Networked Cultures: Translations, Symbols, and Legacies; Some Thoughts on Europe after the Nation State

by Ronald Grätz

doi: 10.18278/aia.

Ronald Grätz, born in 1958 in São Paulo, has been the Secretary General of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and the editor of the quarterly magazine KULTURAUSTAUSCH since September 2008. He studied German language and literature, Catholic theology and philosophy at Tübingen and Frankfurt. He was, inter alia, Deputy Director of a UNESCO project school in São Paulo, Head of cultural programmes at the Goethe-Institut Moscow, Consultant to the Board of Trustees at the head office of the Goethe-Institut Munich and Director of the Goethe-Institut in Portugal.

Editor’s note: The following keynote was presented in Edinburgh on January 11, 2018, at the conference on “Networked Cultures: Translations, Symbols, and Legacies.”

I am very happy to be able to be with you here in Edinburgh today, and I am very grateful and honoured to be able to share a few thoughts about the cultural development of Europe. “Networked Cultures” express precisely what I want to reflect on. I am interested in a Europe of cultures, a post-national-state cultural politics, and a new perspective.

I myself, as Professor Singh said, am a protagonist in the field of culture, a cultural manager. I work in the field of international cultural relations for a very independent organisation that disseminates culture—the ifa, Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen or Institute for International Cultural Relations, which is like a partner organisation of the Goethe-Institut. It is important to know that we are independent of government and state, but work close to society. Our mission is not nation branding or soft power, and we do not pursue any specific interests. Instead, our work is conducted with a sense of global responsibility. We build bridges between science, art and culture, and politics and the media. With 180 staff today, we have been doing this for a hundred years.

I myself am Brazilian by birth, and I am a convinced European and “regionalist,” meaning that my Europe is a Europe of cultures. And I am a pragmatic man, as I believe that it is successful practice that works and convinces people. It is ultimately always the test of the relevance of theory.

Preliminary Remarks

Edinburgh is not just any city in Europe, but rather in many ways (together with Barcelona) a magnifying glass for the issues that matter to Europe today.

How can a new productive relationship between regions, nation states, and the European Union come about? Or is the nation state going to become obsolete in Europe?

What is the role of culture in this difficult development process?

Can culture give Europe a new perspective and provide direction?

What can people working in civil society and cultural politics achieve?

I believe that these are major questions about the future of Europe. They are very hotly discussed now within the European Union, but the discourse is relevant for all European states, regions, and cultures.

That you all work on the networking of culture is very good—and it is important. There are not many people who are looking for new ways in culture. If you see a chance that we might develop a new Europe and post-national politics out of culture, then I share that hope, and I want to explain why I am so optimistic.


Let me begin with some literature. Towards the end of the First World War, Hermann Hesse was asking himself what the future humankind would look like. In his story “The European,” he addressed this question with a reinterpretation of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

In Hesse’s story, the “great patriarch” Noah not only rescues the animals from the floods, but also people of every kind, including the “last European.” Hesse writes: “The patriarch smiled benevolently. His work was done, and he had rescued one of every species of earthly beings.”

There ensues a dialogue between animals and humans, in which each tells of their special abilities, all except for the European, who has nothing convincing to offer.

“My gift is the intellect,” the European says. “Show it,” the others call out. “There is nothing to show. […] What makes me special is my intelligence.” […] “Intelligence? Then show us your intelligence.” […] “There is nothing to see. […]  I can imagine and reshape the whole world in my brain.”

Then Noah asks: “What is the good of that, recreating the world, which God has already made?” The animals applaud. The patriarch concludes:

“Children, […] you have a lot to forgive these white men, as it is they who once again have devastated our poor world up to the point of a last judgement. But see, God has sent a sign telling us what He intends to do with the white man. You all […] have brought your dear wives to begin a new life on earth as soon as you can—you have brought your negress, you your Indian woman, and you your Eskimo wife. Only the man from Europe is alone. For a long time, this made me sad, but now I believe I know why. This man is sent to us as a warning.”

