Carol Kahn Strauss: Keynote Address at Launch of Ruhr Center for American Studies


Carol Kahn Strauss with students and faculty of the Ruhr Center for American Studies.

LBI Executive Director Carol Kahn Strauss gave the keynote address at the opening of the PhD Program at the Ruhr Center for American Studies, a joint program of the TU Dortmund and the Ruhr-Universität Bochum on October 27, 2010.

As the university celebrated the launch of a PhD program where scholars from across the world will study American history, politics, and culture from a transatlantic perspective, Mrs. Strauss focused on the impact of German-Jewish emigres on America’s intellectual and cultural development, drawing on many of the documents and individuals that appear in the LBI archives.  The full text of her speech follows after the jump.

Evolution of American Studies; European Émigrés and the Transformation of American Culture

Keynote Address by Carol Kahn Strauss, TU Dortmund, October 27, 2010

My sincere thanks to Professor Walter Gruenzweig for the great privilege of being here today, to open the Ruhr Center for American Studies. The Center is an inspired idea since it seems to encompass every relevant aspect of contemporary society. It is interdisciplinary, transnational, and multicultural much like America itself.

I chose the word evolution for the title because American Studies reflect America’s unique ability to adapt, select, mutate and benefit from the process of integrating the views of others. Perhaps a time when the issues of immigration and integration are very much at the forefront of political discussion in Germany, the U.S. paradigm could be instructive.

For me, as the director of Leo Baeck Institute in New York, a research library and archive that specializes in documenting the culture of German-speaking Jewry, I tend to see American studies through the narrow lens of the enormous contributions German Jews and other European émigrés have made to the arts, sciences, business, humanities, politics and the culture at large. From this perspective I will omit the amazing literary talent of southern authors, or the intense political complexities of the Civil War, to cite two examples. The contributions of Americans themselves must obviously be a part of the Ruhr program in American Studies, but I will limit my remarks to disciplines that have been transformed by Europeans. Their contributions to America have impacted national cuisines, metropolitan skylines, musical repertoires and Hollywood filmmaking.

Germany, up to 1933, was what America is today: the dominant intellectual and cultural force whose writers, philosophers, artists, and scientists influenced the world it was also able to assimilate minorities from other regions, religions and cultures. After 1933, when so many fled the country to America, the accomplishments of these Germans continued to shape our world.

In the U.S., these émigré contributions morphed into something that really is uniquely American. The acceptance of so many ideas from such a diverse group of individuals suggests a culture that is always receptive, constantly changing, and clearly willing to welcome those exiles who feared they had witnessed the complete breakdown of civilization. The United States stood as proof that civilization would continue.

Indeed, even such a relatively minor field as children’s literature, rarely treated as an important subject by literary critics, can be considered an aspect of the continuity of culture, and a facet of American studies. Well after Bambi was written by the Austrian Jewish writer Felix Salten, and after Hitler had Bambi banned, it became a classic story for American children when Walt Disney produced it as an award- winning animated film. In the United States, more than 40 of Hitler’s exiles entered the juvenile book market. For some, it provided the opportunity to escape into fantasy. Marsha Kaleko’s poems for children, for example, are “set on the moon”. Other books for young adults were grounded in the contemporary experience of the authors, who were particularly sensitive to any injustice committed in the name of race or religion. They were often shocked by the racism still quite evident in the United States in the 1940s; they were just as surprised by the unfailingly optimistic American approach to life.

Frederick Kohner, a Czechoslovakian Jew who worked as a screenwriter in the German film industry and moved to California after the Nazis removed Jewish credits from films, took this positive aspect and created Gidget, a girl whose carefree California surfer life had a major influence on the youth culture of the 1960s. The book sold millions of copies, was made into a television series and several films. This Eastern European immigrant defined a new age that began along the Pacific Palisades in California. This world was in such stark contrast to the world he left behind, that Kohner was able to capture it as no American could, but every American loved once they saw it.

Much more well known than these children’s authors are the postwar exiles who had already achieved some success in Europe and continued to add to their standing in the United States.

