History of ifa

The Weimar Republic, National Socialism, the post-war era, and the fall of the Berlin Wall: ifa can look back on an eventful history. In Stuttgart of 1917, Theodor Wanner founded the Museum and Institute of German Foreign Affairs and the Promotion of German Interests Abroad which was soon renamed the Deutsches Ausland-Institut (DAI, or German Foreign Institute) in the same year. In 1949 the institute received its current name, das Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, or ifa. Today, ifa acts as a centre of excellence for international cultural relations and educational policy, and through its activities, projects, and support measures, faces the current challenges of a globalised world.

The Founding

On January 10th, 1917 the forerunner of today's ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen was founded in Stuttgart, Germany. The 'Museum and Institute of German Foreign Affairs and the Promotion of German Interests Abroad' was in the same year re-named as 'German Foreign Institute' (Deutsches Ausland-Institut / DAI), and it was based on the idea and efforts of the Stuttgart businessman Theodor Wanner (1875–1955). The institute received joint support from the German Empire, the Kingdom of Württemberg, and the city of Stuttgart. At the official opening of the institute, the King of Württemberg, Wilhelm II, called it 'a work of peace in the midst of war.'

Postwar Years and the Weimar Republic: The Reconstruction Phase

At the end of the war in 1918 DAI was determined to improve Germany's tattered reputation in the world and the social conditions of German nationals living abroad. The institute subsequently became responsible not only for emigration counselling and supporting German nationals abroad, but also for the organization of exhibitions and the publication of periodicals. Furthermore, the scientific character of the institute was strengthened by a specialized foreign studies library, a press and news service, as well as its extensive archive. At this time DAI was led by Theodor Wanner along with the political scientist and journalist Fritz Wertheimer (1884–1968), who was appointed Secretary General of DAI on October 1st, 1918.

During the Weimar Republic, the DAI was structured into various departments which were divided by regions and domains. In 1926 a North America department was added. By 1926/27 the institute had a staff of about fifty people. In the spring of 1925 the DAI moved into a converted orphanage on Charlottenplatz in Stuttgart which was redesigned by Paul Schmitthenner. The building was christened 'The House of German Culture' ('Haus des Deutschtums') in 1924. Along with the facilities for the various departments, the complex included a radio studio that Wanner and Wertheimer employed to produce their own DAI radio broadcast, most of which was transmitted through South German Broadcasting (Süddeutscher Rundfunk or 'Südfunk' for short). In addition to Wertheimer’s biweekly publication Der Auslandsdeutsche (Germans Abroad), DAI produced its own book series and scientific compendia. As the DAI started struggling financially in 1928, the exhibition activities were reduced. The institute's work also became impaired by the political uncertainties and unrest in Germany. Time and again, DAI's management was exposed to attacks by the emerging radical right-wing powers.

The Years during National Socialism

The Nazi seizure of power presented profound consequences for the DAI. In 1933 the SA occupied the institute’s headquarters and the DAI was co-opted. Fritz Wertheimer emigrated to Brazil after he was dismissed because of his Jewish ancestry in 1938. The founder and chairman, Theodor Wanner, was also removed from office and replaced by the NSDAP mayor of Stuttgart, Karl Strölin (1890–1963). Richard Csaki (1886–1943) became the institute’s director until, shortly afterwards, he relinquished his office to the national socialist Hermann Rüdiger (1889–1946) in 1941.

Under this new leadership the institute was misappropriated and the tasks and responsibilities were fundamentally altered. These goals were outlined in the DAI's 1934 brochure 'New Tasks of the German Foreign Institute'. According to this, the institute became particularly concerned with propagating the national socialist ideology amongst Germans living abroad and educating them as soldiers for the Third Reich. In no time the DAI was turned into a planning centre for the Volkstumspolitik of the Hitler regime.

Their activities included the promotion of German racist policies ('Rassenpolitik') and the Germanization ('Eindeutschung') of foreign sectors, thereby involving the DAI and others in the preparation, implementation, and utilizations of the occupation of Eastern European territories. There were close, active informational exchanges between the institute and the Gestapo, NSDAP, and the foreign policy offices of the NSDAP. The DAI proved important for the new power and expanded steadily under Nazi leadership. In 1933 the institute staffed 55 people; by the time war broke out in 1939, it was employing 157. At the same time, the budget continually increased. By 1935 the Ministry of Propaganda was also among the contributing sponsors.

Postwar Era and Re-establishment

The DAI was by no means unaffected by the Third Reich. Nevertheless, because of a large number of false testimonies and doctored misrepresentations from former staff members, the Allies were under the impression that the DAI had been an innocuous institution during Nazi rule and thereby allowed its existence. July 5th, 1949 marked its re-establishment, and the Deutsche Ausland-Institut was renamed Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa). The official inauguration of the institute followed in 1951 with a celebratory speech by the Federal President Theodor Heuss who called ifa'a fundamental school for the communication with foreign countries' and 'a crossroad' of cultural give and take.

