Carola Lentz: "As a German, you're not always at the centre of the world."

We met the new president of Germany's international Goethe Institute to talk decolonisation, Germany's image abroad and what her career in Africa taught her.

Carola Lentz, new president of the Goethe Institute.
Carola Lentz, new president of the Goethe Institute.Fabian Sommer/DPA

Carola Lentz, 66, is the new president at the helm of the Goethe Institute which, with 12 centres in Germany and 157 bases in 97 other countries across the world, seeks to promote German language, culture and international relations abroad. You might know them for their German-learning materials and as centres for language exams. She's only been in the role since mid November - and the red bookshelves in her relatively new office at the institute's Munich HQ still look pretty empty when we speak on Skype. 

Ms. Lentz, I wanted to start by asking you about an unusual detail about your life. You were adopted by a Ghanaian family. How did that come about?

This is not at all unusual for ethnologists. During my first stay in Ghana in 1987, I met a Ghanaian linguist via a German Africa researcher. At that time, I wanted to get to know the whole country, even the places where there was no tourist infrastructure. The Ghanaian colleague said I could stay with his family in the north. I stayed with them for a whole week, in a village on a farm. My colleague's father was a catechist.

So he was a Christian.

The Catholic Church did missionary work starting in 1929 in the northwest of what is now Ghana through the Whitefeathers [also known as the Missionaries of Africa]. Every evening this man had conversations with me, wanted to learn a lot about German culture and told me about his society. What impressed me very much was the self-confidence with which he compared his culture with ours. By the end of the week, he had tested me, so to speak. He said that when I came back to Accra, I should tell my colleague, "your sister has come." For me, the question was: how much should I go along with this? I then ended up working with this colleague for many years. For me and all the Africa researchers of my generation, it was and is important to do research "with" the people on the ground and not just "about" them. My Ghanaian colleague also went on to become a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin for two years, taught students together with me, and we went to Ghana with student groups.

Do you still have a relationship with your adoptive family?

Our relationship has continued to this day. One of the women in the household who took special care of me just died; we organised the funeral as a Zoom conference together with her relatives in Ghana and around the world, and I also sent money to Ghana for this.

Unlike your predecessors, you have no experience in political operations, in political institutions.

It's not as if I've spent my whole life in Africa. I was vice president of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities for several years, and I was president of the German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology for four years. These are not just scientific posts, they are also political posts. I have also led international research teams and feel well prepared for my new office. If I didn't have this experience, I wouldn't have been asked.

You are the first president of the Goethe-Institut who has lived abroad for a long time, who brings so much cosmopolitanism with her. How will that affect your work?

I am very familiar with the view from the outside. Of course, I was socialised in Germany, I've travelled a lot here culturally, and I think it's a very good place to live compared to many places in the world, at least as far as I and my relatively privileged group are concerned. But experiences abroad simply mean that you learn to look at your own society with foreign eyes. And, for example, to recognise the privileged aspects of our situation, at least on the whole. As an ethnologist, you often move away from the capitals. I've lived in a village without water and electricity, and I know what that feels like. And you just learn that as a German, you're not always at the centre of the world. That puts your proportions into perspective. And I bring that with me, also in the sense of natural partnership which I basically assume in encounters with "strangers". And I haven't lost my curiosity over the decades either.

In your inaugural speech, you spoke at length about "wax prints", these colourful batik fabrics that we perceive as typically African, but which cannot be so clearly assigned to one culture. Was that also supposed to be a rejection of all those who insist on unambiguity and demarcation?

It's definitely a matter of having multiple perspectives. But that doesn't mean that we don't also represent certain values: democracy, equality, participation, cultural diversity. The wax prints are a good example of how, throughout history, other groups have always said: "This is ours." And I believe that we also have this interplay. What we consider to be specifically European values today have also become historic and are not immune to change. I think openness to new things is very important. At the same time, we need to understand people's need to anchor themselves, to have homes, to be networked and connected and not ambivalent and ambiguous. The more you feel you belong, the more open you can in turn be to what others have to offer. My Ghanaian father was a good example of this.

Infobox image
Photo: Angelika Leuchter/DPA
Carola Lentz was born in Braunschweig in 1954 and studied sociology, political science, German language and literature and education in Göttingen and Berlin. From 1996 to 2002 she was Professor of Anthropology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, after which she held a professorship in Anthropology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. She was president of the German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology (2011-2015) and vice president of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (2018-2020). Her research interests include nationalism, colonialism, and the politics of memory. She has conducted regular research in West Africa since 1987.

