Problematizing Transatlantic History

German-American Perspectives

January 04, 2009
GHI-sponsored panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), New York

Panel report

Participants: Thomas Adam (University of Texas, Arlington), Volker Berghahn (Columbia University), Dorothee Brantz (Technical University Berlin), Christof Mauch (University of Munich), Anke Ortlepp (GHI).

In recent years the globalization of historiography has been one of the most exciting but also one of the most challenging developments in the field of history. On the one hand, it has opened up many new possibilities for the investigation of historical relationships between different cultures. On the other hand, it also poses many questions about how a more global perspective on history can be accomplished in light of existing conceptual, methodological and institutional frameworks. The panel addressed this problematic in the specific context of transatlantic history, particularly with regard to German-American relations.

Christof Mauch provided a brief overview over the different ways in which the Atlantic has been constructed in history and historiography. He discussed different types of historical transfers as well as political, economic and cultural concepts in understanding transatlantic spaces. He gave special emphasis to ideologies that have shaped our understanding of the “Atlantic world” and to German-American encounters in history from early modern times to the present. 

Thomas Adam focused on the teaching of transatlantic history as an intercultural transfer in the age of the nation state. He argued that the practice of transatlantic history in both research and teaching requires a rethinking of historical inquiry. Looking at undergraduate and graduate courses that have been structured around national histories in the past, he suggested topical frameworks (migration, transfer, etc.) as approaches to study the interconnections and intercultural transfers between Europe and North America.

Dorothee Brantz’ presentation focused on the challenge of doing transatlantic research. Drawing on her own experiences with transnational projects, she examined the conceptual and methodological challenges one encounters when trying to write from a perspective that moves beyond the traditional boundaries of the nation state. She reflected on how such a history can be framed, what can be gained from such transatlantic approaches, and what might get lost. Pondering these questions, she also addressed the difference between transnational and comparative history.

Anke Ortlepp focused on the history and activities of the German Historical Institute in Washington DC. She argued that, over the past two decades, the GHI Washington has facilitated exchange between academic communities in the United States and Germany. It has, moreover, been instrumental in setting research agendas and shaping the careers of young German and American scholars. She also argued that, while the GHI can be used as a medium for cultural diplomacy, it has for the most part resisted the pitfalls of an engagement in German history politics (Geschichtspolitik).

Anke Ortlepp