18th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

Nov 13, 2009

Award of the Fritz Stern Prize at the GHI | Prize Winners: Alison Clark (Marquette University) and Michael Meng (Davidson College)

Prize Winners

  • Alison Clark (Marquette University): "New Citizens: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Reconstruction of Citizenship, 1865-1877" (Ohio State University, 2008)
  • Michael Meng (Davidson College): "Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Central Europe" (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008)

Please RSVP (acceptances only) by Tel. 202.387.3355, Fax 202.387.6437, or E-mail.

The Symposium of the Friends of the German Historical Institute in generously supported by the Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius ZEIT Foundation

Event Report

The 18th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the German Historical Institute featured the award of the 2009 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prizes to Alison Clark Efford (Marquette University) and Michael Meng (Davidson College). Efford received the prize for her dissertation "New Citizens: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Reconstruction of Citizenship, 1865-1877" (Ohio State University, 2008). Meng was honored for his dissertation "Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Central Europe" (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008).The prize selection committee was composed of Mary Lindemann (University of Miami), Brian Vick (Emory University), and Jonathan Zatlin (chair, Boston University).

The award ceremony was chaired by David Blackbourn (Harvard University), president of the Friends of the GHI. After the presentation of the awards, each of the Stern Prize winners gave lectures about their dissertation research.

Alison Clark Efford provided an overview of her work on how German immigrants influenced the reshaping of American citizenship following the Civil War and emancipation (1865-1877). She explained that she began with questions that interest historians of the United States: How did African-American men achieve citizenship rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment? Yet why were those rights only intermittently enforced for a century? Historians have not investigated the role of German immigrants despite the fact that they made important contributions to the ruling Republican party, remained sensitive to events in Europe, and were acutely conscious of their own status as new citizens. Inspired by the failed European Revolutions of 1848, some German Republicans supported black men's demand for suffrage at crucial points. In the Missouri constitutional convention of 1865, for example, German-speaking Republican leaders argued that the United States could make citizens of black men the way it had transformed male immigrants from Europe. After 1870, however, the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire captivated German Americans and loosened their commitment to Reconstruction. They expressed a new interest in civil service reform and reconciliation between northern and southern whites-regardless of the implications for African Americans. Because German Americans played a critical role in the Liberal Republican Party's challenge to the Republicans in 1872, their priorities entered American politics. The presidential campaign that year encouraged white Republicans to retreat from enforcing the rights of black southerners. German immigrants reinforced the notion that national unity would now come at the expense of equal citizenship.

Michael Meng spoke about his dissertation, which explores the postwar history of Jewish sites from a transnational and comparative perspective. It analyzes Jewish sites in Warsaw, Wrocław, Berlin, Essen, and Potsdam from 1945 to the present. Based on archival research conducted in over thirty archives in Germany, Israel, Poland, and the United States, his study shows how different local, national, and political contexts shaped the shifting history of Jewish sites in shared and divergent ways across the region of East Central Europe. In the early postwar decades, urban planners, historic preservationists, and local officials completed the destruction of numerous damaged Jewish sites or allowed them to ruin by neglect despite numerous protests from Jewish leaders. Urban modernism and Stalinist socialist realism dominated urban reconstruction at this time in divided Germany and Poland. Both approaches had little regard for preserving much of anything, but many non-Jewish historic sites were reconstructed. Germans and Poles made deliberate choices about what to preserve from the ruins of war. In selecting what was culturally valuable, they were also making choices about what was not. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Poles and Germans rarely perceived Jewish sites to be part of the national or local heritage worthy of maintaining. They were also averse to confronting spaces that conjured up memories of a traumatic past. By the late 1970s, however, perceptions of Jewish sites started to shift as church groups, local residents, city officials, political dissidents, Jewish leaders, intellectuals, and tourists became interested in preserving the few material traces of Jewish life still left standing. A number of local and transnational reconstruction efforts emerged as a result in all five of the cities that I discuss. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, this attraction to Jewish sites has increased at an almost dizzying rate as Germans, Poles, Americans, Israelis, and others have searched for the vestiges of the "Jewish past" in the urban landscape. People both far and near have become attracted to Jewish spaces for a variety of reasons -- heritage tourism, growing transnational discussions about the Holocaust, postmodern fascinations with the historic, nostalgia for a lost past, and longings for cosmopolitanism in a globalizing world. While the motivations are varied, the effects are clear. Jewish culture has now become something to be touched, photographed, preserved, and displayed. In short, Jewish sites have become what they were not just a few decades earlier: pieces of "heritage" that must be saved, "historic monuments" marked for their importance and perceived authenticity.

Fritz Stern commented briefly on both presentations, before the floor was opened to the audience for a lively discussion. Articles by both Stern Prize winners on their dissertation research will be published in the Spring 2010 Bulletin of the GHI.


