Scholar examines relationship between German, U.S. historians
In a lecture on Thursday night, Dr. Philipp Stelzel discussed how post-World War II history has been understood in Germany and the United States. He also talked about how he analyzed these interpretations in his new book, “History After Hitler: a Trans-Atlantic Enterprise.”
Stelzel is a core member of the German-American Dialogue for the Next Generation at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington D.C. and an assistant professor at Duquesne University.
After WWII, German historians were forced to decide how to rationalize the outcome of the war to German citizens, and American historians were required to do the same for their citizens. According to Stelzel, this difference led to drastically conflicting historical perspectives in the middle of the 20th century. However, as German and American historians continued to communicate, a generally accepted account of the war developed.
To demonstrate this, Stelzel split his discussion into five parts: an overview of the German Federal Republic, German historians’ accounts of German history, accounts of German history written in the U.S. after WWII, the ways that German historians who immigrated to the U.S. reacted to American accounts and finally how the trans-Atlantic intellectual agreement developed.
He highlighted this difference by introducing quotes by German historians Gerhard Ritter and Hans-ulrich Wehler. Ritter’s quote from 1949 explained that for American historians, “long term alienation from Germany easily leads to a distorted view of reality” in which they see a primarily “defensive German attitude” that makes differences in reflecting on World War II “difficult to overcome.”
Stelzel introduced Wehler’s ideas to disagree with Ritter’s ideals. He explained that in Wehler’s view, “trans-Atlantic dialogue between American and German historians since the 1940s are based on the fundamental experiences of the political generation” who lived through the postwar years. Stelzel explained that, as opposed to the distance in the 1940s, the “common experiences” of the historians in the early 2000s led to effective communication and “close contacts.”
Stelzel suggests that these quotes demonstrate the “fundamental transformation” in how German and American historians related to each other, which he focuses on in his book. The decades following World War II “witnessed the establishment of a diverse community of modern German historians,” he explained.
Moreover, the economic effects that came with the historical disagreement led to an increased American interest in learning more about Germany in order to depict them in historical documents. Stelzel attributes this to the growth of national socialism in Germany at the time, which made the country a key interest for historical interpretation.
Stelzel also examined how WWII soldiers were depicted in both German and American history. He argues in his book that, in terms of historical interpretations, “American accounts of historical German struggle have generally been pictured to embody the [American] progressive tradition,” which illustrates a westernized version of German soldiers. Emphasizing this, he explained, “Just as in our translation of Germany was a process of selective appropriation,” academics depicted American soldiers with German patriotism, ideals and values. Stelzel explained that, at least two decades after the war, “Traditional political history in West Germany still dominated,” which kept Germans from examining their “methodological assumptions” about these soldiers. He attributes this historical understanding to the “discipline of the 1950s,” which focused on the “human impulses” of soldiers, characterizing them as dedicated and patriotic, to explain how the war should be preserved in history.
Stelzel also examined a religious shift over the second half of the 20th century. Catholic scholars, as opposed to traditional Protestant observers, “attempted to promote a counter narrative” that focused on the German Empire “at the expense of southern and southwestern states” in Europe, which further convoluted the various different narratives regarding WWII.
Regarding America’s approach to detailing the history of WWII, he explained that “immigrant historians” who studied this history during the aftermath of the war “helped to internationalize the field” of World War II contemporary history. He noted that this helped to alleviate anti-Semitic views within the American discipline and historical education.
Stelzel concluded by examining the relationship between historians that developed in recent decades. Although German attitudes towards the United States fluctuate “depending on the respective occupant of the White House,” the German-American scholar community is characterized by “much grater re-stability, much to the credit of the historians,” Stelzel said.