Music Education and the Production of Prestige: West German Music Diplomacy in South Vietnam (1960–1968)

Mario Dunkel
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.2.2


In 1967, the then West German foreign minister Willy Brandt called cultural diplomacy the third pillar of West Germany’s foreign policy (Markovits and Höfig 1997). This embrace of cultural diplomacy, which for a long time had been treated as marginal and comparatively insignificant to West German foreign policy, came at a time of heated debate on the nature and purpose of cultural diplomacy (Dunkel 2017). On the one hand, the 1960s saw unprecedented changes in the West German understanding of German identity that played out in cultural diplomacy programs long before the Foreign Office published the guidelines (Leitsätze) on West German cultural diplomacy in 1970. Conceived by Ralf Dahrendorf, this redefinition of cultural diplomacy would for the first time officially describe German culture as a dynamic process rather than a national, autochthonous product (Auswärtiges Amt Bonn, 1970; Hampel 2015). On the other hand, strategies based on a traditional understanding of culture and cultural diplomacy continued during this time period. They included a strong concentration on the German canon, the mediation of prestige, the reaffirmation of seemingly autochthonous national traditions, and elite audiences (Dunkel 2017).

The debates surrounding West German cultural diplomacy played out in the intersecting initiatives by various actors and institutions involved in German cultural diplomacy programs. In the aftermath of World War II, West German cultural diplomacy developed slowly. It took shape during the early 1950s, when the first intermediary organizations were founded: the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) in 1950, the Goethe-Institute in 1951, the information service Inter Nationes in 1952, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1953 (Paulmann 2005:3). For the development of West German music diplomacy in particular, the foundation of the German Music Council (Deutscher Musikrat) in 1953 is likewise significant. In the late 1950s, the Music Council’s so-called Liaison Department for International Relations (Verbindungsstelle für Internationale Beziehungen) would become both an independent agent responsible for a small section of the cultural diplomacy programs as well as an official advisor to the Foreign Office in all matters musical.

This plurality of governmental and nongovernmental organizations in West German cultural diplomacy led to the comparatively decentralized structure that characterizes German cultural diplomacy until today (Markovits and Höfig 1997:183–189). It was additionally propelled in the late 1950s when the Foreign Office decided to incorporate the cultural institutes that had formerly been assigned to the West German embassies into the Goethe-Institute (Kathe 2005:149). As a result, the Goethe-Institute grew rapidly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A significant number of programs, however, remained in the German Foreign Office where traditional views of the value of cultural diplomacy predominated under a conservative government until 1967. With the beginning of the first Great Coalition (Große Koalition) between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) on the one hand and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the other, the Foreign Office for the first time fell under the control of the Social Democrats. Consequently, the comparatively liberal cultural diplomacy by intermediary organizations such as the Goethe-Institute, which had launched a jazz diplomacy program in 1963/1964 (Dunkel 2014), was contrasted by conservative approaches to cultural diplomacy predominating in the Foreign Office.

As this article argues, the Foreign Office regarded cultural diplomacy primarily as the mediation of culture-based prestige (see Fosler-Lussier 2015:23–46). This conceptualization of cultural diplomacy had implications for the evaluation of musical practices within the German Foreign Office, leading to music diplomacy programs that emphasized top-down processes rather than supporting bottom-up music education programs and cultural exchange. While the Foreign Office’s programs contributed to a West German strategy of image building, they were unapt to support democratic structures abroad. On the contrary, the Foreign Office primarily measured the value of music education programs by the extent to which they contributed to the Foreign Office’s primarily goals: the reaffirmation of German musico-cultural achievement, the visibility of West German culture (“Présence de l’Allemagne”), and the forging of alliances with governments of other nations as part of larger Cold War strategies. As such, West German music diplomacy of the 1960s was characterized by a disregard for both local audiences and democratic participation. It contributed to what historian Michael Latham has described as the ideology and practice of modernization—a Cold War Western political project that attempted to increase the Western sphere of influence by supporting stability rather than equality and democratic participation (Latham 2011).

