Fritz Kusch is searching U.S. archives for evidence that protectionism and social policy are intertwined. In our interview, he takes stock of his initial findings and recalls scribbled notes by William II that he tried to decipher for his master's thesis.
Dear Fritz, you've been at the CRC for about half a year now - what did you do before that?
I studied history as a major and political science as a minor in Freiburg and graduated with a Bachelor's degree. During this time, I was also at a university in Istanbul, where I got to know and appreciate the Turkish language. I also started to study Turkish and Ottoman history. This then led me to start a second Bachelor's programme after graduating from Freiburg: Turkish Studies at the Free University of Berlin.
Parallel to your Turkology studies, you also completed a Master's degree ...
I did a Master's in History with a focus on North America. US history has been a passion of mine for a long time. There are very few points of contact between North American and Turkish-Ottoman history, but I actually consider that more of an advantage: it is definitely rewarding to look at completely different topics and contexts. This often gives you a new, fresh perspective on the individual topics.
What was your Master's thesis about?
About two statues of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, erected in Washington in 1910 and in Potsdam in 1911. The subject combines the history of remembrance, migration and diplomacy. Steuben was a Prussian general who fought in the American War of Independence and became an ethnic hero for the ethnic German population in America. A kind of symbolic representative for the status of German Americans in the American immigrant society. Around the turn of the century, several ethnic groups in the USA campaigned for statues of their respective Ethnic Heroes to be erected in public spaces. In Lafayette Square behind the White House in Washington, for example, two statues of French generals from the War of Independence were erected. Other groups, such as the German-Americans, noticed this and demanded a statue of Steuben, which was also passed by Congress in 1902. Foreign powers, such as the German Empire, also noticed this and entered into this somewhat convoluted process of statue erections and gifts, whereby the prestige rivalry of ethnic groups also became a diplomatic prestige rivalry. The German Empire gave the USA a statue of Frederick the Great: a poorly thought-out gift that also went down rather badly in the USA - after all, Frederick was an absolute monarch! The American government did not erect the statue in the city, but very discreetly in the War Academy. In addition, the erection was delayed for more than two years; in other words, the statue was hidden away. It was not until 1910 that the German-Americans received their Steuben statue, which they and certainly the US government understood as a sign of their belonging to the American nation. The USA then in turn gave a copy of the statue to the German Reich as a diplomatic counter-gift to the Frederick statue. This copy was inaugurated in Potsdam in 1911. There you can see how German-American prestige aspirations intersected with German-American diplomacy. Moreover, the same Steuben statue was charged with very different meanings in Potsdam and Washington: For German-Americans, both statues honoured their Ethnic Hero and thus indirectly actually the group of German-Americans as a whole, but for the German Reich government, the Potsdam statue was a symbol of a supposed German-American friendship that had always existed.
How did you research the details of this story?
Unfortunately, I couldn't travel to Washington, so I researched everything in Berlin archives. My sources were mainly dispatches between the embassy in Washington and the government in Berlin, which I was able to see in the political archives of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I also researched in the Secret State Archives. Among other things, I found out that the statues were clearly more important to the Kaiser and his staff than one would assume. Wilhelm the Second dealt with them in quite some detail: The idea for the Frederick statue goes directly back to him, he personally chose the site for the Steuben statue in Potsdam, he provided his court architect to redesign the square, and he wrote whimsical comments (which I was able to decipher to some extent, sometimes more, sometimes less) in the margins of the draft dispatches.
It must be quite fascinating to hold documents in your hand on which Wilhelm the Second scribbled with his fountain pen ...
Absolutely, although Wilhelm the Second did not use ink, but a pencil. Officials and diplomats at the time had a rather bureaucratised style of writing, which of course didn't apply to Wilhelm. This made it very easy to see what the Emperor himself had written: he simply wrote off the cuff.
A few weeks ago you were in the USA to do research for your work at the CRC. Where were you exactly what were you looking for?
I was in the US for two and a half months, mainly in Washington, but then also in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Hyde Park, New York. Our project investigates the connection between social policy and protectionism in the USA and Argentina, and I am responsible for the period 1890 to 1970 in the USA. The question was: Can I also demonstrate this connection, which is established in the social science discussion, by means of historians? I would need to find corresponding documents that show that the political actors actually discussed this connection, e.g. raising tariffs in order to fund social welfare programmes. I looked for it - but I didn't find anything on this, or only in rudimentary terms.
Where did you look for evidence?