For many of those who were forced to flee, and not all of them Jewish, the new country meant new prospects and unimagined possibilities. America was surprisingly receptive to many who had already established careers in Europe. For many who had not achieved any notable success prior to emigration, America offered the potential for unlimited achievement, despite the radical change of culture, language and status. America changed the concept of exile from punishment to opportunity.

The 20th century saw an unprecedented migration from Eastern and Central Europe as millions escaped from the Russian Revolution, from fascism, Nazism, World War II. Often, these newcomers saw America with a clarity and perspective that was sharper than that of native-born Americans; one need think only of Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America. Published by a visiting Frenchman in 1835, it remains a classic text on the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic institutions of the United States. A century later, the émigrés, many of whom were well-educated and thought of themselves as belonging to a kind of European avant-garde cultural elite, were equally inspired to praise and critique what they found in America. Many were shocked that mass culture was defined by bourgeois tastes. They were seduced and appalled at the same time: seduced by the new opportunities this broad market presented, and appalled by the lack of refinement that it revealed. Their best hope was to try to reconstruct within a democratic framework some of the values of the elite world they left behind.

The political and cultural experience of the émigrés made them perceptive observers, critics, and highly gifted interpreters of American life and values. Social research became an émigré specialty, especially at the New School in New York. Emerging disciplines crossed boundaries so that medicine, business, science and art all included human interactions that required quantification. The émigrés were excellent interpreters of human nature and its measurable components. Data upon which to base decisions was generated by émigré social scientists for use in government, industry and commerce.

The American Jewish Committee in New York commissioned a series called “Studies in Prejudice” that included a book called The Authoritarian Personality that developed a scale for measuring fascist tendencies. The study, done by psychologists at University of California at Berkeley, included émigrés of the so-called Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They concluded that early childhood experiences were the definitive influence on personality development. The study, criticized because of its methodology, has nonetheless had a great impact on American life as reflected in more than half a century of work in social psychology. The Americanization of their observations began immediately.

Peter Drucker, commonly referred to as the “father of management science”, now taught in every business school in America, was Austrian-born and German-educated. Like the social scientists, he also concentrated on interpersonal relationships. His thesis, developed after fleeing from the Nazis while working in London as a securities analyst, posited that most economists were interested in the behavior of commodities while he thought they should be focusing on the behavior of the people working with commodities. Drucker moved to America because he admired its focus on the future. In the U.S. he continued his studies on worker-related aspects of successful workplaces. He developed the concept of “management by objectives”. His textbooks remain the gold standard for business students and are widely regarded as a unique American contribution to efficient management. This is not wrong, because after decades of application in the context of U.S. companies, Drucker’s theories have become American business lore.

Musicology, a field that was only in the early stages of development as an academic discipline in Germany when Hitler came to power, lost practically all of its researchers. The contributions of these émigrés to the United States permeated the musicological departments of American universities from California to Harvard. The irony of their influence is that they provided an excessively Germanistic view of music history. American music scholars in the postwar era might have embraced Ives and Copland more readily had they not been taught by teachers such as Hans Eisler or Ernst Krenek to concentrate on Bach and Brahms, even Bartok and Schoenberg. But as they concentrated on composers familiar to them, the émigré conductors tried to expand the repertoire. The conductors included Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, William Steinberg and Erich Leinsdorf; they realized that serious classical music was not yet part of American mass culture. Almost immediately, they worked to change that. They were helped greatly by émigré composers such as Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith who adapted to the American idiom. Probably no one did that better than Erich Korngold, who became the icon of composers of movie music.

Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Vicki Baum, Franz Werfel and other émigré filmmakers, writers, and actors defined what came to be regarded as quintessentially Hollywood stereotypes – the wiseguy, the housewife, the gangster. American audiences were being exposed to the ideas of immigrants whose “Weltanschauung” carried a political resonance they were unaware of. The somewhat dark, low-key, cynical characters and cinematography reflected German expressionist sensibilities. Yet at the same time the émigrés said that the naiveté of American audiences forced them to change their style, making content more visual than verbal. Music, sets, costumes and lighting became increasingly important and served to distract viewers from the limited dialogue that often betrayed the foreign origin of the actors and screenwriters.  “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” and “Song of Bernadette”, both by novelist Franz Werfel, were turned into successful American films, as was Vicki Baum’s Academy Award-winning “Grand Hotel”. Thomas Mann and Leon Feuchtwanger became California-based authors who continued to write in German, reluctant to change their language or their style. Several publishing companies (Aurora, Pacifica Press) sprang up to accommodate these and other writers who did not adapt to America any more than necessary. They left it to others to translate them into the popular idiom. Interestingly, they have not been “Americanized”. Although widely read and admired, their contributions to the culture are the contributions of European authors.

