What is it that defines German culture?

17th November 2014
Lecture: "What is German culture?"

Lecture by Klaus-Dieter Lehmann at the 21st annual conference of the German National Foundation


On November 9th, 2014 we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After decades of division, the Germans had come together again in freedom and unity. At the Monday demonstrations they chanted: We are the people and we are one people. It was actually the template for a German master story. But no sooner had the country found its setting than the enthusiasm evaporated and everyday life returned.
But what I, like many hundreds of thousands of people, experienced in Berlin on November 9th was so impressive in terms of historical commemoration, personal confidence and commitment to a community that the uniqueness of this peaceful revolution is now evident - also and especially among young people. It is part of our collective memory and influences how we think and act. Even if not every day is a holiday, this experience remains available. However, availability is not a matter of course; on the contrary, it must be actively used and designed. Thus, the fall of the wall remains an obligation and responsibility. It's a cultural achievement. Only in this way can it retain its significance for society, otherwise it is at most a memory.
Hans Belting wrote a highly acclaimed book in the 1990s: “The Identity in Doubt.” As a résumé of the past forty to fifty years, that was certainly an appropriate formulation. These years were preceded by National Socialism, which had contaminated almost all areas of life and obscured the view of the long historical dimension. The phenomenon of taboo has long shaped the way Germans deal with their history and cultural tradition and pushed the entire past into the distance, cut it off and shattered the unity of historical time. The events of the last decades have created new approaches and intensified reflection on one's own history, perhaps enabling an “identity in responsibility”. In any case, it is worth thinking about German culture.
Without history and tradition, without knowledge and education, there is no cultural memory as a prerequisite for a feeling of togetherness. With education we learn to set standards and to orientate ourselves - in our own and in the foreign. History teaches us that we could have been different and why we weren't. Tradition guarantees that we are in certain ways of life that have shaped us and do not have to reinvent ourselves every day.
Language and culture were at the core of what Germany had in common before it became a political nation. Culture was supposed to create that unifying bond between the Germans that politics, which had been split into countless political territories, was unwilling or unable to forge. This has shaped Germany's long historical development.
In the spirit of German Romanticism, as legitimation for a German nation, the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. And the King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, sit in the stairwell of the National Gallery on Berlin's Museum Island as the artist kings of a cultural nation. The nation was practically celebrated in the museum. The building of the museums was certainly also a reaction to the Napoleonic Wars. The triumphant return of the stolen works of art from Paris to Kassel, Munich, Darmstadt and, above all, Berlin in 1815 had a decisive impact on German national consciousness, whether in language and poetry, in fine arts, in museums and collections.
Despite this national approach, the intellectual and geographical reference space for dealing with cultural evidence is still less the nation than the region or the city. That is a characteristic of German culture. It also makes up the cultural wealth. Germany has a rich infrastructure of theaters, concert halls, museums and libraries. At the same time, there is sometimes a lack of awareness of the national significance or the financial means for the resulting cultural obligations for protection and preservation or for appropriate mediation.
The Museum Island in the center of Berlin itself is one of the Lieux de mémoires - a term used by Pierre Nora - the places of remembrance. These places not only appear as inalienable and to be protected, but also have an impact on the present through their repeated appropriation. The reconstruction of the Museum Island today is determined by the conviction not to glorify the past, but to open up to the world and give the works their original validity through the independence of the museums. The redesign of the Museum Island has received worldwide recognition, especially through the restoration of the New Museum by David Chipperfield.
If one describes the 19th century as the century of the art religion of the Germans, then the 20th century brings a deep turning point through two world wars and the absolute break in civilization of the National Socialists. This brings other places of remembrance into view: burning synagogues and monuments, looted libraries, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Then came the long period of German division and reunification. New places of remembrance shaped the cultural memory: the fall of the wall, the Reichstag with the glass dome, the rebuilding of the Dresden Frauenkirche, which - completed in 2005 - was mainly financed by donations, an unprecedented process of civic engagement!
