Cultural Diplomacy

The Goethe-Institut's Soft Power

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s Goethe-Institut is an important tool for enhancing the country’s image and reputation abroad.

  • Facts


    • The Goethe-Institut was founded in 1951.
    • It’s best known for language teaching but also organizes cultural programs and events.
    • In Germany, it has recently come under fire for hiring teachers as freelancers.
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Kairo – Am Tahrir-Platz –  Goethe-Institut
Goethe-Institut in Cairo. Source: DPA

In a world threatened by the twin specters of populism and terrorism, exporting democratic values through cultural diplomacy is arguably more important now than ever before.

In its bid to do just that, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, like the British Council or the Institut Français, has long functioned as much more than just a federally funded language school.

Established in 1951 to help foreign teachers in Germany learn the language, it has grown over the past 66 years into its special role as a kind of cultural calling card for the “new” Germany: smart, fiercely democratic and historically hyper-aware.

The cutting edge cool of the institution’s cultural programming can be traced directly back to Germany in the late 1960s, when a new era of left-wing political protest and avant-garde art and music helped impact an enormous cultural shift.

At the time, the Goethe-Institut managed to transform this mix of confrontation with the country’s Nazi past and promotion of German art, music, film and dance into a heady soft power tool.

Today, the 159 branches located around the world offer an ultra-progressive range of offerings beyond language and tandem classes for those who might cautiously – and with some qualifications – admit to being cultural Germanophiles: Contemporary dance in Cairo. Literary conferences in Thessaloniki. Krautrock in New York City. Berlin techno in Tokyo. For many, German culture is cool, and the Goethe-Institut very much gets that.

Which makes the Goethe-Institut’s current struggles both puzzling and worrying. Recently, language courses in the institution’s 12 locations across Germany have been canceled, and official exams have been postponed indefinitely. The reason? An investigation by Germany’s Federal Pension Insurance Scheme into the legality of the institute’s hiring practices.

“We observe our social obligations and have long paid competitive wages.”

Johannes Ebert, Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut

The issue surrounds the differences in hiring between official staff who receive benefits and freelancers who do not. Currently, the Federal Pension Insurance Scheme alleges that the Goethe-Institut may be attempting to circumvent paying benefits in a practice known as “fictitious self-employment,” where freelancers, who don’t actually have other clients, are expected to work as if they were staff. This is a violation of German labor law and can come with a costly penalty.

Indeed, the current investigation appears to strike at the core of the Goethe-Institut’s cool and progressive image. As a recent report in Germany’s most popular weekly news magazine Der Spiegel claims, some 400 freelance language teachers are now unable to work while the investigation is pending. Previously, these instructors simply received an endless string of contracts, which were each valid for only a few weeks. Now, they are not only without a job, but also without the possibility of unemployment benefits.

However, for the Goethe-Intitut’s Secretary General Johannes Ebert, the current investigation should not affect the institute’s core values or reputation. “We observe our social obligations and have long paid competitive wages. We’re currently in the process of offering temporary work contracts to 70 teachers across Germany and are working hard to find a solution.”

For Mr. Ebert, the greater struggle for Germany’s premiere state-funded cultural exporter is currently underway abroad, where Goethe-Instituts across the globe are often forced to employ a high degree of diplomatic élan in convincing politicians in host countries to allow them the freedom to do their jobs. “In Russia, they recently tightened the laws surrounding the work of NGOs, which has strongly affected our partners operating in civil society,” Mr. Ebert said. “In Poland and Hungry, populists are presenting us with an entirely new understanding of cultural values. Which is why the Goethe-Institut remains an important address for critical artists and those dedicated to experimentation.”

Mr. Ebert, who had worked for years at the Goethe-Institut in Cairo directly on Tahrir Square, understands better than most that culture, as a vehicle for democratic values, is anything but hypothetical or abstract. In Egypt, for example, communicating this has meant striking a balance between working both with governmental institutions, such as the education ministry, as well as private culture actors.

“State apparatuses are never as monolithic as they appear, and nothing is black and white,” Mr. Ebert explains. “That said, the independent scene in Cairo is under pressure, and some writers, for example, choose not to publish in newspapers. In such situations, we offer a platform for open dialogue and to discuss the issues.”

It’s a two-pronged strategy that Mr. Ebert says developed in tandem with era-defining events in world politics. “Since the end of the Soviet Union and the attacks of September 11, 2001, cultural work has undergone serious change,” he explains. Today, Mr. Ebert sees the current hostility towards democratic values as borne not from outside Western society but from within, with nationalism and Christian conservatism leading the charge against liberalism.

Now, with the democratic values many had taken for granted up in the air, the Goethe-Institut has been forced to adapt its mission. First and foremost, this means placing a greater emphasis on inclusivity and dialogue.

“We have an expanded concept of culture. It’s not simply about art and music and literature. We have to define our target groups, for example in the U.S.: How can we reach those living outside of big cities who don’t know much about Germany and Europe, and who take propaganda at face value? School exchange programs, advanced training for teachers through our Transatlantic Outreach Program are some instruments we have at our disposal.”

“How can we reach those living outside of big cities that don’t know much about Germany and Europe, and who take propaganda at face value? ”

Johannes Ebert, Secretary General of the Goethe-Institute

Indeed, this sounds like a far cry from the cutting-edge programming the Goethe-Institut has become known for abroad. Suddenly, it’s as if the currency of cultural cool simply isn’t of any value for those who’ve already rejected liberal values to begin with. Which is why the institution is also busy developing new ideas and formats to include those who feel left out by globalization. And, like any 21st century organization keen on maintaining cultural relevance, digitalization is set to play a key role in that strategic shift.

Nevertheless, attempts at modernizing the Goethe-Institut’s vehicles for cultural offerings won’t remove all obstacles, especially where human rights abuses continue to make diplomacy difficult. This is especially true for countries like Iran, which has experienced varying levels of international isolation and sanctions over the past three decades.

However, for Mr. Ebert and the Goethe-Institut, maintaining dialogue with cultural actors and producers, particularly in Iran, has been a path around political stalemate –  one that nevertheless does not imply a tacit approval of state-sanctioned human rights abuses. “For me, a line has to be drawn when artists, promoters or audiences are threatened through the programming,” he elaborates.

That’s indeed a line rarely crossed. With branches in Beirut, Tehran, and even Erbil in northern Iraq, the Goethe-Institut has been working hard to maintain its presence in the Middle East. And while the Goethe-Institut’s Syrian headquarters were recently forced to close, former employees were offered financial compensation and opportunities to continue their work for the Goethe-Institut in Tashkent, as well as publicly present the details of their exile in the context of an exhibition in Berlin.

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in “Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years.” For the institute that bears his name, actively developing new ways of communicating German language and culture has become nothing less than a means of defending liberal democratic values. And today, democracy needs all the help it can get.


Rüdiger Schaper is the head of the Arts and Culture section of Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. A.J. Samuels is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. 

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