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Germany/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Ulrike Blumenreich in cooperation with Norbert Sievers

In contrast to most European countries, Germany was made up of many independent feudal states and city republics that each pursued their own cultural policies and established a host of cultural institutions. Among them were distinct cultural traditions that were not centralised nor assimilated in the German Empire (Reich), founded in 1871. While the new Reich government was responsible for foreign cultural policy, the constituent states retained responsibility for their own cultural policies. The special autonomy of the municipalities extended to the area of cultural affairs which was supported by a strong civic commitment to the arts and culture. Under the new constitution of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), public responsibility and support for the arts and culture was divided among the Reich government, the governments of the Länder (the constituent states), the city and municipal councils.Brandenburger Tor

The approach adopted by the National Socialist regime (1933-1945) replaced the diversity that had evolved over the course of centuries with forced centralisation, stifling civic commitment and instrumentalising culture to serve the aims of the Regime. This experience with centralisation later led to the emergence of a strong penchant for federalism in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The National Socialist tyranny and World War II ended on 8 May 1945. The German Reich was then divided into three Western and one Eastern occupation zones. These four zones eventually became two: the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (formally a Soviet occupation zone). Following a brief period marked by co-operation between the Federal Republic and the GDR, cultural policy evolved independently and developed along different lines in the two German states. This changed following Germany's reunification 40 years later on 3 October 1990.

German Democratic Republic (1949-1990)

In the former German Democratic Republic, a break was made with the tradition of cultural federalism that had prevailed in Germany until 1933. In 1952, the Länder were dissolved and replaced by 15 districts. From 1954, the state-controlled cultural sector was headed by the Ministry of Culture. Cultural policy in the GDR was based on a concept of culture that encompassed the "humanistic heritage" of classical art forms, on the one hand, and new forms of everyday culture, on the other. The ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), which exercised tight control in all parts of society, including most cultural activities, proposed that the "working class" should be both participants and drivers of cultural life in the GDR. The ideological basis of this claim was, however, a one-sided view of history that embraced only certain traditions of the traditional workers' movement. In addition to the reactivation of "classical" cultural institutes, new institutions engaged in cultural activities emerged, such as "houses of culture" or youth clubs. Particularly important were those activities organised by social and cultural associations as well as worker's unions within larger companies, all of which were under state supervision. Such state-run companies, along with the national and local authorities, were the most important supporters of this type of "popular culture". As a rule, the cultural work of all organisations was funded by the state and orchestrated by the SED.

New Eastern Länder (since 1990)

This phase of cultural policy development ended with the accession of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990 ("Reunification"). Responsibility for many of the traditional cultural institutions supported by the state or the districts was passed on to the newly re-constituted Länder and municipalities. Virtually all cultural activities and facilities of the former state run companies and worker's unions were shut down; responsibilities for some of these activities were taken over by associations, sometimes with the help of sponsors. Since then, the structures for cultural policy development in Germany's eastern Länder have essentially become similar to those of the "old" Federal Republic.

Federal Republic of Germany (1949-1990)

Following World War II, Western Allies prescribed a very narrow role for the government of the new Federal Republic of Germany in the field of cultural policy, mainly as a consequence of the National Socialists' former abuse of culture and the arts. Following the restoration of the cultural infrastructure, cultural policy remained at first largely limited to the promotion of traditional art forms and cultural institutions. Not until the process of social modernisation got under way - accompanied by the youth and civic protest movements of the 1960s onward - did the scope of cultural policy broaden to include other, e.g. "socio-cultural", areas of activity.

A "New Cultural Policy" emerged in the 1970s as part of a general democratisation process within society, the thrust of which was expanded to encompass everyday activities. The arts were to be made accessible to all members of society if at all possible. In the 1970s, the call for "culture for everyone" and for a "civil right to culture" led to a tremendous expansion of cultural activities, the further development of cultural institutions and the emergence of numerous new fields of cultural endeavour financed by increasing public expenditure. This growth was matched by continuously rising popular demands for a variety of cultural goods and services.

The reform-oriented cultural policy objectives of the 1970s were replaced in the 1980s by new priorities which saw culture as a factor enhancing Germany's attractiveness as a location for business and industry.

Reunified Federal Republic of Germany (since 1990)

The 1990s were profoundly influenced by the unification of Germany. In the new eastern Länder, adoption of the administrative structure of the "old" Federal Republic and its approach to cultural policy prompted a restructuring of and radical changes in the cultural landscape. These years have also been marked by austerity measures and budgetary constraints and by the increasingly evident structural problems of the major traditional cultural institutions.

In the early years of the following decade, cultural policy in Germany stabilised in comparison to the changes of the 1990s. However, cultural policy still faces great challenges and requires a constant re-orientation. The main issues are financial, particularly as the negative consequences of the recent global financial crisis on local and regional public budgets become more visible. On the other hand, some of these problems are structural in nature and concern the conceptional basis of cultural policy. Despite an improved state budget on the national level and in some of the Länder, there is on-going pressure on cultural institutions to increase their economic equity-ratio, to lead their institutions more economically, as well as to obtain funds from other sources such as sponsorship, patronage and marketing. In particular, the structural problems require a readjustment of the relationship between the state, market and society concerning the financing of cultural institutions, among other methods, through public private partnership models and a stronger integration of civic commitments. In addition, the conceptional basis of past cultural policies has been challenged by migration processes, rapid media development and a change in the composition of audiences (a decreasing total population and an increasing number of older people). Currently, intensive discussion is taking place in Germany on the requirements of cultural policies, due to these societal changes.


Chapter published: 04-09-2013

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              Council of Europe/ERICarts, "Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe, 15th edition", 2014 | ISSN 2222-7334