Even if the political and economic aspects determined the public discussion of the reunification, this process was to a very decisive extent a cultural event. The exclamation “We are one people” makes it clear that they were aware of the common culture, history and language, that this bond continued over the decades of division. The presence of Thomas Mann in the Goethe year 1949 in Frankfurt am Main and in Weimar and in the Schiller year 1955 in Weimar was highly symbolic for the unity of Germany through its poets.
Culture Article 35 of the Unification Treaty of August 31, 1990 begins with the sentence: "In the years of division, art and culture - despite the different development of the two states in Germany - were a basis of the continuing unity of the German nation." This sentence has provided the impetus for special cultural programs in the new federal states and prevents the cultural substance from being endangered. The libraries in Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig were merged to form the German National Library, the Weimar Classic Foundation was placed on a new basis, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was supported by the federal government and all 16 federal states as a national foundation and was thus able to share the collections in the Merge capital again.
Nevertheless, it took years before a common public perception of art from separate times emerged. In 2003 there was the first comprehensive exhibition “Art from the GDR” in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, with a considerable response from the public. A successful example of the merging of artists from East and West was the artistic design of the Reichstag building with contemporary art. The East German artists can be seen here together with Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Gerhard Richter.
Above all, however, it was the films that brought about astonishing constellations in which not only the oppressive and inhuman but also the grotesque and contradictory could be made visible, where there was not only emotional sympathy but also liberating laughter. Remember “Heroes Like Us” (1995), “Good Bye Lenin” (2003) or “The Lives of Others” (2006), which even received an Oscar. It is good to remember such connections when the political squabbles obscure the long lines of cultural commonality. Today you can see that the process of unification among the young artists no longer shows any ideological differences, but rather has a common space of experience and a common reality of life.
The Germans have repeatedly practiced in fundamental debates about their own culture: cultural nation, national culture, dominant culture, cultural identity, welcoming culture, certainly also from the historical developments described. Kurt Tucholsky already stated on the Weltbühne in the twenties: Germans never get as mad as when they want to come to themselves.
In the meantime, however, a new, relaxed self-confidence about one's own culture has arisen, and there is even a noticeable new desire for history. Daniel Kehlmann published a novel about Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gaus "Measuring the World" and was a huge success not only in Germany. Uwe Timm, Uwe Tellkamp (German Book Prize 2008), Ingo Schulze, Julia Francke or now Lutz Seiler, who received the German Book Prize 2014 with Kruso. successfully occupy new topics from recent German history and inspire critics and audiences. The awarding of the Georg Büchner Prize to the young Durs Grünbein from Dresden in 1995 was noteworthy.
Some time ago Hanno Rautenberg described the influence of contemporary history on German artists in the weekly magazine "Die Zeit" and thus about German in art. Many artists, who are receiving outstanding attention in the world today, were shaped either by the consequences of National Socialist barbarism or by overcoming the system change in the GDR. And he names Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polcke, Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Neo Rauch. Germany has become a large projection surface in contemporary art, not because it was missionary, but because it was the perception of the outside world.
The art form of the theater also has a specific German character. Theater is largely tied to language, but the collective character of the theater experience and the social reception are deeply anchored in the cultural origin. The German theater certainly does not exist as a homogeneous unit, but it is unmistakable at international festivals. What unites critics and supporters there is the admiration for the vitality and expressiveness of the actors, but also the ability to bring social reality onto the stage, not as a didactic piece, but as an open discussion and with all contradictions. The interest in German theater is enormous.
Recently, Newsweek quoted from a study by Columbia University New York that looked at what areas countries were doing best. So it is easiest to earn money in the USA, to research biotechnology in Sweden and to be young in Turkey. In one respect Germany was at the top: as a paradise for artists, and here especially for musicians. Public funds enable an outstanding diversity and quality for the audience, and nowhere else are composers and musicians trained as in Germany.