The Goethe Institute's mission is to convey an up-to-date image of Germany. What does that look like then?

Diversity of voices is absolutely part of this. We are a federal country, and at the moment we can see in connection with the pandemic what that can really mean. We also want to give an impression of the debates and viewpoints that are taking place here in Germany. And we want to show that Germany has become much more diverse. A wealth of world experience is present in German society. That, too, is part of the image of Germany that needs to be conveyed to the outside world.

For a long time, the Goethe Institute has mainly exported, but you have now emphasised several times that you want to strengthen the return flow. What do you mean by that?

Although our society has become so diverse, global international voices are still heard far too rarely on certain issues. I would like them to be heard and seen more. Especially beyond the cosmopolitan hubs, i.e. the big cities where theatre productions and poetry readings with artists from all over the world take place. I think it's important that this - as the saying goes - also takes place on the ground. And the Goethe Institute, with its locations all over the world, has the best prerequisites for promoting this.

Your predecessor Klaus-Dieter Lehmann is one of the founders of the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin, where non-European collections are to be housed in the future. Questions have been raised in connection with this of how to deal with objects from the colonial era. What is your position on this?

Where items have clearly been acquired in unjust circumstances, they must be returned. This applies in particular to human remains. In addition, there are a large number of objects where this is not clear and there are no requirements for restitution. With regard to these, the Goethe Institute is running a pilot project, the Invisible Inventory Program. Here, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and the Museum of World Cultures in Frankfurt are working together with the National Museums of Kenya and two artists' collectives. The initial aim is to make the thousands of Kenyan objects that are archived in collections in Germany digitally accessible. In addition, three exhibitions are to be created with the support of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. It is important to me that the debate about these objects doesn't stop when they are returned, but that connections are made and networks strengthened. Giving these items back will not create a shortage, but you will also get something in return, namely potentially very interesting forms of co-operation, of co-curating.

At the Goethe Institute's centres around the world, a distinction is made between local staff and those seconded from Germany, with the latter being paid much better. Is the Goethe Institute dependent on this two-tier system for financial reasons?

This is a topic I think is important. You have to understand that the payment of local employees varies greatly around the world. In some countries there are big differences between seconded and local employees, while elsewhere they are paid almost the same. It is based on the local labour market and labour law. The Goethe Institute is not free to decide this either, but has to coordinate with the embassies because of the so-called ban on better employment. And there are the financial constraints that you mentioned, which simply cannot be denied. We will certainly also think about the extent to which the term "local staff" (Ortskräfte) is appropriate. Because they are not necessarily citizens of the country in which they are operating - they could be Germans too. But the term suggests that the "Ortskräfte" do not have cosmopolitan lifestyles, although they often do. These are issues I'm taking forward into my presidency, and which the Goethe Institute is reflecting on self-critically.

And what about the payment issue?

This issue doesn't just affect the Goethe Institute, but also the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ). We have this at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), at the embassies, actually at all German institutions that work with seconded employees. I'm interested in what our partner organisations think about the issue too. And what possibilities there are for doing things differently - also in terms of decolonising their own institutions. Because that is the big heading over this whole topic.

Cultural institutes run jointly by Germany and France are being opened next year in Palermo and Rio de Janeiro. Others are planned - is this the future?

Part of our future will be to do multilateral cultural work within a European framework. This is a trend that brings challenges, but also offers opportunities.

The Goethe Institute is turning 70 next year. What have you got planned?

I'm personally working on a book about our history and want to show that the Goethe Institute's innovative impulses and its responses to global political and domestic upheavals have often not necessarily come just from the centre, but from our worldwide network, through the cooperation of all our staff. I would also like to show how we have developed from a cultural exporter that wanted to convey the image of a good Germany abroad after the war to an institute that is oriented toward networks, that wants to mediate exchanges and doesn't seek to predetermine their outcome.

Do you tend to gender your language when you speak? [Translator's note - finding ways to make generic masculine language within German more gender-inclusive is currently a topic of much debate.]

I am quite unorthodox in this respect. At the Goethe Institute, we try to be gender-conscious in our wording, and we have many ways of doing this. Sometimes an asterisk helps, sometimes it's terrible to read in texts. Sometimes we just take the feminine plural. I think that's important, and I'm also very pleased that I'm working in an organisation where we have at least 50 per cent women, if not more, in management positions up to the second management level, which is the level below the board. 

The original interview in German was conducted by Susanne Lenz and was adapted for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.