GDR and East German Studies in North America

Laurence McFalls

This will also appear in Aktuelles aus der DDR Forschung.

I. The State of East German Studies in the North American Social Science.

Aside from the few years that followed the momentous events of 1989-90, the study of the GDR and eastern Germany has frankly been of only marginal interest to social scientists in North America. Although the division and re-unification of Germany constituted a unique "natural" experiment that should have drawn more than the fleeting attention of political scientists in particular, the latter have tended to ignore this fascinating case for various cultural, institutional, and political reasons.

While American and Canadian politics are considered subfields and dominate the discipline in each country, political scientists tend to dismiss specialized knowledge of other countries as mere "area studies" and to expect students of comparative politics and international relations to sacrifice depth of regional knowledge for breadth in the quest for large numbers of cases. Thus, whereas it would be considered appropriate for a student of American politics to devote her entire research and teaching tothe workings of Congress, a political scientist with a particular interest in Germany or France would be expected to cover all of European politics and preferably those of another region as well. To be sure, the leading role of German émigré scholars such as Carl Friedrich and Karl Deutsch in the early postwar period guaranteed a certain special interest of North American political science for German politics, particularly for the study of Nazi totalitarianism and genocide, postwar democratization, and Germany's pivotal position in divided Europe, but this research interest focused almost entirely on West Germany. East Germany, which in any case was more difficult to study as a society and politcal system in its own right, interested political scientists as a stake in the Cold War, if at all.

Nonetheless, despite the practical and professional disincentives to study the GDR, a few North American scholars-- notably Arthur Hanhardt, Jean Smith, Tom Baylis, Henry Krisch, and Anita Mallinckrodt--did take up the challenge in the 1960s and 70s. Their work confronted an institutional difficulty that has confronted eastern German studies in North America down to the present: their work was marginal to the already marginal group of Germanists within political science, and, for linguistic and geopolitical reasons, it did not fit in very well with that of the Eastern European comparativists. It is telling, however, that the GDR Studies Association, established in 1983, found an institutional home within the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies and its annual conference and not within the German Studies Association, an otherwise open organization that has brought together political scientists, historians, and literary and cultural scholars since 1976.

Although the revolution of 1989 and unification brought North America's East German experts their requisite fifteen minutes of fame in the media, their positions in their disciplines only briefly improved, with the notable exception of the historians. For them, the historicization of the GDR did not pose a professional problem; to the contrary, the opening of East German archives was a bonanza to them, as it was briefly for political scientists and literary scholars--until they had to justify the disciplinary relevance of a defunct object of study. They had to redefine themselves as either Germanists tout court or as comparative transitologists, as did their organizations (the GDR Studies Association, for example, considered dissolving itself but instead downgraded itself to become the Eastern German Studies Group). In the early 1990s, however, eastern Germanists found themselves in the professional mainstream: at the annual conferences of the American Political Science Association they participated in numerous omparative politics panels as well as those organized by the Conference Group on German Politics, though even then they found their local knowledge brushed aside by transitologists, survey researchers, developmentalists, and even rational choice theorists, who simply added eastern Germany as another case to prove their pet theory. Needless to say, the Wende and unification dominated the conferences of the German Studies Association in the early 1990s, with numerous East German Bürgerrechtler attending as special guests and speakers.

By the mid- to late-1990s, however, the heyday of East German studies appeared to be over. The disappearance of the GDR and the more or less successful administrative integration of the new Länder into the Federal Republic meant that East German studies have been absorbed into German studies as a whole at the same time as they have lost their somewhat uncomfortable home within East European studies. Thus, both institutionally and intellectually East Germanists find themselves isolated again: they are a small minority within German studies, where West German perspectives and problems dominate the agenda, and they are cut off from East European transformation studies, even losing eligibility for research funding from American foundations with a special interest in postcommunist transformations, because the East German case of transition is assumed to be unproblematic.

Untouched by the decline in East German studies since the early 1990s, however, has been the most unusual institution of GDR studies in North America, the New Hampshire Symposium. Resolutely independent and interdisciplinary since its inception in 1974, this annual week-long conference held at the World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire, has continued to grow since the disappearance of the GDR and remains the best opportunity for North American eastern Germanists to meet scholars and artists from the former GDR. Although some North American GDR scholars shunned the New Hampshire Symposium before 1989 because its organizers allegedly compromised with the SED-regime in order to obtain East German conference participants, the publication of the conference proceedings in the series Studies in GDR Culture and Society (Washington: University Press of America, 1980-1996), edited by symposium organizer Margy Gerber, provided a valuable English-language reference source for GDR studies.

