6th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

New Research Topics in German History


Presentation of the Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize 1997
November 14, 1997

Conveners: Geoffrey Giles (FGHI), Detlef Junker (GHI)

In 1997 the Friends altered the format of their annual symposium. Held on November 14, the meeting highlighted new research being carried out by junior scholars. We were interested to hear in detail about some of the projects being pursued by the research fellows of the GHI itself, and at the same time we were keen to present the joint winners of the Friends of the GHI Dissertation Prize. All those who attended were highly satisfied with the less hurried program of only four presentations during the daylong meeting, instead of six or eight, because this allowed for expansive discussions, and everyone went away with the feeling that they had gained a solid grasp of the theses proposed by these outstanding scholars and colleagues. It was enthusiastically agreed at the Friends of the GHI board meeting the next day that the new format should be repeated in 1998.

The symposium began with a fascinating paper on a German-American topic by Research Fellow Andreas Daum, "The Invention of a Hero: Alexander von Humboldt in the American Public Sphere, 1850-1900." Daum analyzed how the world-renowned German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, until his death in 1859 an eminent figure in the intellectual life of the nineteenth century, became an American icon during the second half of that century. Daum revealed the intricate processes involved in how Humboldt and his achievements were appropriated and functionalized by succeeding generations in the United States. He argued that these generations used Humboldt's heritage to invent their own cultural traditions and strengthen particular national, ethnic, and intellectual identities.

Humboldt himself had visited the United States only once, in 1804, stopping briefly on the return trip from his five-year journey through Central and South America. In the following years, however, he maintained a vigorous correspondence with scientists in the United States. Moreover, there was a constant flow of Americans visiting Humboldt in Europe.

Whereas the historiography has hitherto explained Humboldt's appeal to Americans in terms of his scientific achievements, his interest in the scientific exploration of America, and his sensitivity toward both the political and economic problems accompanying the growth of the United States, Daum offered a new interpretation: Instead of following biographical traditions, he combined the approaches of cultural and social history in order to explain the striking facts that the peak of Humboldt's veneration in the United States was reached in the two decades following his death and that his popularity radiated widely into American society, far beyond the realm of scientific institutions. Humboldt the hero, he argued, was "invented" by a peculiar mixture of groups based mainly on immigrant milieus but not limited to them.

Citing a number of regional examples, Daum delineated in detail how, from the 1850s on, German-American groups, other immigrant groups, and even the native-born population celebrated Humboldt as a cultural hero. This veneration of Humboldt culminated in spectacular festivities, the erection of monuments, and a vast memorializing literature. According to Daum, in a time of rapid social change, the new ethnic groups in particular were in need of a cultural hero to create a common cultural consciousness and project their self-definitions onto an undeniably positive figure. Consequently, Humboldt became an embodiment of various and sometimes conflicting cultural values - such as cosmopolitanism, the German idea of education, the free-thinking ideology of German radicals, and even creationist thinking. Daum differentiated among a whole set of Humboldt narratives that could be used for the varying purposes of different social groups. Humboldt was venerated by urban German-American, freemasons, and some Irish immigrants; he became so Americanized that he was honored on such occasions as the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

With this interpretation, Daum made a strong case for studying science and the work of scientists not only as endemic, internal phenomena of high culture but also as elements of popular culture during the nineteenth century. This approach also characterizes Daum's book, The Popularization of Science in the Nineteenth Century: Bourgeois Culture, Scientific Education, and the German Public Sphere, 1848-1914, which was published recently in Germany.

The second presentation was by Paul Lerner (Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles), the joint winner of the Friends of the GHI Dissertation Prize. His paper was based on his manuscript in progress titled "Hysterical Men: War, Memory and German Mental Medicine, 1914-1926," discussed the response of German psychiatrists and neurologists to the "epidemic" of male hysteria during and shortly after World War I. Covering the period from the late 1880s through the war, the November Revolution and into the Weimar Republic, it sketched the story of the hysteria diagnosis, the doctors who diagnosed it, and the soldier-patients whom they examined and treated. Lerner explored the context for the acceptance of hysteria, once considered an exclusively female affliction, as the preferred diagnosis for Germany's tens of thousands of "shell shocked" men and then surveyed the therapeutic and administrative dimensions of the war-neurosis problem.

