Heidelberg is a cornucopia of splendid scenery. The Odenwald Forest and its majestic peaks tower above on one side upon entering the renowned university town. On the other, the Rhine Valley seems to open up into in? nity. And the world-famous castle is straight ahead, gazing down upon the old town as it has done for centuries.
The neo-classical villa directly past the central Bismarck Square fits perfectly into this picture. The German-American Institute (DAI) has had its headquarters there since 1951 – five years after it was founded by the American government. “The DAI was part of the re-education policy,” said director Jakob Köllhofer. “After 1945, the US Army used it to try to regain the Germans’ allegiance to the Western community of values after 12 years of Nazi rule.”
Under its then-director, US Army Captain Ralph Lewis, the DAI provided books and international newspapers for this purpose. And the Germans took ample advantage of the opportunity. “The people who were against the Nazis back then were the ones desperately trying to get access to international periodicals, to the free media,” said Köllhofer.
Luckily for Heidelberg, the US Army selected the almost untouched city on the Neckar River as its headquarters. Part of the reason was that many US citizens had studied at the university there. And Heidelberg is one of the main players of Germany’s Romantic era: It became legendary in the US in the 1920s through the successful Broadway musical, “The Student Prince.”
After the war, American soldiers were forbidden to fraternize with the general population in Germany but increasingly, the rule was ignored as time went on. In Heidelberg and elsewhere in the American occupation zone, close ties were soon forged between Germans and Americans.
The US determined DAI policy for years. After Lewis, American diplomats stationed in Bonn ran the institute more or less on the side. Then they hired an American living in Germany to run it. Jakob Köllhofer became the first German director of the institute in 1986 and broadened its scope.
“Today, DAI is a completely German institute with German objectives,” he said. “Here, ‘German’ stands for ‘European’ – and ‘American’ for ‘transatlantic’ and ‘global.’ After all, economic policy and ecology are global issues. And the DAI is obligated to issues, not passports.”
At the same time, the US remains the main focus of the institute. “But when it comes to foreign policy, you have to include China, India and the entire Asian-Pacific region,” he added. “It would be ridiculous if we were so busy with the transatlantic region that we forgot about the rest of the world.”
The institute also found this international perceptive useful particularly during the eight years that preceded the inauguration of President Obama. “During the Bush presidency, the whole discourse was about values,” he added. “The president usually began his speeches with the statement ‘We share the same values.’” But his standards and reality were worlds apart. The trend in the Bush administration was to set double standards in more and more areas. One set of rules applied to Americans and to other Westerners, and the other to Muslims, Russians, the Chinese, etc. According to Köllhofer, that led to a heightened discrepancy between the ideals that make the West attractive, and reality.
In response, the DAI hosted a conference on “The Values We Share.” Prominent guests from American civil society – members of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transatlantic Academy from Washington and the publisher of Foreign Affairs, for example – discussed issues such as “Where are we failing to live up to the goals we have set for ourselves in the West?” and “Where are we making ourselves vulnerable?” with Europeans.
By the way, the DAI still operates a public reading room where – mostly – students read English- language international periodicals and books. They also have an English-language kindergarten, which will soon add another 60 kids reaching a total of 100. They try out educational reform initiatives from the US, Europe and other parts of the world there – with amazing results. The last group that left to attend primary school collectively skipped the first grade.
The DAI itself takes care of the fundraising for all of these activities and the salaries for its 50 employees. Silvana Marijanovic, 38, who originally comes from Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has headed the effort for a few months. “One day I simply went into the DAI and introduced myself,” she said. Soon after, Marijanovic, who has recently published four short stories in German, participated in a DAI reading that showcased authors from the Rhine/Neckar region. She met Jakob Köllhofer and they quickly agreed on Marijanovic’s first project for the DAI: a Balkan evening with authors from southeastern Europe.
Today, Marijanovic is at the institute to stay. “If you offered me the best jobs in Heidelberg on a silver platter, I would refuse because I only want to work here,” she said. “People are completely open here. Also, it’s clear that quality and not commerce is the priority here. And DAI is neither German nor American – it is international.”