The European—a warning that is as topical today as it was back in 1917, when Hesse wrote his story. Again we may have the impression that Europe is moving towards a “last judgement,” with increasing right-wing populism, overt right-wing nationalism, new self-confessed autocrats, protectionism against everything that is not “our own,” limitations to and even the abolition of freedom of opinion, isolationist and exit movements, anti-Euro sentiment, financial problems and problems in economic policy for states, regions, and the banks that are allegedly essential to the survival of the system, extreme social inequality, an increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers that are presented and seen and felt as threat, the fear of Islamist terrorism and the fear of a loss of social standing—the EU and Europe are indeed in a problematic state, perhaps even a miserable state. As in Hesse’s story, “Europeans” right now do not seem to be in a position to constructively determine their own future. Instead, we seem to be preparing our own demise and to be offering a terrible example to the whole of humanity.

Figures 1 and 2. Opening of the ifa exhibition “An Atlas of Commoning,” Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin 2018. Photo: Simone Gilges, © ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen).


Nation and State

The fact that Europe is becoming weaker in relation to the world powers shows us that we cannot continue to fail to find solutions to key issues, as we have been doing for too many years, and that we cannot live without a justification for the existence of the Union that creates a common identity.

The Iran treaty that the United States has withdrawn from, new tariffs and the threat of a trade war, of course Brexit and all the people who have said their own farewells to the idea of Europe, all show that Europe has not succeeded in explaining its undoubted great benefits to its people in such a way that they see the idea of the European Union as more important than the interests-based politics of their own states, and that they see Europe not just as an anonymous administrator, but a shaper of the future. That they appreciate freedom, security, relative affluence, social security for the elderly, infrastructure, the health system, and education (notwithstanding all the inadequacies in some countries) more than they once again bemoan overly bureaucratic rules on the shape of cucumbers (if that was ever the case).

So far, people do not believe that Brussels can guarantee security. They rather trust their own state to protect them against the EU, as it competes with other states to gain as many benefits as possible for its citizens. That is why the EU is a place where everyone’s main aim is to promote their own interests. The nation state is seen as the most reliable guarantee of the future.

But what is a nation state? That a nation is identical with a state is very rarely the case, as nations are formed through spaces of knowledge and identity, spaces of language and history, rituals, traditions, and specific characteristics. They are what we call “home.” Nation has much in common with region. Nations do not end at state borders. Nation is a legal construct, whereby the nation is everyone in a legal space. And the nation is also, as Marcel Maus says, “institutionalized solidarity.” Nation, home, identity—these are volatile concepts. But I am not using the concept of the nation in a legal sense here, but as a working term to show that it is what is not related to the state that is the true “glue” in Europe.

The state is the regulatory administrative unit. We need regulatory authorities and a functioning societal organisation. The state guarantees—at least in democracies—the division of powers into the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive, with freedom of the media as the fourth estate. This means the rule of law, protection, freedom of opinion, and provision for needs. But the state does not construct and structure people’s identities.

We have states and we have nations, meaning states in which nations live—in Spain, some years ago, there was talk of a state of four nations.

If the concept of the nation basically has more to do with the region, the home and identity than with the state, then the Europe of the people is a Europe of the regions, of cultural, linguistic, and knowledge spaces, spaces of communication, and cultural heritage. It is not a Europe of states. A Europe that is really a union will therefore be post-nationalist.

In many countries in Europe, however, the new right is appealing to the concept of the nation, arguing that a national (and culturally defined) unity—if not purity—must be defended.

Figures 3 and 4. Fellows of ifa’s CrossCulture Programme during a workshop, Stuttgart 2018. Photo/©: ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)/Wolfgang Kuhnle.

But what might new models of international cooperation beyond the concept of the nation state look like?

Guy Verhofstadt, head of the liberal group in the European parliament called in “Europe’s Last Chance” (2017) for much closer links within the EU. Drawing on Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian freedom fighter of the nineteenth century, Verhofstadt wishes to declare the “United States of Europe.”

Thomas Piketty sees things similarly, publishing the brochure “Pour un traité de democratisation de l’Europe” with three colleagues in 2017, suggesting that the Eurozone be strengthened, as a key step towards a new Europe.

In a recent interview with the German weekly DIE ZEIT, Jürgen Habermas suggested “deepened and binding cooperation in the small circle of states willing to cooperate.”