Lerner put forward four distinctly intertwined arguments. First, he showed that male hysteria became an acceptable diagnosis when used on sufferers of industrial trauma in the late nineteenth century. By attributing the condition to the patient's psyche rather than to the direct effects of an accident, the hysteria diagnosis offered an attractive alternative to "traumatic neurosis," the other available diagnostic choice. That is, explaining the symptoms as manifestations of hysteria made trauma patients ineligible for pensions and mandated their return to work. In this context, a powerful - and uniquely German - opposition between hysteria and work was forged that, he argued, displaced the traditional "femininity" of the affliction, partially replacing its gender dichotomy with one based on class. German doctors conceived of the war neuroses in precisely these terms, viewing neurotic soldiers within the framework of peacetime trauma cases and seeing the war - and its psychological consequences - as an industrial accident writ large.

Second, Lerner claimed that the demands of war accelerated the turn away from an approach to mental health based on the individual patient to a collectivistic paradigm. Forced to handle unprecedented numbers of patients with limited resources, wartime doctors borrowed from industrial models - they developed "assembly line" techniques for making diagnoses, giving treatments, and reaching decisions on pension and discharge matters. Speed and efficiency became the primary medical values as methods of treatment and administration were centralized and rationalized, and a comprehensive approach to the psychic health of the whole nation was adopted. Furthermore, therapeutic goals were redefined around national utility, and as particularly labor shortages reached crisis proportions, psychiatric and neurological treatments concentrated on efficiently channeling neurotic patients into the nation's war economy. As such, Lerner opposes the facile continuities often drawn between shell-shock treatment and the euthanasia program carried out by psychiatrists in the Nazi period, stressing instead the connections between rationalized psychiatric care and other features of Weimar Germany's economic and cultural history.

Third, Lerner argued that by choosing particular treatments and diagnoses, psychiatrists and neurologists gained opportunities to further their own ideas about acceptable soldierly conduct. Their self-appointed task as caretakers of the nation's mental and nervous health cast them in the roles of judge, teacher, and disciplinarian and enabled many to exercise a decisive influence over the fates of thousands of soldiers. Lerner showed that although they were at first baffled by the war neuroses, by 1916 certain doctors could point to incredible treatment successes. Reversing the long-standing "therapeutic crisis" in German psychiatry, these doctors supervised the creation of a set of institutions and facilities over which they had complete control. Treating war neurotics thus gave a generation of university-based doctors the opportunity to cast their authority and professional expertise over issues that lay in a gray area among the legal, military, and medical spheres; mental health practitioners continued to exercise this authority, acting as state agents against an increasingly hostile population in pension claims filed during and after the war. Doctors, according to Lerner, used their newly achieved control and authority over the patient to promote medical views of German manhood, which were based on duty, obedience, and, most of all, economic productivity.

In his final thesis Lerner examined the relationship between traumatic wartime events and post-traumatic conditions. Through a series of case histories, he treated the struggle between psychiatrists and patients over the reality and significance of traumatic war experiences as a contest between the competing narratives of war and its traumatizing impact. In denying the pathogenic power of the "traumatic" war event, Germany's psychiatrists ultimately rejected any causal connection between war service and mental illness, contributing to a broader Weimar-era narrative that celebrated the combat environment and undermined the victim status of its veterans. Lerner showed that for most psychiatrists, the war neuroses essentially had nothing to do with the war, meaning that they did not consider the tens of thousands of nervously ill casualties to be victims of the war in any real sense. Denying that war was damaging to the individual's mind and nerves, Lerner concluded, meant that psychiatrists implicitly denied the traumatizing impact of war as a whole, constructing the war experience as a positive influence on the minds of individuals and the lives of nations.

