Of US Consul Generals and abdicated dukes

22 Jun 2022

The renowned Institute of Bavarian History at LMU is turning 75. Established shortly after the Second World War, it stands for democratic principles, internationalism, and the communication of grounded knowledge.

Kathleen Siemermann writes her dissertation about the US Consulate General in Munich. | © Mayla Joy Wind/LMU

Munich is international – and not just because of the economic boom of recent decades. Internationalism not only shapes the Bavarian here and now; it is also inscribed deeply in the history and culture of the largest state in the federal republic. “The interconnected culture of Europe over many centuries is a key component in the history of Bavaria,” says Professor Ferdinand Kramer, one of the two directors of the Institute of Bavarian History. “Exploring this intertwined history through European and international academic exchange is an important task.”

Indeed, the institute was founded in 1946 to do precisely this work. It was designed to be an intellectual bedrock for the new Free State of Bavaria and the young democracy following twelve years of National Socialist tyranny. Cosmopolitanism is therefore writ large – and so too is the institute’s travel and exchange program. For example, students are given the opportunity to undertake study trips to research institutes in universities, libraries, or archives in Florence, Paris, London, or even Washington, where a huge wealth of files on the occupation and post-war period awaits exploration by researchers from Munich.

One such intrepid researcher is Kathleen Siemermann, recently returned from Stanford, who needs to consult sources from the United States to write her dissertation about the US Consulate General in Munich. “It’s a very broad and exciting subject,” says the doctoral student. The focus of her thesis is on the history of US representation from the 1920s to the late 1970s. “An interesting aspect is a certain continuity of personnel stretching from the Weimar period to after the Second World War,” observes Siemermann. To illustrate, she points to US Consul Robert Murphy, who was already in Munich before the National Socialists took power, experienced the Beer Hall Putsch, and worked from 1945 as the highest representative of the State Department in Germany. “He dusted off his old contact books and oversaw the reconstruction period in his role.” Siemermann emphasizes: “Bavarian history in the 20th century cannot be looked at in isolation. It is woven into the history of Germany, Europe, and the world.”

Diversification of power as guiding principle

Contributing to intellectual and cultural reconstruction, so to speak, was the mission of the Institute of Bavarian History, which began its work shortly after the war under the aegis of Bavarian Minister President Wilhelm Hoegner and regional historian Max Spindler. In bombed-out Munich, the institute was initially housed together with the Main State Archives of Bavaria in the so-called Brown House – the former Nazi Party headquarters in Munich – not far from the Amerikahaus. “The Christian humanism embodied by Spindler and the socialist humanism of Hoegner entered into a sort of alliance,” explains Ferdinand Kramer. The founding fathers were guided by the conviction that democracy needs diversification of power and broad civic engagement and participation. “And that this was precisely the spirit in which young people should study.”

Having the institute and the main state archives in the one building offered ideal conditions for studying – and continues to do so at the current location in Ludwigstraße 14. Students can gain early practice in working with archival sources. “They are given a file, for example, to work on as part of an assignment. Many discoveries have already been made in this manner,” notes Ferdinand Kramer.

Clichés are quickly shed

The protagonist of Tassilo Soos dissertation is Duke William V of Bavaria | © vzign

Quick access to important sources is also a major advantage for Tassilo Soos, who, like Kathleen Siemermann, is writing his dissertation at the institute. The protagonist of his dissertation is Duke William V of Bavaria, who abdicated and ended up being retired for longer than he had ruled. “I study what he did when freed from the work of government and whether, despite everything, he took a hand in the reign of his son.” After all, says Soos, the duke continued to maintain various networks, including international ones. For his thesis, the historian is investigating various scenarios: Was the duke’s abdication after almost 20 years of rule prompted by a looming state bankruptcy? Or had he just had enough of governing? Soos thinks the latter explanation is not unreasonable: “In William’s extant letters, there are all kinds of indications that he does not want to be bothered with the business of government. Instead, he collected relics or turtles and set up various residences in which to spend his retirement.

Tassilo Soos decided to study at the institute because “Bavarian history interested me more than anything else.” The Munich native values the exchange with other doctoral students and the working conditions.

“Of course, you get the clichés of lederhosen and beer taverns when you tell people you’re studying Bavarian history,” says Tassilo Soos. “But it’s actually about connections, exchange, and a broad thematic focus.” Kathleen Siemermann, who comes from Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, echoes this sentiment: “We’re actually demonstrating that Bavarian history should always be seen in larger contexts. At the beginning, even I thought – hmm, Bavarian history, let’s have a look first. But once you dig into the subject, the clichés fall away very quickly.”

Siemermann would ideally like to remain in academia after her dissertation, but she could also picture herself going into political consulting.

The Institute of Bavarian History is also in demand as an advisory institution. “We get a lot of inquiries from state and local government bodies, from the media, and from curious members of the public. On top of our research and teaching duties, it has been very difficult at times to manage this demand – we could do with more staff here,” says Ferdinand Kramer.

Even if it is not all too easy to find – outside the building complex on Ludwigstraße, there is only a sign for the main state archives – for 75 years the Institute of Bavarian History has stood for public discourse about Bavaria as connected with the wider world. cg

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