Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture 2015

History Lived and History Written: Germany and the United States, 1945/55-2015

May 21, 2015
Lecture at the GHI - Directions
Speaker: Charles Maier (Harvard University) 

The 2015 Gerald D. Feldman Memorial lecture was delivered by Charles S. Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University and a renowned expert on the history of 20th-century Europe and the United States. Maier's wide-ranging oeuvre includes Recasting Bourgeois Europe (1975), The Marshall Plan and Germany (1991), Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany (1997), and Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (2006).

In his lecture, Charles Maier offered his reflections on the history and experience of Germany and the United States since the end of the Second World War, arguing that the two countries have largely followed a parallel evolution. After initial remarks on his first encounter with postwar West Germany as an American Field Service (AFS) exchange student in Bonn in 1955, Maier offered a detailed analysis of the trajectories Germany and the United States. During the 1960s, Maier argued, the great repressed issues of each society came to the fore: West Germans scrutinized their own acquiescence and participation in National Socialism, whereas Americans had to face up to the legacy of slavery and racism, as well as the quagmire of the Vietnam War. At the same time, both countries witnessed a migration of civic dissent from the political system into the public sphere, including strong social protest movements. The late 1960s gave birth to an age of subjectivity and identity, which also left an imprint on the historical profession, which increasingly shifted its research focus from structure to agency. By the time conservative politicians (Reagan and Kohl) took over the reins of government in both countries in the 1980s, the two societies had been profoundly transformed, especially with regard to civil rights and civil society. In this regard, the famous German Historikerstreit (historians' quarrel) of the 1980s was revealing: the conservative revival did not lead to a romanticizing of the German past, but to the creation of a memory culture centered on the Holocaust. Maier concluded that the postwar development of both societies showed remarkable parallels: both societies witnessed the opening up of political participation as well as a process of facing up to the dark sides of the national past. The lecture was followed by a lively discussion. Professor Maier's lecture will be published in the fall 2015 issue of the GHI Bulletin.