Why does Germany value the arts so much more than Britain?

We see the arts as elitist while Germans believe they are crucial, says John Kampfner

A performance of Lohengrin at Bayreuth
The arts are crucial: a performance of Lohengrin at Bayreuth

In April 2013, David Cameron visited Angela Merkel. The prime minister was only the third European leader to be invited to the Chancellor’s state residence at Schloss Meseberg, north of Berlin. This was to be a family weekend, with Samantha Cameron and the children joined by Merkel’s husband.

A few months earlier, Cameron had announced his commitment to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. There was much to discuss. The hostess wanted to do it in the most convivial way possible.

Alongside them for dinner was a smattering of cultural and political figures with links to both countries. To break the ice, Merkel brought up the arts. She discussed the operas she had enjoyed at Bayreuth. She mentioned the plays and exhibitions she had sneaked into.

Then she asked her guest what he would recommend on show in London. Cameron stuttered and said he liked watching TV. He added that he would have loved to go to concerts but whenever they venture out like that prime ministers get called “elitist” by the tabloid press; one of the luvvies.

Germans feel comfortable talking about culture, particularly high culture. Politicians’ association with the arts is not just tolerated in Germany; it is required of them.

High culture: Angela Merkel at the opening of the 108th Bayreuth Festival Credit: Rex

One of those who despairs at the disparity is the British architect Sir David Chipperfield. He is especially well known in Germany, where he has been responsible for a number of major projects such as the restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin, and says architecture is subject to a much more “robust debate” there.

“They really hold your feet to the fire, which is painful at the time, but the work is better for it,” he says. “Clearly the war and the fact that Germany had to reconstruct itself spiritually as well as physically means it is a much more reflective society than ours,” he tells me. “Ours is a success-based culture. Whereas in Germany there is a lot of discussion of what things mean.”

Public funding of the arts dwarfs that in Britain. Take one example: over one night’s horse-trading, the director of Berlin’s Natural History Museum, Johannes Vogel (who used to be the number two in the British equivalent), was given a staggering €740 million over 10 years to turn the museum into one of the world’s great centres for science and digital learning.

In 2018, Monika Grütters, the culture minister, announced a staggering 23 per cent increase in arts spending, around €300 million a year, taking total annual spending to nearly €1.7 billion.

When coronavirus hit Germany there was no question, like there was here, that the government would ride to culture’s rescue. The arts, Grütters said, were “Lebensmittel”: an essential part of “that which sustains life”. Also, unlike here, the government support has not forgotten freelancers (who make up such a high proportion of those who work in the arts).

Wherever one looks, small and medium-sized towns have a plethora of museums, theatres and concert halls of renown – helping to embed a sense of local pride and place. Saxony, with a population of only three million people, has two of the world’s finest orchestras in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus and Dresden’s Staatskapelle.

Arts institutions do not have to fret every few years about whether they can keep the lights on. Alongside state support, many receive money from local companies and family trusts, so their directors and boards do not have to devote endless time to general fundraising. Freed from the emphasis on commercial returns, they also can take more risks.

When it comes to theatre, this means productions that are more experimental than in Britain. Katie Mitchell, a British director who upped sticks more than a decade ago for Cologne and Berlin, has argued that audiences in the UK are too frequently served up nostalgia and safety, whereas, in her adopted home, theatregoers expect to be challenged, to have their views and sensibilities threatened. “German critics are always instinctively sceptical when a play looks too polished – they fear it may cover up a lack of depth,” she has said.

The Neues Museum Credit: SOPA Images

Perhaps one of the most experimental theatres is Berlin’s Volksbühne. Founded in 1914, it was an unashamedly Left-wing theatre during the rise of Fascism, with tickets priced low in order to attract a working-class audience. After the end of Communist East Germany, it had a new lease of life. Its director, Frank Castorf, led the theatre for 25 years. He didn’t care if the critics panned his shows or if people didn’t understand.

Eventually in 2015, the Berlin government eased him out. The staff were up in arms. And then their shock turned to fury when his successor was announced. Chris Dercon is a larger than life figure from Belgium, director of Tate Modern and a ubiquitous figure on the London visual arts scene. Bizarrely, many Berliners saw Tate as a Trojan horse of Anglo-American cultural dominance.

When Dercon arrived, some staff tried to stop him from entering the building, and then mounted a six-day sit-in. Faeces were left at the door of his apartment. One man poured beer over his head at a party. Another shouted, “You dog!” at him on the street. Dercon was prized out. He found himself a happier home running the Grand Palais in Paris.

This passion has other downsides. Directors can stay in post for an eternity, luxuriating in their saintly perches. With footfall, to use the jargon, less of a requirement, they do not try particularly hard to broaden their appeal. Some are beginning, with free entry on Sundays and school outreach, but many are not fussed if their audiences come from a fairly narrow social stratum. Diversity and access have some way to go.

Just to be clear: there is no shortage of tat either. Saturday-night TV contains oompah bands, or celebrities kicking footballs through hoops. As for rock and pop, much of it is cringeworthy, and most foreigners wouldn’t get beyond Kraftwerk, Scorpions or Rammstein if asked to name German bands (and many people would struggle to get that far).

In the absence of their own, Germans have taken pride in the hospitality they have given to the UK’s finest – the Beatles in Hamburg and Bowie’s colourful sojourn in Berlin. On the whole, British television news and light entertainment are streets ahead in quality and originality. Back in the late Eighties when I lived in Bonn, I thought German TV was dull. It hasn’t changed much. Their dramas and crime series are a pale imitation of global hits going back decades from The Avengers to Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and Sherlock.

It is the centrality of art in society that, in my view, sets Germany apart. There is more of a requirement to be ultra-serious and outward-looking.

As for authorship, how many countries could boast a head of state who is a prolific writer on philosophy? Two years after stepping down as President, Joachim Gauck – like Merkel, one of few East Germans who made it to the top – published a book about the Enlightenment value of tolerance. He traces its history from the religious wars of the 17th century to Voltaire, Mill, Kant and Goethe, delving into the limits of individualisation and the need for a broader notion of shared endeavour. It became a bestseller. Where else, but Germany?

Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is published on Aug 27