Many of them are not Germans by birth, but they choose this country consciously. Even with the entrance exams, the migrants usually make the running. Therefore, “German music” is initially not a question of German origins or whatever kind of “people's soul”, but rather of musical and intellectual socialization in German cultural discourse. In any case, the German musical landscape is one of the most diverse and demanding. On the one hand, this has to do with historical developments, the ambitious small states in the 18th / 19th centuries with their own orchestras and theaters, the educated middle class, especially in the 19th century, which, with its cultural commitment, gave itself the freedom to shape its own structures vis-à-vis the government and the conscious Promotion of new music into the 1990s. Music has to be, that is social agreement.
But what looks so glamorous from the outside and is perhaps better off compared to other countries has structural weaknesses in cultural education. The arts subjects are increasingly reduced in school education, music and art education are marginalized compared to the natural science subjects. This has negative effects on personality development, but also very direct deficits in the young musicians themselves. Without a broad reservoir, there can be no selection of top talent. Initiatives such as “An instrument for every child” are rescue attempts to draw attention to the misery in training. Germany urgently needs to invest in cultural education. It has a lot to lose.
Culture and education are a pair of terms. Only if there is an appreciation for education in society will there also be a vital public interest in strengthening art.
This topic is not just about the so-called country children, it is about the people who live and work in Germany, who have decided in favor of Germany and who position themselves culturally. Germany is not just a country of immigration for skilled workers for industry. 20 million people with foreign roots live in Germany: guest workers and their children, repatriates, war refugees, asylum seekers, voluntary and involuntary migrants.
There have long been musicians, writers, filmmakers and visual artists of non-German origin who see themselves as part of German culture as a matter of course. The great attraction that makes Germany so attractive is its openness, its creative possibilities. It is the country where most of the international artists live and work. Artistic freedom is a valuable asset, as is personal freedom. They are the crucial ferment. Berlin, with its cosmopolitan way of life, its discourse ability and its cultural charisma, does the rest to increase this perception.
I want to go into the writers here as an example. The Chamisso Prize has been awarded to authors who have made a change in language and culture since 1985. At the beginning the focus was still very much on one's own biographical reference, at the beginning of the nineties - with the visibility of literature - the term “migrant literature” came up. Today this literature is being used more and more in Germany. The authors themselves neither want to exclude themselves nor have a special status. Only the literary quality should count. Ann Cotton, Sasa Stanisic, Terézia Mora and Feridun Zaimoglu are important prominent voices in German-language literature who enrich the German language with new images, metaphors and topics.
These examples show that culture develops in a specific environment and context. Today it must be about not postulating a false exclusivity for our culture, not protecting reserves, but taking up developments and discovering similarities. But that only works if one's own culture is recognized, wanted and shaped. How should you recognize yourself or be recognized if you have no profile, if cultural memory does not exist or is taboo, if no cultural self-image is represented. The pressure of globalization in particular intensifies the need for cultural self-assurance. This also includes a culture of participation for migrants who are committed to Germany and who live our core values.
We have to insist on the use of the word, find each other in dialogue and use cultural education for our reflection and thinking.
And that brings us to an essential requirement for the common German cultural area, the German language. The path taken by the German language differs significantly from that of our neighbors. No central authority and ultimately no person have set the rules which, for example, caused our southern and western neighbors to develop a national language. There was no academy or regulator. In the beginning there was certainly Martin Luther with his ingenious translation of the Bible, but the influences of the printing centers in Germany also shaped the style and set language standards. Leibniz, Herder and Humboldt were interested in the diversity of languages. Germany pursued the development of a uniform high-level language without sacrificing sympathy for the variety of dialects.
Language is similar to other cultural goods: a lack of attention makes it less attractive, makes it less rich and expressive. One shouldn't open up foreign linguistic areas in a hasty diligence where it is not necessary at all. A little more passion for our language would be appropriate, it is worth it. But one thing is certain, it is not really threatened by Anglicisms. And a shrinking vocabulary is also not to be noted. Our language has never been so rich and varied. The Anglicisms are incorporated as confidently as the terms from Latin and French used to be.And what doesn't fit and was just fashionable is eliminated again. In this way, foreign words can also be enriching.
