From the AGI Bookshelf: Kulturmacht ohne Kompass, Frank Trommler

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

In his seminal book in 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, famous sociologist Erving Goffman proposed that people interact with each other as actors on a stage and, in doing so, they seek to control the image. According to Goffman, our perception of what is going on is created by the interactions we have with each other and the world. Goffman describes these situations as being comparable to an actor being on stage. Essentially, we act in certain ways to convey certain messages.

Nations rely on this same tactic in their formal relations with each other through the channels of diplomacy. One aspect of diplomacy is through what is referred to as the cultural policy of a country—the effort to “present itself in everyday life” measurably with the intent to convey certain messages.

In his monumental Kulturmacht ohne Kompass (Böhlau Verlag, 2014), Frank Trommler has tracked the history of Germany’s presentation of itself through the evolution of its cultural policies in the twentieth century. In his tour de force on war, peace, dictatorship, and democracy, he has offered a valuable window for those searching for Germany’s sense of self.

The definitions of cultural diplomacy are often mixed in with information policy or “soft power.” Yet, the fact that most nations interact with each other at multiple levels leaves cultural policy as only one dimension of international relations. If cultural policy is defined as the use of these relations to secure sympathy and support for national interests, then it is a tool of a national foreign policy.

Trommler tells the story of how Germany has approached using this tool over the period in which Germany asserted its cultural, scientific, and artistic prowess into its relations with other countries. His in-depth look at how Germany’s domestic environment shaped those policies reveals the dynamics of major chapters during the last century. Beginning with the pre-World War I period, Trommler moves the reader through the tumultuous chapters of the first and second half of the last century—between defeat and renewal in Germany’s sense of self. While the push to present German Kultur und Wissenschaft is initiated on the wave of German nationalism embodied by the Kaiser himself, it is in the post-World War I period in which we find the establishment of the German Academic Exchange Service (1925) and the early platforms that eventually evolved into the Goethe Institutes and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft after the Second World War. Rebuilding the presentation of German culture in the arts, philosophy, and science was burdened by the legacy of Hitler and the Nazi exploitation of Kulturpolitik. Trommler describes the renewal of the presentation of German culture in the West German republic as it worked to find the balance of remembrance and renewal in not only Germany’s understanding of itself, but also its push for the rest of the world community to understand Germany. The compass guiding that effort was held by important figures in the foreign office, but it was also held by many individuals in non-governmental organizations, who tried to build bridges after the war.

Trommler moves us further toward the period of Germany’s postwar division and the competition with East Germany and its efforts to portray itself as the legacy of Germany’s cultural pride. That effort collapses on its own contradictions, and the Federal Republic of Germany emerges into another chapter of its self-presentation after 1990. Trommler leaves that chapter open for another book, which would be a welcome continuation to his valuable contribution through Kulturpolitik ohne Kompass.