Coming as it did in the final weeks of a precarious re-election campaign, incumbent German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s resolute “No” to German participation in any US-led war on Iraq was a brilliant piece of political theater. As a bold–and for postwar Germany, unprecedented–assertion of national interest, the announcement demonstrated the Social Democratic leader’s readiness to claim the country’s status as a “normal” nation and full-blooded European power. Yet at the same time, in taking a stand against military intervention, Schröder was defending the Federal Republic’s traditional identity as a pacifist, antinationalist country. In the end it became a deciding factor in an otherwise dead-heat election. A record showing by Schröder’s pacifist coalition partner, the Greens, helped him edge out his conservative challenger by a nose.
In fact, Schröder’s skill at having his (Black Forest) cake and eating it too has become something of a trademark for a ruling coalition that has seen Germany transformed from bland Wirtschaftswunder to worldly Berlin Republic. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the sensitive issue of culture. After his initial election four years ago, Schröder appointed a national culture minister–a post that had not existed since Joseph Goebbels led the Nazi propaganda ministry. By giving Germany a cultural face to correspond with its new political face, the decision suggested that it was once again appropriate to assert national identity in an official capacity. But when it came to defining the values and traditions this new office was supposed to promote, the government has increasingly relied on an anti-German definition of German-ness: “world-open” cosmopolitanism of the sort defined by “contemporary avant-garde art” and “international cultural exchange.” In the process, the Schröder regime has rehabilitated the concept of national culture from instrument of fascist demagoguery to symbol of democratic self-confidence.
Although its budget of 925 million Euros represents only a small fraction of public arts funding in Germany, the office of culture minister has taken on responsibilities including supporting cultural revitalization in the former German Democratic Republic; enhancing the German film and publishing industries; promoting tax relief for foreign artists working in Germany and for German philanthropic foundations; and presenting awards for contemporary literature and visual art. Through the culture budget, the government also collects contemporary art, underwrites cultural institutions in Berlin (the city itself is near bankruptcy) and awards grants to foreign writers living in political exile.
“Germany understands itself as a Kulturnation,” argues Julian Nida-Rümelin in a contribution to Cultural Politics in the Berlin Republic, a collection of essays that was timed to come out a few weeks before this fall’s elections. A prominent young philosopher and Social Democrat, Nida-Rümelin was German culture minister from 2000 until his abrupt resignation on October 1. “German culture was and is an essential element of national unity. It is not limited to the sum of the diversity of its constituent states, cities and communities in the cultural field. It is indeed something greater…. That the federal government is responsible for the support of German culture–and thereby the preservation and representation of the spiritual identity and unity of the German Kulturnation–cannot seriously be called into question.”