Is This Culture?

Twenty-seven German traditions are part of intangible cultural heritage. Christoph Wulf, a professor of anthropology and education at Freie Universität Berlin, chairs a committee of experts

Mar 02, 2015

Auch das deutsche Brot wurde neu in das Verzeichnis des immateriellen UNESCO-Kulturerbes aufgenommen.
German bread has now also been listed in the UNESCO inventory of intangible cultural heritage. Image Credit: Zentralverband des Deutschen Bäckerhandwerks e. V. / Darius Ramazani

Raising the visibility of customs and traditions and preserving them – this is the goal of a convention by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on intangible cultural heritage. In Germany, 27 traditions and forms of knowledge have now been listed as cultural heritage for the first time, including Germany’s culture surrounding bread and Carnival along the Rhine.

“With this list, we aim to raise awareness of the diversity of cultural customs and traditions,” says anthropologist and education scholar Christoph Wulf, a professor at Freie Universität Berlin. He is the chairman of the independent committee of experts for the list, which considered 83 suggestions in all.

What is part of German popular culture? According to the new German Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, it includes features such as singing the songs associated with the German labor movement, the Passion Plays of Oberammergau, and Morse telegraphy. Singing in German amateur choirs also earned a spot on the list. “Almost one and a half million Germans sing regularly in more than 10,000 choirs,” Wulf says. Choir music, he says, offers an excellent example of how a tradition is practiced and handed down by many people in Germany at the regional, local, and nationwide level. Previously, German cultural heritage mainly took physical form: Berlin’s Museum Island, Cologne Cathedral, and the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth are among the nearly 1,000 extraordinary structures worldwide presented by UNESCO as World Cultural Heritage sites.

The Living Practices of a Community

To protect traditional and cultural knowledge and crafts as well, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. “The starting point for the convention was the idea of protecting cultural heritage even in countries that do not have physical works of art like the Taj Mahal or Cologne Cathedral,” Wulf explains. The UNESCO conventions define what is considered intangible cultural heritage. “It’s about living practices that are handed down and kept up within a community,” the anthropology professor says.

The convention lays out five areas: oral traditions, such as singing, storytelling, or forms of speech; performing arts, such as music and dance; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship, such as organ construction and the charcoal burner’s craft. “The fact that we received suggestions from all of these areas shows how diverse the culture of Germany is,” Wulf says. New items are added to the list annually.

The Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany nominated the idea of Genossenschaften, a kind of cooperative society, for a spot on the international list of intangible world cultural heritage. Wulf believes the chances that UNESCO will include this form of self-organization in civil society in the international list are good. “These organizations connect the areas of business and economic activity, culture, and social life. Twenty-one million Germans are members of at least one organization, and the number is even larger worldwide, at 800 million.”

Fostering Discussion of the Elements That Make Up a Thriving German Culture

Cooperatives play a role in many areas of German life, from work to housing and finance. The cooperative model has a history stretching back more than a hundred years in this country. Germany ratified the UNESCO just convention last year – much later than many other countries. As for why it took Germany so long, and why the country had such a hard time with granting particular appreciation to customs and traditions, that is due to a number of factors, including Germany’s past, Wulf says: “During the Nazi era, customs, cultural festivities, and dances were abused and exploited for a political ideology.”

Still, Wulf says, the process of coming to terms with these fractures in German cultural history also offers an opportunity: “Germany can rediscover the many and diverse forms of German cultural heritage as part of the international debate.” To prevent present-day abuse, for instance by nationalist forces, the convention specifically states that the selected practices must be open to anyone as a participant and must be compatible with international human rights.

But what effect will being included in the cultural heritage inventory have on the traditions listed? The list serves above all as a way to recognize a thriving popular culture, in the sense of a way of life common within the populace, Wulf says: “The traditions become visible, and their importance gains official recognition.” It isn’t about rating or evaluating traditions or practices, the scholar says. “We hope appreciation for these practices in general will increase, and that this will spark discussion of what makes up a thriving German culture.”