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 Frank-Walter Steinmeier, man standing at lectern next to a German Federal eagle flag , painting on easel in the baclground
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

The German president's affinity for culture

Stefan Dege
February 12, 2022

He loves jazz, appreciates art and is well-read — German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is looking at a second term in office.


"Renoir, Monet, Gauguin" — Germany's Museum Folkwang just opened an exhibition of French masterpieces on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. President Frank Walter Steinmeier spoke at an opening ceremony — a "friend of the fine arts," as Vorwärts, the paper published by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) called him.

Ever since the Federal Assembly elected him as head of state on February 10, 2017, Steinmeier has enjoyed many such events. The list of his opening speeches and patronages is long and is about to get even longer.

On February 13, 2022, the Federal Assembly gathers at Paul Löbe House in Berlin to elect Germany's 13th federal president. The SPD, the Greens, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservative CDU and CSU parties have come out in favor of a second term for the incumbent.

Back in 2017, when Steinmeier was poised to move from his post as foreign minister to become head of state, reports in the media alleged that quite a few people in the culture sector, including opera singer Thomas Quasthoff and filmmaker Sönke Wortmann, approved of Steinmeier succeeding President Joachim Gauck, above all for the former's sense of art, for being well-read, and for not making a fuss about it.

Political staying power over the decades

Steinmeier is known to possess an even-keeled temperament, combined with restraint and modesty. A carpenter's son, he grew up in Brakelsiek, a village of 1,000 inhabitants not far from Detmold in western Germany. He played soccer for the local sports club, where he was regarded — just as he was later in politics — as a kind of all-rounder who could play almost any position. He was "a man who didn't come up with genius ideas, but fought tenaciously and reliably, and would, in case of doubt, simply wait," according to an article in Weserkurier newspaper.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and a man and a woman stand in a hallway, paintings on the walls behind them
Frank-Walter Steinmeier initiated a redecoaration of several rooms at Bellevue PalaceImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Wait and see — that seems to be one of Steinmeier's outstanding virtues, along with loyalty and a sense of duty. In 2010, he donated a kidney to his wife Elke Bütenbender, severely ill with a life-threatening kidney illness, and took a break from his post as SPD parliamentary leader in the Bundestag.

He has proven resilient at various political levels. He managed the state chancellery in Hanover when Gerhard Schröder was the premier of Lower Saxony and headed the chancellor's office first in Bonn and then Berlin when Schröder was elected chancellor. Steinmeier's nickname is telling — "gray efficiency."

After the Schröder era, Steinmeier — interrupted by a four-year stint as opposition leader — twice served as foreign minister in a grand coalition headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Steinmeier's own candidacy for chancellor in 2009, however, failed — unlike his bid for the presidency years later, boosted perhaps by an unpretentious yet committed manner that won him popularity during his years as foreign minister.

'Culture is society's glue'

As president, he comes across as a thoughtful listener, a mediator, for instance when meeting critics of the state-mandated protective measures at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Just recently, in December 2021, he argued that for many independent and municipal museums and theaters, as well as clubs, financial support is urgently needed as "a matter of survival." "Culture is the glue of society, especially in such a serious crisis," he said.

As foreign minister too, Steinmeier was convinced that in times of crisis, culture can achieve more than politics at times, because it creates a space for encounters in religious or cultural conflicts and a basis for dialogue and understanding. When he was foreign minister, funding for foreign cultural policy increased by 35% to more than €650 million ($743 million) within three years, and 10 Goethe Institutes were reopened or reestablished.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife in a room, two doors and three opaintings on the walls behind them
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, standing next to his wife, Elke Büdenbender, explains new paintings added to the presidential residenceImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Recently, Steinmeier had Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence in Berlin, redecorated, including a room dedicated to Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, the Berlin-born brothers of international fame who were explorers of nature, people and cultures. The room showcases display cases with stone samples from Mexico, Italy and Kazakhstan, framed by portraits of the explorers. Three rooms in the main wing of the palace have also been redesigned.

The former garden salon is now "Salon Voltaire" and contains busts of the French philosopher, his patron Frederick the Great and Immanuel Kant, and six oil portraits by Anton Graff. The former music room has become the "Schinkel Salon" with designs by the architect, and what was formerly known as the ladies' salon is now "Salon Rahel Varnhagen," complete with a portrait of the legendary author who hosted a prominent salon.

Jazz music fan

The German president enjoys hosting cultural events. A jazz fan, he had a 2019 Bonn Jazz Festival event at Villa Hammerschmidt, his official residence in the former capital, Bonn. Just two years earlier, at a jazz concert at the Berlin presidential residence, he underlined the historical significance jazz has for Germans. "Jazz was something like the soundtrack to a new life for Germans after the war," Steinmeier said, adding it was "the melody of liberation, perhaps even of freedom."

Steinmeier expressed delight in "the very special connection between structure and freedom, concept and improvisation, rigor and spontaneity in jazz." Jazz, the German president said, is very much his kind of music.

This article was originally written in German.

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