Goethe noted in “Maximen und Reflexionen”: “To purify and enrich the mother tongue at the same time is the business of the best minds. Purification without enrichment often turns out to be mindless; because there is nothing more convenient than to disregard the content and fit the expression. The witty man kneads his word material without worrying about what elements it consists of; the mindless can speak well because he has nothing to say. Poetry and passionate speech are the only sources from which this life emerges. And should it also carry some rubble with it in its violence, he sits on the ground and the pure wave flows over it. "
What must be of concern is the loss of German as a scientific language and the hegemony of English as the only scientific language. When you experience that participants at an international Goethe conference are only allowed to present in English, including the Goethe quotes, then you realize that something is wrong here. As plausible as the pragmatism is, its consequences are suicidal. The less German is spoken in science, the less society will speak about science.
This is a deeply fatal development and it stands in stark contradiction to Goethe's concept of "world literature", which did not mean the canon of the best works but the wandering movements of people and languages. It also contradicts the view of Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose language theory made it clear that every new language opens up a new worldview. Not only language and culture are closely related, speaking and thinking are also mutually dependent. That is intellectual and cultural wealth. Those who are satisfied with a single language exclude foreign views of the world and make themselves poorer and more stupid than necessary.
Goethe wrote in “Maximen und Reflexionen”: “Let's be versatile! Märkische turnips taste good, best mixed with chestnuts, and these two noble fruits grow far apart. "
This versatility, openness and curiosity about other cultures, which not only Goethe but also Alexander von Humboldt conveyed to us, are a good basis for dialogue in a globalized world. "Everything is interaction" said Alexander von Humboldt as early as the 19th century.
More than ever, culture and education are decisive indicators for cooperation and coexistence in the international perception. However, there is a great danger that, due to the increasing superficiality, the worlds of life will mix up unspecifically, and that independence and individuality will be lost. The equality of the cultures of the world and the willingness to get involved with other cultures, to relate to them, that is the right approach compared to the earlier hierarchization of cultures.
In the center of Berlin, across from Museum Island on Schlossplatz, the Humboldt Forum is currently being built, a place for non-European cultures that takes up precisely this position. It is a strong signal from German cultural policy to make the cultures of the world part of Berlin's noblest place, a place for a learning community that opens up new worlds of images and narrative forms, which tracks down the non-simultaneity of modernity in the various regions of the world with its arcs of tension and fields of force and who can establish a dense international network of partners. The chances of “measuring the world” lie less in global explanatory models than in encounters, imaginative conversations with the world and analog translations, in the possibilities of intuition and inspiration.
We live in a time in which economization pervades all areas of life. The market economy processes, which were previously intended for the production of goods and their distribution, trigger jump-over effects, also in culture. Art as an event, as a spectacle and lifestyle, as a decorative element. The odds are measured, the big numbers are expected.
However, culture and art do not primarily supply the showrooms of our time. Rather, they are the basis of our society in order to be open to new ideas. Not only the useful and rational but also the unexpected, surprising, creative and useless are important for a society's ability to develop. Culture is a crucial element for our coexistence, or to put it pathetically, for our survival. It is therefore necessary to have these breakpoints for orientation, this relationship in a culturally shaped closeness and experience, also the experience of time, against the background of that which endures.
We always speak of the fact that Europe lived out of its cultural diversity and should continue to live in the future, that there should be a shared responsibility for the European cultural area, that after all the previous catastrophes, European cultures should be effective as creative variations on a basic European theme. If that is the case, then German culture is indispensable in two ways: for self-assurance and as a contribution to a cultural Europe. As a European midland, Germany would leave a painful void without the claim to a German culture.
Yes, there is, German culture - as a historical legacy and as an independent contribution to a European society capable of dialogue - with a pronounced curiosity for the world.
The spoken word is valid.