“The best Ambassadors”

09.08.2018 - Interview

Germany’s first-ever Minister of State for International Culture is only 38 years old. Michelle Müntefering talks with ZEIT Germany about the country’s image abroad, her multicultural neighborhood back home, and American baseball.

Minister of State Michelle Müntefering
Minister of State Michelle Müntefering© Jorinde Gersina
The Economist recently placed “Cool Germany” on its cover. Why has Germany become so hip?

Birkenstock sandals are back in style! And Berlin is a particular attraction, almost as much as my hometown of Herne in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

But seriously, today’s younger generation of Germans is more internationally focused than ever before. Young Germans are studying, traveling, and working in other countries around the world.

And these exchange students are the best ambassadors we could possibly have.

What’s more, Germany’s ability to learn from its difficult past has contributed to a certain image abroad. That’s why we can actually talk about Germany being cool in today’s times.

There’s a lot of buzz about us because we’ve developed into a very stable country, both politically and economically.

Many students and professionals who move to Germany settle in well. Others don’t stay long at all. Obstacles to integration and bureaucracy overwhelm them ...

We are aware of that issue. About a third of students who come here graduate and want to stay. That’s according to the International Student Barometer ...

You’re referring to the benchmarking tool used to track the experiences of international students worldwide ...

That’s right. And the Student Barometer has found that, during their studies, this group – representing about 30 percent of all foreign students – has integrated well, learned the language, and is familiar with our culture of administration. For instance, these students know what the Ausländerbehörde, the German foreigners authority, is.

Others, however, struggle with hurdles such as language and bureaucracy. Another finding of the study: many international students find it difficult to establish a real connection with their German peers.

Meanwhile, Germans who have studied abroad know what it feels like to be an outsider, and they approach foreign students differently. They are welcoming and helpful, and they want to get to know people from other cultures.

That’s why I am such a proponent of exchange programs. We need cultural exchange across national borders in Europe.

Hasn’t Germany’s global appeal suffered due to right-wing populist movements and the Alternative for Germany party?

Germany faces the same problem as many western democracies at present: Populism, and right-wing populism in particular, is on the rise. That’s one side of the picture.

The other side of the picture, however, is a Germany that is open to the world, more than ever before. And this side can be found particularly in cities that have a large student population.

What can you, Germany’s first Minister for International Culture, offer the world?

Space for the critical exchange of ideas is becoming ever smaller, and that is happening on a global scale. Scientists, journalists, and artists are being suppressed. The scope of freedom is shrinking in many cases. We want to keep that scope wide and allow for multilateralism and partnerships worldwide. We believe we can do so through international cultural politics.

How do you plan to accomplish this?

We work with cultural organizations all over the world. An example is the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which provides scientists who are threatened in their own countries with financial and logistical support to continue their research while in exile. It’s a joint effort of the Federal Foreign Office and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We want to extend this initiative even further to help artists and other intellectuals.

Germany wants to attract more top international talent. Doesn’t that contribute to a brain drain elsewhere?

Germany is in global competition to attract the best talent. China, for example, has plans to attract 500,000 additional foreign students to its universities by 2020.

At the same time, we must help countries that are under pressure in order to prevent a brain drain. We offer local scholarships in Iraq and Jordan. And we are focusing on longer-term support for redevelopment in Syria as well.

How much time have you spent abroad?

I was born in 1980. Back then, studying abroad wasn’t a given, particularly among working-class families.

So my main experience abroad was a 12-hour ride in a camper, with my family, down to Lake Garda in Italy every summer.Later on, when I was older, I attended a language summer school for a couple of weeks in the United Kingdom.

But in a sense, I experienced the world abroad every day at home in the Ruhr region. There, I grew up alongside the children of immigrants from Poland, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

Why is a collector’s-item bag from the New York Mets, an American baseball team, hanging in your Berlin office?

Sports and culture are international phenomena, and baseball is an important part of the American culture. I’ve travelled a lot over the past four years, and the Mets home base, in the New York City borough of Queens, reminds me of my own hometown in the Ruhr region. It’s a working-class neighborhood, just like mine. And the team’s spirit of “never giving up” makes my heart beat for the underdogs.

Which German stereotypes bother you?

We should be wary of generalizations. No one likes the know-it-all, and I’d like us to break away from that part of our image.

Some parts of the German stereotype might be worth keeping, though. Our attention to detail in crafts and engineering is one. Our history of workers’ participation is a strength too. We can learn a lot from it, especially when it comes to challenges such as digitalization.

Having said that, when I fully plan my weekends well in advance, my friends abroad sometimes say: “Michelle, you’re so German!” But is that really typically German? Or is it just me?

Interview: Manuel J. Hartung and Deborah Steinborn.



Top of page