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“An open discourse beyond borders” 

01.06.2019 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on a Europe of culture, Alexander von Humboldt as a role model and the importance of dialogue among equals.

Minister, what does the concept nation of culture mean to you?

This isn’t so much about the concept as about its content: cultural policy is social policy. I’m working at home and abroad to ensure that our country continues to be a nation of culture. On the one hand, this entails exercising self-confident modesty with respect to our own achievements. On the other, this requires great openness for the achievements of others – on the path to a greater common culture. The key issue for me here is access to culture and education, beyond social, political and economic borders.

Is there such a thing as a European culture or a European cultural heritage?

Of course there is, and we shouldn’t only realise this when it is threatened or destroyed – such as the terrible Notre Dame fire, for example. We also shouldn’t think, however, that such a legacy can simply be taken for granted, but we should work together to continue to shape it. Culture helps our society to understand who we are. So if we intend to create a European society, then we must also work on a Europe of culture. And that is precisely what we’re doing with our cultural policy, and especially during our EU Council Presidency next year.

We are marking the Humboldt anniversary year in 2019. What can we learn today from the scientist, writer and diplomat Alexander von Humboldt?

Alexander von Humboldt was a global networker and enlightened cosmopolitan. He thought holistically and was a firm believer in exchanging ideas, knowledge and views as equals. We can learn a great deal from him even today: to look at the world with open eyes, to preserve our curiosity and to acquire knowledge through our own experiences and not from the comfort of our desks. His openness, his commitment to liberal values and justice and to the popularisation of science, as well as to pressing challenges such as environmental protection – and we’re talking 220 years ago here – are just as relevant today as the realisation that we can only tackle these issues together and across national and scientific borders.

What are your expectations of the Deutschlandjahr USA now that it is approaching the halfway point?

We want to make one thing clear with the #wunderbartogether campaign, namely that, at a time when the Atlantic is becoming broader in political terms, our friendship with the Americans is very important to us. We want to build new networks and foster ties that we perhaps neglected for too long. From October 2018 to the end of 2019, we are therefore creating opportunities for dialogue at over 1500 events in all federal states – with contributions on current social debates and issues relating to business and sustainability, with educational opportunities and a wealth of cultural highlights. We want to reach out to people, not only on the coasts, but also – and this is particularly important to me – in the heart of the country.

Is cultural relations policy becoming more important or is it weakening in times of crisis?

We’re witnessing to an increasing extent that cultural freedom is under threat in many countries. Culture professionals are being prevented from going about their work, imprisoned or attacked. World cultural heritage is being destroyed. We must inevitably ask ourselves whether we’re doing enough to protect cultural freedom and cultural property. While we’re certainly not doing enough to respond to all of the challenges out there, we’re doing more than ever before. We are committed to cultural freedom both with the protection of cultural property and with the first German scholarship programme for science at risk, as well as with the first federal programme for artists at risk. Furthermore, we are actively putting this issue on the political agenda in New York and Brussels.

Is it still appropriate to promote our Western values in the world by exporting culture?

My cultural relations policy prioritises cooperation, co-production and access to culture and education. Democracy, the rule of law and a clear commitment to inalienable and universal human rights are the foundations of our society and at the heart of the EU. Populists and nationalists in particular think they have simple answers to complicated questions and that they can address new uncertainties with old slogans. This discussion has been going on for a long time; we cannot pass the buck on this. I firmly believe that we don’t need to preach to others or export German culture here; what we need is an open exchange and honest cooperation.

What do you expect from the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin?

A great deal has been written and even more said about the Humboldt-Forum in recent years. The hope was that it would be a window for perceiving the world and for the world to perceive us, an agora for the exchange of ideas and a research laboratory. After all, one thing is certain, which is that we cannot negotiate the big issues of our time – from climate change to migration – around the conference tables of this world alone. What is needed are active, critical and creative civil societies that engage in open discourse beyond walls and fences, borders and language barriers. Such a discourse requires forums where it can emerge and continue to be pursued. The Humboldt-Forum has the potential to become such a place – it needs to have a clear international focus in order to do this.

How does the issue of art looted during the colonial period figure on your travels, and how do people approach you regarding this matter?

The question as to how we confront the colonial past is important and – as is stated in the coalition agreement – part of Germany’s fundamental democratic understanding. It goes without saying that this encompasses questions of how to deal with collections from colonial contexts. The first restitutions, such as the Witbooi Bible to Namibia, have already taken place. But there’s more to this than just that. In addition to cooperative projects and a common perception of the way ahead, we also need an honest and objective debate on our colonial history. Restitutions are only a part of this. On my travels abroad, I have experienced openness, interest and also approval of the fact that Germany is facing up to its past in this way.

How are you keeping up with cultural events at home?

I try my best to see as much as possible. But I’m often abroad on trips, of course. I recently attended a very exciting concert by Nick Cave here in Berlin, for instance.

What are you reading at the moment?

“The Prisoner of Heaven” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Interview conducted by Rüdiger Schaper


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