With at least 488 German facilities operating in Georgia employing 22,500 Georgians, it’s not surprising that the German Cultural Center, also known as the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta, is thriving in Midtown.
Atlanta now can boast having the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche Cars North America as well as a host of German global brands; even the city’s new $1.5 billion football stadium slated to open next year will be named after Mercedes-Benz.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Goethe-Zentrum’s executive director, Miriam Bruns, told Global Atlanta that the momentum of German investment into the Southeast began to build in the mid-1970s and provided an opportunity for the Goethe Institut to be established in an Atlanta that was then merely an emerging regional center.
“Back in 1976, we opened our doors as a Goethe-Institut in Atlanta, serving the local community with language courses and cultural events and promoting a positive image of Germany.”
Originally organized by Richard Schneider, who had studied in the United States due to a Chancellor Adenauer scholarship to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., the institute was fully funded by the German government like all of the other Goethe-Instituts around the world and preceded the establishment of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S. by a little over a year.
“Somehow they felt that there was enough to make it work,” Ms. Bruns added. “There was industry here, sewing machinery, logistics. They were wise. It was a good spot.”
The German American Chamber of Commerce based in New York assigned Eike Jordan to move to Atlanta in 1978 and open a Southeastern chapter, which has grown with astounding success.
Its success underscores the importance of German investment in Georgia and the region. Today GACC South’s influence encompasses a region stretching from the coast of the Carolinas to Texas including 11 states and two territories with five chapters and two affiliates.
While Georgia was a magnet for German investment as a right-to-work state limiting the influence of union activities in a developing geographic hotspot, the cultural mission of the Goethe-Institut also had a positive start.
“We spent many a happy year … growing our programs, courses and the amount of people walking through our doors,” according to Ms. Bruns, “but, it turns out this wasn’t going to last forever.”
As the reunification of West and East Germany strained the country’s economy, the government cut the institute’s funding, forcing it to be reconfigured.
“…we weren’t receiving as much cash as we used,” Ms. Bruns recalled. “So in 1995 to be able to carry on providing our programs, some of our supporters and local community members, had the idea to set up a nonprofit (501-c-3) organization called Friends of Goethe Inc.
Under the leadership of the late Stefan M. Tiessen, a partner in the international section of the Atlanta based law firm Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP, the institute was supported by the funds raised through the Friends of Goethe until it faced an even greater challenge in 2007 when the German government pulled all of its funding and threatened to close down the institute entirely.
“Our supporters and staff didn’t want to see this happen,” recalled Ms. Bruns. “By now the Goethe was an integral part of the Atlanta community.”
Without any funding from the German government, the organization was forced to become entirely a non-profit and had to change its name entirely. “So the Goethe-Zentrum was born,” she said.
Through this turbulent time, Mr. Tiessen together with his successor, Barry Spurlock, founder of the engineering consulting firm, Spurlock & Associates Inc., steered the reincarnated nonprofit to safety. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Order of Merit First Class from the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, which was bestowed at a 40th anniversary “birthday ball” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta on Aug. 27.
Upon receiving the honor, Mr. Spurlock explained that it was his love for German automobiles that sparked his “enthusiasm for all things German.”
“When I began restoring a Mercedes-Benz in the 1970s and discovered that the only manuals I had were in German, I had to enroll in a German class at the Goethe-Zentrum,” he said.
To further German-American relations, he said that he also has supported the German program at his alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he and his wife, Gail, are underwriting a scholarship for German students.
The ball provided the opportunity for Ms. Bruns to reminisce about the highlights of the organization’s past. Its day-in, day-out language classes attended by 750 adult learners, which she divided into three roughly equivalent sections – those who attend for family reasons, those who attend for business reasons and those who do so out of a cultural interest — are a mainstay of its activities.
She also is especially enthusiastic about its outreach to schools throughout the Southeast. Last year, their outreach included 1,500 students in 28 schools across Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.
“We have a huge outreach program that fosters intercultural dialogue and facilitates cross-cultural understanding,” she said. “For many of these students it’s their first contact with a foreign language and culture.”
These exposures are the building blocks for creating a skilled and modern workforce, she said, “for the future, which will require working in several languages and having the ability to look at situations from several perspectives.”
The next step for some of the students is to join one of the Young Ambassadors programs, such as Fulton County’s Global Youth Ambassadors Program’s peer-to-peer exchanges.
Concerning programs in which the center has participated over the years, a flurry of activities came rapidly to her mind including among many others:
A celebration of the positive economic and political relations between the U.S. and Germany that followed the end of the Berlin Airlift. The event was organized by Atlanta attorneys Thomas J. Harrold Jr. and Charles “Chuck” Clay, the grandson of Lucius D. Clay, a Georgia native who served as the military governor of the U.S. occupation zone in Germany, as well as the German Consulate General and the German chamber.
The 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, which formalized the reconciliation of France and Germany following a decade of war. Amelie de Gaulle, great niece of Charles de Gaulle, the French general, statesman and former president of France, and Annette Cantor-Groenfeldt, the granddaughter of Konrad Adenauer, the former chancellor of Germany, attended.
Appropriately, the Goethe-Zentrum now shares space at Colony Square with its French counterpart, the Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the institute has not forgotten its name sake Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe, the German writer and statesman, who lived from 1749-1832, and authored poetry, prose, memoirs, literary and aesthetic criticism, four novels, and scientific treatises on botany, anatomy and color. He also wrote more than 10,000 letters and completed near 3,000 drawings.
The Goethe-Zentrum occasionally features classes on Goethe’s life and his works.
What would he think of the world’s situation in the 21st century?
“Goethe was an artist, a diplomat, and a politician, who valued the inspiration foreign cultures provide,” Ms. Bruns replied. “I believe,” she added, “he would wholeheartedly agree that cross-cultural exchange is now needed more so than ever.”
Ms. Bruns may be reached by email at director