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 federal states (Länder), the city and municipal councils.
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 federal states (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.
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. “sociocultural”, 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. 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 federal states (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 federal states (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.
Main elements of the current cultural policy model
A binding definition of culture that could serve as a basis for cultural programmes and measures does not exist in Germany. In contrast to the situation in the first two decades after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, however, it can be assumed today that the cultural philosophies of the democratic parties at all levels of government no longer differ significantly. One reason for this convergence is the intensive cultural policy debate that began in the early 1970s in the context of the “New Cultural Policy” (see chapter 1). This debate led to a broadening of the narrow concept of culture prevailing in the 1950s and 1960s, which had been very strongly oriented towards the traditional cultural value system handed down for generations, to include new content and focus. The term “culture” today, thus encompasses contemporary creative and artistic activity (both inside and outside the framework of the traditional cultural institutions) as well as the culture of everyday life.
Cultural policy in Germany is based on a federal model. Historically grown and constitutionally confirmed, cultural policy in Germany is determined by the principles of decentralisation, subsidiarity and plurality (see also Chapter 1). Within the scope of their competence, municipalities and Länder maintain their own cultural institutions and offerings and promote or support a number of other cultural institutions and events.
In the sense of cooperative cultural federalism, the different political levels of action in the field of cultural policy behave in a complementary way to each other (see also chapter 1.2). Joint sponsorship of cultural institutions and activities is an expression of this effort (cooperative cultural federalism).
Another characteristic of the cultural policy of the Federal Republic of Germany is the principle of “state neutrality” with the simultaneous high guarantee and financing responsibility of the public sector for the maintenance of cultural institutions and programmes. The Constitution guarantees freedom of the arts (Article 5 (3)) which not only provides the basis for artistic autonomy and self-governing rights of cultural institutions and organisations but also stipulates a form of protection from state directives and regulation of content. Accordingly, the state is responsible for actively encouraging, supporting and upholding this artistic freedom in what is referred to as a Kulturstaat (cultural state). This approach to cultural policy is primarily supply-oriented. This means that the majority of cultural infrastructure is governed under the rule of law and is supported by the government – mainly by the individual federal states (Länder) and by the municipalities. More recently, there have been discussions concerning the privatisation of public services and institutions which has intensified efforts to promote more efficient arts management. As a result, there is a greater receptiveness to public-private partnership models and a willingness to privatise some cultural institutions.
Cultural Policy Objectives
The “New Cultural Policy” of the 1970s and 1980s, the principles of which have since become common knowledge, was in line with the programmatic recommendations of the Council of Europe from the very beginning. The concepts of cultural identity, cultural heritage, cultural diversity and participation are part of the programme of this policy concept.
Today, the main task of cultural policy is to enable as many people as possible to participate in art and culture. Cultural policy as social policy deals with societal challenges – demographic development, migration movements, dealing with value systems, financial developments, economisation, digitalisation.
“We want to make culture possible with everyone by ensuring its diversity and freedom, regardless of the form of organisation or expression, from classical music to comics, from Plattdeutsch to record shops,” reads the first sentence of the chapter on culture and media policy in the new coalition agreement (2021). It advocates anchoring culture in its diversity as a state objective.
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