The America House in Berlin-Charlottenburg, until 2006 in the hands of the Americans. Foto: © Raimond Spekking/ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A local level of German-American relations

Dr. Reinhild Kreis focused in her thesis on the importance of the German-American Institute (DAI) and America Houses in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War. For her work entitled "Places in America", Reinhild Kreis was awarded the ifa Foreign Cultural Policy Research Prize on 18 July 2013.


Interview by Dominic Konrad.

ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations): Dr. Kreis, congratulations on the award!

Reinhild Kreis: Thank you, I was very happy about it.

ifa: Your dissertation "Places for America" deals with the history of the German-American Institute and the America Houses in the Federal Republic of Germany between 1960 and 1986. How did you discover this subject?

Kreis: I came across it when I had a look at the stock of files of the German-American Institute in Nuremberg. The files were submitted to the local city archives. Looking through different things I noticed: Firstly, the years after 1955 are much more than the subsequent history following on from the famous re-education measures, and should be investigated as a period in its own right. On the other hand, the history of the German-American Institute is much more than a mere institutional history. It is a history of German-American interaction.
The America Houses and German-American institutions have a great advantage as a subject. They were present for many years and decades in the Federal Republic and therefore there was a very high level of continuity, and a very wide-ranging German-American network has evolved over the decades. The work is therefore about what the America Houses in Germany can tell us about, namely a level of German-American relations, especially at the local level.

President Kennedy focussed his Culture- and Information policy on Africa und Asia. Photo: White House Press Office (WHPO).

ifa: What special significance did the houses have for German-American relations after the Second World War?

Kreis: Initially, the goal was to democratise, so the re-education of the German population, which were to be familiarised with the United States. The immunisation against communism played a role. That worked pretty well, the houses were well received. One reason for this was that the America Houses were not so instructive and their message was not imparted with a wagging finger. Many cities felt gratitude for these houses and they looked on them almost as a gift from the Americans. In the years after the democratisation phase, the function of the America Houses changed gradually. It was no longer about informing on different value systems, it was time for the Western alliance to be stabilised inwardly. They wanted the West German population to participate in this Western alliance under American hegemony.

ifa: The foreign policy doctrine was transformed under John F. Kennedy. What were the USA’s intentions at that time in West Germany?

Kreis: Kennedy represents a reduction of foreign cultural policy in Western Europe and in the Federal Republic. In the Federal Republic there was still a very strong presence from the Reeducation-period. Kennedy shifted the focus to other regions of the world, for example Africa, which became a greater priority for him. That there were still so many American Houses in the Federal Republic has more to do with the German side than American policy. The Germans wanted to prevent these houses from being closed and in some cases even contributed to the costs. So you should actually ask what intentions the Germans had with the houses...

The America House in Tübingen, founded in 1952, is still a German-American Institut today. Foto: Vux / CC-BY-SA 3.0 (Via Wikimedia Commons)

ifa: So what were their intentions?

Kreis: For the USA, it was indeed a matter of aligning the West Germans with American foreign policy. "Soft power" means that a hegemon does not enforce its policy, but uses its appeal and attraction. The America Houses were intended to help convey this appeal. On the German side, one can see a range of motives: gratitude and pride as well as foreign policy motives. Just after the erection of the Wall, the government did not want anyone in West Germany to get the impression that the Americans had withdrawn. It was the overall objective to make the Houses places where the population considered issues relating to the United States. It is really amazing how long it lasted. At the beginning of the 1960s, in the mid-1980s, and then again after the end of the Cold War, the USA cut funds for the facilities. The Germans could have closed the Houses. They could opt out of funding at various times without any loss of face, but they did not. Some of these old America Houses – quite a few in fact – still exist in various guises today.

ifa: One can say that in the time of the Cold War, a positive image of America prevailed in WestGermany. Did a local American presence affect the image of America?

Kreis: I think this question is very difficult to answer in detail. Presence is something more than a theoretical, abstract knowledge. Presence always means interaction. This is a very important factor. I would say that the presence in the Federal Republic certainly improved the image of America among many Germans – a great deal in fact if one considers developments over a long period of time. But of course there were always phases and situation where the American presence had also led to a negative image of the United States. One must also clearly differentiate between the various forms of presence, such as the American troops, McDonalds, Hollywood or even the America Houses. It is very difficult to establish causal links in practice and to say what elements contributed to what image of America specifically.

ifa: At times, the anger of the citizens was also aimed at the America Houses. We only have to think of the demonstrations during the Vietnam War.

Kreis: Yes, by all means. There is no linear development and no mere succession of phases, but often it is a juxtaposition of different images of America.

ifa: In 1986, American funding for the German-American Institute was cut entirely under President Ronald Reagan. Why did the European strategy of the United States change shortly before the end of the Cold War?

Kreis: I would say it was mainly the funding for information and cultural policy that changed. It was not a total loss because there were many new initiatives in the 1980s, such as the parliamentary sponsorship programme "Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange" and the coordinator positions for the German-American cooperation. However, the information and cultural centres were pushed aside and no longer seemed so important. The director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) under Reagan, Charles Wick, relied heavily on other media. For him television, was very important. Of course money plays a major role. Generally, in the USA the idea of operating overseas government-funded cultural policy was never really attractive. This was a very controversial project. The USIA continually had to save money.

Neighbours: The building of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and the German-American Institute in Stuttgart. Photo: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen.

ifa: This led eventually to the closure in 1999 of the Agency. Nicholas Cull wrote a critical work on the history of the USIA. In the second and last volume, he writes that the closure of the USIA led to the deterioration of the global image of America. Did the loss of bilateral exchanges in Germany fuel the anti-American sentiment in the past decade?

Kreis: I would not go so far as to say that the closure of one authority immediately causes the deterioration of the image of America. First, it did not end all information and cultural policy of the United States, which is continued by the US State Department in part, and secondly, culture and information policy is only one of many channels for bringing people into contact with the USA. So that the USIA could continue to work successfully, they would have had to find a way to define themselves as an authority that was also important outside the context of the Cold War. But the Agency had great difficulty in doing so. With the closure of USIA, not only were experts lost, but decades of networking and communications channels were also interrupted. That is a substantial loss. This should have been reactivated and adapted to the new situation.

ifa: Would you say that the presidents since Reagan and Clinton who dissolved the USIA underestimated the importance of foreign cultural and information policy?

Kreis: As a state task, certainly. I think the state should not withdraw so far from such tasks as the USA did. Using the example of Germany, one could have recognised this importance. Interestingly, these institutions were maintained in Germany after the end of the USIA, despite all cutbacks. The German-American Institutes still exist today. That alone is a more than clear sign that there is a need for such institutions.

ifa: Ms Kreis, returning to your current projects: You are currently researching at the University of Augsburg. Which areas are you concerned with at the moment?

Kreis: In my post-doctoral work, I am dealing with a consumer-historical subject, so with something completely different. It is about DIY in the consumer age from the late 19th to the late 20th century. Foreign cultural and information policy is therefore not at the forefront, but it is still a topic of interest for me. Recently, I published a work on the contexts in which the coordinators were used for German-American relations in the 1980s. In this sense, the ifa Research Award is a great honour for me. I think it is great that there is this award because it looks at a field of research that is somewhat undervalued. Foreign cultural policy is much more than just the "cultural accompaniment" of foreign policy.

Reinhild Kreis: American Public Diplomacy in the Federal Republic of Germany.

American Public Diplomacy in the Federal Republic of Germany: German-American Institutes and America Houses, 1960-1985. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012. 424 S.

ifa-signature: 33/289