Prize Citations

The prize selection committee was composed of Mary Lindemann (University of Miami), Brian Vick (Emory University), and Jonathan Zatlin (chair, Boston University). 

Allison Clark Efford (Marquette University), New Citizens: German Immigrants, African Americans, and the Reconstruction of Citizenship, 1865-1877 (Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2008). For more information on Efford's dissertation, see her article in the GHI's Bulletin.

Prize citation: Alison Clark Efford's well-written, well-informed work marks an important transnational contribution to German-American history and the history of the United States more generally. Each chapter opens up a new, insightful, and significant aspect of the German-American political experience through the lens of attitudes towards African-American citizenship and Reconstruction. Moreover, the chapters build cumulatively into an impressive whole that illuminates the history of the German-American community and the legacy of the German 1848 Revolutions, as well as the broader history of the American republic in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. The chapter on the renegade Liberal Republican movement in particular made very evident how conflicts within the German-American community played a central part in the shifting politics of the United States as a whole, as did the discussion of the role of German-American politicians in deflecting nativist attitudes in the 1856 and 1860 Republican platforms. The author makes a convincing case for 1848 and the German unification of 1870-1871 as defining moments in German-American attitudes and relations with US society and politics, particularly with respect to their willingness to prioritize the drive for African-American citizenship rights, and their tendency either to stress the similarities of German-Americans and African-Americans as minorities within the Republic, or to emphasize the differences between these groups in terms of educational level or even race. The focus is on politics and political debates, nationally and in the case-study states of Missouri and Ohio, yet the varied treatment extends from statistical analysis of election results to considerations of religious confession, constructions of gender, notions of whiteness, and the relatively limited practice of blackface minstrelsy among German-Americans. Efford's work also offers an exemplary instance in the transnational study of citizenship, as it demonstrates how German conceptions of nationhood and citizenship from the Vormärz shaped discourse and politics among German-Americans in their new homes, and how sustained impulses from and reflections upon the changing German context continued to do so thereafter. Ultimately, the dissertation not only reveals an important chapter in German, US, and German-American history but also points the way to future studies of trans-Atlantic histoires croisées.

Michael Meng (Clemson University in South Carolina), Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Central Europe (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008). For more information on Meng's dissertation, see his article in the GHI's Bulletin.

Prize citation: Michael Meng has written an exceptional dissertation, distinguished for its methodological innovation, wide-ranging and imaginative research, and original interpretations of German, Polish, and Jewish history after World War II. Methodologically, "Shattered Spaces" breaks new ground, employing a transnational study of Jewish communal space as the basis for a comparison of German and Polish history after the Second World War. One measure of Meng's methodological sophistication is his remarkably successful integration of comparative and transnational approaches in a single historical narrative. Complementing this methodological virtuosity is the impressive range and creative use of sources, drawn from three very different societies - West and East Germany as well as Poland - that underpins each chapter and provides fertile ground for Meng's brilliant analysis of post-1945 central Europe. At one level, "Shattered Spaces" exemplifies the very best of urban history, demonstrating how five German and Polish cities - Essen, Berlin, Potsdam, Warsaw, and Wroclaw - used municipal reconstruction after a devastating war to showcase a break with their recent past, but according to very different political visions. Meng's unique historical sensibility and flair for the local give the reader a feeling for each of these very distinct cities in a way that few urban histories do. At another level, "Shattered Spaces" explores how competing explanatory models of capitalism and communism literally redesigned central European cities on the basis of new national myths that - as Meng demonstrates - were nevertheless rooted in pre-1945 ethnic and social conflicts. By analyzing the destruction, appropriation, and later preservation of Jewish architecture, moreover, Meng is able to make trenchant comparisons about West German, East German, and Polish use of the built environment to articulate very different visions of the nation-state, underscoring just how important ethno-nationalism remained in Poland despite communist rhetoric about internationalism. Finally, "Shatttered Spaces" offers novel interpretations of the important but culturally and demographically different Jewish communities in Germany and Poland before 1939, their near-complete destruction, and the remnant that continued to live in each of these post-Holocaust states. Meng's transnational approach to central European Jewry after 1945 significantly disrupts more static notions of the nation-state while embedding Jewish history firmly in the central European landscape. By focusing on Jewish communal property, moreover, Meng avoids reducing Jewish history to the history of antisemitism, as much of the work on Holocaust memorials tends to do. This beautifully written, empirically rich, and often brilliant work will make an immediate and lasting impact on such disparate fields as West and East German history, Polish history, Jewish history, the history of antisemitism, urban history, and Cold War history. Meng's emphasis on the built environment provides a rich empirical base from which to suggest new interpretations of the very different attempts in three societies to "master the past." The dissertation also integrates Jewish history into post-1945 narratives in ways that are certain to change how we conceive of post-1945 central European history.