“Today we are laying the cornerstone of the American Memorial Library. It is to be open to all who desire to enter and learn what men of all nations and all beliefs have thought and written. It is the freedom to learn, to study, to seek the truth. This is the essence of a free society. This is the source of our greatest strength.”
It’s the year 1952 – a hot June day in West Berlin. The city’s mayor, Ernst Reuter; U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John McCloy; and American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, are laying the cornerstone for the first American public library in Germany, the Amerika Gedenkbibliothek (American Memorial Library). In his speech, Acheson not only gives hope to the people of Berlin – who live in a divided city after a horrendous war – he also delivers a message that is perhaps more topical than ever.
Ask any Native Studies scholar in Europe, and they will be well aware of the European fascination with Native peoples of North America – a fascination that can be traced back to the novels of 19th century writer Karl May who furthered the noble savage stereotype. The preeminent scholar for Native Studies, Hartmut Lutz, even coined a term for it: Indianthusiasm. When we heard about the 8th Indianer Inuit Festival in Stuttgart from February 6-9, 2020, two questions came to mind: Would this Indianthusiasm come to life or be deconstructed at the festival? And is “Indianer” even a term that should still be used in German-speaking countries?
So we packed our bags and took the 5½-hour train ride from Lüneburg to Stuttgart to investigate. The festival’s program was quite extensive, encompassing documentaries, short films, feature films, children’s films, and music videos produced and directed by Indigenous artists from North America and beyond. Apart from visiting the film screenings, we also encountered fascinating people who gave us an inkling of the impressive variety of contemporary Native artistic expression.
“[This] again proves my theory that Germans love David Hasselhoff,” concludes Norm Macdonald on his Saturday Night Live segment “Weekend Update” in the early 90s. The crowd roars with laughter, the punchline has become a favorite among them for quite a while. “Those silly Germans,” Macdonald’s eyes seems to say.
Over twenty years later, the joke might not be remembered but the sentiment certainly persists. Many Germans complain on their travel blogs about getting asked about “The Hoff” while traveling around the USA. Some of them barely know who he is. Indeed, today’s young adults might only faintly remember Hasselhoff for running around in red shorts, talking to cars, and having his drunken misdemeanors captured on camera. This has not always been the case.
During the 1980s, both of Hasselhoff’s shows, Knight Rider and Baywatch, were largely celebrated in Germany. That is to say, not only in Germany. Baywatch was exported into 144 countries with over a billion people worldwide sitting in front of their TVs every week. His shows featured elements that were exciting for German viewers: futuristic technology and attractive young actors in very little clothing on sunny beaches. “The Hoff” consequently made his way into German magazines for teens – like Bravo and Mädchen – but so did John Travolta and Patrick Swayze. What made Hasselhoff so different?
It was in the late afternoon on November 22, 2018. Even by New England standards, the weather was cold and blustery. Outside of a dormitory at the university where I teach, I met up with a German student who spent the 2018 fall semester as a Fulbright exchange student at my institution. My family had him over for dinner before, and, as he had no place to go for Thanksgiving, we invited him to spend the holiday dinner at our house along with a few other friends. When I picked him up, he was clearly surprised as the dormitory and the university appeared completely abandoned. I explained to him that Thanksgiving was ‘the’ big family event in the United States and that extended families are more likely to get together during this holiday than for Christmas or the Fourth of July.
The dinner table – resplendent with a large roasted turkey, mash potatoes, various breads and greens, as well as sweet potato and cranberry dishes – reminded me of my first Thanksgivings in 1993. I had just arrived in the U.S. and was looking forward to my job as a German language assistant at a small liberal arts college. Since those days, I have often wondered about the various meanings that Americans ascribe to the holiday and the sometimes ambiguous and even contested relationship that many have with Thanksgiving. As a historian, I am fascinated by how the history that surrounds the holiday is often ignored or sanitized by many in mainstream American society. In fact, Native Americans tend to have an entirely different perspective on Thanksgiving, but more about that later.
In honor of the 30thanniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American Studies Blog will remember this spectacular event in history through the eyes of people from around the world during the next few weeks.
When Everything Changed
“Your friend Jörg called. There’s something going on at the border.” “What border, the Hungarian?” I was taking off my coat thinking of the pictures I’d seen of Hungarian border patrols cutting the wire fence and letting East Germans through only a few months before. “He said you should turn on the TV.” And so I did, and there they were, the celebrating Berliners climbing on top of the wall, welcoming stunned East Berliners, joined in delirious joy for the first time in four decades. And here I was, almost 7,000 kilometers away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been teaching for the last four years.
On behalf of the American Studies Blog, we would like to extend our sincerest congratulations to Pune Karimi whose winning entry in the 2019 ASB contest in the category “Access America” can be read below. Although the American Studies Blog does not usually print political pieces, we felt that the winning blog voices a point of view largely absent from American politics and media, and, therefore, deserves to be heard. We hope it gives you some food for thought.
Presidential Elections 2020 – Still No Country for Indigenous People
While Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they have little desire to improve the lives of people of color or marginalized groups, Democrats have often prided themselves on fighting for the disadvantaged. Still – hardly ever have the rights of Indigenous people been a topic during the U.S. presidential elections, and it seems unlikely that this is going to change any time soon. At least that’s what it looked like during the first Democratic debates.