East Meets West: Reflections on Teaching an American Past in the Former East Germany
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series about practicing history in a global context that will appear in Perspectives in the coming months.
“The future is certain," goes the old Soviet joke, "it is only the past that is unpredictable." For many former East Germans the unpredictability of the past six years has left them searching for a way to blend their culture with that of the West without abandoning their past, Though there are obvious differences, today's reconstruction in Germany bears some resemblance to that of our own reconstruction after the Civil War, because the relationship between process and product still holds the key to understanding the dilemmas of change,
The process of reconstruction in the former East German states is most evident by the physical restoration of the internal infrastructure, such as buildings, railroads, it highways, It would be hard to travel from one place to another, no matter how far, and not see the evidence of change.
This reconstruction is visible and perhaps the most satisfying. But the other reconstruction that is taking place in East Germany, though less visible, is the intellectual and psychological one. This reconstruction is taking place in German Gymnasiums (high schools) and universities and can loom as large for students as the more than 800 cranes do for those people living in Dresden, Berlin, and Leipzig hoping to see restored cities. And yet to some degree both processes are similar, particularly in those instances in which something old must be demolished before something new can be built. Thus the dilemma of teaching history in the former East Germany, particularly American history, is that the foundations must be laid on which to build new ideas. What better place to begin with than the marketplace of ideas?
The university classroom is perhaps the most dynamic place in the process of reconstruction. Because many of my" students were either finishing their studies at the Gymnasium or just beginning college when Germany was reunified in 1990, they witnessed, and are still witnessing, dramatic changes in thinking about their past and the past of their parents, as well as that of others. Exposure to theories and doctrines either previously forbidden to study or taught in very narrow terms has left students wrestling with the intellectual dilemma of embracing the new without abandoning the old. One student confessed that as much as he wanted to embrace the new ideas about the past, whether it related to American history or not, he feared that the history of his East German culture would be lost and the perspective of the past five decades would be invalidated by the dominance reflected in the new curriculum. This student asked, "What's wrong with the socialist or communist perspective on history? Is it wrong?" His sensitivity was reflective of many students in the former East who are trying to strike a blend between conflicting interpretations about the past. He was representative of merely one attitude, one view, and I valued his question. I replied that the diversity of views in thinking about the past reinforces what is still good about history itself.
Professors in the former East Germany are finding fertile ground on which to plant new ideas in the minds of students fully aware of their dilemma, Thus I thought it wise to "carve out a little wilderness" and acquire some knowledge about what students already knew, In the first few weeks I solicited written answers to questions I had about how these students view Americans today, how they came to know American history, what they thought they had in common with American college students, and how they perceive the past in light of the reunification, When I asked the students if they had been to America, few of them had. Those who had, however, liked it and found they had much in common with Americans. Those who had not been to America had mixed feelings about it. How would they characterize Americans, I asked? Their answers: "wonderfully friendly, patriotic, open minded, tolerant, cool." Those who had not been to America were less flattering, though equally determined in their answers, which included such adjectives as "different, mad, crazy, hectic, loud, selfish, and superficial." Thus their characterizations merely confirmed what Reiner Rohr of the Fulbright Commission said about perceptions—the shorter the stay in any country, the more exaggerated the impressions.
My students at the Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Institute for British and American Studies) knew little about American history and understandably so, since none of the students was a history major, and yet what they knew they questioned. When I asked what the cause of the American Civil War was, those who knew about the war suggested that slavery was the only cause, a result of racially prejudiced southerners. When I asked the students how they would know if they were in the American South, they answered that the beautiful countryside would be filled with some backward people who spoke an interesting language. The American North was wonderfully diverse in its geographic and ethnic makeup, though the big cities were rank with commercial industrialism. Still, they love New York. The American West was more of a phenomenon than a place, almost like the South. Its wide-openness gave the students a sense of America's vastness, where apparently the cowboy still roams the open range. Capitalism was something that had only consequences in the past they were taught, but today they hope to take part in what the world market has to offer. .
These students had many things in common with American college students. The age of the students in my seminars ranged from 18 to 35. They came to Martin Luther Universitat because it was a good university, far away from their parents, and they hoped a university education would help them get a good job. They were concerned with such issues as racial prejudice, the environment, the economy, abortion, discrimination, quotas for women, politics, Germany's reunification, government corruption, ignorance, abuse of children, unemployment, and getting a job. They read A Time to Kill, The Bridges of Madison County, Black Like Me, Black Hawk, Huck Finn, The Firm, Ragtime, Tom Sawyer, Light in August, and Catcher in the Rye.
Even though they had many things in common with American students, there were some distinguishing differences. Despite their excellent command of English and eagerness to learn, few students ever talked in class. The lecture was the most important mode of transmitting knowledge, and books and articles were secondary. Students did not venture to question what was said or written, and cultivating independence of thought was a relatively new phenomenon. Of course some of these characteristics have to do with the German academic environment itself, but evidence of being under Communist rule for several decades was reflected in the narrowness of how history was understood.
But the intellectual restoration is moving ahead. The library at the institute now gets several American newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. The periodical shelves are lined with at least two years of the American Historical Review, Journal of American History, William and Mary Quarterly, and the Journal of Military History among others. Though the Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik was founded 100 years ago, Martin Luther Universitat has made tremendous progress in a relatively short time in integrating new theories of the past into the classroom, not just for university students but for teachers of the social sciences and humanities as well. In the fall 1995 semester, the university, in collaboration with the U.S. government, founded a Center for United States Studies in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, which in the years to come will no doubt be the place to study American history in Germany.
