Swapping Neil MacGregor for Hartwig Fischer: why we need more Anglo-German cultural exchange

As Britain contemplates leaving the EU, we need culture to erode the borders and stereotypes that divide and isolate.

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German art historian Hartwig Fischer has just started his new job as director of the British Museum. A strange quirk of fate has seen the museum’s former director, Neil MacGregor, take on the role of artistic director at the Humboldt Forum, a major new museum under construction in the capital of Fischer’s native Germany.

It’s a fascinating, if unplanned, example of Anglo-German cultural exchange. Two men, both highly respected in their own countries, have the chance to influence and be influenced by the cultural world of their new host nation, encountering its people directly and speaking to them through cultural objects.

Organised school exchanges, dreaded by countless teachers worldwide, are inspired by a similar idea: that personal encounters and cultural engagement have the power to deepen understanding of other nationalities and counter prejudice.

When a British and a German teenager discover a mutual love of drum and bass or when a foreign museum director sheds new light on an international artistic movement with a radical exhibition, we move beyond what divides and differentiates our countries and start to see what we share.

Countless curious Brits and Germans through history have sought and provoked such encounters. Cultural traffic between the two nations was particularly busy in the nineteenth century.

British novelist Mary Ann Evans (better known as George Eliot) made Germany her second home in the mid-1800s and became fluent in the language. With her partner George Henry Lewes in tow, she visited Munich and Dresden, Berlin and Nuremberg, spending her days roaming the streets in search of museums and cathedrals and her evenings in conversation with artists and thinkers.

Translations of her novels including The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch sold well. “The Germans are excellent readers of my books,” Eliot wrote to her publisher John Blackwood in March 1879. “I was astonished to find so many in Berlin who really knew my books and did not merely pay compliments.”

Back in England, Eliot published her travel journals, a personal, vivid and often witty tale of her encounters with German people and places. German writer Heinrich Heine, who took a trip to England in the 1820s, did the same on his return to Germany. More of an observant bystander than the sociable, inquisitive Eliot, he wrote mostly about what he saw, from London’s dense “forest of houses” to the sumptuous displays of astral lamps and ladies’ fashion gracing the city’s department store windows.

Even without immersing himself among the English people, he concluded that the old stereotypes, still encountered in “scholarly compendiums and ale houses”, were no longer useful and could lead only to “dismal errors”.

There is no doubt that Eliot and Heine were changed by their experiences. But countless others were also subtly or profoundly influenced by their forays – the landladies who gave the travellers rooms and hot meals; the Germans who experienced rural England for the first time in a translation of Middlemarch; the readers who learned of the German penchant for stove-heated rooms from Eliot’s diaries.

Today, Anglo-German cultural exchange is big business. There are organisations like the Goethe Institute and UK-German Connection that facilitate cultural understanding, magazines like New Books in German, and numerous cross-cultural poetry readings, art shows and gigs that try to win over British Germanophobes and sceptical Germans.

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Yet blatant bids to promote cultural understanding are often resisted. The attempts of nineteenth century Germanophile William Taylor to introduce German writers like Lessing to English readers were met with scorn. According to literary scholar Rosemary Ashton, he was “made to feel the unfashionableness, indeed the absurdity, of his German interest. He was looked on as an eccentric bachelor who taught the young men of Norwich atheism, wine-drinking, and German.”

In 2008, the German Foreign Office published a booklet explicitly designed to improve the cultural image of Germany abroad. It offered helpful reminders of the country’s most important cultural exports – Thomas Mann and Bauhaus, Wagner and the Porsche 911, Love Parade and organic food – and urged foreigners to visit Germany and get to know Germans for themselves.

It is doubtful whether such barefaced, agenda-driven pursuits of cultural acceptance will find success. It’s likely that Heine and Eliot’s literal and literary rambles, free of any agenda, had far greater impact.

But it’s easy to understand the impetus behind the 2008 pamphlet. So many of Germany’s recent cultural exports – from TV series Deutschland 83 and Generation War to Hans Fallada’s bestselling novel Alone in Berlin – remind British audiences about past conflicts and hostility between the two nations, reasserting difference rather than mutual interests.

Most of the time, Brits and Germans see the other nation filtered through the lenses of politics and sport, which assert or celebrate nationhood and are driven by national self-interest and rivalry. Culture can and should do things differently, drawing on the universal languages of music, art and poetry to erode the borders and stereotypes that divide and isolate.

British-German relations will need all the help they can get after 23 June, whatever the result of the EU referendum. We should look to cultural figures – our Fischers and MacGregors, Heines and Eliots – to give it. 

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