Foreign Minister Steinmeier on cultural relations and education policy: “We need to engage in talks in the country concerned.”

10.04.2016 - Interview

In the interview Foreign Minister Steinmeier talks about cultural relations and education policy in times of crisis and the Humboldt-Forum. Published in Der Tagesspiegel on 10 April 2016.


Foreign Minister, cultural relations policy is well organised in Germany. Not many countries devote so much attention to it. But isn’t culture increasingly becoming a polemic concept in today’s world?

Since Willy Brandt’s time cultural relations and education policy has been the “third pillar” of foreign policy. It is an essential component of our efforts to promote peace and stability, alongside traditional diplomacy and external economic policy. We are living in an age in which conflicts are being coloured by allegedly religious or pseudocultural ideologies. The only way to combat these ideological mindsets is through differentiation: by looking and listening more carefully, and that chiefly occurs through joint cultural activities and education. The GoetheInstitut and our schools abroad are prime examples of this approach, which involves drafting joint concepts, making education and culture possible and facilitating access to them – both in our partner countries and here at home.

You have just been to Saudi Arabia to a cultural festival with German participation. Is it possible to engage in cultural dialogue with countries that torture writers and sentence them to death?

Of course, a German Foreign Minister has to address the problems in this region clearly. It goes without saying that we are not indifferent to floggings and death sentences imposed on artists and activists. In my experience, more is often achieved for the victims in confidential talks than through pronouncements via the German media. If we want to achieve something, we have to leave the comfort of our living rooms. We need to engage in talks in the country concerned. It’s clear to me that if we want to support those who are working for more openness and change in their societies, we can’t do so by breaking off contact and cancelling trips.

The protection of cultural property in Syria, Iraq and Mali has not been successful. Isn’t military force basically the only option in these cases?

Anyone who, like ISIS, destroys homes and cultural property, wants to rob people of their identity and stand in the way of an open, humane and diverse society. That is why protection of cultural property and cultural preservation are central aspects of our work, particularly with regard to Syria. Through the “Stunde Null” (New Start) project we want to help lay the foundations for the subsequent reconstruction of cultural sites in Syria. To this end the German Archaeological Institute is providing training for restoration specialists and archaeologists and is cooperating with the Museum of Islamic Art to digitise Syrian cultural property and thus prevent it from being forgotten. At the same time, by making images of cultural artefacts available on the internet, we are helping to fight the illegal art trade. In cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation we have helped to save ancient manuscripts in Mali from the terrorists’ clutches. The idea that we could save cultural property in Syria or Iraq through military engagement, in contrast, is not very realistic.

In Russia, for example, the situation for foreign cultural institutes is becoming more difficult. How can you help?

In general we are seeing that cultural activity in some places in the world is not necessarily becoming easier. Since you mention Russia, the GoetheInstitut, but also the German foundations, primarily the Robert Bosch Stiftung, have been doing outstanding work in the country for many years through their cultural and language activities, which the Russian people greatly appreciate. These institutions are a cornerstone of our bilateral relations and we are committed to ensuring that they can work effectively. After all, contacts with Russia in fields ranging from culture to science have become even more important in view of the current political situation in order to keep communication channels open and overcome stereotypes.

The concept of culture in general is expanding and has become very politicised. You only need to go to the theatre. How important are aesthetic issues to you?

Very important! When I speak of freedoms, I am referring specifically to spaces that protect the freedom of art and science. That is precisely why cultural infrastructure, why GoetheInstituts, schools, theatres and museums are so important – here at home as well as abroad. At the same time, the protection of artistic and academic freedom goes hand in hand with political responsibility, to listen, observe and as politicians to be aware of social dimensions, the hopes and hurts of our partners in the world, to cooperate with them and to do our part to build a vibrant civil society. That’s exactly what I mean when I speak of a social aspect of culture.

How does national and international cultural relations policy differ in the age of globalisation?

The artificial distinction between national and international, domestic and external has now had its day. The two have to be treated together so that we can help to shape a world that develops in a cooperative and peaceful direction. Yet this type of cooperation requires us to take a stance ourselves, which we are prepared to explain to others and also defend. True common ground can only be created on the basis of open dialogue. That is why we place such importance on the transnational coproduction of knowledge and culture. One example of this is the Saudi film “Wadjda” produced by Roman Paul. The way in which Wadjda creates her own personal freedom is an impressive example of how culture can build a common heritage of stories.

The HumboldtForum is being built in the direct vicinity of your office in Berlin. What do you hope to see from this new address – it is designed to be not only a museum but also a place for global cultural dialogue?

The HumboldtForum is a great opportunity for us to redefine our view of the world, to understand what is going on elsewhere in the world and above all, why. Together with our partners in cultural relations policy we can help to bring the world’s many different facets to the HumboldtForum. To this end we want to make use of the entire range of achievements and intercultural skills of our mediators and especially of the GoetheInstitut. If we succeed in turning the HumboldtForum into an international negotiation platform for key issues of identity and society, we will also have made a significant contribution to understanding ourselves. That is also the idea behind the Long Night of Ideas on 14 April. Berlin has a whole range of excellent cultural locations, approaches and institutions. The cooperation between the Federation and Land Berlin has really produced outstanding results in this area. Through interaction between experts and outsiders, we want to work together to try to examine some of the urgent issues we face in our practical cultural experience and to draw conclusions for our cultural relations and education policy abroad.

With your workload do you find any time for reading, visiting museums or going to concerts?

Of course my timetable is very full, especially when it is dictated by crises and conflicts as it is at the moment. But it is extremely important to me to fit in a trip to the theatre or an exhibition from time to time – not always in Berlin or Germany, but recently in Tehran, for instance, where the cultural treasures of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art have just been put back on show after being hidden for many decades. I hope that it will be possible to bring this unique collection to Berlin very soon.

This interview was conducted by Rüdiger Schaper.

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