These goals were true not only for the organization of concerts by renowned West German musicians, but also for music education programs. During the mid-1960s, the Goethe-Institute’s culture department discussed a potential shift in its cultural programming, seeking to establish music education as an additional strategy in its cultural diplomacy. The Goethe-Institute’s cultural programming department described its reasoning behind this shift in the following way:

Longer stays in developing countries, where lecturers, but also musicians and theater ensembles can provide important educational aid, are particularly desirable. One might object that such educational aid is directed only to a small circle of experts—to educated, or at least pre-educated people, to an elite. However, since the participants and their practical work can profit tangibly from lectures and seminars, the effects are much deeper and more long-lasting than those of a prestigious concert in front of a thousand people.[1] (Programmabteilung 1966:40)

As this passage from the Goethe-Institute’s 1965 Yearbook demonstrates, the institute’s culture department aimed its cultural programs at educated elites rather than the general populace. According to the programming department, the main difference between performance and education programs lay in their sustainability. Education programs were believed to be more sustainable due to a trickle-down effect: According to West German cultural programmers, local elites educated by German musicians would become ambassadors of West German culture and music themselves, thus disseminating West German cultural achievements to a wider audience.

This description of the role of music education in West German music diplomacy programs recalls the model of cultural infiltration that Danielle Fosler-Lussier has described in regard to U.S. cultural diplomacy of the 1950s. According to Fosler-Lussier, the Eisenhower administration thought of U.S. cultural diplomacy as a unidirectional process by which American ideas and values were poured onto a receiving culture so as to influence and transform it (Fosler-Lussier 2012:53). In a way, this West German model for developing countries took cultural infiltration one step further, suggesting that West German music teachers not only infiltrated social elites, but that those elites would then become accomplices in West German efforts to infiltrate the social margins with the ostensible accomplishments of the West.

The West German Conductor Otto Söllner in South Vietnam

The example of the conductor Otto Söllner’s musical activities in South Vietnam, which were supported by the West German Foreign Office from 1960 through 1968, demonstrates how this view of music education as an activity that was secondary to the prestige that it could potentially produce conditioned the practice of West German music diplomacy during the 1960s.

Otto Söllner had completed his studies in Munich and Salzburg before becoming a conductor in Krefeld (1926–1935), Aachen (1935–1939), Trier (1939–1940), and Gießen (1940–1944). In 1947, he became the General Director of the Opera in Trier.[2] He was a recipient of the Lilli Lehmann medal awarded by the Mozarteum in Salzburg and had already conducted orchestras abroad (Konservatorium Mozarteum 1927; Söllner 1962b:2). Söllner first went to South Vietnam in 1960, when he was supposed to direct the Saigon Symphony Orchestra for a sixth-month stint. Financed by the West German Foreign Office, his stay was supervised by the newly founded West German Embassy in Saigon.

Söllner’s initial six-month trip to Saigon would finally turn into an eight-year stay during which Söllner took on a number of musical roles in West German cultural diplomacy. He started out as a conductor, but soon began to found additional ensembles. An accomplished pianist, he also performed on the piano including with the renowned Cellist Ludwig Hoelscher. In addition, Söllner worked as an arranger and composer. Beginning in 1963, he was primarily employed as a music educator.[3] The files on Otto Söllner at the German Political Archive in Berlin provide insights into the criteria by which the significance of musicians and their musical activities was measured in the West German Foreign Office during those years. They reveal that Söllner was treated in accordance with the varying value the Foreign Office ascribed to him depending on his changing musical roles.

When Söllner arrived in South Vietnam in April 1960, he was part of a larger U.S.-led Western political strategy. Western interventions in South Vietnam were motivated by the framework of modernization. According to Latham, “the concept of modernization embodied a long-standing conviction that the United States could fundamentally direct and accelerate the historical course of the post-colonial world. At the height of its influence during the Cold War, modernization was an intellectual framework as well as a political objective” (Latham 2011:2). At the core of this modernization framework was the teleological notion that all cultures were basically directed towards one future end point that was generally identified with the United States (Latham 2011:3).

Modernization ideology included a vision of nation building in the developing world that prioritized political stability over the installation of democratic political systems and practices as a way to contain Communism. South Vietnam was one example for a nation-building campaign that took place within this framework (Latham 2011:123–157). By the late 1950s, a coalition of Western nations led by the United States was providing economic, military, and strategic support to Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime. Between 1955 and 1961, the relatively small nation of South Vietnam therefore became the fifth largest recipient of United States aid at the time. As Diệm’s land reform aided only a very small percentage of the South Vietnamese population, it failed to compete with the National Liberation Front’s practice of directly redistributing land to farmers. As the American CIA operative Edward Lansdale wrote in 1961, the Diệm regime failed to generate a national sense of solidarity. The Viet Cong’s National Liberation Front “had been able to infiltrate the most productive area of South Vietnam and gain control of nearly all of it except for narrow corridors protected by military actions” (Latham 2011:136).

