U.S. Embassy Berlin: From Rebels to Democrats – A New Assessment of an Old Relationship. German-American Relations from 1848 to Today

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U.S. Embassy Berlin: From Rebels to Democrats – A New Assessment of an Old Relationship. German-American Relations from 1848 to Today

From Rebels to Democrats – A New Assessment of an Old Relationship.
German-American Relations from 1848 to Today

GSI (Gustav-Stresemann-Institute e.V Bonn) Symposium
Berlin, March 19, 2018
CDA Kent Logsdon


Dr. h.c. Erik Bettermann (President, GSI),
Dr. Ansgar Burghof (Director General, GSI),
Dr. Darrel Colson (President of Wartburg College)
State Council Ulrike Hiller (Plenipotentiary for the Free and Hanseatic City of Bremen for Europe and Development Cooperation),
Dr. Daniel Walther (German Institute Director, Wartburg College),
Melinda Crane,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The theme of this symposium spans a period of 170 years.  A long time – although the German-American relationship goes back even further. 

In the lobby of our Embassy, there is a panel listing all the official representatives of the United States of America to the country that we know today as the Federal Republic of Germany.  The first official representative was John Quincy Adams, a future President and the son of President John Adams.  In 1797, Adams took up his post in Berlin as the Minister Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Prussia.  Coincidentally, his first lodgings were at Pariser Platz 1, right beside the Embassy.  History mirrored the future.  In the ensuing 221 years, there have been Ministers to the German Empire, Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to both the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany.  Some 64 altogether if you count the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim who, like myself, have served for more than a year. 

As Chargé d’Affaires, it has been a great honor for me to lead the U.S. Mission to Germany over the past 13 months as we await the arrival of a new Ambassador.  Richard Grenell has been nominated to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Germany, but he still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before he can take up the post. 

Looking at the long list of official representatives and their titles and jurisdictions, I am reminded of the ties between our peoples over the centuries – through times of change and challenge.

Germans were among the settlers at Jamestown in 1608.  The first permanent German settlement was Germantown, Pennsylvania, founded on October 6, 1683.  Germantown, now a district of Philadelphia, was the first American community to formally protest the evils of slavery.

More Americans can trace their roots to Germany than to any other nation.  Nearly one in four!   In President Trump’s first proclamation in honor of GermanAmerican Day, he wrote, “These immigrants and their descendants have changed the trajectory of the United States.  On GermanAmerican Day, we celebrate their role in helping our country thrive.”

But why did Germans immigrate in such large numbers to the United States?  Many sought economic opportunity, but also religious and political freedom.  That was true for the first settlers and it was also true of those who arrived in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848.  One of the demands of the ‘48ers’ was freedom of the press.  Their revolution was crushed; a large number of journalists, writers and publishers were among the movement’s supporters who fled Europe. 

Since Women’s Day was two weeks ago, and the whole month of March is Women’s History Month in the United States, I think it is appropriate to tell the story of one of the female journalists of this period – a woman who is, as often the case, less well-known than her male counterparts.   Mathilde Franziska Anneke is not well-known in either Germany or the U.S.  During Women’s History Month – and all year long, we should shine a light of some of these forgotten stories.  For many of her contemporaries in Wisconsin, Mathilde Anneke symbolized the true spirit of the “48ers.”   Soon after arriving in Milwaukee in March 1852, Anneke started the first feminist journal published by a woman in America, the Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung.  Overall, more than 700 German language publications existed in the United States in 1890.

In contrast to Mathilde Anneke, Carl Schurz is one of the more well-known figures of those times.  On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Gustav Stresemann, after whom the host institution of today’s symposium is named, characterized him in the following way: “Carl Schurz … was concerned with profound moral goals that are not restricted to a single nation, but apply to all mankind.”  The commitment of people like Carl Schurz and Mathilde Anneke to these moral goals has been woven into the national fabric of the United States. 

Some ten thousand 48ers immigrated to the United States.  That is a relatively small number, but their impact was enormous.  Although some of them were caricatured as “Latin Farmers” who supposedly read classical texts while plowing their fields, they were passionate about their cause; and they clearly viewed themselves as having a mission to fulfill.  In German-American communities across the country, 48ers assumed positions of leadership.  They sought to realize their ideals by becoming actively involved in the political process. 

Mathilde Anneke wrote and spoke out in favor of defense of freedom, justice and equality, especially for blacks and for women.   She worked closely with suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In her later years, she started a progressive school for girls in Milwaukee.  1848 was clearly a turning point in Europe; but the 1850s – when the 48ers arrived – was also a turning point in American history.  Those years were a prelude to the Civil War.  The 48ers played a role in their new-found country during this time of national political crisis.  Many like Mathilde Anneke wrote about slavery.  Others worked more directly for the cause.  President Lincoln asked many 48ers to take on roles in his government.  Carl Schurz was one of the more well-known military figures, but there were many others. 

A couple of years ago, soon after my wife Michelle and I arrived, or better said, returned to serve in Germany, we visited an exhibit at the Haus der Geschichte in Stuttgart.  Frankly, the story of the Revolution of 1848 is not well-known in the United States.  I thought I was fairly well-informed about both German history and most aspects of the German-American relationship.  That day, however, I learned a lot.

