German federal culture policy to get poll test

Published : August 27, 2021 17:24 IST

A file photograph of Monika Grütters, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

As the head of culture policy in Germany, Monika Grütters is more powerful than anyone before her. But what will become of her office after the election?

When Monika Grütters receives guests in her offices on the seventh floor of the Chancellery, she shows them the magnificent view over Berlin's Tiergarten. Only German Chancellor Angela Merkel resides above her. And although the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) is not an official minister, she still sits in the cabinet. Parliament traditionally approves the cultural budget, along with the chancellor's budget, first.

"The connection to the chancellor's office has put culture in the pole position of politics, so to speak," Monika Grütters told the newspaper Das Parlament in 2018. Judging by the amount of money Grütters is able to provide for the German cultural landscape, this is no exaggeration.

The cultural budget topped the €2 billion ($2.35 billion) mark for the first time in 2021, supplemented by 1 billion for the "New Start for Culture" economic stimulus and rescue program — launched due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Never before has the federal government spent so much money on culture.

Federal culture head initially derided

When the Social Democrat Party (SPD)'s Olaf Zimmerman — now executive director of the German Cultural Council — lobbied to appoint a federal cultural commissioner in early 1998, there was a storm of indignation, especially from states wanting to maintain their cultural sovereignty.

It was only after the SPD won the September election that calls to install a culture tzar became a reality. Still, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder installed the former Rowohlt publisher Michael Naumann as the first federal commissioner for culture that year, the reaction remained ambivalent.

Some derided the office; others eyed it with jealousy. "The SPD chancellor, himself a friend of artists, wanted to hark back to the times before the [Helmut] Kohl era, when Günter Grass still wrote speeches for Willy Brandt," recalled the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe

A major cultural project to be addressed by the new federal culture head was Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Michael Naumann, the first federal cultural commissioner, was an avowed opponent of the Holocaust memorial design by US architect Peter Eisenmann. Nevertheless, in 1999, the German Bundestag voted to erect the memorial and it was up to Naumann to implement the design based on an undulating field of 2711 concrete monoliths.

Thanks to Naumann's persistence, however, the memorial was supplemented by an underground "Place of Information," which to this day documents the crimes of the Nazi era in themed rooms.

After only two years, Naumann resigned and applied — in vain — for the office of Mayor of Hamburg. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a philosopher and until then cultural adviser in Munich, moved into the seventh floor of the Chancellory. The establishment of another national culture body, the Federal Cultural Foundation, in the early 2000s is considered his most important legacy. Like his predecessor, Nida-Rümelin stayed only two years.

The non-partisan literary scholar Christina Weiss took over in 2002, the first woman to hold the post, and stayed until the end of Schröder's second chancellorship. Today, Weiss is credited above all with reforming film funding, meaning the bright glow of the red Berlinale carpet is also her work.

When Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, she maintained this culture bureaucracy apparatus. The BKM remained in competition with the federal states over cultural policy. And the Federal Foreign Office also reigned over cultural policy, and continues to do so today, for example regarding the Goethe-Institut, a huge global cultural organization.

Part of the political establishment

At the time, Merkel chose Bremen politician Bernd Neumann as the new Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. Neumann worked to increase the BKM's budget and to put provenance research into the origin of museum collections on the agenda.

Both he and his successor Monika Grütters, who took office in 2013, "firmly anchored the BKM in the political establishment," the Berliner Zeitung noted in retrospect.

Today, Grütters is head of around 300 employees and her agency funds cultural institutions and projects of national importance. The spectrum ranges from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to the German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property; from the Berlin Humboldt Forum to film funding; from the Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship to the Federal Archive and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

And Grütters also plays a prominent role in the country's cultural debates, whether about Nazi looted art, Germany's colonial heritage or the pandemic's impact on the cultural landscape.

But what will happen after the critical federal vote next month? "After the Bundestag elections, we'll see whether the new federal government is ready to take the next, long overdue, step toward strengthening federal cultural policy," said Olaf Zimmermann of the German Cultural Council.

The question remains whether this will happen via a new bona fide Federal Ministry of Culture.

The article was translated from German.