Between Recovery and Decline?

Observations of an Economic Historian on the Obama Years and Beyond

June 18, 2015, 6:30-8:30pm
Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI Washington)

  • Event Report

    This public event marking the end of Hartmut Berghoff's term as director of the German Historical Institute from 2008 to 2015 featured a series of brief tributes as well as a farewell lecture in which Berghoff took stock of the Obama Years as a fractious period in American history from his perspective as an economic historian.

    The evening began with a series of tributes to Berghoff's tenure as GHI director, which was introduced by Deputy GHI Director Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson. Philipp Ackermann, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the German Embassy in Washington, offered the Embassy's thanks for the many years of excellent cooperation with the GHI. Hans van Ess, President of the Max Weber Foundation, expressed the Foundation's gratitude for Hartmut Berghoff's charismatic leadership of the GHI. Alexander Nützenadel, chairman of the GHI's Academic Advisory Board, voiced his appreciation for the Institute's work in economic history during Berghoff's tenure, noting the fortuitous timing of the appointment of an economic historian to head the GHI in 2008 at the height of the economic crisis. On behalf of the Friends of the GHI, David Blackbourn thanked Berghoff for his support of the annual events organized jointly with the Friends and applauded the Institute's attention to the intersection of economic and cultural history under his leadership. James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, commended the GHI for the thematic diversity of its research, highlighted its cooperation with the AHA's National History Center, and praised the Institute's overall contribution to the U.S. scholarly community. Mischa Honeck, the representative of the GHI's academic staff, noted the balance of autonomy and collaboration at the Institute and thanked Hartmut Berghoff for supporting the research of the Fellows. Finally, GHI Deputy Director Uwe Spiekermann provided a brief biographical sketch and discussed Hartmut Berghoff's integration of economic, cultural, and social history. He concluded by highlighting three responses to recent methodological challenges that characterized the economic history research conducted under Berghoff's leadership at the GHI: a focus on individual actors, a new interest in materiality, and new attention to commodification as a core topic of research.

    In his lecture "Between Recovery and Decline?" Hartmut Berghoff shared the "observations of an economic historian on the Obama years and beyond." After noting that he arrived in the United States at the end of March 2008, Berghoff began by commenting on the special experience of living in Washington during the turmoil of the financial crisis. Following a brief discussion of the Obama administration's responses to the financial crisis, he addressed the question whether the United States is prepared for the challenges facing it. Among the negative factors affecting America's readiness, Berghoff highlighted: rising inequality whether measured by income, assets or education; the shrinking middle class; the increase in educational debt; the waste of human capital deriving from the highest incarceration rate worldwide; the explosion of healthcare costs; the rising national debt; as well as the ideological polarization and political paralysis that have characterized the political system. On the positive side, Berghoff noted multiple sources of American strength: America's wealth of natural resources, which has recently led to a return of lower energy prices and thereby to a partial resurgence of U.S. manufacturing; America's leadership in high-tech industries; the United States' role as the world's most important financial market and the dollar's function as the world's reserve currency; the positive effects of immigration, especially on entrepreneurship; a wealth of social capital, including a culture of community and solidarity; American's positive attitude toward innovation and entrepreneurship; and finally, America's still unrivaled resources of both soft and hard power, including its military capabilities. In conclusion, Berghoff predicted that the U.S. will not be able to sustain its position as a superpower indefinitely and that we will see the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world without a single hegemon in the not-too-distant future.


  • Invitation

    Hartmut Berghoff has been the Director of the German Historical Institute since April 2008. His tenure at the Institute has coincided with some of the most consequential events of the twenty-first century, including the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama and the increasing polarization of American politics, and the Euro and sovereign debt crisis.

    In a farewell lecture marking the end of his time in Washington, Professor Berghoff will take stock of this fractious period in American history from his perspective as an economic historian. He will also look forward to the continued challenges to the American and global economy.

    The lecture will begin at 6:30 pm at the German Historical Institute (Directions) and will be followed by a dinner reception. Please RSVP (acceptances only) by June 17. Tel. 202.387.3355, Fax 202.387.6437 or  E-mail.

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