Outside of Hollywood, Americans living in metropolitan areas in the 1930s and 40s began to witness a redefinition of city skylines, reshaped according to the visions of exile architects. Walter Gropius, with fellow émigré Laslo Moholy-Nagy, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937, then joined the faculty at Harvard where he designed the Harvard Graduate Center. Marcel Breuer also taught at Harvard. Mies van der Rohe came to the United States and built skyscrapers in Chicago, where he became known as the father of industrial design, primarily because of his creative use of new 20th Century materials. The Bauhaus attention to practical applications of good design has had a lasting influence on modern furniture, appliances, and buildings. Their concern with mass production found immediate resonance in the American market where sleek products could be manufactured inexpensively.

But the Bauhaus triumph in America is probably best exemplified by Mies’ iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York, where three generations have admired its quintessentially New York character with steel, reinforced concrete and sheet glass.

There were also hundreds of visual artists who were forced to flee from the Nazis, either because of religion or the so-called degenerate content of their work. They, too, taught in colleges and universities throughout America. Josef Albers was at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina where he taught Robert Rauschenberg, among others. His theories of color and content continue to have a lasting influence on American artists.

George Grosz changed from his radical political style in Germany to becoming an illustrator whose work would sell in the United States. All the refugees needed money, but Grosz seemed to take pride in describing himself as a businessman rather than an artist. Nonetheless, he continued to offer satirical images, in Esquire magazine as well as in his own art school. His approach influenced several generations of American political cartoonists. Hans Hofmann came to the U.S. from Germany as a visiting Professor in 1932 and stayed after Hitler came to power because he had a Jewish wife. His students included Larry Rivers, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, and a roster of other icons of postwar American art. Theodor Adorno once said that Arnold Schoenberg “Liberated color as a compositional element in music”; one could say that Hofmann did the same for painting.

Max Ernst, Hans Richter, Mark Rothko, Hans Arp and other émigré artists added greatly to the American conception of the visual experience, with an abstract, fantasy-oriented, non-representational awareness of the world around them. The founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York promoted abstract expressionism as the symbol of political freedom, a very American product. The fact that abstract expressionism was hardly home-grown is clear from visual references to other eras, other cultures, and to a clearly European tradition. But it was the émigré academics who really trained students in the art of seeing: design, shape, composition, patterns – the language of art took on new meanings as teachers like Erwin Panofsky at Princeton University and photographers like Lotte Jacobi redefined terms and trained Americans to see America through European eyes. Ms. Jacobi, for example, recognized the American preference for casual dress and photographed Albert Einstein in a leather jacket. Life magazine rejected the photo as unfit for publication. But it didn’t take long for American photojournalism to catch up with the émigré perception of American life.

Theater directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator were innovative, original, and perhaps too political for American taste. Nonetheless, they became important as teachers and exerted a lasting influence; Reinhardt opened a school of acting in Los Angeles, Piscator became the experimental and pioneering head of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York. His writing students included Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams; his acting students Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Walter Matthau. One author wrote that the presence of a Piscator theatre in New York contributed to a “Berlinization” of American theatrical sensibility.

While the American landscape was increasingly being affected by the contributions of émigrés, the émigrés were absorbing the unique democratic aspects of their new “foreign homeland” as Thomas Mann described it. They had watched the breakdown of Weimar and the postwar demilitarization, denazification, and decentralization of Germany. They were eager to help the United States and its Western allies turn Germany into a postwar bulwark against the Soviet Union. Indeed, some historians refer to this as the Americanization of Germany.

