Cornerstone ceremony for the 'Haus des Deutschtums', headquartes of the DAI. Welcome adress by Theodor G. Wanner, 28. May 1924 © Bundesarchiv Koblenz

Founding and Development of the German Foreign Institute, 1917–1932

The founding of the German Foreign Institute (Deutsches Ausland-Institut / DAI), the 'precursor' of the now one-hundred-year-old Institute for Foreign Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen / ifa), was above all the work of the Stuttgart businessman Theodor Wanner (1875–1955). Wanner had a special interest in questions of abroad and external trade, but also of ethnology. In 1910 he contributed significantly to the founding of the respected Stuttgart Linden Museum for Ethnology. The sponsor of this museum was the Württemberg Society for Trade Geography and Promotion of German Interest Abroad, in which Wanner likewise played a leading role.

By Kurt Düwell

Theodor Wanner originally conceived the idea of founding the German Foreign Institute already before the First World War. But the decision ripened only between 1914 and 1916 when Wanner saw his plan encouraged by three other initiatives. The first stimulus was given by the exhibition 'German Intellectual Culture and German Culture Abroad', which was opened by the geographer Hugo Grothe on the grounds of the Leipzig Fair at the beginning of August 1914 (before the outbreak of the war) and treated the long underestimated importance of German emigrants and their descendants. Another stimulus was Friedrich Naumann's book Mitteleuropa (Central Europe), which was published in 1915 and drew a great deal of attention. The work by the Liberal politician Naumann described Germany's political and economic interests in the region of Central Europe, which in view of the Germans living there (though Naumann hardly mentioned them) had only gained in relevance with the advent of the World War. The book was critically discussed at the Württemberg Society for Trade Geography. The third stimulus Wanner received came in the form of a memorandum for the Prussian Chamber of Deputies by Carl Heinrich Becker, Professor of Oriental Studies in Berlin and later Prussian Minister of Culture, in which he called for the establishment of 'foreign studies' as a new university discipline to foster 'enhancing knowledge of the world’ and ‘education in international politics' in Germany. Wanner more or less combined all these ideas and was thus able to gain supporters and funds for his plan in the then leading social circles, including the German high aristocracy, in spite of the difficult circumstances brought about by the war.

'A work of peace in the midst of war'

But what political interests defined the founding of this new institute, which was for good measure also intended to be accompanied by the opening of a museum? At the solemn inauguration on 10 January 1917, the King of Württemberg, Wilhelm II, called the German Foreign Institute, whose joint sponsors were the German Empire, the state of Württemberg and the city of Stuttgart, 'a work of peace in the midst of war'. In his speech, he linked the opening with the hope for an imminent peace.

Reading room of the DAI at the Neues Schloss Stuttgart, 1919 / 1921 © Bundesarchiv Koblenz
Reading room of the DAI at the Neues Schloss, 1919 / 1921 © Bundesarchiv Koblenz

In fact, the Institute was founded in the midst of an extremely tense political, military and economic situation, which was soon to grow tenser. If the war had until then been a conflict confined to Europe and the overseas German 'protectorates', particularly in Africa, now at the turn of the year 1916/17 Germany was threatened with the entry of the United States into the war on side of France, Great Britain and Russia, and so with the global expansion of the struggle. The question was: Could the United States' entry into the war be prevented by a German peace initiative? The outcome of the war hung in the balance; it was a highly risky situation. Only shortly before, in December 1916, a German memorandum on peace had been rejected by France and England. And now the idea of the King of Württemberg and the DAI of mobilising Germans living abroad, particularly in the United States, for a peace proposal, and to gain the American President Woodrow Wilson as the mediator of such a peace, foundered as soon as Germany began waging unrestricted submarine warfare in early February. During the war, therefore, the DAI was able to play only a very marginal role for peace, since in addition to everything else it was constrained to operate within the framework of German propaganda.

The working structure of the Institute

The actual work of the Institute could begin only after the war, in 1918. On 1 October 1918, still before the armistice, Fritz Wertheimer, who had previously assisted Theodor Wanner, was appointed Secretary General of the DAI. Wertheimer, who came from a Jewish family in Bruchsal but who no longer was a member of the Jewish religious community, had read political science at university and was a well-known journalist. Before the war he had written political reports and analyses from the Far East for leading German newspapers, whence he had undertaken many trips, and during the war had had access as a war correspondent to General Hindenburg’s headquarters. He had been awarded the Iron Cross.

