History & Traditions

(excerpts from: Heinz Ickstadt and Knud Krakau, Theory and Practice of German American Studies and the History of the Kennedy Institute, 1996)

In Berlin, as elsewhere in Germany, the scholarly occupation with the United States was not exclusively a product of the post-war years. Yet it was the post-war years in which the study of the U.S. became institutionalized in most universities of the Federal Republic. This happened in most cases in the area of English Philology by the addition of an academic position (very often a chair) for American Literature. Accordingly, the "Amerikanistik" which subsequently established itself as an academic field of its own, was (and in many places still is) institutionally part of "Anglistik". In other areas (History, or Political Science) a similar move toward independence was either not achieved or not desired. At least during this early phase, "Amerikanistik" and "American Studies" were therefore not at all synonymous, - American Studies not being the name of an independent field of studies but rather a collective name for scholarly explorations of American society and culture carried out by scholars in various disciplines. It is thus no coincidence that the foundation of the German Association of American Studies (GAAS) in 1953 was not primarily promoted by representatives of "Amerikanistik" but by political scientists, sociologists and historians like Arnold Bergstraesser, Theodor W. Adorno, Gerhard Diedrich or Ernst Fraenkel.

It is also no coincidence, that Ernst Fraenkel - who became president of the GAAS in the early sixties - also worked for the foundation of an "Amerika-Institut" that corresponded to this early concept of American Studies as a loose conglomerate of different areas and/or disciplines. Their representatives at the institute had only two things in common: the house they shared (and with it the possibility for scholarly exchange) and their interest in the U.S.

This early phase of American Studies was marked by the specific conditions and needs of German post-war history. Yet it was also an echo of American developments. In the U.S., the forties had seen the rise of an American Studies Movement which tried, in a long overdue move toward academic independence, to institutionalize the study of American society and culture within the academic landscape of the United States. In only a few cases these new American Studies Departments were composed of different disciplines. Much more frequently they were extensions of English or History Departments.

In Germany, "Amerikanistik" established itself as institutional variants of the American model, - in most cases as a chair for American Literature at an English seminar which later became a large seminar of its own. In (West)Berlin, however, sections for American Literature were extended to include professorial chairs in the fields of American Culture and/or History and thus became an "Amerika Institut". These chairs were the foundation of the Kennedy Institute for North American Studies which was founded in 1963.

The political scientist Ernst Fraenkel played a key role in the establishment of the Institute. This dynamic advocate of liberal positions formerly had been a lawyer for the German unions, was then exiled from Germany and emigrated to the U.S. where he became an American policy advisor and professor of political science, then, after his return to Germany, professor at the Political Science Institute (later the "Otto-Suhr-Institut") of the Freie Universität Berlin. Fraenkel had dreamed of such an opportunity for some time: namely to make America (which had saved his life and, to him, represented liberality and humanism) the subject of coordinated academic training and research which would bridge the traditional borders of disciplines and faculties. After negotiations with the political senate of Berlin, the Board of Trustees and the Ford Foundation, the academic senate decided in November 1962 to found an "inter-facultative" Amerika-Institut on the basis of Fraenkel's concept. The institute began its work on July 1, 1963 and received its present name after the assassination of John F. Kennedy several months later. After its move to its present domicile (a move which had already begun in 1964/65), it was officially opened on January 28, 1967.