German-Jewish exiles played an important role in helping American military intelligence gather important information. As young draftees into the United States armed forces, many served in intelligence units, charged with interrogating German prisoners of war. Indeed, a superb film was made about the military intelligence training camp at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. More than half of the reservists were not yet American citizens, and about half were refugees from Hitler. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was among the young soldiers in the U.S. Army. Louis Henkin, an Eastern European Jewish émigré, was part of a unit that convinced 78 Germans to surrender to the Americans. After the war he embarked on a distinguished legal career and is widely regarded as the creator of the field of human rights law.

When the United States government established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, it was charged with providing special services to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In all of its operations, but especially in its research and analysis branch, the OSS recruited heavily from German-Jewish émigrés. Its founder, the so-called “Wild Bill” Donovan, referred to the refugees as “the cream of the crop”.

Many of these young men continued to help rebuild Germany after the war, for example, by restructuring German media, or through legal work that included participation in the Nuremberg trials, or by developing new areas of jurisprudence such as restitution or comparative law. Leo Baeck Institute has the papers of John Fried who was legal counsel at the successor trials to Nuremberg, and of the legal scholar Ernst Stiefel who introduced the study of diverse legal systems into German and American law schools. We also have the papers of my father, who was Landesgerichtsdirektor at the Landes- gericht in Dortmund and became one of the leading American authorities on restitution law, or Wiedergutmachung.

The émigré Herbert Marcuse served in the OSS and continued to work for the government after the war, mainly to prevent a resurgence of fascist political groups. In his scholarly studies (Soviet Marxism; Eros and Civilization) he tried to assimilate Marx and Freud, Stendahl, Proust and Heine. In his long tenure at Brandeis University in Massachusetts he introduced hundreds of American students to the new possibilities of urban life, sexual liberation, and authoritarian concepts.

In the postwar decades, émigré Jews in America became more and more active, educated, and politically influential than ever before. Despite the fear of some prominent American Jews that the drive and professional competence of the refugees would lead to resentment and anti-Semitism, to charges of fascism or communism (which in fact did happen), the refugees made their mark in law, medicine, journalism, and entertainment. They developed the field of psychoanalysis and Freudianism until it became almost the new religion of capitalism. Virtually all the early American practitioners were trained in Vienna or Berlin. Erik Erikson for example, was born in Frankfurt, trained in Vienna, and fled to Boston when the Nazis came to power. He became particularly interested in the analysis of children, probably stemming from his own experience with identity and emigration. He was the out-of wedlock child of a married woman, who did not reveal the circumstances of his birth until much later. He was given the name of his mother’s husband, until she remarried and was adopted by the stepfather, when his name changed again. Erikson later found a correlation between the home life of Germans and their underdeveloped political character. He thought Hitler was able to give the psychologically immature German family the political confirmation it needed to develop an identity, in this case a national identity. Erikson’s interest in youth, especially through his widely acclaimed book Childhood and Society, expanded the American family to include the entire American system: Congress, capitalism, and academia.

Erikson may be best remembered for coining the phrase ”identity crisis”. Indeed, “Identity” has become one of the most used and abused terms in modern communication. German-Jews provide a case study of how difficult it is to shed an identity, either through assimilation, conversion, or elimination. American studies show how hard it is to develop an identity, when it is the result of an ongoing evolutionary process. Leo Baeck Institute has thousands of memoirs, books, and papers that document hundreds of years of life in Germany, lives of teachers, peddlers, farmers, doctors, actors and bankers. If one were to design a curriculum for “German studies”, where would we begin? The poets? The philosophers? The scientists? Or those who where forced to flee? American studies has benefited from all of these, which is why everyone seems to know what we mean when we label something “American”. It is what remains when the constant ebb and flow of new ideas, visions, and methods goes from Europe, and increasingly from Asia, or Africa, to America, then back. It is the transformative nature of American culture to assimilate the contributions of outsiders and export them as American products.

The multinational, interdisciplinary, cultural context that exists in the United States exists nowhere else. My brief and random examples were selected only to suggest that without the remarkable contributions of émigrés, American Studies would look very different. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, Andy Warhol and Bill Gates are totally American. But next to the Constitution of the United States, which is probably the greatest American invention and should be at the heart of all American studies, it is the émigré experience that gives American studies its unique character.

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