Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by John Balz
I unexpectedly came across Horst Dippel’s Germany and the American Revolution, 1770-1800 last September while scrolling through the OI online catalog of publications. I was only a few weeks into graduate school and wondering how serious my interest in Germans actually was. Fast forward to the present and I can say no book had a greater influence on year one, showing me that early American histories could end in Germany and that traveling to the country sooner rather than later in my studies could help me start figuring out what history I wanted to tell. Chuffed by where it’s taken me so far, the story of its imprint on me is much different from what I had imagined last September. It’s become a real-time lesson in contingency on the path to becoming a historian and on how to appreciate the many indirect influences on our final products.
Originally written in German in 1972 as a thesis, the Institute published an English translation five years later, complete with a foreword by R.R. Palmer. At the simplest level, the book is about the influence of ideas from the American Revolution in Germany. Dippel asked what a group of white male Germans he loosely described as “bourgeois” learned about the Revolution, how information networks brought news into central Europe, and how their own biases filtered the information they received. In the current digital media landscape of information cocoons and “alternative facts,” the research question caught my attention, if also raising an eyebrow about how a historian could answer it. Dippel argued that on the eve of the Revolutionary War, information about North America in published materials and diplomatic correspondence had still not permeated German societies widely, and what had found its way in was often in error. (Informal networks and booster materials designed to promote migration were not part of his study.) Once fighting began in 1775, Dippel argued, the details of the Revolutionary War reached German lands more often than the details of the American Revolution’s political ideas like “equality,” “liberty,” and “federalism.” Into this void, bourgeois Germans gave meaning to these ideas based on their own cultural understandings of and aspirations for political rights and power in German territories that ultimately did not match how Anglo-American male leaders used and understood them.
For anyone who has read even a handful of studies about Germans in early America, one of Germany and the American Revolution’s immediately noticeable differences is its narrative structure. Dippel does not follow the familiar two-part story that starts in Germany and moves west to North America or the Atlantic basin. He effectively reverses it, exploring how the American Revolution shaped ideas and events back in Europe. When I had a chance to speak to Dippel recently while writing this post, he remarked that the book’s widest readership was among U.S. historians. Some reviewers put it in conversation with Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution, which marks it, like Palmer, as a precursor to Atlantic history. Yet in our conversation, Dippel remarked, “for me, the book is about German history.” Indeed it sits within German intellectual historiography and draws on nearly 1,000 sources about the American Revolution scattered across German archives.
Right away, Dippel’s book prompted me to think about whether I had interests in aspects of German society or whether my interest in Germans stemmed mostly from my own family tree. It also got me thinking about “east” as an ending rather than a beginning. What sorts of early America stories end in Germany? How could I study them? For starters, Dippel reawakened for me the old historiography of “Hessians.” I place “Hessians” in quotes because the soldiers and officers along with wives and children who traveled with them weren’t actually all from Hesse. I quickly learned of at least two ongoing projects, one by Friederike Baer in the United States about “Hessians” in the American Revolution broadly and another by Maria Diedrich in Germany about the roughly 100-200 African Americans who joined “Hessian” forces and traveled back to Hesse-Kassel after the war. Desertion rates among “Hessian” soldiers in the American Revolution were in line with other wars. Most “Hessians” went home after the war. What happened to them and their families when they did? Did ordinary soldiers “profit” from their time abroad? Were there “Hessian” families who served in Atlantic campaigns throughout the Age of Revolution? How did deployments shape social realities in Brunswick, Hesse-Kassel, Hesse-Hanau, Waldeck, Ansbach-Bayreuth, and Anhalt-Zerbst?
Of course, such a project is too bulky for the requirements of one’s first two years of graduate study. For starters, I needed more precise questions, and since I couldn’t claw my way through German script even newly digitized sources would remain out of reach. But I could start with two manageable tasks. First, I could carve out a different “Hessian” project that would meet the requirements of second-year thesis. Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause had recently highlighted the swift transformation of “Hessian” troops from barbarous, foreign invaders to idealized models of self-reliant white male citizenship in the propagation networks of the Revolution’s leaders. So I began to look at “Hessian” accounts with an eye toward their descriptions of Anglo norms about masculinity and femininity in any contexts about self-reliance. Second, I could figure out a way to get to Germany to improve my German. So I applied for a language course in the university town of Marburg, which lies in the German state of Hessen.
Here is where a simple story of A-leads-to-B cracks apart. The more I read “Hessian” journals and letters, the less they motivated me to spend years following “Hessian” lives back into Germany. Plus, the “soldier trade” as an important social and political institution wasn’t the part of Germany that I wanted to say something about. This bode poorly for a summer in Marburg, I feared. Fortunately, I was dead wrong. As the “Hessians” receded, the German language itself became a subject with historical potential. Marburg is a university town, but I was not at the university. I was at a language school full of young people from around the world preparing for various language proficiency tests (similar to the TOEFL test for English) in order to study or live in Germany. This at the time when the country, like the U.S., is embroiled in political struggles about immigration and race. They fused together in July when a football star with Turkish ancestry quit the National team, writing on Twitter, “I am a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” triggering an viral stream of comments under the hashtag #MeTwo about discrimination in school.
Attending a language school in this political climate led me to spend more time thinking about the historical connections between politics and language in my research. Last fall, I had seen language as an important tool to access historiographies and source materials for another interest like “Hessian” families. Going forward, language, and in my specific case German, appears to be an interest in its own right. How children and adults learn languages. How languages change over time and when they come into contact. What the influence of orthography is on vernacular and vice versa. Starting to turn these big themes back into specific historiographical questions is the goal for the upcoming year. It’s why I will have to rely on a broader community of historians (starting with advisers) to help along the way.
In a year, I’ve moved from Germans to German. Though not directly because of Germany and the American Revolution, Dippel’s book has clearly had an impact. when I listen to other historians describe the path of a project, big or small, I sometimes catch stories of how unexpected discoveries became a pivot point to move in a different direction. Historians may stay with these materials for shorter and longer periods of time. In an interview about his recently published Children of Uncertain Fortune, Daniel Livesay describes beginning a dissertation project with a “vaguely conceived study of abolitionists use of racial rhetoric” that shifted to one about migration while reading through abolitionist pamphlets in Britain. At last year’s OI Annual Meeting in Ann Arbor, Tiya Miles described how her initial interest in Michigan abolitionist Laura Haviland culminated in the recently published Dawn of Detroit about slavery and the origins of Detroit. If a history project is a process, how can historians recognize and appreciate the books and sources that move them, if not directly forward, at least by way of tacking or turning? Do historians have a name for these things? Who knows whether another book would have gotten me to where I am today. What I can say is this: I doubt I would have gotten to Germany this summer without Germany and the American Revolution. Years from now that may be its legacy for me. By then its intellectual influence might seem minimal. However, as a book that literally took me to Marburg, it deserves recognition.
John Balz attends the University of Madison-Wisconsin and is interested in language, especially German, in Vast Early America.
Maria Diedrich, “From American Slaves to Hessian Subjects: Silenced Black Narratives of the American Revolution,” in Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914, eds., Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013): 92-112.
Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).
Holger Thomas Gräf, Andreas Hedwig, and Annegret Wenz-Haubfleisch, eds., Die „Hessians“ im Amerikanischen Unabhängigkeitskrieg (1776–1783); Neue Quellen, neue Medien, neue Forschungen (Marburg: Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Hessen, 2014).
Friederike Baer, “The Decision to Hire German Troops in the War of American Independence: Reactions in Britain and North America, 1774-1776,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13(1), 111-150.