In the Spotlight: Hartmut Berghoff
Spotlight Series: This month, the German Information Center is launching its new Spotlight Series, which will regularly introduce interesting figures who play an important role in the development of German-American relations or perspectives.
As director of the Washington, D.C.-based German Historical Institute, Professor Hartmut Berghoff stands at the center point of exchanges between American and European academics, bringing together scholars from both sides of the Atlantic for a dialogue about politics, history, economics, and culture.
“When I wake up, I always think my work is fascinating, that it’s exactly what I like to do, it [pulls] me in,” Berghoff said in an exclusive interview for Germany.info. “I must say, it is one of the best jobs I can think of. It fascinates me, it challenges me. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding.”
Enlarge image (© GHI) The native of Westphalia has always exhibited a keen interest in broadening his knowledge and teaching others about the economic history of the 19th and 20th centuries, whether in the classroom or at conferences around the world. Berghoff studied at five different universities, including the University of Bielefeld, Cambridge University, Technical University Berlin, Free University Berlin and the London School of Economics, all of which are top-ranked institutions.
Over the years, Berghoff’s education connected him with a myriad of interesting personalities, but he fondly recalls one particular man who sparked his interest in academics.
“As a student I met my later PhD supervisor, Sidney Pollard – he was a very impressive figure,” Berghoff said. “He was the son of a Jewish family that had been killed in the Holocaust, but he was able to leave Vienna as a young child for England and only ‘came back’ to Germany in the 1980s. He was a cosmopolitan and highly intellectual man, a very good academic advisor and a close friend. His influence drew me into the field.”
Equally impressive is Berghoff’s own teaching career: as a longtime professor at numerous German and American universities – including Harvard – he was given the unique opportunity to share his knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic.
“For me it is always important to teach students to become independent thinkers… and find their own perspectives, overcome prejudices,” Berghoff said. “This is more important than stuffing a lot of information into their heads. It is the ability to look into complex economic and historical situations and to evaluate this.”
Enlarge image (© GHI) Located on New Hampshire Ave just a few blocks away from the buzz of Dupont Circle, the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., is packed with shelves of books and stacks of research papers. Some offices closely resemble libraries, while the conference rooms look like the study halls found in elite universities across the world. The GHI’s own library contains more than 45,000 books, many of which are not even found in the Library of Congress – one of the largest libraries in the world.
With a staff of about 35 people, the GHI is funded mainly by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and is part of a global network of institutes under the roof of the Max Weber Foundation. The institute, a non-profit organization established in 1987, connects Germans and Americans, organizes conferences, and explores ideas related to German, American, and global history.
“This is one of the best positions an international scholar can be in because you’re at the hub of the research network in the United States and Europe,” Berghoff says.
The GHI’s primary focus is to foster the study of German history in North America and of American history in Germany, thereby building a transatlantic bridge connecting scholars from the United States and Germany. Recent GHI research projects include a comparative study of the steel industry in postwar America and Germany, a history of African Americans and their connections to Germany, a history of the boy scouts in the United States, consumption in the Third Reich, and a history of German criminal justice.
“Our institute has several projects and lines of support to bring Germans to North America and Americans to Germany,” Berghoff says. “We do a lot of joint conferences, so we have many programs that basically have the same mission to bring people together, to establish research contacts, initiate joint projects, and so on.”
Enlarge image (© Germany.info) As director of the GHI, Berghoff spearheads multiple research projects, one of which examines the effect that entrepreneurial immigrants had in the United States since the 18th century. Titled Immigrant Entrepreneurship, the project traces the lives, careers and businesses of German immigrants in the United States, starting with the colonial era.
“The United States is a country of immigrants and a country that cherishes entrepreneurship, so both very often come together,” Berghoff said. “However, many people have forgotten how much this country has benefitted from immigrants … This project wants to call attention to the fact that the economic strength of the US relies on hard work and visions of immigrants. As the GHI, we focus on German-Americans, which does not mean that we do not compare their experience to that of other ethnic groups.”
German immigrants, many of whom arrived between 1840 and 1893, were responsible for founding many well-known corporations in the US, including the companies Boeing and Heinz. Through academic articles and exhibitions across the United States, the GHI’s Immigrant Entrepreneurship project strives to educate Americans about the effect that German and European immigrants had on America’s foundation.
Whether it’s economics, history or politics, the topics that Berghoff and the GHI explore are often critical in understanding the German-American relationship that has developed over the past century.
“Germany and the United States are closely interrelated in many ways – economically and culturally. It is fascinating to see how much exchange there was,” Berghoff said. “Now, politically and culturally, both countries depend on each other. I think both governments would agree that they must be really careful to keep these good relations going. The United States needs Germany and Germany needs the United States.”
This interview was conducted by Nicole Glass.