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What changes will Germany's election bring for culture?

Stefan Dege | Bettina Baumann
September 27, 2021

Germany has voted. What are the parties planning in terms of cultural policy — at home and abroad? An overview of the most important tasks ahead.

Woman wearing a pink wig pointing her fingers and smiling into the camera.
Culture after the election — what's next? Berlin remains colorfulImage: Simon Becker/Le Pictorium/imago images

It may be some time before Germany forms a new government. How German cultural policy will look after the election depends on the composition of the future coalition.

Until that is decided, it may be helpful to look at the election programs of the possible governing parties. The spectrum has never been so broad. It ranges from the previous coalition partners, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to the Greens, the liberal FDP and the Left (die Linken).

In principle, all parties that want to govern place great importance on foreign cultural and educational policy and want to promote or further expand it, with perhaps new accents.

How does Germany deal with looted art?

The topic of looted art — be it Nazi- or colonial-looted art — has gained momentum in recent years, not least due to the debate surrounding Berlin's Humboldt Forum and the art trove discovered in a Munich apartment in 2012, when officials uncovered artworks worth more than a billion dollars at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt.

Germany has indeed expanded provenance research, but a restitution law that obliges museums and collections to investigate the origin of their holdings in order to help their rightful owners return them more quickly is still not in place.

The CDU/CSU parties do not explicitly address this issue in their election program. Provenance research on Nazi art theft as well as on "cultural property confiscations during the SED's [the former East German communist party — Editors' note] dictatorship and colonialism," writes the CDU/CSU, must remain a "cultural policy focus. "

The Greens and the Left Party, on the other hand, are in favor of a restitution law for art unlawfully obtained during the Nazi era, and the Left is also in favor of a law on colonial-looted art. And the Greens also want to anchor the handling of East German-looted art in legal statutes.

The Greens, the SPD and the Left Party promise to devote more attention to the reappraisal and remembrance culture of German colonial crimes. Only the Greens specify that this should be done in "close cooperation with the descendants and civil society initiatives of the former colonized and aggrieved worldwide," and they also raise the issue of joint "history book commissions" with former colonized states.

Three bronze sculptures showing people and a closeup of a face
Dispute over colonial looted art: Here, three looted art bronzes from Benin in West Africa, which will be restituted in 2022Image: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

Who represents Germany abroad?

Important pillars of German cultural mediation abroad are, in addition to Deutsche Welle, the cultural institution Goethe Institute, German schools abroad and exchange programs such as those of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

The Social Democratic Party SPD does emphasize the importance of the Goethe Institute in its election platform. However, there is no mention of expanding funding.

Other parties have been more specific: The CDU/CSU want to make the intermediary organizations "more active ambassadors" for Germany. Goethe Institutes, schools abroad and the DAAD are to be encouraged "to promote Germany everywhere and to provide information about opportunities for studying and training in our country," they have said. How this is to be done has remained unaddressed.

The FDP wants to increase federal spending on cultural funding — both nationally and internationally. Digitization is the order of the day, and not just for the neoliberals. The FDP is also looking to the European Union: the EU's External Action Service should also focus more on international cultural relations, they say, with its own department.

The Greens say they want to provide the Goethe Institute and schools abroad with better funding and improve their digital infrastructure. The environmentalist party also wants to set up "programs for persecuted artists and scientists."

How much culture can Germany afford?

Never before has the federal government spent so much money on culture. For the first time, the budget for the Commission on Culture and the Media, until now led by CDU politician Monika Grütters, exceeded the €2-billion ($2.34-billion) mark, supplemented by 1 billion for the economic stimulus and rescue program "Neustart Kultur," launched during the pandemic last year.

How generous the new federal government will be — and can be — depends on the cash situation, but also on the intentions of the possible government partners.

The previous coalition parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, wanted and still want to help pandemic-damaged cultural and creative industries get back on their feet quickly. The Greens, the FDP and the Left Party also see themselves as having a duty to do so, albeit with different emphases.

The ideas range from a culture-friendly "strengthening of the framework conditions" (CDU/CSU, SPD) to support programs for small businesses and the self-employed (SPD, FDP) to appropriate fee regulations for cultural workers (CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, FDP and Left Party).

Several parties want to optimize the "Künstlersozialkasse" — the social insurance for cultural and media professionals (Greens, Left Party, FDP, CDU/CSU).

The topic of digitalization is on the agenda of almost all parties. The Greens, for example, have announced a federal government investment program.

How does Germany organize its culture?

Culture Commissioner Monika Grütters has stressed that she would like to continue her work after the election. Whether she can depends on how the parties organize after forming a government. A continuation of the major coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD — this time under the leadership of an SPD chancellor, Olaf Scholz — was considered unlikely until recently.

There are signs of movement regarding the future structure of the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM). Launched more than 20 years ago by then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SDP, the agency is to be upgraded — according to the ideals of the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party — to a "genuine" federal ministry of culture.

The CDU/CSU and FDP, on the other hand, want to keep the supreme cultural administration in the chancellor's office.

The Greens believe that more responsibilities could be "bundled" in the BKM. The CDU/CSU has not ruled this out, either. At present, an additional minister of state in the Foreign Ministry is responsible for foreign cultural policy.

Finally, the likely rare alliance of SPD, FDP, Left Party and Greens is promoting the anchoring of culture as a state objective in Germany's Basic Law; the CDU/CSU at least wants to "examine" the possible advantages.

Despite initial resistance, cultural cooperation between the federal and state governments seems sufficiently established — after 21 years of the BKM. Although culture in Germany is a state matter according to the Basic Law, almost all potential governing parties would like to see more cooperation. The FDP is even calling for a "cooperation imperative" from the federal and state governments — for education and culture, while the Left Party stresses that "the states and municipalities need sufficient funds to finance culture." 

This article has been adapted from German