The West German Foreign Office contributed to the United States’s nation-building strategy not only through financial support, but also by directly assisting the South Vietnamese regime in gaining both international prestige and the goodwill of the South Vietnamese populace through cultural diplomacy. Diệm had requested that West Germany send a conductor to improve the Saigon Symphony Orchestra (Betz 1960). Söllner’s initial stint in South Vietnam was thus part of a larger agreement to improve the relations between South Vietnam and West Germany. Söllner’s work in Saigon began shortly after the opening of the West German embassy in South Vietnam in 1960 (Betz 1960). While Söllner’s apartment was provided by the South Vietnamese state, the West German Foreign Office paid Söllner a considerable salary of 9,000 German marks for his first six-month stay in Saigon.

When Söllner started working with the Saigon Symphony Orchestra in May 1960, he did not have to start from scratch. He could rely on the work of the U.S. conductor William Strickland who, in addition to founding and teaching the Saigon Symphony Orchestra in 1959, had set up a Symphony Society for the orchestra’s continuing support (Fosler-Lussier 2015:64). Söllner could thus build on both a network of support and Strickland’s educational work. From the perspective of the West German Foreign Office, Söllner’s initial work in Saigon was highly successful. In addition to taking over the Saigon Symphony Orchestra, Söllner founded chamber music ensembles, performed European classical music with choirs, and wrote arrangements based on Vietnamese folk songs that were commissioned by the South Vietnamese state. His compositions and arrangements were performed as part of the official ceremonies surrounding the South Vietnamese national holiday, “Constitution Day,” on October 26, 1960, the highlight of Söllner’s first stay in Vietnam (Söllner 1961).

Otto Söllner conducting the Saigon Symphony Orchestra in August 1960 and Ngo Thi Nhu Mai (left), who is described as a “young and talented pianist.” The photograph illustrated the Times of Vietnam article “Saigon Symphony Orchestra Enthrals Audience.”

Söllner’s musical activities were mediated widely, including through French and English-language outlets whose readership included U.S., French, and South Vietnamese political elites. In October 1960, the South Vietnamese propaganda outlet The Times of Vietnam published a portrait of Söllner. According to the newspaper, Söllner had embraced his political mission as a mediator of prestige:

In Germany an orchestra of real stature contributes as much to the reputation of a city as its economic and political activities, if not more,” said Otto Söllner. “A city without an orchestra is not a city” he added, expounding his efforts both to understand the soul of this city and give it a soul through the symphony. (Nha 1960:9)

The West German ambassador to Saigon York Alexander Wendland’s reports to the German Foreign Office betray what he deemed to be the main goal of Söllner’s work in Vietnam. In a report to the Foreign Office, Wendland wrote:

When music director Otto Söllner arrived, the local symphony orchestra completely lacked unity. Moreover, it was not used to order. Musicians were always missing and members of the orchestra partly turned up late for rehearsals. Although two American conductors had certainly done laudable preparatory work, the orchestra could not be regarded as a unified ensemble. The musicians dutifully adhered to the scores, but they were not used to playing in accordance with the conductor. […] After two weeks of hard work, Mr. Söllner completely controlled the orchestra. After three months, the level of the orchestra had increased in an uttermost amazing way. The nearly Prussian discipline Söllner demanded from his students, combined with his Southern German charm, soon impressed not only the musicians in his orchestra, but the entire city. The orchestra can be presented anywhere now. The next months will show whether this level can be sustained under the leadership of the hard-working local conductors. This must be doubted.[4] (Wendland 1960:2–3)

According to Wendland’s report, Söllner’s success is primarily based on his ability to increase the orchestra’s presentability. In his first years in South Vietnam, Söllner indeed fulfilled a function that was in line with the primary goals of West German cultural diplomacy: he helped an allied nation in gaining prestige on the international stage, and in doing so reaffirmed the association of West Germany with high culture and the European tradition of art music. When Söllner agreed to return to South Vietnam in 1961, the West German Foreign Office acknowledged his success by raising his monthly stipend from 1,500 to 2,000 German Marks (Betz 1961).

