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When it comes to national reputation, it doesn’t get much better than Germany: the EU’s economic anchor enjoys a solid postwar legacy of great living conditions and high-quality manufacturing, along with centuries of rich culture and thought. But not so long ago, Germany had a serious image problem. In the years immediately following the Second World War, the country’s standing in the eyes of most of the world was, like its cityscapes, heaps of rubble.

It was in this context that the newly democratic Federal German Republic decided to rethink a defunct Weimar-era German cultural institution called the Deutsche Akademie. Its new incarnation, the Goethe-Institut, launched in 1951 as a non-profit, non-governmental (but government-funded) body. Named after humanist author and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it was created to promote the German language, expose German culture to the world and rehabilitate the country’s image in the process. The idea took off: the Goethe-Institut celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2011 with 149 institutes in 93 countries.

“The Goethe-Institut’s mission is threefold,” says Jutta Voigt, who heads several projects in the language department, as she sits in a sunny office in the Munich headquarters, the workplace of about 300 of the organisation’s nearly 3,000 global employees. “We teach the language, we provide information in German and on Germany, and we do cultural programming. But what we’re really about happens where these three areas overlap: the German word bildung means more than just ‘education’. It’s when, for example, a German dancer and American choreographer work together, learn from each other and influence each other. This is what we do.”

The first institute opened in 1952 in Bad Reichenhall, in what was then West Germany; the first foreign institute opened the same year in Athens. By 1961, there were 17 Instituts in Germany and 54 abroad, many of them in newly independent countries such as Morocco. The original emphasis was on language acquisition and teacher training but, by the 1970s, cultural programming was becoming increasingly important as part of showing the world Germany’s breadth, beyond the Beethoven and beer clichés.

From Addis Ababa to San Francisco, Goethe-Instituts have screened films by Werner Herzog and Tom Tykwer and put on dance theatre performances by Pina Bausch. There have been symposia on postwar German Jewry and readings by Günter Grass. Thousands of German visual artists, writers, filmmakers and thinkers have presented their work abroad (or had it funded) through the Goethe-Institut – more than 5,200 cultural projects were sponsored in 2011 alone. Even more non-Germans have cooperated in these projects as venue hosts, collaborators and local staff. Not every event is a hit (there might be an audience of 10 or 300, depending on whether it’s an emerging author or star filmmaker) but almost everything is thought-provoking.

The Institut thus plays a crucial role in Germany’s cultural politics – surprisingly, Germany lacks a Culture Ministry for historical reasons. “After the Second World War, it was our lesson as a new democratic state to not allow the state to dictate culture,” says Andreas Ströhl, head of culture and information. “So it’s a strange situation, the state is responsible for some cultural life but it is not allowed to define it.” The Goethe-Institut doesn’t define it either, but has been at the forefront of exposing it.

In German language instruction, too, the Goethe-Institut has become a benchmark. “People think ‘Oh, it’s Goethe, so it’s good’,” says Voigt. Its language centres within Germany are renowned; those abroad as just as busy. It even lobbies for German instruction in countries where only one foreign language is offered in school. “In Russia in the 1990s, everyone wanted to learn German, but now it’s English,” says Voigt. “We send German rappers to Russian schools to show them how sexy German can be.”

How has Goethe worked so well for so long? One reason is the trust filtering down from the German government’s upper echelons. “It was always a broad agreement in German politics that this is something that’s worth spending money on,” says Ströhl. “There’s a subcommittee in the parliament that’s non-affiliated, so we don’t depend on party ties.” Some local venues have Goethe connections that span decades. “The relationship of a Goethe-Institut to its city is like a marriage,” says Wenzel Bilger, the regional programme director at Goethe-Institut New York, which has long worked with institutions such as the MoMA and New York University.

The organisation also has smart logistics: employees on a “rotation” track spend about five years at each post but return to Germany every 10 years to touch base with German issues before going back out. There’s a rigorous in-house training programme. Each region (such as North America or sub-Saharan Africa) has one Institut that supervises overall activities. And the Munich hq is the beating heart and information centre. In the mornings, the library and lobby areas look like a mini-UN, with employees from around the world.

Perhaps most important is the Goethe-Institut’s political and commercial independence. Approximately two-thirds of funding – €322m in 2011 – comes from German tax revenues allocated by the Federal Foreign Office; the remainder is generated mostly through courses. Similar bodies from other countries are governmental and integrated into the respective foreign ministries. Others have to raise a far greater portion of their funds (the most similar is Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, which modelled itself on Goethe in 1991). “If we had to generate our expenses, we would not be what we are. You need a big organisation that’s independent to allow critical thinking,” says Ströhl. “What’s very German about us – but also part of our success – is that we’ve never shied away from critical questions.” It’s not afraid to look at German history or current topics such as the effects of digital technology on current protests in public space.

Speaking of criticism, the Institut’s history hasn’t been only rosy. Some politicians, such as Franz Josef Strauss and Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, questioned its activities. Budget cuts or freezes occur, depending on the country’s prevailing economic situation – a shaky time came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when many Instituts closed and about a third of the Munich staff was let go.

At the same time, the organisation has always reshuffled and grown. When the Iron Curtain came down, institutes popped up in Eastern European countries, not to mention Eastern Germany. More recently branches have opened in Luanda and Novosibirsk.

When the Goethe-Institut began, it was about rehabilitating a broken country’s international image – in a way, too, it was about bolstering its own shattered self-esteem by presenting a positive face abroad through culture, not commerce or politics. Germany and the German psyche are far more normal than they were 60 years ago. Now, as Goethe-Institut president Klaus-Dieter Lehmann says, “Our job is to meet the expectations that an increasingly fragmented world puts on a democratic, solid Germany in the heart of the EU”.

More streamlined and transparent, less bloated and bureaucratic, the Goethe-Institut focuses on the present and the future. After the revolution in Egypt, the Cairo Institut opened a “Tahrir Lounge”, a meeting place for reformists holding workshops on blogging and documentary filmmaking. Last year, language course enrolment jumped dramatically in southern Europe and new teachers were quickly hired. Upcoming projects involve science, an art academy and perhaps even an Institut in Cuba.

Goethe himself once said that, “every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture and, if possible, speak a few sensible words”. He might be happy about what’s going on in his name.

  • 136 Instituts abroad and 13 within Germany

  • 5,200 Number of cultural and informational programmes in 2011

  • 234,587 Students learning German in Institut courses in 2011

  • 25 million Number of monthly hits on goethe.de

  • 10 Liaison offices abroad

  • 160 German-foreign cultural associations

  • 34 Goethe Centres (which offer fewer services than full Instituts) within these associations

  • 87 Reading halls, dialogue points, information centres, or partner libraries across the globe

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