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A language course in the Goethe-Institut of Istanbul
A language course in the Goethe-Institut of IstanbulImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Goethe-Institut: looking back on a turbulent year

Gero Schließ ad
December 13, 2017

With its language courses and cultural events, Germany's Goethe-Institut is reaching out to an ever increasing number of people worldwide. But according to its yearly press conference, it's not welcome everywhere.


Although most of the 159 locations of the Goethe-Institut carry out their assignments without being hampered by political problems, such difficulties are on the rise.

That's why the institute's president, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, took an unusual step.

At the beginning of the institute's press conference of 2017 in Berlin on Tuesday, he addressed the restrictions that the Goethe-Institut must face in a growing number of countries.

Hurdles in Turkey

The first country mentioned by Lehmann was Turkey, where he sees "problems in fields in which we cooperate with the education ministry." The program "1,000 teachers in Turkish schools," for example, has been unilaterally cancelled by Turkey.

Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Secretary-General Johannes Ebert and Managing Director Rainer Pollack
Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Secretary-General Johannes Ebert and Managing Director Rainer Pollack Image: DW/G. Schließ

As a result of that move, not a single German teacher will be able to work at Turkish schools, Lehmann told DW.

Another program that's been affected is the exchange program with Turkish partner schools (PASCH). Prior to that, the government in Ankara insisted on sending a Turkish watchdog to the traditional PASCH youth camp in Germany. After the Goethe-Institut refused to accept that, Turkish youths may not participate in the event. "That's particularly painful," Lehmann underlined.

Besides, German artists and intellectuals are becoming increasingly reluctant to travel to Turkey, especially German citizens of Turkish descent.

Steinmeier Besuch einer Partnerschule des Goethe Instituts 02.11.2014
Frank-Walter Steinmeier visiting a Goethe-Institute school in Jakarta in 2014. The institute has roughly 1,500 partner schools all over the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Despite these hurdles, the Goethe-Institut attempts to keep in touch with Turkish civilian society by carrying out creative projects such as the three newly founded  "cultural locations" which are simply restaurants or pubs.

As these activities are viewed suspiciously by representatives of Turkey's official cultural policy, the locations' Turkish partners are becoming increasingly worried about cooperating with the German institute. "They are afraid of being seen as agents of foreign powers," explained Lehmann.

Problems in Russia, Egypt and Kazakhstan

Turkey is by no means the only country that poses such challenges to the Goethe Institute. Similar trends can also be observed in Russia — "a difficult situation," as Lehmann put it. 

He also mentioned Egypt, where there's "a very strict surveillance of the Goethe-Institut's work."

Massive censorship also exists in some central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan. That's why the Goethe-Institut moved to the southern Caucasus, where it opened new institutes in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, as well as in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in December 2017.

Read more: Goethe-Institut to expand in the Caucasus

skyline of the Azerbaijan capital, Baku
The skyline of the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, where a Goethe-Institut opened on December 6, 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Tanecek

Despite these encroachments on the work of the Goethe-Institut in some countries, Lehmann rejects the idea of taking official countermeasures: "Cultural boycott is not an option," he repeatedly stated.

In his view, that also holds true for other political interventions of the German government, "because we follow our policy for the sake of civilian societies," he added.

Lehmann and the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, Johannes Ebert, see these politically motivated obstructions as proof of the relevance of their work which, they claim, has grown, especially in terms of increasing the reach of cultural events, language courses and digitized educational programs.

Ebert admitted that the Goethe-Institut was hoping Germany's new government would increase funding for their programs. His institution's international budget amounts to € 396 million ($ 466 million), of which the institute itself has earned € 135 million through language courses.

Read more: Megaloh brings German hip-hop to Africa

2018: a 'Germany year' in the US, and a focus on German colonial history in Africa

The Goethe-Institut has big plans for the new year. In reaction to Donald Trump's presidency, it wants to tackle the new political situation in the US with a so-called "Germany year."

Another focus will be on freedom in Europe that, in the institute's view, is jeopardized. 

Germany's colonial history in Africa is another a major topic on the 2018 agenda. So far, no comprehensive evaluation of German colonial history from an African perspective has been carried out, said Lehmann.

A new research project is to change that by sending out African curators to the former German colonies in Africa. "The African voice must also be listened to," Lehmann said, adding that he saw a tendency in Germany to focus too much on Germany itself.

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