In the course of the early 1960s, Söllner became more closely aligned with the South Vietnamese government, despite the fact that he was still paid by the West German Foreign Office. In 1961, the South Vietnamese Ministry of Civil Action decided to incorporate the Saigon Symphony Orchestra and to use it for their propaganda campaigns throughout South Vietnam (Deutsche Botschaft Saigon 1961:2–3). The orchestra thus became financially independent from donors as the musicians were now officially employed by the South Vietnamese state. In 1961, minister Ngô Trọng Hiếu officially asked the German embassy to extend Söllner’s stay. Although Söllner had already agreed terms with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, he decided to continue his work in South Vietnam throughout 1962 (Deutsche Botschaft Saigon 1961:2–4).

The West German Foreign Office thus continued to pay the conductor of the South Vietnamese national orchestra—a major institution in Diệm’s nation-building campaign. In addition to performing the canon of mostly German and Austrian classical music, Söllner’s orchestra now played more pieces by Vietnamese composers of classical music. In 1961, Söllner wrote an official arrangement of the South Vietnamese national anthem, “Quốc Thiều Việt Nam Cộng Hòa,” which was premiered and recorded in January 1962. In a letter to the Foreign Office, Söllner claimed that his work had been musically successful. According to him, his success was not only confirmed by South Vietnamese politicians, but it was also obvious in the musicians’ improvement. In 1962, Söllner proudly remarked that the Vietnamese musicians were now rehearsing challenging works such as Georges Bizet’s Carmen (Söllner 1962a:2–3).

As a result of his success and the continuing requests by the South Vietnamese regime, the West German Foreign Office once again extended Söllner’s stay in 1962. By 1963, however, South Vietnam could not afford a large propaganda orchestra anymore. In addition, the escalating civil war strongly curtailed the organization of cultural events in Saigon (Wendland 1964). Consequently, the West German Embassy decided to relocate Söllner to the music conservatory of the city of Huế on the North Vietnamese border where he was supposed to work as a music educator. In Huế, Söllner was involved in the larger West German strategy of sending humanitarian aid to South Vietnam. Three German physicians were already working in Huế as part of this West German humanitarian support (Wendland 1964).

As Söllner was relocated to Huế, his diplomatic function changed significantly. While his work as a conductor of the Saigon Symphony Orchestra had been highly visible, his educative mission in Huế was largely invisible to the general public. Consequently, when Söllner’s work in South Vietnam shifted toward music education rather than conducting prestigious ensembles, the German Foreign Office became much more reluctant in its support. This is obvious in the debates between Söllner, the West German Foreign Office, and the embassy in Saigon regarding Söllner’s remuneration. The Foreign Office’s response to Söllner’s relocation was a drastic reduction in his salary, despite the fact that the war was escalating in 1963 and that the social order was unstable, especially after the assassination of Diệm on November 2, 1963. The Foreign Office argued that in contrast to the high salaries of well-known West German conductors, music educators generally only received a compensation of 300–500 Euro. The Foreign Office was unwilling to make an exception for Söllner (Auswärtiges Amt Bonn 1964). Upon Wendland’s intervention, however, the Foreign Office decided to reduce Söllner’s salary by 25% rather than by 75% (Botschaft der BRD Saigon 1966).

Although Söllner repeatedly informed the Foreign Office and the Embassy in Saigon that his financial situation was worsening between 1963 and 1968—and despite the Embassy’s estimation that the costs of living in Huế were three times higher than in Saigon (Ludwig 1966)—the Foreign Office refused to raise Söllner’s salary after he had started to work as a music educator in Huế. What is more, Söllner continued to rely on a series of short-term contracts that had to be renegotiated annually. Between 1964 and 1967, Söllner repeatedly asked the Foreign Office for a salary increase. The conflict between Söllner and the Foreign Office escalated after the Tet Offensive in 1968. After surviving the first battle of Huế, Söllner remained in the city for 24 days before fleeing to Đà Nẵng (Pabel 1968). On March 7, he arrived in Saigon on the West German hospital ship Helgoland. Since the conservatory was shut down during the Tet Offensive and Söllner had to flee the city of Huế, the Foreign Office determined that Söllner had not been able to do his job during this time period (Auswärtiges Amt Bonn 1968). Consequently, the Foreign Office withheld Söllner’s salary after January 1968. Upon an intervention by the ambassador to South Vietnam, the Foreign Office finally decided to pay Söllner a regular salary for February and a reduced salary for March, April, and May. Payments were however discontinued after May 1968 (Pabel 1968).

