Civilizing Capitalism? The Beginnings of Credit Rating in the United States and Germany: Inaugural Lecture Hartmut Berghoff

Nov 14, 2008

Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Hartmut Berghoff (Director GHI)

Professor Hartmut Berghoff took up the position of director of the German Historical Institute Washington on April 1, 2008. Berghoff, who holds a chair in economic and social history at the University of Göttingen, was a fellow at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in 2002/03, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., International Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Business School in 2006, and Visiting Professor at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris in 2007. Professor Berghoff has published widely in the fields of the history of the middle classes (Bürgertumsforschung), business history, and the history of consumption. His publications include: Englische Unternehmer 1870–1914: Eine Kollektivbiographie führender Wirtschaftsbürger in Birmingham, Bristol und Manchester (Göttingen, 1991); Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt: Hohner und die Harmonika 1857 bis 1961. Unternehmensgeschichte als Gesellschaftsgeschichte (Paderborn, 1997); (with Cornelia Rauh-Kühne), Fritz K. Ein deutsches Leben im 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart, 2000); and Moderne Unternehmensgeschichte: Eine themen- und theorieorientierte Einführung (Paderborn, 2004). He has edited (with Jakob Vogel) Wirtschaftsgeschichte als Kulturgeschichte: Dimensionen eines Perspektivenwechsels (Frankfurt am Main, 2004); (with Jörg Sydow), Unternehmerische Netzwerke: Eine historische Organisationsform mit Zukunft? (Stuttgart, 2007); and Marketinggeschichte: Die Genese einer modernen Sozialtechnik (Frankfurt am Main, 2007).

  • 6:00 p.m. Opening Remarks
    Philipp Gassert (Deputy Director GHI)

  • Welcome
    Klaus Scharioth (Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany)
    Wolfgang Schieder (Chair Board of Trustees of the Foundation DGIA
    Friedrich Lenger (Chair Academic Advisory Board of the GHI)
    David G. Blackbourn (President Friends of the GHI)
    Anke Ortlepp (Former Acting Director GHI)

  • Inaugural Lecture
    Hartmut Berghoff (Director GHI): Civilizing Capitalism? The Beginnings of Credit
    Reporting in the U.S. and in Germany
    7:30 p.m. Reception

Event Report

Hartmut Berghoff delivered his inaugural lecture as director of the German Historical Institute Washington DC, on November 14. How merchants and manufacturers tried to cope with the risks and uncertainties of doing business in the rapidly expanding, increasingly impersonal markets of the nineteenth century was the focus of Berghoff's lecture "Civilizing Capitalism? The Beginnings of Credit Rating in the United States and Germany." Capitalism, as Berghoff emphasized, depends on trust: no business ships goods, no bank makes a loan, no professional renders a service unless there is reasonable certainty of receiving payment. As it became increasingly difficult for businesspeople to assess the trustworthiness of potential customers or trading partners in the age of industrialization, they turned to the market. "The challenge of fast growing anonymous markets was met by the professional transformation of uncertainty into risk - in other words, by production of trust as a commodity," Berghoff explained. The great pioneer in the commodification of trust was the New York merchant Lewis Tappan, whose Mercantile Agency - still operating today under the name Dun and Bradstreet - began selling information on the creditworthiness of individual business men in 1841. While firms like Tappan's played a crucial role in allowing business to adopt risk management practices and strategies, Berghoff observed, the development commercial risk management has by no means eliminated instability and uncertainty from market economies. "Risk management like credit rating brings some risks under control while at the same time it encourages the spreading of new risks, which nobody would take without the belief in the efficiency of that risk management." Given this "fundamental dilemma," Berghoff suggested in conclusion, capitalism cannot be completely "civilized" - there is no separating the benefits of capitalism's dynamism from the risks of its inherent instability.

Berghoff's lecture was preceded by a series of welcoming comments. On hand to wish Berghoff success in his tenure at the GHI were Ambassador Claus Scharioth; Wolfgang Schieder, board chair of the Foundation DGIA; Friedrich Lenger, chair of the GHI's Academic Advisory Board; David G. Blackbourn, President of the Friends of the GHI; Philipp Gassert, Deputy Director of the GHI; and Anke Ortlepp, former Acting Director of the GHI.

David Lazar