One of the sources of the New Hampshire Symposium's relative success has been its integration of cultural, literary, and social sciences. Indeed, the future of East German studies in North America probably depends on the extension of interdisciplinary approaches. The disappearance of the real existing GDR and its relegation to the realm of memory suggests that "cultural studies," with their focus on identity construction in artistic and daily-life forms, will play a growing role in the study of eastern German literature, arts, political culture, and social movements. The development of such an interdisciplinary approach to German studies that takes into account the cultural and historical specifities of eastern German society is in fact one of the goals of the the three German and European Studies Centers founded in 1990 at Harvard University, Georgetown University, and the University of California at Berkeley and of the new Canadian Centre for Interdisciplinary German and European Studies to be founded late in 1997 at Université de Montréal and York University. Whether a new interdisciplinary German studies will emerge and leave room for the specialized study of eastern Germany, however, remains to be seen.

II. North American Resources for GDR, East German, and German Studies

For primary research on eastern Germany, North American scholars generally rely on published materials, archives, and other resources available only in Germany. Some East German materials, however, are directly available in the United States: the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts (1) makes otherwise undistributed East German films available for rental for teaching and research purposes and will be holding the first North American conference on GDR cinema in October 1997; the Stanford University Libraries and Hoover Institute (2) house special collections of GDR popular literature and press publications as well as the GDR Oral History Project; and the National Security Archives at George Washington University (3) will soon make East German documents and records on the Cold War available on a web-site. Located in Prague but American funded, the Open Media Research Institute (4) serves as custodian for the extensive Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Archives and also offers contemporary primary materials and press reviews on Eastern Europe including the former GDR in English translation through a web-site and its magazine Transitions.

As secondary sources, several periodicals published in North America serve scholars working on East Germany. Published jointly by the three German and European Studies Centers in the US, German Politics and Society (5) regularly features social scientific articles on eastern German issues. More historical and literary is the German Studies Review (6), while New German Critique (7) is more theoretical and cultural. Another specialized publication addressed primarily to literary scholars, the GDR-Bulletin (8) appears less regularly and may soon go the way of its namesake (as has the series Studies in GDR Culture and Society mentioned above). In addition, various university research institutes produce relevant working paper series and publish the proceedings of their conferences on eastern German topics (9-12).

Finally, several professional associations produce newsletters with practical information for scholars of all-German and East German topics and organize conferences regularly on (eastern) German politics and society. The only organization devoted solely to the study of the (former) GDR is the Eastern German Studies Group (13), whose next triennial conference will take place in the fall of 1998 in Montréal. The largest annual interdisciplinary conference of Germanists, but now with declining eastern German content, is the German Studies Association (14) Annual Meeting. Also held yearly is the American Political Science Association Meeting, at which the Conference Group on German Politics (15) sponsors several panels and holds its business meeting. The CGGP's newsletter Politik, like the periodicals mentioned above, includes useful reviews of relevant books published in German as well as English. Last but not least: although not a formal organization, the longest standing and most interesting eastern German studies institution in North America is the New Hampshire Symposium, whose scholarly organization has been managed by Professor Margy Gerber (16) for the past 23 years.

III. Addresses of Some Useful North American Resources

1) The DEFA Film Library
Department of Germanic Languages and Literature
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Herter Hall, Box 3395
Amherst, MA 01003-3925
tel: 413-545-6671
fax: 413-545-6995
2) Stanford University Libraries
Henry Lowood, Curator for Germanic Collections
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305
3) National Security Archives
John Martinez, coordinator
George Washington University
2130 H St., NW, suite 701
Washington, DC 20037
4) Open Media Research Institute, Inc.
Motokov Building
Na Strzi 63
14062 Prague 4
Czech Republic
tel: 422-6114-2114
fax: 422-6114-3323
5) German Politics and Society
IAS Publications Office
2223 Fulton St., Room 338
Berkeley, CA 94720
tel: 510-642-4065
fax: 510-643-7062
6) German Studies Review
Arizona State University
Box 873204
Tempe, AZ 85287-3204
7) New German Critique
Telos Press
431 E. 12th St.
New York, NY 10009
tel: 212-228-6479
fax: 212-228-6379
8) GDR-Bulletin
Department of Germanic Language and Literatures
Washington University
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
9) Program for the Study of Germany and Europe
Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies
Harvard University
27 Kirkland St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
10) Center for German and European Studies
Georgetown University
Washington, DC 20057
11) Center for German and European Studies
247 Moses Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720
12) American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
The Johns Hopkins University
1400 16th St., NW, Suite 420
Washington, DC 20036-2217
tel: 202-332-9312
fax: 202-265-9531
13) Eastern German Studies Group
Randall Bytwerk, Newsletter Editor
CAS Department
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, MI 49546
14) German Studies Association
c/o Prof. Glebb R. Cuomo, Secretary-Treasurer
Division of Humanities
New College of the University of South Florida
5700 N. Tamiami Trail
Sarasota, FL 34243-2197
15) American Political Science Association
Conference Group on German Politics
c/o Prof. Helga Welsh
Dept. of Politics
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7568
16) New Hampshire Symposium
c/o Prof. Margy Gerber
Dept. of German, Russian, and East Asian Languages
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403

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