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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.
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 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 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.