It all started in a back room of the Berlin Kempinski in 1994. The "cabal" consisted of people like Henry Kissinger, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, Fritz Stern, and Richard von Weizsäcker. And Richard Holbrooke, the American ambassador, without whom the Academy would never have gotten off the ground in 1998. There is an English word, borrowed from German and Yiddish, for types like him: Macher.
The mission they all chose to accept was "New Traditions." The last American soldier would soon be gone; Berlin was "whole and free" again. The Academy would add a wholly new layer to the foundation laid down in the Cold War, when the Berlin Brigade stood guard in the divided city. Ideas instead of infantry, and words instead of weapons, so to speak.
Holbrooke, who was about to depart for Washington as the State Department's Director of European Affairs, snagged the first few million for operating expenses and for the magnificent villa on the Wannsee. The building and the park had belonged to the Arnhold family before they were driven out by the Nazis. The new owner nicely symbolized Germany's postwar rebirth as a liberal and inclusive democracy. This was the house that the Nazis had grabbed, giving it to Walther Funk, the economics minister and Reichsbank president of the Third Reich. Now the Hans Arnhold Center would serve a very different mission.
The Academy would bring the best of American culture to Berlin: scholars, writers, poets, directors, conductors – thinkers and doers of outstanding talent and renown. And it would do so without a penny of government largesse. When the German Bundestag offered to chip in a million marks, the board politely declined. This was going to be done in the "American way" – as a strictly private venture in a country where high culture has always been funded by the state, starting with the princes and potentates of pre-Reich Germany. There are no officials, German or American, on the board.
Miraculously, it worked. Corporate and foundation giving has made the Academy what it is today, 14 years after it opened its doors: a beacon of American intellectual life. Rigorously selected Fellows come to work on the Wannsee for three to nine months. In between, there are short-term visitors who give lectures and seminars. Yet an ivory tower the Academy is not. The Fellows go out into the city to engage the public at large. American policy makers come to the Hans Arnhold Center to subject themselves to a demanding give and take.
A central part of the "new traditions" is to reaffirm the old ones with the annual Kissinger Prize. It goes to statesmen who represent reconciliation and friendship between Germany and the United States. The most recent historical figure so honored was George Shultz, the former Secretary of State. The laudatio was delivered by Helmut Schmidt, who was the first recipient, in 2007. He was followed by presidents, chancellors, and mayors: George H. W. Bush, Richard von Weizsäcker, Michael Bloomberg, and Helmut Kohl.
It is difficult to find anything like the Academy anywhere else. The world is full of conferences, think tanks, institutes of advanced study, and state-sponsored cultural centers like Maison de France and the Goethe-Institut. The Hans Arnhold Center is all of the above, and yet more. It does generate research, public lectures, seminars, and master classes in music, but it also engages the world by drawing it in. The place is "elitist," but not for the elite. It is open to each and all, and they come from all over Germany to listen, learn, and debate. Think of yesteryear's Berlin salons, but without the barriers of birth and riches. It is a fitting memorial to founder Richard Holbrooke, that doer and thinker, who died in 2010.
The author is publisher of the German weekly Die Zeit and a trustee of the American Academy in Berlin