Sociologist Ulrich Beck, who died a short while ago, favours the model of a “post-imperial empire.”

Only Emmanuel Macron has set out a broader vision for Europe, in his Strasbourg address. Since the Renaissance, since Kant’s dream of perpetual peace that led to the idea of the United Nations, liberal politics has been searching for “universal peace.” In his new proposals for the future of the European Union, Macron sees this idea as not far-reaching enough. He says that we need to draw on Churchill’s 1946 Zurich speech to the academic youth. It is a matter of the whole “European family,” and not about mulling over the state of the 19 or the 27, or however many it is. For Macron, we need to rethink the Europe of 47. Macron argues that we need a Europe that includes all these countries. This is the only way to continue to live in peace sustainably. This Europe will not need to be based on contracts, as is the EU.

The states of the EU are bound to contracts and laws. We also need to address customs and habits, culture and values. This was what mattered for thinkers like Václav Havel and Umberto Eco, Bronislaw Geremek and György Konrád, when they thought about Europe. They wanted an “organic” Europe.

Figures 5 and 6. Fellows of ifa’s CrossCulture Programme during a workshop, Stuttgart 2019. Photo/©: ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)/Wolfgang Kuhnle.


In November 2017, in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Jeremy Adler, professor of German at King’s College London, suggested founding a network of European academies. He argued the need for a new intellectually independent academy uniting the leading thinkers of all the countries, artists and scientists, so as to share ideas, set standards, and to promote intellectual activity. Examples are the highly significant Academia della Crusca, founded in 1853 in Florence, and the national cohesion provided by the Académie Francaise, founded in 1635, or the Royal Society, founded in London in 1660.

This new academy must be based in Greece, the birthplace of the sciences. It could lead to lively exchange, better cohesion, and then to the development of a European identity, argues Jeremy Adler. Perhaps, this idea relates to your own thoughts when planning this congress in Edinburgh. I think it is a brilliant idea.

I hope you are not thinking that all of this is typically German, considering the sometimes problematic political role played by Germany in Europe over at least the past 10 years. I think that Germany, with its free states and federal states, is a successful and pretty well-functioning model for uniting regions (one might also say nations) in one state with all necessary autonomies and rights, creating a single form that historically speaking was a relatively artificial “Germany.”

I would like to more closely address the ideas of two important proponents of models for a new Europe whose publications have led to many important debates.

Ulrike Guérot, professor in Krems, published a book entitled “Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss! Eine politische Utopie” (“Why Europe Must Become a Republic! A Political Utopia”). She writes: “We must come up with a new idea for Europe.” The utopia that she outlines goes as follows: “The citizens of the European regions and cities build a quite new Europe: decentral, regional, post-national, parliamentary, democratic, sustainable, and social. A political and institutional system.” The post-national democracy in Europe sketched out here would be a network of European regions and cities, over which the protecting roof of a European republic would arch, and under that arch all European citizens would be politically equal. Guérot speaks of a “coherent European unity project beyond the nation states, oriented on the history of European cultures and ideas.”

Austrian Robert Menasse published a book “Der europäische Landbote. Die Wut der Bürger und der Friede Europas”—(“The European Courier. The Anger of Citizens and Europe’s Peace”). He wrote: “Either the Europe of the nation states will fall away, or the project of overcoming the nation states will fall away. […] Either Europe will be more and bigger, but peacefully this time, the avant-garde for the world, or Europe will once and for all prove to the world that key lessons from history cannot be learned, and that there is no human way to turn attractive utopias into the realm of reality.”

Menasse is not advocating a super state, and not any new centralism. He is calling for a constitution for a free and peaceful Europe of the regions, a “continent without nations, a free association of regions, not a super-state centralism, but lived democratic subsidiarity, with a centre in which real institutions of community work on sensible frameworks and guarantee the legality—is it worth fighting for this? How does this compare to a commitment to defend the democracy that was once given to us?”

According to Menasse, we need to invent a new democracy, a democracy that is not linked to the idea of the nation state. Of course, a post-nation-state democracy cannot have the same form as a nation state. “Our democracies to date and our concepts of them, our experiences with democracies, our expectations of them and our standards concerning them—these were all national democracies. Of course a post-national Europe must be a democratic Europe, but the form of its democracy is different.”

