “Long Night of Ideas”, we intend to demonstrate the contribution of cultural relations and education policy at over a dozen locations of cultural practice in Berlin at mini laboratories for a future Humboldt-Forum. From digitisation to inclusion through culture to gaming and colonialism, we are addressing cultural policy topics of the future and connecting them with cultural relations policy. At the Gleisdreieck exhibition, we intend, together with prominent cultural experts such as Hermann Parzinger and the Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, to discuss new paths and inspiration for our work abroad, as well as the impact of this work back in Germany. This also includes working together with refugees. The experiences that our mediators and partners have acquired through their years of cultural practice abroad, the ability to demonstrate cultural empathy beyond ethnic, religious and other boundaries, are a key skill. This is why we aim at the forum to draw on the expertise of cultural relations and education policy to further the integration of refugees in Germany via a cultural mentor programme.

With cultural relations and education policy, we are creating scope for discourse in order to respond to and work through tensions. We are connecting societies and protecting cultural identities. We are moving people. Cultural and educational work requires patience and perseverance, particularly in times of crises, not least because they do not translate automatically into a peace dividend. In a world riven with conflict that is in search of a new order, they are more important than ever.

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