Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier on the centenary of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations

10.01.2017 - Speech

-- Check against delivery --

President Seiler‑Albring,
Mr Grätz,
Mr Mayor,
Mr Kretschmann,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations is 100 years old. I am very honoured that you have invited me to attend this special event in Stuttgart. During my Christmas holidays, I wondered what this celebration might have in store for us. After all, what do you expect when you are invited to a 100th birthday party? Probably a quiet and sedate affair. If you’re lucky, there will be coffee. And perhaps a slice of Swabian apple cake? You expect the centenarian, who is likely to seem rather tired, to receive polite congratulations. And you definitely expect to see a room full of white or grey‑haired guests.

Now, when I look around the room, Winfried Kretschmann, at least the part about the white hair applies to the two of us!

However, the rest could not be further from the truth. The outstanding musicians from the Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra are not sedate, and neither is the Jisr ensemble, whom we will hear shortly.

But above all, the 100‑year‑old Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations is by no means out of touch or worn‑out. On the contrary, it is an open‑minded, lively and dynamic force in our cultural relations and education policy. Ms Seiler‑Albring, your institute fosters exchange between artists worldwide in a very innovative way. It brings people together and it opens doors to dialogue, cooperation and the very important work to further understanding and communication. Moreover it does so today, in these crisis‑ridden times!

And that is why I would like to congratulate you and your colleagues, Ms Seiler‑Albring, and to thank you for your outstanding work. But above all, I want to wish you great courage and every success for the future. That naturally goes in particular for Martin Roth, who unfortunately cannot be here today. We are pleased that he will soon take over the helm of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, and wish him all the best for his new role.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The importance of the role played by the institute in our cultural relations and education policy today becomes all the clearer when one looks back at its long, and by no means always illustrious, history.

This can be seen particularly powerfully in a special place – and you may be surprised to hear where it is! This place is in the Federal Foreign Office at Werderscher Markt in Berlin. However, it is not in the offices of the Cultural Directorate‑General or in the magnificent Weltsaal, where ministers from all over the world meet. And nor is it in my office. No, this place is in the cellar!

This is where you will find the Federal Foreign Office’s Political Archive. Underground, in what were once the vaults of the Reichsbank, where the Nazis stored their gold, you will now find true historical treasures, such as dozens of slightly yellowing letters and reports describing 10 January 1917 in Stuttgart. On that day, at 11 o’clock on the dot, King William II of Württemberg and a group of high‑ranking individuals met to found a “museum and institute for research into German culture abroad and the promotion of German interests abroad”.

And if you read the nationalist speeches given on that day – in the middle of the First World War! – you can hardly imagine that they would mark the beginning of the open‑minded and tolerant institute that we are celebrating today.

The King ended his inflammatory speech with the words: “I am proud to be German. We all are.”

The new institute was the product of an era in which nation states deliberately used culture as a tool to expand or safeguard their spheres of power.

What then followed was the darkest chapter of our German history. With the Nazi seizure of power, the institute came under Nazi control and its Jewish Secretary General, Fritz Wertheimer, was dismissed. The institute became an instrument of German racial policy. Like the history of the Federal Foreign Office, this past was only addressed properly later on.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking back at the early days of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, that is, looking down into the cellar of the Federal Foreign Office, does not only cast a light on our past. In my opinion, looking at the past mainly reveals the sharp contrast to the present and to what our cultural relations and education policy stands for today.

The starting point 100 years ago was how Germans looked at themselves. It was how they looked at their fellow Germans abroad and vice versa. This was a cultural echo chamber.

In place of such introspection, exchange, debate and cooperation are the aims of our cultural relations and education policy today. The echo chamber of the past has become an open, transparent space for dialogue, where differences can be turned into common ground. And it is founded on the recognition that the internal and external can no longer be separated in the 21st century.

Ursula Seiler-Albring, “Cultures of We”, the motto of the anniversary year, underlines precisely these ideas. The institute shows what this means in countless outstanding projects, for example, when it exhibits contemporary German art abroad, with a focus on meetings between artists, curators and the public. Productive networks develop as a result.

At the same time, the institute invites artists from all over the world to Germany, thus showing us how others see the world, including us Germans. Instead of listening to ourselves in the echo chamber, we see a reflection of cultural experience. We see how the world sees us.

I, too, am amazed at just how much this can differ from our own expectations. I experience this when I travel, but also in meetings with artists from abroad here in Germany, be it in Berlin, Stuttgart or Leipzig.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I firmly believe that these open spaces for exchange, dialogue and debate are what we need now in particular, in a world where crises and conflicts are assailing us at an unnerving rate and force.

It is true that culture and education do not automatically lead to greater peace and security. People who believe that are mistaken!

But what I do firmly believe is that if we want to have opportunities for understanding in all of these conflicts in the first place, cultural and educational work plays a crucial role, as it is only through debate that understanding and genuine communication can ultimately develop.

In my view, this results in two things. Firstly, we need to create and preserve spaces for civil society and cultural exchange – particularly where this is difficult. We work hard to achieve this all over the world so that a lack of understanding does not lead to mistaken ideas and so that ideologies do not undermine understanding. I am grateful to the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations and all our other cultural organisations which create these important forums for understanding, be this through youth exchange programmes in Russia, the literature festival in Odessa or language projects in Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, ladies and gentlemen, we need to ensure that people in crisis-hit regions in particular have access to education and culture so that they have a chance of a safe and better future. This is the aim of the institute’s zivik projects and CrossCulture programme, in which young people improve both their professional knowledge and communication skills through work placements.

Ladies and gentlemen, creating better access to culture and education is also the aim when German foundations endeavour to set up a university of applied sciences in East Africa in order to fill the gap between school and academic education or when we give young Syrians the opportunity to continue their academic career here in Germany so that they can rebuild their country one day.

And that is why cultural work is not a “nice to have”, but rather an essential component of foreign policy, especially when times are hard and our partners are even more difficult.

Cultural work is not a “nice to have” and it is certainly not always simply nice.

Art is also stimulating and provocative. It demands debate. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason why I want to conclude my speech by looking ahead to the 2017 Venice Biennale. For over 40 years, the Federal Foreign Office has commissioned the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations to coordinate the German pavilion. This year, the curator Susanne Pfeffer has chosen the artist Anne Imhof to design it. I don’t want to give away too much here, but I think the Biennale is every bit as unlikely to be a sedate affair as the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations is out of date!

And that is the way it should be, as the same goes both in culture and politics.

We need the courage to break new ground rather than holding back in fear.

We need openness to other people’s views rather than introspection. We need debate rather than isolation.

And that is why I would like to thank and congratulate the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations.

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