New Perspectives on Transatlantic History: German-American Relations in Times of War and Crisis

Solicited by the German Historical Institute Washington

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 10:30 AM - 11:00 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Theory and Methodology


Recent investigations into transnational cultural, economic and academic endeavors have prompted new studies in transatlantic history. Cooperative encounters shaped German-American relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but have been confined to the margins of political historiography. This panel examines these transnational interactions beyond formal diplomatic channels by presenting case studies on transatlantic businessmen, exchange students, and social scientists: German merchants conducted business with both the Union and Confederate states during the American Civil War, impacting transatlantic relations just as American internationalists did in inviting German exchange students to the U.S. after World War I. Similarly, American social scientists after World War II ventured into war-torn Germany to investigate how aerial bombing had affected society and infrastructure, and their assessments shaped long-term U.S. foreign and defense policy. The emerging scholars featured in this panel present the case studies from their recently published books in the series “Transatlantic Historical Studies” by the German Historical Institute Washington and Franz Steiner Verlag. Panelists will take their work as a starting point to discuss new transatlantic scholarship that incorporates impulses from global history, transnational perspectives on German history, and histories of the American Empire. They will discuss how engaging with the history of knowledge, new economic history, and the cultural turn in diplomatic history helps to elucidate transatlantic relations in times of crisis.

Papers Presented

The American Civil War in Central Europe: An Interplay of Economic and Moral Imperatives

In recent years, historians have begun to establish global perspectives on the American Civil War. This paper expands such work by analyzing the war’s link with German-speaking European countries. For several decades before 1860, transatlantic trade and emigration had created important markets that connected regions in the U.S. with Central Europe. During the war, trading hubs such as Hamburg, Bremen, and Frankfurt became key seismographs for transatlantic business. They were engaged in arms trading, smuggling, relief efforts, recruitment, and money transfers to both Union and Confederate states. Such networks created an economic war zone that spanned from the Weser, Main, and Elbe Rivers to the Hudson, the Mississippi, and the Rio Grande. Central Europe was also anything but isolated from American slavery. Emancipation prompted German-speaking politicians, publicists, merchants, feminists, and workers to follow egalitarian impulses, on the one hand, and provided new justifications for controlling subaltern groups and for sanctioning informal imperialism, on the other. A consideration of private correspondence and public debates in three German trade centers, therefore, establishes a new sense of the Civil War’s global repercussions. And it forces us to revise Central Europe’s alleged collective opposition to American slavery and sympathy for the Union’s “freedom struggle.”

Presented By
Patrick Gaul, Independent historian (Frankfurt, Germany)

Prelude to Reeducation? US Internationalists and German Students, 1919-1939

After the First World War, U.S. internationalists hoped to forge a new world order not only in the halls of Versailles but also in college towns across Europe and the U.S.A. The development of an American-German Student Exchange program in the early 1920s was a prominent part of this broader strategy; almost two thousand German and American students had participated by 1939. This paper uses this exchange program as a lens for understanding how U.S. non-state actors sought to surmount German-American differences and pacify a resentful Germany in the interwar period. The paper makes three larger points: 1. It underlines the active role of American internationalists in restoring a peaceful postwar order. By highlighting the origins and aspirations of the German exchange program, the paper emphasizes a previously neglected element of U.S. policy to pacify and stabilize interwar Germany. 2. It shows the exchange program’s ambiguous impact on interwar cultural demobilizations. Whereas students individually were enthusiastic about their experiences abroad, the exchange also laid bare mutual suspicions and national rivalries. Ultimately, Americans were disappointed in their hopes for a ‘democratization’ of German exchange students in the 1930s. 3. It emphasizes the continuity of U.S. cultural policies after the two world wars. Post-1945 U.S. concepts and practices of German ‘re-education’ had notable antecedents in the interwar period. After 1945, American cultural internationalists would build strategically on the alleged successes of their earlier work, while also conveniently ignoring its many shortcomings.

Presented By
Elisabeth Piller, University of Oslo

The Power of the Back Office: American Social Sciences and the Lessons of the Air War

After the United States Air Force waged a strategic air war for the first time in World War II, dozens of social scientists evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of this concept as part of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) by traveling to Germany and Japan and interviewing civilians in the war-torn enemy states. Was it really possible to hit societies strategically at particularly vulnerable points so that war could be won quickly? Starting from this key question of the USSBS, an intensive interdisciplinary discussion of the aerial war as a war against societies and infrastructures developed in the U.S.A. from the late 1940s. Funded mainly by the defense budget, the USSBS engaged a broad network of social science experts who implemented specific methods and communication strategies for cooperating with decision-makers in American foreign and defense policy. The influence these experts had on the air war shows that even when classic topics of transatlantic history are addressed, there is still something new to discover. Looking at actors who have thus far hardly been in the focus of historical research can broaden our understanding of U.S. foreign and defense policy and transatlantic relations. Investigating the role of social scientists as “defense intellectuals” sheds light on how political decisions were made and, in line with recent Cold War Studies, also stresses the continuities between the first and the second half of the twentieth century.

Presented By
Sophia Dafinger, Augsburg University, Germany

Session Participants

Chair: Claudia Roesch, German Historical Institute Washington

Presenter: Sophia Dafinger, Augsburg University, Germany

Presenter: Patrick Gaul, Independent historian (Frankfurt, Germany)

Commentator: Mary Nolan, New York University

Presenter: Elisabeth Piller, University of Oslo