24th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

Nov 13, 2015

Award of the Fritz Stern Prize at the GHI | Prize Winner: Sarah Panzer (William and Mary)

Event Report

The twenty-fourth Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI featured the award of the 2015 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize to Sarah Panzer (William and Mary), for her dissertation "The Prussians of the East: Samurai, Bushido, and Japanese Honor in the German Imagination, 1905-1945" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2015). The prize selection committee was composed of Timothy Brown (chair), James Melton, and Lora Wildenthal. After introductory remarks by Simone Lässig, director of the GHI, the award ceremony was chaired by Peter Jelavich, President of the Friends of the GHI. After Peter Jelavich read the citation of the prize committee, the Stern Prize winner gave a brief lecture about her dissertation.

After thanking the friends for the prestigious award, Sarah Panzer gave an overview of her dissertation about German-Japanese transcultural engagement between the Russo-Japanese War and the end of the Second World War, which was visibly framed around the reception and emulation of Japanese martial culture. Although the discussion of the German-Japanese alliance during the Second World War has often centered on the formal diplomatic terms of the relationship, she argued that the cultural relationship merits further attention as the means by which many Germans learned about and became increasingly sympathetic to Japanese culture. Because the German-Japanese relationship after the Russo-Japanese War was not predicated on a formal colonial or imperial relationship, but rather on the basis of mutual interest, it generated a form of cultural reception that was significantly different from most other contemporary examples of transcultural engagement; rather than reifying markers of difference, as in Orientalism or Exoticism, this transcultural romanticism sought instead to identify the common values and principles shared between Germany and Japan.

Beginning with the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, German interest in Japan increasingly gravitated towards images of martial masculinity as a means of explaining Japan's apparent success in modernizing without sacrificing its cultural identity. Even after the diplomatic rupture of the First World War and the German state's pivot towards China as its favored partner in East Asia, individuals and groups within Germany continued to advocate for Japan as a model of a sustainable synthesis between modernity and tradition. This tension between the policies of the German state and the public rhetoric about Japan came to a head in the context of the Manchurian Crisis of 1931, during which many organs of the German press quite explicitly threw their support behind Japanese aggression towards both Republican China and the League of Nations. German support for Japan in East Asia was thus well-established in the civil sphere by the early 1930s, and its increasing monopolization by the völkisch movement and the political right during the interwar era enabled a relatively smooth transition after 1933, even with respect to the problem of race. During the Second World War, images of Japan functioned in German propaganda as both a mirror of the supposedly shared martial character of the German and Japanese peoples and, especially after Stalingrad, as a model of heroic self-sacrifice for the German public to emulate.

The event concluded with the award of the prize, a brief comment from Fritz Stern, and an extensive question-and-answer session with the audience. Articles based on the dissertation will be published in the Spring 2016 issue of the GHI Bulletin.

Prize Citation

Selection Committee: Timothy Brown (chair, Northeastern University), James Melton (Emory University), and Lora Wildenthal (Rice University)

Sarah Panzer (William and Mary): "The Prussians of the East: Samurai, Bushido, and Japanese Honor in the German Imagination, 1905-1945" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2015)

Sarah Panzer’s dissertation, “The Prussians of the East: Samurai, Bushido, and Japanese Honor in the German Imagination, 1905-1945,” opens a fascinating new window on German-Japanese relations from the late-Wilhelmine period to the end of the Second World War. The study treats a key topic in 19th and 20th century history: visions of how to modernize while retaining tradition. The theme is of enduring importance, but is particularly pertinent for our understanding of fascisms. Panzer examines with detailed documentation the many contexts in which Germans expressed interest and admiration for Japanese, and Japanese expressed the same for Germans, as two cultures and economies that grappled with the problem of modernization and tradition. Examining how Japanese culture—specifically the warrior culture of Bushido and the associated martial and spiritual traditions of Jiu-jitsu and Zen Buddhism—were received and recontextualized in the Weimar Republic, Panzer locates the basis of the eventual alliance between German and Japanese fascisms in a mutual commitment to a particular version of warrior virtue. In the process of transculturation, Japanese traditions were imputed with meanings that resonated with key preoccupations of the German Right. Zen Buddhism, for example, was stripped of its universalist implications, reinterpreted as a philosophy of death appropriate to warriorly cults of heroic defeat and suicide. Panzer’s examination of this process of transculturation challenges facile notions of Orientalism. Far from seeing Japanese culture as an alien "other," she shows how Germans not only stressed its kinship with their own culture but even saw it as a model to be emulated. In the decades that followed the First World War, Germans would above all highlight cultural affinities rooted in common ideals of masculine heroism and a shared warrior ideal. Panzer’s archival work and her grasp of detail and nuanced are truly impressive. The writing is engaging, the analysis lucid. “The Prussians of the East” makes a significant contribution to the scholarship that will interest not only historians of modern Germany, but of fascism, imperialism, and transcultural exchange. It is an outstanding accomplishment.

Timothy Scott Brown, Chair
On Behalf of the 2015 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize Committee