Spanning a period of eight years, Söllner’s activities in Vietnam illuminate the practice of West German music diplomacy during the 1960s, when West Germany sought to draw from the myth of Germans as a “people of music” (Applegate and Potter 2002) in order to rehabilitate its image. The notion of Germans as a people of music—as it was embodied by Söllner when he conducted the Saigon Symphony Orchestra—was not only a source of prestige from which the reputation of Germany could be re-built. But it also provided an important means in larger modernization efforts which propelled nation-building campaigns in the developing world. In Söllner’s case, the West German government had provided a conductor who would help the South Vietnamese regime in gaining the recognition and prestige they desired as a legitimation of leadership.


On March 18, 1962, the German Consul General to Singapur, Heinrich Carl Franz Röhreke, who at the time was hoping that Söllner would be sent to Singapur next, described the political value of Söllner’s work as a conductor in a letter to the West German Foreign Office:

We Germans, burdened with the wanton heritage of our shameful past and our small talent for tactful acquaintance with foreign peoples, should seize the opportunity to befriend an entire group of people through the baton of a musician. What does the ordinary citizen of Singapore know about Germany? The name at best, and the fact that it was allied with the Japanese conquerors of Singapore, who are the topic talk of the day due to the recent location of mass graves of tens of thousands of Chinese murdered during the occupation.

When the keyword Germany immediately makes many people think of the German musician who educated their orchestra, however, then this mental association also impacts other areas and contradicts the myth of a reemergence of German militarism, that favorite shawm of the communists. […] The Bachsolisten[5] come and go and are forgotten after a few weeks. But the work of Söllner remains, and after years, maybe even decades, people will say: This orchestra has been trained by a German. [6] (Röhreke 1962:1–2)

Röhreke expresses a great appreciation of musical education within German cultural diplomacy. This musical education, however, is not valuable in and of itself. Nor is its purpose to offer ways in which classical music education can contribute to an equal share of musical knowledge. The educative work of conductors rather matters to the extent to which its results become widely visible. It counts as long as it enables the production of cultural prestige associated with West Germany. The conductor thus becomes an embodiment of Western musical and cultural superiority. In Röhreke’s description, the power of a baton is more than musical. In the hands of a West German conductor, it can become an emblem of the mastery and communication of musical prestige. As such, it has the power to win over new allies who crave this prestige in cities the West German government considers significant. It is this function of the conductor that preponderated in West German cultural diplomacy during the 1960s and beyond, despite the fact that West German cultural diplomacy was beginning to be more variegated.

The particular example of Söllner demonstrates the extent to which musicians could be disregarded as soon as they lost a significant function within the larger framework of West German cultural diplomacy. Söllner’s reduced payments ended after May 1968. Born on 26 July 1903 in Munich, Söllner was almost 65 years old by the time his work for the Foreign Office ended in Vietnam. He had not been able to provide for his retirement in South Vietnam. Nor was he able to find another employment afterwards. Söllner withdrew to Freilassing in the Bavarian countryside after returning from Vietnam. He died on 10 May 1983 (Zander 2007:106).

As the Goethe-Institute primarily celebrates the history of West German cultural diplomacy as a story of intercultural dialogue, plurality, and understanding (see Niemeyer 2011), examples such as Söllner’s, where national power interests rather than humanitarian considerations or the support of democracy are dominant features, complicate the history of West German cultural diplomacy. Conservative notions of the value of cultural diplomacy persisted in the West German Foreign Office. So did ethnocentric views of German cultural superiority that would have contradicted the guidelines for cultural diplomacy that Willy Brandt’s social–liberal government published in 1970.

In its 1971 Yearbook, the Goethe-Institute supported the thesis that cultural exchange was merely a “benevolent fiction” (schonende Fiktion) that needed to be maintained in order to flatter inferior cultures in the developing world by giving them the impression that their culture was equally valuable (Goethe-Institut München 1972) While not everyone involved in West German cultural diplomacy would have agreed with this notion, the fact that this was printed in the official yearbook of the main institute for West German cultural diplomacy demonstrates that notions of Western cultural superiority were not marginal in West German cultural diplomacy programs. An embodiment of West German cultural capital, West German conductors such as Söllner emblematized this sense of superiority.