The effect of the reunification on how these students thought about the past was a more difficult question for them to answer, simply because they had never thought about it. As students, they think of the current economic situation and how they will find a job, or what they characterize as a "bleak future." The past was something too distant for them to consider and sometimes too depressing, though they recognize that the history of America taught under the German Democratic Republic was not the complete history, nor was it a flattering one. They also recognize that they are living during one of Germany's most historic generations, and many hope to be around to see what kind of product the process of reconstruction will bring about for their children and grandchildren.
In a roundtable entitled "Toward the Internationalization of American History,” in the September 1992 issue of the Journal American History, David Thelen argued that the history we write emerges from the ways in which we engage audiences. In the same issue Joyce Appleby argued in "Recovering America's Historic Diversity" that "before America became a nation, it was a phenomenon," These two ideas influenced how I approached teaching American history during my Fulbright year at the Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik. I wanted to teach the American past by emphasizing the phenomenon of how the American character was shaped by developing themes around the relationship between people and place, process and product.
Teaching a Hauptseminar (graduate or advanced seminar) on the American South, for example, required me to demythologize much about the region—such as the role of southern women, the church, slavery, and racism—and to develop themes that considered the larger relationship between people and place. By discussing culture, music, politics, society, and economics, Southern history was a way to introduce students to broader conceptual approaches of studying history itself, as opposed to the recitation of facts. This was certainly not a new approach, but for students perhaps more accustomed to a traditional "facts and dates" approach, history of the American South became quite an interesting display of the discipline itself. Because history is largely impressionistic, I attempted to do at Martin Luther Universitat what I have done every time I teach Southern history—arrange Southern Cultural Night. As a way to reinforce what I had lectured about all semester, and to leave students with some tangible impression of the South, we came together for a southern dinner, for which students prepared a variety of southern dishes, listened to the sounds of southern dishes and watched a movie, Fried Green Tomatoes. Indeed, for a night Halle on the Saale River became New Orleans on the Mississippi.
In the Proseminar (undergraduate seminar) on 19th-century America students also seemed more receptive to the conceptual approach in developing the relationship between people and place, because the ideas transcended a specific region. But like American students, the facts made them feel more comfortable about their knowledge of the period. To develop a conceptual framework for the period, I used (in addition to lectures and articles) classic movies about American society that German students had never seen, such as The Wizard of Oz. In this case, I asked the students to develop a society around the issues on which the movie was based and to discuss the main issues and characters of the movie in comparison with their society. The discussion led us to issues that appear best displayed by the magical characters created for children on screen. But it was Lyman Frank Baum's 1899 classic book, The Wizard of Oz that taught the students there was more history to the movie than they anticipated. After all, it was Baum’s intent to use a children's book as a political and monetary allegory to emphasize how and why various issues and characters in American society carne to represent in the late 19th century the waning days of the Populist Era.
The Hauptseminar on the Age of Jefferson and Jackson, a more focused and concentrated period, gave me the chance to emphasize primary sources in developing major themes of the early 19th century. Toward that end, the students in this seminar traveled to Berlin to use the library of the John F. Kennedy Institute. Students consulted contemporary newspapers and diaries to explore such subjects as the political philosophy of Jefferson, the market revolution, political economy, democracy, temperance, women's rights, and the place of Indians. Researching the vast sources of Germany's largest American history collection proved invaluable for students, and the quality of seminar papers reflected not only the breadth of themes explored but also considerable depth of resources.
Certainly, I did nothing new in the classroom that has not been done before, but it was nonetheless important to students who have experienced the changes wrought by the "Wende" of 1989. The relationship between people and place was something they could relate to. Their analytical and interpretive skills were sound, and they had little difficulty in conceptualizing what was presented, but, understandably, writing in a second language sometimes proved frustrating. Thus I used each weekly session as a venue for serious discussion about their topics. Students were responsible for leading discussions on the topics they had chosen to research that semester. The combination of weekly oral presentations, on either the assigned readings or primary texts, gave students the chance to develop those skills they needed to develop in writing. In addition to group-led or student-led discussions, one thing that seemed to work well, even at the undergraduate level, was that each student was expected to make a copy of their seminar paper for everyone else. This served two purposes: first, each student carne away with at least one perspective on a variety of topics; second, it illustrated how themes were conceptualized and analyzed by their peers. Granted, this is not something new in university seminars, but it was a new approach to students at the institute and it proved quite useful.
Perhaps the easiest, and probably the most important, thing about teaching in the institute was that I was uninhibited by departmental, college, and university meetings, which freed up considerably more time for students. I found myself simply spending time with students, and I came to appreciate the value they place on the precision of thought. I spent countless hours conversing with students about American politics, culture, society, music, economics, and everyday life. In an age of change I was probably the only constant they encountered. Oddly enough, they came to count on me being in my office when I said I would, and going to the library to introduce them to the sources relevant to their topics. The vast majority were responsible, motivated, and certainly wanted their money's worth, even though no students paid tuition.
As the first Fulbright scholar in the Institut liir Anglistik und Amerikanlstik at Martin Luther Universitat, I confess I learned as much from the students about German culture as they learned from my lectures about American history. If anything I taught them that perhaps there is some truth in the saying that the past is unpredictable, because I attempted to reconstruct the American past for them without forcing them to adopt my ideas nor abandon their own. In the end, they taught me to appreciate the diversity I had about my own thinking about the past.
Stephen Engle is an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.