Menasse sees regional identity as the root of European identity. It is the continuation and securing of the European peace project and it can secure a united Europe after the national state for all of our futures.

When thinking about a post-nation-state Europe, then must not fall victim to illusions:

  • Many states are still in the process of nation-building, such as the states of the former Soviet Union.
  • Some states wish to increase their identity as nation states again, in a form of defence against a loss of significance, sovereignty, protection and security.
  • The concept of the nation is perverted and must be defended against its false use as a cultural nation that leads to the idea of a leading culture for migrants.
  • The EU cannot work as post-nation-state entity overnight. We are talking of a long process.
  • Culture is not a national “glue” on the path towards post-nation-statehood, but it is by nature a platform and a venue for discourse, a modus vivendi.

Figure 7. Martin Roth Symposium “What can culture do?,” Mohsen Mostafavi (Harvard Graduate School of Design), Nico Daswani (World Economic Forum), Mateo Kries (Vitra Design Museum), Sarah Bergh (Pedagogical Institute for the city of Munich), Berlin 2018. Photo/©: Paul Hahn.

A Europe of Cultures

There is no European culture—there are the cultures of Europe. There is a shared European cultural and historical framework, consisting of Roman law, Greek philosophy, the Christian and Jewish religions, the values of the Enlightenment, and general declarations of human rights. This is our shared cultural heritage.

This unifying canon of values and the diversity in unity form the core of our coexistence—culture is the core of our coexistence. We are some of the cultures of Europe—and often we are several cultures, since identity, which is primarily formed by cultural points of reference, is complex, ambiguous, volatile, and multifaceted.

Europe and its states have a chance for the future if we can create a true union, a true cultural union. This would mean the end of some rights of subsidiarity, but also create a new sense of purpose and identity. This is the chance for a new narrative derived from culture and an emotionally and rationally founded context of justification—a narrative of how we came to be what we are, and why this is fortuitous and can take us forwards into the future.

I am very aware that narratives cannot be wilfully invented; they develop in their own ways, leading to the assertion of meaning, such as the slogan “No more war” in Europe after the Second World War, or “Nuclear power, no thanks” after Fukushima—the decision to abandon nuclear energy; or “We can manage” in the light of the large numbers of refugees—we will help immediately (even if I believe that this was a political mistake). A new European narrative will emerge from the nations, from the existence of the nations, and from culture.

Figure 8. Martin Roth Symposium “What can culture do?,” Wayne Modest (Head of the Research Centre for Material Culture at the National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands) and Geraldine de Bastion (political scientist and consultant), Berlin 2018. Photo/©: Paul Hahn.


Protagonists in the field of culture, scientists, practitioners, politicians, the media, and institutions are all analysing in detail the many different ways that the loss of an awareness of unifying cultural foundations to the European idea is one of the main causes of our helplessness when faced with a plethora of problems, and one of the motifs for what has become a fashionable opposition to the EU. Nationalist and conservative governments and parties appropriate culture as the core of their nationalism and use the idea of a defined lead culture to posit the threat of “multiculturalism.”

  • How can culture contribute to bringing the concept of a European community of values alive again?
  • How strong is a shared cultural foundation on which European politics might build?
  • What can culture offer to counter the distance of European institutions to citizens?
  • When is culture not a form of national refuge, but the embodiment of the principle of openness and networking?

The crisis of the EU is a challenge that culture has to face, meaning the people and institutions involved in culture. A crisis is an opportunity to find new meaning in Europe, also by using culture. When, if not now, should we be using cultural strengths to develop new prospects for the future? We must be using the means of culture and cultural policy to give new life to our hard fought achievements in our liberal and democratic order, but now within very different and complex societies of migration. Culture, the cultural scene, and art are the factors in the development of society on which the creation of convincing alternatives to illiberal nationalism will depend.