The practice of cultural diplomacy in the developing world has seen large transformations since the late 1960s. Not only has the Goethe-Institute grown significantly, but contracts between the Goethe-Institute and the Foreign Office have made the institute—albeit still an officially private organization—the main actor in German cultural diplomacy, spanning a network of 159 branch offices in 98 countries (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 2018). In addition to sustaining this large network of offices, the institute now manages smaller initiatives in order to respond to sudden challenges around the world. In Turkey, for instance, the institute recently launched so-called spaces of culture—short-term programs offering local audiences opportunities for educational and cultural activities (Goethe-Institut München 2018). According to the institute’s current president, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, “The Goethe Institute has often been regarded as a tanker, but now we are an association of speed boats” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 2018).[7]

Recent studies on processes of transformation in (West) German cultural diplomacy likewise suggest that much has changed since the 1960s (Schneider and Kaitinnis 2016; Hampel 2015). As the German Foreign Office adopted a more expansive concept of culture as a dynamic process in 1970, dominant notions and practices of cultural diplomacy changed within (West) German cultural diplomacy programs. In addition, neo-colonial attempts to export European high culture to developing countries were officially revised in the early 1980s as the Foreign Office adopted the guideline that local communities should have more control over the cultural, social, and economic support they received (Schneider and Kaitinnis 2016:10).[8] A recent study by Annika Hampel on German cultural programs in India, however, suggests that there is a discrepancy between theory and practice. Hampel concludes, in a somewhat diplomatic language, that “fair cooperational work [between Germany and India] is capable of further development” (Hampel 2015:329).[9] Research on the specific effects of German cultural diplomacy, however, remains extremely difficult. Since the German Political Archives in Berlin grant access to internal documents only after a time period of 30 years, a final assessment of contemporary German cultural diplomacy is hardly possible.

The example of Söllner, however, also raises questions regarding the contemporary historicization of (West) German cultural diplomacy. As the lack of discourse on cultural ambassadors such as Söllner demonstrates, contemporary cultural diplomacy programs tend to sideline the Cold War legacy of West German cultural diplomacy programs. West German cultural diplomacy did play a part in the maintenance of Western hegemony during the Cold War, and contemporary cultural diplomacy programs should interrogate this dubious legacy critically. Raphaela Henze has recently underscored the importance of post-colonial perspectives in cultural diplomacy and international arts management (Henze 2018:2–3). When the former German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (who was elected German President in March 2017) defined cultural diplomacy as a contribution to “world reason” (Weltvernunft) in 2015, he failed to identify the self-critical negotiation of Germany’s contribution to Western hegemony as a pillar of his vision for German cultural diplomacy (Adam 2016; Steinmeier 2015).

A critical engagement with West Germany’s contribution to Western hegemony could be realized by supporting critical studies on the colonial legacy of West German cultural diplomacy and by providing platforms for continuing dialogue on this legacy.[10] In doing so, the Goethe-Institut could build on what is widely perceived as one of its major strengths: the facilitation of intercultural dialogue.[11] Only a critical engagement with the problematic aspects of (West) German cultural diplomacy and its history can create a common ground with local audiences on which cooperatively designed programs can take place with the potential to reach a general sense of equivalency and mutuality.


Mario Dunkel is a Juniorprofessor (assistant professor) of music education at the Music Department of the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. He holds a PhD in American studies from TU Dortmund University. His main research areas are music and politics, music and diplomacy, the history and practice of jazz, as well as transcultural music pedagogy. His articles have been published in American Music, the European Journal of Musicology, Popular Music and Society, and other journals. He is the principal investigator of the European research project “Popular Music as a Medium for the Mainstreaming of Populist Ideologies in Europe” (2019-2022, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation).



[1] “Besonders erwünscht sind längere Aufenthalte in den Entwicklungsländern, wo die von uns entsandten Vortragenden, aber auch Musiker und Theaterleute, wertvolle Bildungshilfe leisten können. Man mag einwenden, daß sich eine solche Bildungs- oder Ausbildungshilfe nur an einen kleinen Kreis von Fachleuten, von Gebildeten oder wenigstens Vorgebildeten, an eine Eilte richtet. Da aber die Beteiligten aus einem Fachvortrag oder Seminar für ihre praktische Arbeit greifbaren Nutzen ziehen können, ist die Wirkung sehr viel tiefer und nachhaltiger als die eines repräsentativen Konzerts vor tausend Zuhörern […].” [All translations my own unless noted otherwise].

[2] The official names of his offices in Trier were Municipal Music Director and Superior Musical Director for Opera and Operetta (Städtischer Musikdirektor und musikalischer Oberleiter für Oper und Operette). Zander (2007).

