The GHI at 25: A Celebration

May 17, 2012

Lecture at the GHI | David Blackbourn (Harvard University)

The 25th anniversary of the German Historical Institute in Washington DC was celebrated by more than 170 guests on Thursday evening, May 17, 2012. After words of welcome from GHI Director Hartmut Berghoff, a number of distinguished speakers offered their congratulations and best wishes to the Institute on the occasion of its anniversary. German Ambassador Peter Ammon noted the importance of the GHI in German-American relations; Heinz Duchhardt, head of the Foundation German Humanities Institutes Abroad (DGIA), stressed the contribution of German emigres to German-American scholarly exchange and offered the Foundation's thanks to the four directors who have led the GHI since its founding; James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, lauded the GHI as a model for the mutual responsibilities of scholars to one another; Simone Lässig, Executive Board Member of the Verband der Historiker and Historikerinnen Deutschlands, highlighted the GHI's role as a forum for scholarly exchange and cooperation between German and American historians; David Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association, described the GHI as one of the most exciting ventures in transnational academic cooperation and commended Germany for its commitment to humanities scholarship as a public good; James V.H. Melton, President of the Central European History Society, highlighted the GHI's role in socializing its research fellows to navigate the different academic cultures of Germany and the United States; Marion Deshmukh, Senior Vice President of the Friends of the German Historical Institute, conveyed the Friends' congratulations in poetic form; and Alexander Nützenadel, deputy chair of the GHI's Academic Advisory Board, explained the Advisory Board's role in connecting the Institute to the larger academic world.

The evening's main feature was a lecture by Professor David Blackbourn (Harvard University) on "Germany and the Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1820." In his introductory remarks, Blackbourn explained his choice to speak about the era 1780-1820 at least in part because of what it isn't -- the 20th century -- and expressed his concern that German history in the United States is becoming almost synonymous with the history of the 20th century. In the lecture, Blackbourn challenged the stereotype that the Germans in this era were simply Dichter and Denker (Germaine de Stael) and that "while the British had an industrial revolution and the French a political revolution, Germany had a reading revolution" in two ways: first, by refuting the notion that "Germans only thought while others acted," and second, by revealing the crucial role of Germans in the invention of the modern self.

Although Germany had no empire overseas, Blackbourn demonstrated that Germans in this era had a global presence in international trade and "created some remarkable transatlantic networks," which were religious in origin but had much wider effects resulting in an "intensified exchange of books, copper plates, botanical and agricultural specimens across the Atlantic." "Travel, thickening networks of communication, and ‘the animation of commerce' (as Fichte called it) all made the world smaller."

Turning to the impact of the revolutionary era in Germany, Blackbourn noted that the French revolution forced German rulers to learn "how to manufacture consent through state building, invented traditions, and timely concessions," gave Germans "a new political vocabulary of nation, rights, liberty, and a new set of political symbols," and created a modern conservatism. The terror undermined the French Revolution's "appeal as the vehicle of reason and virtue" and lead German liberals to forge a reformist but anti-revolutionary message: "reform was necessary because reform denied led to revolution." The American Revolution was appealing to German liberals because it "stressed constitutionalism, individual rights, religious toleration, and the rule of law." But German liberals and conservatives agreed that the political institutions of the United States could not simply be transplanted to Germany any more than those created by Latin American revolutions.

In the last part of his lecture, Blackbourn considered the impact of the "extraordinary flowering of German literature and philosophy" in the decades around 1800, by suggesting that German ideas and practices -- from mining engineering and scientific forestry to music and education (Fröbel's Kindergarten and the research university) -- had a far-reaching impact across the globe, especially in Great Britain and America.

In conclusion, Blackbourn took on the question whether there was a "dark side" to German history in this era. To be sure, he noted, Germans were "deeply implicated in the system of slavery" and Prussian educational successes were "mediated through a bureaucratic state." But the potential of German cultural achievements to "feed Germans hubris" only became apparent after German unification in 1871; the key elements of continuity from the National Socialist catastrophe lead back to the late 19th century, which saw the rise of aggressive nationalism, racism, the cult of the strong leader, and the spread of populist politics. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, Blackbourn concluded, through "their ideas and practices, through travel, material exchange, and networks of communication" Germans "contributed to the making of a new world."

Professor Blackbourn's lecture will be published in the Fall 2012 issue of the GHI Bulletin.

The anniversary celebration concluded with a buffet dinner in the GHI's reading room, which allowed the guests to mingle, celebrate, and pursue their own transatlantic dialogues.