Franz Thierfelder (1896–1963) was appointed General Secretary of ifa and was responsible for setting it into motion. However, because of his ideological writings during the Third Reich, his appointment as a cultural policy maker was highly controversial. Essentially, Thierfelder repudiated his old ideas and weathered the de-nazification unscathed. According to his notions, from now on the institute should particularly commit itself to making 'foreignness' comprehensible and one's own culture understandable to others. The Federal Foreign Ministry positively received the institute's departure from the past and acknowledged its efforts with financial support, thereby securing ifa's long-lasting existence.

The New Beginning

ifa's new beginning proved difficult. Its reputation was damaged after the Nazi era, many Eastern European ties were broken, and the Cold War was beginning. Moreover, competition with other intermediary organizations like the Goethe-Institut limited its financial scope and lessened its visibility abroad, although this waning interest was also attributable to its previous foreign policy which actually undermined the value of culture. Therefore, the effectiveness of ifa during this time remained rather limited.

Still, its activities included emigration counselling, the publication of a magazine (1951-1962 Mitteilungen [Announcements], then called Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch [Magazine for Cultural Exchange] from 1962 until 2022 when it was changed to KULTURAUSTAUSCH – Magazin für internationale Perspektiven [Cultural Exchange – Magazine for International Perspectives]), the expansion of the library, the shipment of books abroad, and the organization of exhibitions. Only gradually did relationships with other countries warm and ifa's societal influence and reputation improve. It was not until the 1960s, however, that the institute began to confront its own role during National Socialism. From the beginning of the 1970s, German art was being exhibited abroad. In May of 1971 the ifa Gallery opened in Stuttgart, and then in Bonn in 1980.

ifa and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany brought about significant changes for ifa. In particular, attentions were aroused when ifa planned to acquire the GDR art collection of the former ZfK (Zentrum für Kunstausstellungen, or Center for Art Exhibitions). During the division of Germany, ZfK was the East German equivalent to ifa. Among other things, it was responsible for the organization of exhibitions in the GDR and abroad and for the cultural exchange of the GDR. The ZfK's art collection included print graphics, works on paper, photography, and paintings from countless East German artists.

When the centre was dissolved in 1990, it possessed roughly 10,500 pieces. According to unification agreements, these works were now intended to be merged with ifa's inventory. This plan was met with great resistance in the territories of the former GDR. Outraged, East German media spoke out about the Stuttgart institute's 'hostile takeover'. As a result, numerous East German museums came together to absorb diverse artworks into their own collections. Under pressure from the media and other museums, 219 pieces of art from the former ZfK's collection were handed over to a multitude of East German museums a month before they were to be relinquished to ifa.

German Reunification

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, the collections held by the GDR Centre for Art Exhibitions (ZfK) were transferred to ifa, which expanded its activities to include the new German states. This led to the opening of an ifa Gallery in Berlin in 1991, and the gallery in Bonn was closed in 1995. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, ifa responded to the changes in Europe by stepping up its efforts to protect minorities and to support the process of European unification. This included 'building bridges' by developing infrastructures to help German-speaking communities in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe (see Deployment Programme).

A New Millennium

With the dawn of a new millennium, the focus shifted to intensifying European-Islamic dialogue and promoting international peace projects and human rights. Examples include the zivik funding programme and the CrossCulture programme, established in 2001 and 2005, respectively.  The zivik Funding programme helps non-governmental organisations to plan and implement projects in regions beset by crisis and conflict around the globe. The CrossCulture programme enables young professionals and volunteers from 46 countries to spend two or three months working in an intercultural environment and to acquire new skills. ifa has also worked hard at increasing its visibility and positioning itself as an expert in international cultural relations.

This was also achieved by establishing the Research programme 'Culture and Foreign Policy', which commissions studies on current issues at the interface of culture and foreign policy. It also makes recommendations for improving and developing international cultural relations. In 2009, ifa established the Theodor Wanner Award to recognise persons and organisations who have made outstanding contributions to intercultural dialogue, peace, and international understanding Originally named after one of ifa’s founders, the award has been known as the ifa Award for the Dialogue of Cultures since 2021.


ifa has recently ramped up its work in the area of human rights with the introduction of two programmes to protect endangered artists. The Martin Roth Initiative was set up jointly with the Goethe-Institut in 2018, and the Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative, was founded in 2020. ifa has also expanded its online activities with formats such as Mind_Netz, an online networking platform for German-speaking minorities, and Die Kulturmittler:innen, a podcast on current topics in international cultural relations. This work also includes the ongoing digitisation of ifa's art and book collections, which can be viewed on the digital platforms: ifa Agora and Forum for International Cultural Relations.

Today, ifa sees itself as an international intermediary organisation that promotes a peaceful and enriching coexistence between people and cultures worldwide. It also acts as a centre of excellence for international relations and cultural exchange. With its networks, funding programmes and projects, the Institute advocates freedom in art, research, and civil society and creates analogue and digital spaces for encounter, exchange, negotiation, and co-creation. In doing so, it gives a voice to activists, artists, and scholars and addresses the challenges of today's globalised, ever-changing world.