Stuttgart after the Second World War, 1948 © Stadtarchiv Stuttgart

Self-discovery with detours. The ifa after 1945

When it comes to the beginnings of the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa), people like to quote Theodor Heuss. In 1951 he spoke enthusiastically of the newly founded ifa as federal German 'primary school for intercourse with abroad', a future 'clearing house' of cultural give and take. The institute was no longer to be an instrument of foreign policy, but rather an independent platform for international understanding. Then as well as now this definition sounds visionary and quotable. Anyone who wishes to see these slogans as describing only a success story, however, should bear in mind that the post-war history of the ifa was for a long time shaped politically and programmatically by uncertainties and the legacy of the Nazi era.

By Peter Ulrich Weiß

It was far from self-evident that the ifa's predecessor organisation, the German Foreign Institute (DAI), could continue to exist under its old name after 1945. The DAI, which consisted of a staff of 130, remained by no means unaffected by the Third Reich. So the Allies assumed. But a large number of false testimonies and doctored misrepresentations enabled the authorities to pretend that it had been an innocuous institution. A handful of remaining staff succeeded in rescuing some of the office furniture and equipment and preserving some of the old contacts in the chaos following the war. But from a cultural-political point of view, the work of the Institute was like an unheeded man treading water amidst the debris of post-war German society.

Forced the Re-christening

Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer talking to Federal President Theodor Heuss on the periphery of the opening of the Federal Constitutional Court, 28. September 1951 © Bundesarchiv / Bundesbildstelle
Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer
talking to Federal President Theodor
Heuss on the periphery of the opening
of the Federal Constitutional Court,
28. September 1951
© Bundesarchiv / Bundesbildstelle

The turning point came with the founding of the Federal Republic; it was also the symbolic watershed. When a change of not only the Institute's logo but also its name was proposed, there were initially objections. Politicians such as Heuss and others argued against this by pointing to the name's tradition and international visibility. It was only on 5 July 1949, under threat of neither funding nor recognising the Institute, that the state government of Baden-Württemberg forced the re-christening. Still, it took two years before the new institute and its premises were solemnly inaugurated.

The gesture of renewal determined the new Institute's initial steps. Franz Thierfelder was appointed the ifa's first Secretary-General. This appointment, however, hardly testified to a 'zero hour'. The energetic Thierfelder was one of the most colourful and at the same time contradictory figures of the time. As Secretary-General of the German Academy, with its focus on 'research on and maintenance of Germanness', he had adapted himself in the 1930s to Nazi ideology and published work in this spirit on language policy. After 1945 he fought passionately for the restoration of the Academy and positioned himself in various cultural policy circles and institutions, including on the board of the Goethe-Institut. His career is representative of the post-war history of West German foreign policy, whose dynamics grew mainly out of the actions of individual personalities and their networks. 

The Farewell to Germanism

The institute's building after reconstruction, 1948  © ifa-Archiv, Fellbach
The institute's building after reconstruction, 1948
© ifa-Archiv, Fellbach

Thierfelder, who like many other 'researchers of ethnic traditions' came through the process of de-nazification unscathed, now repudiated old ideas and became an ambassador of the new: 'To make foreign cultures comprehensible and our own culture understandable to others: that is the deepest sense of the Institute for Foreign Relations', he declared in the first issue of the in-house publication Mitteilungen (Reports). The erstwhile belief that 'Germanism abroad' could serve to build bridges to foreign cultures he now described as a 'well-intentioned error'. Accordingly, he polemicized against the 'Verein für das Deutschtum im Ausland' (Association for Germanism Abroad), whose backward-looking image of Germany he rejected. It was a mixture of substantive conviction and political calculation that spurred his actions and identified Thierfelder, who continued in office until 1960, as a transformed representative of progressive foreign cultural policy. The break with the past was positively received by the German Foreign Office and rewarded with vital subsidies. Nevertheless, the ifa's financial support remained modest for years.

Emigration counselling, in-house journal, expansion of the ifa library, sending book donations abroad, organising exhibitions – the initial tasks sound multifarious. But in fact, after the euphoria of the new beginning, the ifa's degree of activity was restricted. The difficulties were immense: broken relationships and contacts, particularly to Eastern Europe; obstacles and barriers owing to the Nazi past and the Cold War present; a foreign policy that gave little importance to culture; programmatic fluctuations of profile and reorientations; overlapping content and competition with other mediating organisations, especially the Goethe-Institut; the modest scope of finances and number of  personnel; and low visibility abroad. The Institute's search for formative power and its own voice in the concert of cultural policy continued well into the 1960s – typical for the long way that foreign cultural policy was to take from the 'second track to The Third Stage. These circumstances have also led to the comparative silence about the ifa when it comes to the history of foreign policy in the Federal Republic. Here a change of perspective could provide a remedy. The ifa as part of the history of the democratising of West German institutions and elites: now here there would be much to tell.

Peter Ulrich Weiß is an historian at the Centre for Historical Research in Potsdam. He took his doctorate with a dissertation on the history of the German-German cultural competition in Rumania during the Cold War. He lives in Potsdam.


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

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