Monday, August 22, 2005

From Collaboration to Fraternity

While pouring over a file on the Institut der geschichtliche Landeskunde der Rheinlande in Bonn, I found this reference to a project between the institute, amateur researchers in Germany, and Americans: "an investigation of emigration from the upper Ahr Valley in the nineteenth century" to the United States.
The inquiry into and collecting of letters in the places of origin of the emigrants and with their descendants in America ... [triggered] a thoroughly lively correspondence, which stirred strong emotions over there. Essays in German-American newspapers promoted the enterprise, as had the local press in the Eifel Forest. Families ties [between Germans and Americans] were restored, and an abundance of old letters related to the history of the emigrants flowed in from both sides. ...
Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the collection, whether it turned out to be an archival holding or an anthology. It was just one of the projects that benefited from the institutes assistance. The file itself is a dead end on this subject: I have no idea if it continued beyond 1932 and how the relationship between those involved changed with the rise of Nazism.

In general, the institute worked on Landeskunde, regional studies, rather than Volkskunde, ethnic studies. The former was, nevertheless, an offshoot of the latter. The institute still attended on people, and part of its work concerned the history of settlement and migration, which extended the horizons of research beyond the Rhineland to Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine. Migration helped the institute prove a point: that the true history of the Rhineland was neither home-grown nor German, but continental.

The collaboration between Rhenish and American academics and societies to find the sources of German-American history may have produced compelling research on Transatlantic dialogues during an era of significant political and social change -- only six years separated the American Civil War from the unification of the Reich. Even the collection was a type of Transatlantic dialogue over a shared past.

The project resembled other international collaborations that the institute undertook. However, the relationships between the researchers in the two countries changed as German politics took a severe right turn. The National Socialists, who were no fans of regionalism, used the institute, first, to cultivate foreign support for German policies, and second, to locate the places of Germanic habitation. Research on immigration was used to determine the maximal boundaries of Hitler's Reich. The researchers at the institute (some prominent social scientists like Adolf Bach, Franz Steinbach, and Joseph Müller) happily made the case that the lands of north-western Europe not only belonged to Rhenish history, but to Germany itself.

The triangle between the institute, foreign researchers and the past became exaggerated. Opportunities to collaborate were limited to academics who sympathized with Pan-Germanism (even fascists in other countries distanced themselves from the institute).

I can only imagine how the relationship between Germans and Americans involved in the project changed. The collection, whatever it is, would be useful to anyone studying German-Americans. What is interesting is that the collection itself may be a document about how Americans rediscovered their European roots at a time when ethnic identity was celebrated as the cornerstone of nationalism.

History : Germany: America


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