Interview with Doctoral Visiting Fellow Erica Lansberg

June 20, 2023

We recently sat down with Erica Lansberg, one of our current Visiting Fellows to discuss her research and her experience as a Visiting Fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington.

Erica Lansberg joined the GHI as a Doctoral Visiting Fellow in October 2022. She is studying for her doctoral degree in American Cultural History and Transatlantic Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. Her main areas of interest are the history of children and youth, transatlantic history, World War II and its aftermath, public history, and digital history. Currently, she is also a Research Associate at the Lasky Center for Transatlantic Studies at the LMU. She received her M.A. in American History, Culture and Society from LMU in July 2018. In June 2014, she graduated magna cum laude from Williams College, and from 2014 to 2016 held a fellowship from the Fulbright Austria program. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a doctoral scholarship from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, a research grant from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, and a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Study Scholarship. Her GHI Project is Encounters in the Rubble: American Interactions with German Children in Postwar Germany, which discusses the interaction between German children and American military personnel in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Now let us hear about her work and her life from her own words.

Can you tell us a little about your academic career prior to the GHI?

Of course! I did my BA in History and Arabic Studies with a minor in German at Williams College in Massachusetts. After graduating, I was a Fulbright English Assistant at a high school near Salzburg, Austria for two years. After that was over, I moved to Munich, where I completed an MA in American History, Culture and Society at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, and then enrolled as a PhD Candidate in American Cultural History and Transatlantic Studies. It has been an amazing experience being able to live in a foreign country and gain an education there.

What made you apply to GHI?

I wanted to apply for the fellowship because I loved that the GHI provides support to younger scholars such as myself. I needed the support to work on my goals for my dissertation. The GHI is a unique institution that fits perfectly with my German-American and transatlantic experiences. It’s been wonderful to be based here and make connections through the GHI, and I can also easily go conduct research at the National Archives or the Library of Congress.

What challenges do you face and what do you hope to achieve?

Writing a dissertation is a huge undertaking that requires you to stay motivated every day, but also to reward yourself for the steps you’ve taken towards achieving your goal. I hope to write a dissertation that contributes to our understanding of the American occupation of Germany.

What led you to specialize in Public and Transnational History.

I love working with historical collections and using them to connect with the wider public. My research has been focused on the history of the US occupation in Germany, a very transatlantic topic, and I’ve also been interested in Middle Eastern history, which is also a very transnational field.

Could you tell us more about your GHI Research Project “Encounters in the Rubble”?

My project examines interactions between German children and American soldiers in the aftermath of WWII, focusing on 1945 to 1949. I explore how these encounters shaped wider occupation policies and transatlantic politics during the heightening Cold War atmosphere. I look at materials from both German children and US soldiers, such as diaries, which has been really fascinating. I aim at including children in my research as they were also important historical actors who impacted society and politics.

In what way does your research on the interactions between German children and American GI’s post-WWII challenge the current narratives Germany as a democratized country immediately after the war?

My work examines how complicated the occupation period was. It is important to avoid broad concepts such as Stunde Null (zero hour), but instead to examine how there were many major changes in German society while some continuities remained. One large shift was of course Germany’s evolution into a democratic nation. Americans aimed to reeducate and democratize Germans as part of their official occupation policies, which especially focused on children’s roles as the future of Germany, but my research makes clear that navigations on the ground were quite complicated and a simple seamless shift from fascism to democracy did not occur. Discourse about Americans as liberators who brought democracy also ignores the ambivalence in the situation on the ground as people grappled with the profound changes, including young people who had grown up only knowing fascism. The change in American mentality toward (West) Germans (and vice versa) from enemies to friends and allies took time and was not an overnight switch, as well.

How can digital history change our understanding of how we approach migration history and the history of knowledge?

Digital history is amazing because it increases access to history. I think that it is important to make historical collections as accessible as possible, because it opens new approaches of interpretation and participation from a variety of audiences within and outside of academia. The GHI has done amazing work in this field. See for example the GHI Migrant Connections project and the Migrant Knowledge blog.

What do you hope to achieve in Washington?

I hope to finish my dissertation! I’ve already finished my archival research, so that’s been a great step forward.

What are your plans after leaving GHI?

I’m hoping to stay in DC and have a career in public history.

What do you like about Washington DC?

I love how international and historical it is! The free museums are also amazing and there are so many beautiful neighborhoods to explore.