It comes as no surprise that the Goethe Institutes (with a current annual budget of 239 million euros) are having to cut costs. After years of pandemic and a wartime energy crisis, the traditionally expansive German cultural work abroad has been hit. The recent announcement that nine of the world’s 159 Goethe Institutes are to be closed, while new ones will be opened in other parts of the world (such as Poland, the Republic of Moldova and the South Pacific), appears at first sight to be a cautious, soft measure. But a closer look reveals a poorly thought-out and even more poorly communicated decision with devastating external consequences.
Those most affected will be Italy and France, two of our largest Western European partners. The Institutes in Trieste, Genoa, Turin, Bordeaux, Lille and Strasbourg will have to close, and the especially long-established Institute in Naples will be significantly downsized.
It’s true that two of the Goethe Institutes in France were relatively small, which makes it all the more incomprehensible that they weren’t restructured earlier. It is also true that the Goethe property in Washington was so exorbitantly expensive that the Institute in New York now has to suffice for the East Coast – but who was responsible for the rent?
While the Goethe Institut, which is part of Annalena Baerbock’s Foreign Office, is now talking creatively about a “strategic reorientation” and a “comprehensive transformation of the global organisation”, there is no mention at all of another huge cost factor that has so far remained unaffected: the enormously bloated and cumbersome headquarters in Munich, which has recently been investing more and more money in ambitious projects at home – which is hardly part of the task of cultural work abroad.
Eva Menasse, spokesperson for PEN Berlin, comments: “Of course, even Goethe must save money. But this first result is both meagre and politically short-sighted. It preserves domestic interests and unnecessarily alienates France and Italy.” Jürgen Habermas has already pointed out that the European project suffers from a lack of a common public sphere due to language and cultural barriers. “But a public sphere is a prerequisite for democracy. The European language and culture institutes make a valuable contribution to breaking down existing barriers. To scrimp on them is to scrimp on democracy in Europe.”
PEN Berlin. We stand by our word.