In my opinion, the stories of the 48ers are reminders of the broader partnership between our two nations and the history we share.  As I know from my own experience as a high school exchange student in northern Germany, ours is a partnership between people.  As a result of that exchange trip, I decided to become a diplomat.  In the timeline of German-American history, Americans and Germans have often inspired each other – in many ways, both personal as in my case, but also more sweeping. 

For example, let’s talk about the media – one of the causes of the 48ers.

The United States played a crucial role in the establishment of a free press in Germany’s early post World War II history.  Germany and the United States derive their strength from constitutions that guarantee freedom of the press and freedom of opinion.  The pluralistic nature of our engaged political cultures, our robust economies, and our vibrant societies drives our transatlantic community; and the media play an enormous role in all of those areas

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut, or DAI in Heidelberg to witness how both experienced and budding journalists are addressing the challenges and opportunities of our times.  The title of the conference was “Fake News, Enlightenment and Democracy in the Digital News Age.”  Billed as a TechForum, the event included a Hackathon where young journalists worked with coders and ‘techies’ to design apps to increase transparency.  It also included media literacy workshops for high school students.  An illustrious panel of American and German journalists also took the time to discuss the challenges of the digital news age.  Tellingly, at the beginning of their remarks, two of the four U.S. speakers pulled out dog-eared copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but these rights are also codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The First Amendment is part of our Bill of Rights.  In the U.S., the press is sometimes called the fourth branch of government.  An important function of the press is to inform: to help citizens understand the often-complicated processes of government, and to make people aware of how decisions made at the highest levels will affect them.

In the United States, as in Germany, the press fosters active debate.  Leaders committed to democracy may not like having their policies challenged publicly, but will uphold the right of the press to do so.  That was obviously not the case in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 when the King of Prussia stated in public that only God and not the people or any legislative body could decide upon his crown.

Today, in both of our two countries, we believe that government exists to serve its citizens.  When citizens are at the center of a political system, an independent and free media is indispensable.

Respect for a free press, the rule of law, and judicial independence are sources of strength and stability.  Laws that restrict media operations pose a challenge to international partnerships and an impediment to global stability.  The open, free flow of information is one of the cornerstones of democracy.  That is a fact of history – in Germany, the United States, and around the world.

Technology also continuously changes the way in which news and information circulate.  That, too, is a fact of history.  Today, we live in an era of what experts call hybrid influencing.   The range of methods and activities is wide as we see, for example, in how ISIS uses the Internet to attract followers and financing.   We need to be aware of these challenges.

The economic realities of the digital age also pose threats to the integrity and independence of a free and transparent press. 

Some might say that this is due in part to what is described as the “post-factual” world we live in. Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  This is not a new concept.  Opinion is often framed by what ‘feels’ true and what correlates with people’s pre-existing set of beliefs, but technology has intensified and accelerated the problem. 

One thing is certain: we are safer when our governments and our people cooperate to advance shared goals.  We are only as strong as our confidence in our values; and that includes, as the 48ers would have said, confidence in a resilient and reliable media landscape. 

According to a recent poll, 40 percent of Americans say they can recall an incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one involving a perception of one-sidedness or inaccuracies.  But what happens when we, as information consumers, do not notice that we are being deceived?   

The changes we are living through can amplify the power of those who wish to mislead, but this only makes uncovering and sharing the truth more important.

Democratic societies are not infallible, but they are accountable – thanks to an open exchange of ideas and an informed citizenry.   That’s what Mathilde Anneke and Carl Schurz believed; and it is what we believe today.

This was the conclusion of the journalists attending the Heidelberg TechForum I mentioned earlier.  The closing panel of German journalists commented on what they had been able to observe about the state of American journalism – and whether those trends were applicable to Germany.  The observations we took away were threefold.  First, the importance of standards and transparency and citing if not the actual sources, documenting the journalistic process in a fair and objective fashion.  Second, the importance of applying those standards to investigative journalism – not just in the field of corporate misdoings, as is often the case in Germany, but to broader social issues.  And finally, the potential impact of the slow disappearance of small-town newspapers and media outlets.  Again, I can’t help but thinking that what Mathilde Anneke and Carl Schurz would have agreed. 

I have focused today on freedom of the press – one of the values that the 48ers held dear.  However, their influence can also be felt in the structure of civic society across America – not only in our local newspapers, but also our kindergartens and schools, our city parks and playgrounds, and our local theaters and orchestras.   

In my own experience, during my time as Chargé, I have had many opportunities to sit down and talk with German citizens across the spectrum of society.  There are no easy answers to the tough challenges we face both at home and on the international stage.  Invariably, however, I find these discussions to be stimulating and encouraging.  Why?  Because these interactions show that we care – deeply – about the same issues, even if we sometimes differ in our approach.  It also shows that we care about the U.S.-German relationship.   For me, learning more about the Revolution of 1848 and the 48ers since my visit to the Haus der Gescichte in Stuttgart two years ago has made me realize even more vividly how much Germans and Americans have in common – in no small measure perhaps because of the significant impact of beliefs, language, values, and traditions of Germans on American culture. 

I really wish I could stay longer here today and learn more about the long-term impact of the Revolution of 1848 on our transatlantic relationship.  Unfortunately, however, I have a plane to catch for an event later today in Duesseldorf.  I wish you all an interesting conference.  I would like to thank you for your kind attention.  Melinda, I do have time, however, for a few questions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=YEug8Z8QkOA

https://de.usembassy.gov/rebels-democrats/