I went to a whole series of archives. The Library of Congress, the Hagley Archives in Wilmington, the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, the New York Public Library and the archives of the umbrella union AFL-CIO, housed at the University of Maryland. I spent most of my time at the National Archives in Washington, or College Park, looking through the files of the Departments of Commerce, State and Labour. It's easy to follow customs policy because the responsibilities are clear. This is not the case with social policy, which makes research immensely difficult. At the federal level, there was virtually no universal social policy until the New Deal. There was veterans' care, which is roughly related to tariffs through its funding. Since the 1960s, the US has had Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a social programme that provides assistance to the workforces of companies facing hardship from international competition: Benefits included retraining, relocation assistance and the like. That's interesting and hardly explored by historians so far, but I wasn't sure I could build a dissertation on it.
When did you realise that you weren't really finding what you were looking for?
Even before I had travelled to the USA. I had looked at the archive catalogues beforehand.
To what extent are the files there digitally searchable?
In the USA, this works very well. The catalogues are almost always online. In the National Archives, for very central files, the entire documents were scanned and are available online. So I can read them from Bremen. But that only applies to extremely important documents. For the main part of the collections, at least the Finding Aids are available digitally. Most of the time, you can see what's in an archive box down to the level of the individual folders. It says, for example, that the folders contain the minutes of Committee XY in a certain period, and if you're lucky, there's even a paragraph on what was discussed.
So I already had my doubts in Bremen that I would find enough material. At the same time, it was clear that I would never be able to look at all the material there - hundreds of archive boxes with hundreds of pages each. It would be unrealistic to look at all of it. Therefore, before my trip, I had thought about looking for something else. That's how it turned out: now I'm studying protectionist pressure groups, i.e. organisations that campaign for high tariffs. In the historical literature, these organisations do appear, but they are usually on the margins. The literature on tariff policy is often written by political scientists and economists. Neither have paid much attention to pressure groups. My initial research, however, showed that they were extremely engaged. Since the 1880s, there was a strong effort to bring protectionism into the public domain. This was also pursued with a lot of money, for example by the iron and steel industry.
Did these calls for more protectionism come only from the employers' associations or also from trade unions?
The associations are pretty clearly about the interests of capital. The largest federation I am researching is the American Protective Tariff League, founded in 1885. Together with a student assistant, I have already taken a closer look at who the actors were in it: Capitalists and Republican Party politicians. Tariff policy was partisan politics in those days: the Democrats were for low tariffs, the Republicans for high tariffs. When the American Protective Tariff League was founded, heavy labour conflicts were raging in the US, so industrialists were anything but worker-friendly. This is not to say that there were not protectionist sentiments in labour or that there were not attempts to win workers over to protectionist positions. Surprisingly, the interests of American workers appeared relatively frequently in the pressure groups' pamphlets and leaflets: The American standard of living and the relatively high wages compared to Europe depend, so the argument goes, on the protection provided by high tariffs. If this protection were to break down, the USA would be flooded with cheap European imports, as a result of which the American worker would no longer be able to enjoy this "great" prosperity. In the tariff issue, therefore, there is alignment of interests between corporations and workers, at least that is the reasoning. In addition, there is often the classic argument of infant industry: young industries must be developed under the protection of high tariffs; as soon as the industry is competitive, tariff protection is no longer needed. However, this argument became increasingly obsolete towards the end of the 19th century, as US industry was superior to European competition in many areas.
So from the US perspective, there were definitely good reasons to reduce protectionism.
Absolutely, especially of course in sectors that had strong export interests. Incidentally, this also led to tensions within the Republican camp: Some industrialists demanded lower tariffs so that the US would get better export opportunities in return. I follow the American Protective Tarrif League from the 1880s to around 1960, during which time its political environment changes radically: the USA begins to dismantle protectionism from 1934 onwards and quickly becomes the driving force behind international trade liberalisation after the Second World War. Even before that, there were first attempts at tariff reform. The US transformed itself from a high-tariff to a low-tariff country. I am curious to see how organisations like the American Protective Tarrif League have dealt with this change. These are, after all, organisations that have boasted of dominating the public debate and even putting presidents in office. They saw themselves at the levers of power. A few decades later, they are in total opposition. I want to look at whether and how the framing of the argument changed as a result. How much of the arguments still remain? How does the ideology change? What personnel continuities are there, which industries remain or become active? Do workers and trade unions join in at some point? I am also interested in the means of agitation. I would like to examine how attempts were made to popularise a rather technical and abstract topic like customs policy in such a way that it appeals to wider circles. This naturally leads to the question of why this worked better at some times and almost not at all at others.
Have you been able to collect enough material yet, or do you have to return to the archives again later?
Of course I would like to go on another archive tour. But I have already collected a lot of material - probably more than I can even read in detail. I'm currently working on my dissertation proposal: When I get to the detailed planning, it could be that I realise: There are still some gaps here or there that I need to fill in a second round of research. But before I set off on a second trip, it's the turn of the other project members.Contact:Fritz Kusch
CRC 1342: Global Dynamics of Social Policy, Faculty of Social Science
Phone: +49 421 218-58581