We saw in the late years of the Weimar Republic that the world of culture did not oppose right-wing nationalism and emerging fascist national socialism decisively enough, and that culture was turned into a manipulative propaganda tool. When we ask whether culture can be a key building block of a new Europe, by establishing public, ethical and political resistance against increasing nationalism, then we are assuming that culture can have a bridging function between different European identities, and that this can lead to the development of a new narrative of community. Culture as an ideal value builds bridges between people with different ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds and strengthens intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

This is also emphasised in a 2016 joint statement by the European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, on a future EU strategy for international cultural relations. The states of Europe and their cultures have shared roots, they say, and a shared cultural heritage that unites them in diversity. Cultural relations are the fundamental force behind social cohesion in Europe, a priori to our sustainable economic development and processes of democratisation—and successful cultural relations also work to prevent conflicts. The aim must be to utilise culture in Europe to create and to protect the spaces where culturally diverse narratives can coexist, where histories and images can be read differently, and yet where they all can be accepted and understood.

This EEAS strategy defines guiding principles for the action of the EU, names the major fields where cultural cooperation between partner countries can take place, and appeals for a concerted strategic approach to cultural relations. Laying down guiding principles aims to make sure that the EU’s foreign affairs policy and action contribute to the promotion of cultural diversity, human rights, and intercultural dialogue.

  1. Culture should be better used as a driving force for sustainable social and economic development (particularly in the creative industries and their potential for rural development and job creation).
  2. The role of culture and of intercultural dialogue as a key for the sustainable consolidation of peace and reconciliation should be strengthened.
  3. Collaboration and cooperation for the protection of our cultural heritage should be sustainably reinforced. This includes the preservation and the development of cultural heritage for tourism and economic development in crisis regions (such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) by means of knowledge transfer and grants.

A deeper awareness of the significance of Europe can be attained primarily by means of Europe’s culture, which has existed throughout the centuries independently of state borders and political and military conflicts. The unity of Europe does not derive from its sameness, but from the ways in which its diversity is seen. There cannot be one single Europe; instead, it is the ways in which we guarantee our basic ideas and values that distinguishes us Europeans from societies based on religious authorities, and from authoritarian and dictatorial states and tribal societies.

I am not thinking here of a melding of cultures into one, and not of cultures coexisting adjacent to one another, nor of them adding up to make a form of togetherness. The harmonisation of national and regional cultural specifics is also not the answer. We need the infinite expression of all identities within Europe and a mutual understanding and respect in a community of never-ending learning.

While preserving autonomy and recognising aesthetic freedoms, a European cultural policy must also make pragmatic suggestions for a cultural contribution to a process of European unification—in the sense of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, which defines culture as an economic good and yet also emphasises its aesthetic autonomy. Pure competition, as in all other areas of the economy and in the creative industries, cannot be the way forward for culture, which needs different criteria for measuring its effects, success, significance, future, and meaning. If we wish to see the cognitive and emotional dimension of plurality, tolerance, freedom, and democracy, which are basic cultural achievements and success, as the core motives behind political, social, and economic prosperity, then this must be accompanied by well-founded scholarly reflection and also by comprehensive cultural education.

Cultural politicians today must take into account—within the scope of their national responsibilities—that Europe requires the cultural input of the entire European cultural landscape. We are used to the ministers of the economy, the interior, and perhaps also of agriculture seeing themselves as the indispensable and responsible ministers when it comes to shaping Europe. But culture is the primary way of illustrating why we see ourselves as Europeans, and it is culture that makes us able to present ourselves as recognisable to the world.

Figure 9. Wura-Natasha Ogunji: Every Mask I Ever Loved, within “Untie to tie – On Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Societies”, ifa Gallery Berlin 2018, Photo: Victoria Tomaschko, © ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen).


A shared national identity for every functioning democracy is essential, and I see no reason why this shared identity cannot also be conceived as a European identity. The European states have many differences, for sure, including cultural differences, but I do not think that these differences are so large that we cannot build a shared identity around key values like freedom, solidarity and human rights.

It is one of Europe’s great strengths to appreciate and to protect Europe’s diversity. The cultures of Europe are something that we Europeans can be proud of, precisely because of their diversity. I myself am proud of the cultural heritage that this continent has produced. Whether it is Picasso or van Gogh, Homer or Hartman von Aue, Kafka, Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Puccini—philosophy, music, science, and literature from the continent of Europe have shaped our lives and the identities of us all. Cultural diversity is not just a value in itself—it is real and has the potential to create a real Europe based on culture—a Europe of cultures. Post-national.