The afternoon session opened with a paper by Sandra Chaney (Assistant Professor, Erskine College), who was the second joint winner of the Friends of the GHI Dissertation Prize. Chaney's presentation was titled "Visions and Revisions of Nature: From the Protection of Nature to the Invention of the Environment in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945-1975." The period covered by her study was the most critical to the evolution of an ecological consciousness in West Germany. Precisely during this time, as the Federal Republic became more densely populated, highly urbanized, industrialized, and polluted, concern about preserving nature (Naturschutz) came to be an important, yet subordinate aspect of managing and protecting the human environment (Umweltschutz). Using the shift in discourse from an emphasis on Naturschutz to Umweltschutz as a broad framework, Chaney addressed the people, ideas, events, and developments that contributed to the replacement of "nature" by the "environment." She argued that the meaning of these concepts, and the definition of environmental problems, are socially constructed and change according to shifting contexts. She also discussed the implications of replacing "nature" with "environment."

According to Chaney, between 1945 and 1954 conservationists demanded the long-term, careful use of limited natural resources that were being exploited more than ever before to promote economic recovery. From 1955 to 1967, conservationists responded to public health and regional planning concerns by establishing nature parks for a growing urban population and advocating professional land-use planning of the country's limited space. Conservationists warned that people had radically changed their surroundings to such an extent that they had become de-natured and unhealthy. With effective land-use planning, however, conservationists hoped to construct a "more natural living space" for human beings. To an extent, Chaney asserted, "nature" had been replaced in discourse by the more abstract and versatile concept "space."

After the late 1960s conservationists and wider circles of the public addressed worsening pollution and strains on the land by demanding the protection of humanity's threatened surroundings, which they called the "environment." Chaney argued that the arrival of the SPD/FDP coalition government, the media, and especially international developments, such as the legislation passed in the United States in 1969 and 1970 to protect "the environment," European Conservation Year in 1970, and the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, contributed to the invention of the environment in popular discourse. The invention of the environment in the early 1970s, Chaney submitted, indicated that people had come to regard themselves as the primary architects of their surroundings. The implications were that people had to accept the responsibility for ensuring that parts of the environment retain varying degrees of "naturalness."

In the final session of the day, Research Fellow Edmund Spevack, presented a stimulating paper on "Members of the Bonn Parliamentary Council (1948-1949) and Their Links to the United States of America." Spevack explained that the paper stands in the context of his book project, titled "American Political and Ideological Influences on the Shaping of West German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), 1948-1949."

Spevack mentioned that whereas the activities of the Parliamentary Council are well documented and have received much scholarly attention, the contributions of the Western Allies are much less widely known. At the London six-power conference of 1948, the Allies preplanned the constitutional reconstruction of western Germany, and they later took steps to implement their plans and to influence the Parliamentary Council's work.

In the intermediate postwar period, a new political elite formed in the western zones of Germany: It participated in the shaping of both the Länder constitutions and the Basic Law. Spevack argued that the constitutional reconstruction of western Germany would have been very different had members of the Parliamentary Council not had intensive links to Western countries, above all to France, Great Britain, and the United States. Spevack first supplied selected statistics on the composition of the Parliamentary Council's members (age, profession, educational background, political experience) and then evaluated some of the data he collected on the members' links to Britain, France, and, most importantly, the United States.

Spevack found that 12 of the 77 members of the Parliamentary Council had links to the United States; these 12 members included some of its most central figures. A number of these connections were established long before 1945, some in the immediate postwar period and some in 1948 and thereafter. Seven specific examples were treated in some detail by Spevack: Hermann von Mangoldt (expert on American constitutional law), Rudolf Katz (proponent of a German supreme court), Friedrich Wilhelm Wagner and Fritz Eberhard (returning socialist emigrés), Ludwig Bergsträsser and Walter Menzel (constitutional experts), and Georg-August Zinn (legal expert).

Spevack closed with the thesis that members of the Parliamentary Council with links to the United States functioned in three ways: some were able to establish contact with the Allies and understand their languages and legal systems; some actively worked for the inclusion of Western legal and ideological assumptions in the new West German constitution; and all were in favor of the German and American shared interest of western European integration.

Geoffrey Giles