A "Homecoming" for New Director of the Goethe-Institut Washington
Enlarge image Wilfried Eckstein, Director of the Goethe-Institut Washington, stands before the Friendship Arch in DC's Chinatown (© Germany.info) Wilfried Eckstein, the new director of the Goethe-Institut Washington, is no stranger to the United States. The Karlsruhe native spent the 1978-79 academic year studying English and American literature and 20th century American history at Princeton University. That year was capped off by a memorable cross-country road trip. Since joining the foreign service of the Goethe-Institut in 1988, he has held posts in Russia, Thailand and, most recently, China. Mr. Eckstein sat down with Germany.info to share his views on cultural diplomacy, the experience of opening the Goethe-Institut in Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the close cultural ties between Germany and United States.
How did you first get involved in the world of cultural exchange and the Goethe-Institut?
When I was a student, I enjoyed going to exhibitions and historic churches, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and music in particular. I read Dante, Tasso, Milton and Spencer, and loved the Romantic era of German literature and philosophy. I also studied German exile literature of the 20th century. One of the great moments in my life was a visit to Marta Feuchtwanger in Los Angeles.
After my exams at Heidelberg in 1984, I taught German as a foreign language and cultural studies in the United Kingdom. Then I went back to Germany and had an assistantship at the University of Frankfurt in sociology, and took up studies in political science.
When I joined the Goethe-Institut in 1988, we spent time training in foreign countries. I was in Greece in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We were on a visit to Patras and saw the newspapers—we hadn’t watched TV the night before. We said that it cannot be true, it’s too amazing. Some moments you never forget: where you were, how happy we were.
You studied at Princeton in the late 1970s. What impressions did you gain from your experience in the US?
It was very intensive. After the academic year was over, a friend and I traveled through the States. We went to the Grand Canyon, did all those beautiful things one can only dream to do, went to all those unforgettable places. Our road trip was in a small car. We were sweating without end. When we went through Texas, we tried to travel through the night because we were hoping it would be cooler, but it was not. Sometimes we just changed seats. He drove an hour, I drove an hour, we changed seats and towels. It was hot all over, hot and humid.
I was not back in the US until coming here for this position, but there is another connection to this Goethe-Institut in particular. During 1996-99 I was posted at Goethe-Institut headquarters in Munich, working on sponsoring and fundraising for the Institut. New laws were then developed to orient budgets outside of public support, and I was responsible for activities in that field. Among other things, I was responsible for finding a donor for the film hall [the Goethe-Institut Washington’s theater], which allowed for it to be expanded, have modern technology and seating. That was in 1999, and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung provided the funds.
Your first post with the Goethe-Institut was in Moscow from 1991-96. You also spent 1999-2003 as director of the GI in St. Petersburg. What was it like to work as a cultural facilitator in Russia during those transitional times?
Your first posting is something you never forget. You cherish it and it imprints your whole career. I was well prepared, as I had started learning Russian before entering the Soviet Union, taking lessons from a Jewish émigré to Frankfurt. There was a lot of discussion about what might happen to the Soviet Union due to the centrifugal forces, so the collapse was not unexpected.
I was in the startup team of five who went to Moscow in 1991. We grew rapidly to around 20. At first I was in charge of language courses. After a year and a half I had the post for cultural programs for all former Soviet republics. Our first big event was the Berlin-Moscow festival in 1995.
Our task was to form a cultural alliance. We inherited the broad-based work of the German Democratic Republic, which had made great cultural connections with the Soviet Union. They had a lot more [resources] than we had, more than 150 teachers spread all over the USSR, so we inherited a lot of tasks and existing relationships. Of course we built up new ones, but it was not a “nowhere land.” We profited also from different points of view, as for Russians West Germany was a dream land, a positive part of what they had been thinking of Germany. East Germany was too close to their own system; it didn’t offer a vision or utopia.
They sensed that we were Western, and were really curious to learn, to catch up. Part of the mutual understanding was that we had a lot to catch up on, since 1930s. Behind that was the awareness that Russia and Germany have a long mutual history going back to the 18th century. This was an interrupted relationship, in a way since the October Revolution, but at least since 1930s. It was a big welcoming situation; we were welcomed with open arms. There were of course also shadows, with all the claims from museums to have precious artworks returned. That was the sour side of the relationship. But since there was in a way a division of work, with the Foreign Office taking care of this unhappy side, the GI was more or less strongly devoted to building new relationships in modern art and culture.
For the last three years, starting in 2009, you were director of the GI in Shanghai. What was that like?
I was there until the end of 2011 and liked it very much. For me it was an elevating thing, to be together with such highly motivated, efficiently-working, well-educated people. We did some big projects. The problem was more on my side, in that I didn’t speak enough Chinese.
Whatever we did, we never really got stuck, we were never being blocked.
We think China is an undemocratic country, that people are suffering from a lack of democracy. When you’re there things look a bit different. Yes, there are people who are working, arguing for civil rights and freedom of expression, a number of them in prison. You don’t hear from them, and that’s certainly atrocious. But nevertheless, society runs. It’s working, it’s developing, it’s dynamic, it has its aspects of a civil society.
Not every protest is quelled. People can march in front of a local mayor’s house. I saw that it can happen without the police putting them in prison. Comparing the experience with the picture in my mind, I would say that the form of authoritarian regime in China is very elastic.
Artists actually say the state does not support arts enough. The state is receding from cultural foundations; every cultural institution must have the legal form of a private company. The American [funding] model is being followed by the media in China. You have a maximum choice of channels, maximum entertainment, with the exclusion of politics. Politics are not part of the entertainment process.
What are your expectations and plans for the coming months in Washington?
The Goethe-Institut in DC is certainly a model of cooperation and interaction with this city. At core we offer activities related to Germany and the transatlantic relationship in a cultural sense. We do it in such a way that people come to us, but also organizations come as users--of the venue, but also they feel comfortable working with us as partners. It’s a model of how cooperation can develop when it’s persistently, continuously cared for and fostered. We have an amazing team, a superb location. The GI is rooted in the cultural life of DC; it’s taken seriously.
For 2012, we look forward to the upcoming visit of the 2009 German Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Herta Müller, as one highlight. She will be our guest in May, when we present her to the public at an event in cooperation with the Library of Congress. Another highlight this spring is the visit of world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. He has contributed immensely to the identity of the Germans with the language of architecture. I am very grateful for his achievements. We plan to pay tribute in particular to three of his works which are embedded in Germany’s post-Holocaust cultural memory.
To come back to this country, this culture—despite all the differences with Germany—it is close to us. We have a common history, common values, a basic understanding. We have a common cultural heritage. This is why I feel very relieved, coming back from Asia, apart from political things. I’ve always been fond of Jefferson and Paine, my “big gods.” And here I am again. I feel like I’m coming back.