Consul General Dr. h. c. Theodor G. Wanner, founder of the DAI, 1949 © Bundesarchiv Koblenz
Consul General Dr. h. c. Theodor G.
Wanner, founder of the DAI, 1949
© Bundesarchiv Koblenz

Wanner's and Wertheimer's work at the Institute was directed by a governing board, which was usually composed of thirty state officials and figures from public life. A scientific advisory board, whose work was supplemented by economic and cultural advisory councils until 1933, was also set up to aid directing the Institute. The executive board consisted of seven persons who supervised different areas of work. During the Weimar Republic the DAI had departments for Eastern Europe and East Asia, supervised by Wertheimer himself, and six functional departments, namely for emigration counselling, information and job placement, legal questions (particularly concerning the League of Nations and minority rights), support networks (intended for emigrants and for Germans from abroad who were staying in Germany), advertisement and public relations. In 1926 a small America section was added. In 1926/27 the Institute had a staff of about fifty persons.

Activities in old print and new broadcasting media

The special importance accorded emigration counselling and support for German living abroad effectively made German living abroad the focus of the DAI's activities. Both Wanner and Wertheimer felt committed and responsible to German-speaking ethnic groups living outside the borders of the German Empire. It was their view that these groups had been particularly neglected during the war by the imperial government. As an expert on America and on emigration, emigration insurance and emigration transport, Wanner was very aware of the importance of foreign trade and emigration problems. During the Weimar Republic, he was therefore repeatedly sought out for advice by both the Ministry of the Interior and the Foreign Office.

But there was also another area in which Wanner and Wertheimer were active, which was soon to prove an ideal tool for the work of the DAI. As Wanner was a dedicated co-founder of South German Broadcasting (Süddeutscher Rundfunk or 'Südfunk' for short) and deputy chairman of the German Broadcasting Society, he, and with him Wertheimer, recognised early the interesting opportunities that the new medium opened to the DAI: it could help the Institute gain a wider public and ensure a broader dissemination of its material and information. When therefore in the spring of 1925 the DAI finally found a suitable domicile for all its departments in the converted orphanage redesigned by Paul Schmitthenner in the Charlottenplatz, it installed at the same time a modern radio studio in the complex, of which the Institute made frequent use. The bi-weekly magazine Der Auslanddeutsche (Germans Abroad), edited by Wertheimer, published regular tips on radio broadcasts about the life of German-speakers abroad, who, as Wertheimer repeatedly stressed, lived and worked as loyal citizens of their various host countries. Beginning in the mid-1920s, the DAI, together with lesser partners, produced an average of 200 broadcasts annually, of which a large part was transmitted directly from the in-house studio via the 'Südfunk'.

Because of the intensive use of radio and print media (in addition to the bi-weekly magazine, there were various book series and scientific compendia), the exhibition activities of the Institute were for a time neglected. But a further reason for this was the financial difficulties that had burdened the Institute since 1928. ‘Under the constraint of lack of resources, we had to put our exhibitions programme in second place’, Wanner summed up in the 1931/32 annual report.

Yet it was not merely the economic, but also the domestic political crises of the Republic, especially the increasing radicalism from both the right and the left, that hindered the work of the DAI. Not least Hitler and the anti-Semitism of his party threated the very foundations and prerequisites of the Institute’s work. This did not become evident only on 30 January 1933. Even before then the rational and liberal approach of the DAI's management was subjected to the harshest attacks. The same violent opponents who fought with all means against Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, and brutally destroyed the memorial to him erected in Mainz after his death, now sharply attacked the DAI and Wanner's and Wertheimer's liberal policy of long-term international understanding. In these circumstances, it was not always possible to maintain the factual, scholarly and scientific basis of the Institute's work.

Professor Kurt Düwell taught at the Universities of Cologne and Trier and has been Professor of Contemporary History and Regional History at the University of Düsseldorf since 1995. The focus of his work is on German and European history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and on the cultural foreign policy of the Weimar Republic, the National Socialist period and the Federal Republic of Germany.


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