[3] Söllner’s shifting roles are reflected in the varying terms that diplomats and journalist used to refer to him during those years. They include “Generalmusikdirektor” “Musikdirektor,” “Dirigent” (conductor), “Gastdirigent” (gues conductor), “Kapellmeister” (literally bandmaster), “Musikerzieher” (music educator), “Orchesterleiter” (literally orchestra leader), “Orchestererzieher”, (literally orchestra educator) “qualifizierter Musikpädagoge” (qualified music pedagogue), “Lehrmeister” (literally teaching master), “Musikexperte,” “Musikprofessor,” “maestro,” and “chef de l’orchestre.”

[4] “Dem hiesigen Symphonieorchester […] fehlte bei Eintreffen von Musikdirektor Söllner jede Einheitlichkeit. Es war außerdem überhaupt nicht an Ordnung gewöhnt. Bei den einzelnen Proben fehlten anfangs stets mehrere Musikanten, teilweise kamen die Mitglieder des Orchesters je nach Belieben verspätet zu den Proben. Obwohl zwei amerikanische Dirigenten eine gewiss löbliche Vorarbeit geleistet hatten, konnte das Orchester doch keinesfalls als einheitlicher Klangkörper angesprochen werden. Die Musiker spielten zwar brav vom Blatt, aber sie waren nicht daran gewöhnt, sich nach dem Dirigenten zu richten. […] Nach zwei Monaten harter Arbeit hatte Herr Söllner das Orchester völlig in der Hand. Nach drei Monaten war das Niveau des Orchesters in geradezu erstaunlicher Weise gestiegen. Die fast preußische Disziplin, die Herr Söllner von seinen Schülern verlangte, aber gleichzeitig mit süddeutschem Charme verband, beeindruckte sehr bald nicht nur die Mitwirkenden des Orchesters, sondern die ganze Stadt. Das Orchester kann sich jetzt überall sehen lassen. Es wird sich in den nächsten Monaten zeigen, ob sich dieses Niveau unter der Führung der tüchtigen hiesigen Dirigenten aufrechterhalten lässt. Dies ist zu bezweifeln.”

[5] Deutsche Bachsolisten, a German baroque ensemble that repeatedly toured for the German Foreign Office.

[6] “Wir Deutschen mit dem herostratischen Erbe unserer schmachvollen Vergangenheit und unserer geringen Begabung für taktvollen Umgang mit fremden Völkern sollten die Chance wahrnehmen durch den Taktstock eines Musikers uns eine ganze Personengruppe einer bedeutenden Stadt zu Freunden zu machen. Was weiß schon der Durchschnittsbürger Singapurs von Deutschland. Bestenfalls den Namen und die Tatsache, dass es verbündet war mit den japanischen Eroberern Singapurs, die zur Zeit durch Auffindung von Massengräbern zehntausender während der Besatzungszeit ermordeter Chinesen hier wieder das Tagesgespräch sind. Wenn hingegen […] viele Menschen beim Stichwort Deutschland sofort an den deutschen Musiker denken, der ihnen das Orchester geschult hat, dann wirkt diese Gedankenassoziation auch in anderen Bereichen weiter und widerlegt die Mär von dem wiedererstandenen deutschen Militarismus, der kommunistischen Lieblingsschalmei. […] Die Bachsolisten kommen und gehen und sind nach einigen Wochen vergessen. Aber die Tätigkeit [Otto] Söllners bleibt bestehen und noch nach Jahren vielleicht Jahrzehnten wird es heißen: Dieses Orchester hat ein Deutscher herangebildet.”

[7] “Das Goethe-Institut wurde ja oft als großer Tanker gesehen, aber inzwischen sind wir ein Verband von Schnellbooten.”

[8] For an overview of changing concepts in West German cultural diplomacy since the 1950s, see Hampel (2015:51–65).

[9] “dass faire Kooperationsarbeit ausbaufähig ist.”

[10] See, for instance, Nikolaus Barbian (2014) recently made similar arguments regarding the lack of critical interrogations into the history of West German cultural diplomacy.

[11] On the Goethe-Institut’s reputation as a facilitator of dialogue, see Sacker (2014). According to Ulrich Sacker, contemporary strategies of nation branding tend to integrate rather than deny problematic aspects and “negative characteristics” into an envisioned national image. Sacker (2014).



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