Amerika Haus in Frankfurt: The First Fifty Years

From the very start, the cultural work of the Amerika Haus Frankfurt – an institution of the United States Information Service – has been embedded in the special political relationship between the United States and Germany. The aftermath of the Nazi regime and World War II, the military occupation and the nascent Cold War engendered a milieu in which the Amerika Haus played a central role in Frankfurt’s cultural landscape. Immense public interest in an American reading room, set up in the basement of the stock exchange just a few months after the end of the war in November 1945, led to the opening of the Amerika Haus at Taunusanlage 11 on May 22, 1946. As the first of what would be at one point 45 such establishments in major West German cities, the Amerika Haus offered a library as well as an extensive calendar of events. After several changes of location, the Frankfurt City Council decided to build a permanent home for the Amerika Haus at Staufenstraße 1 at the Rothschild Park where it was opened in May 1957.

The establishment of “Amerika Häuser” was part of the American military government’s efforts to familiarize the German population – by means of “re-education” – with western ideals of democracy and human rights after twelve years of Nazi domination. A further aim of the Amerika Haus was to provide Germans with information about culture, society and politics in the United States. As was the case in other West German cities, the reception by the people of Frankfurt and the surrounding area was overwhelmingly positive. In the immediate post-war period, the public had next to no access to reading materials. The bombings of the Second World War had destroyed libraries, bookstores, the publishing infrastructure and private book collections. In addition, there was a great public thirst for American literature which had been suppressed by Nazi censorship and propaganda. At first only available in Amerika Haus libraries, American books finally reached a mass audience at the end of the 1940’s. Translations began to appear on the German market expecially in the form of inexpensive Rowohlt paperbacks. Apart from rediscovering the classics by authors such as Hermann Melville, Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, the German reading public took a great interest in modern and contemporary writers such as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck. The popularity of American literature grew with the presentation of the Nobel Prize to Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck in 1950, 1954, and 1962 respectively. In 1947, Thornton Wilder was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Publishers Association. His play “Our Town” was produced for the Frankfurt City Theater by Fritz Rémond starring the popular German actor Siegfried Lowitz. In 1954, the Amerika Haus presented Thornton Wilder in person at a packed auditorium at Frankfurt University.

In the early days of the Amerika Haus, events also reflected a concern with non-American writers, artists and musicians who had been suppressed by the Nazis, such as Franz Kafka, Paul Klee and Paul Hindemith. The event calendar included film showings, language courses and painting, theater and reading workshops for children. These activities filled a vacuum in Frankfurt’s destroyed cultural landscape in the post-war years. With the reconstruction of the cultural infrastructure, theaters, concert halls, museums, movie theaters, adult education centers and private language schools reassumed functions from which the Amerika Haus then partially withdrew.

The Amerika Haus catered to an America-friendly population until the mid 1960s. Towards the end of that decade, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War became one of the central themes of student protest. In Frankfurt – one of the main arenas of the revolt – the Amerika Haus was no longer perceived by the rebelling students as a cultural institution, but as a political symbol. The initial dialogue between Frankfurt students and representatives of the Amerika Haus, the American Consulate General and the American Embassy in Bonn ended in confrontation. At the same time, students borrowed songs, language and protest forms of the American anti-war movement such as sit-ins, go-ins and teach-ins. In September 1967, more than one hundred students, under the leadership of Rudi Dutschke and KD Wolff, national chairman of the Socialist Student League (SDS), carried out a “go-in” by bursting into a panel discussion on the Vietnam War at the Amerika Haus. In the following years, several militant attacks were directed against the building, one of them heavily damaging the library. The arms race and the stationing of Pershing missiles in the 1980’s and the Gulf War in 1992 revived criticism of American foreign policy among certain segments of the German public. However, no longer playing such a central and symbolic role – certainly not for a new generation of protesters –  the Amerika Haus did not again become the aim of demonstrations or violence. On a more fundamental level, the end of the Cold War changed the political conditions under which the Amerika Haus operates. One of the effects was the disappearance of the American military from Frankfurt resulting form the general drawdown of U.S. troops. Now the Amerika Haus and the American Consulate General are the predominant official representatives of the United States.

Events and programs over the last few years at the Amerika Haus have born witness to the profound changes taking place in American culture and society. Women and ethnic minorities have been breaking down the traditional structures in business, politics, and universities, and have come to win acceptance to an extent previously unknown. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Toni Morrison in 1993 indicated international recognition of this development. The Amerika Haus presented prominent American intellectuals and writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Postman, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, but also an increasing number of authors, artists, musicians and film-makers from the Native-American, African-American, Hispanic and feminist communities. The diversity of ethnic and regional cultures in the United States as portrayed at the Amerika Haus really seems to have hit home in a city like Frankfurt. It is considered the most “American” of German cities, not only because of its many postmodern skyscrapers, but also because of its multicultural character. American culture enjoys a wide-spread presence in the most important cultural institutions in Frankfurt. Therefore, the Amerika Haus is no longer the sole focal point for the dissemination of American culture in the city.

However, what makes the Amerika Haus special, is the fact that it presents the entire panoply of American culture. In contrast, for example, to a museum which only presents a single genre such as American art, the spectrum at the Amerika Haus includes art exhibitions, concerts, readings, lectures, panel discussions, seminars, conferences as well as Information USA services provided by the Study in the USA-Infothek, the Reference Service and the Business Information Center. The wide range of topics – from art, music and literature to economics and security policy – is based on an American concept of culture which goes beyond the traditional German and European definition. It includes the fields of business, politics and the environment as well as popular culture. It is this more inclusive definition of culture which allows for interrelating many different elements in a complex contemporary and historical context.

Almost throughout its existence, the Amerika Haus has been confronted with the firmly embedded predispositions of its audience. Since its founding, the United States has been the object of German emotions and projections as almost no other country. These biases have run the entire gamut of the political and ideological spectrum oscillating between uncritical pro-Americanism and one-sided America-bashing. The current flood of impressions and information resulting from mass tourism and the dominance of American entertainment in German television stations and movie theaters is contributing as much to a superficial and stereotyped view of the United States  as did the lack of information in the past. With its extensive range of information services and programs, the Amerika Haus Frankfurt provides a sharper focus on the extremely complex and often contradictory character of American society and culture.
[Important note: This text was published by Dr. Gerhard Wiesinger in: “Deutschland. Magazine on Politics, Culture, Business and Science”, April 1996, pp. 48-51. It reflects the state of affairs in the year 1995.]