Past and Present

A Long Tradition

The study of German language and literature has been part of the university’s curriculum from its beginnings in 1869. Initially, German was one of four Western European languages taught by just one professor, Paul Pioda. In 1874, Albin Putzker became the first official professor of German language, and ten years later, with two faculty members, a distinct German Department was established. Because of the department’s small size, it offered limited courses and lacked a cohesive graduate program during its first twenty years. During this time, however, German was required for many science majors, and about one third of the student population studied the language.

The turn of the century was a time for growth in German studies. By 1907, Berkeley’s German Department boasted eight full-time faculty members, student enrollment increased, and undergraduate and graduate course options expanded. In 1908, the first dissertation was written on “Der junge Goethe und das Publikum”; dissertations on topics in Germanic Linguistics and Medieval Studies followed, and in 1923, Isabel MacInnes received a PhD with a dissertation titled “The Influence of Feminism on the German Women Novelists.”

During and after World War I, student enrollment dropped sharply and the department was criticized for the alleged pro-German sentiments of some of its faculty. Yet in the late 1920s and 1930s, there was a steady increase in student numbers, reaching a total of about 1,600 students on the eve of World War II. Despite the decline during the war years, in 1946, no fewer than 2,172 students enrolled in German courses.

After World War II, the German Department continued to expand and soon became the largest in the United States. By the mid-1960s, there were twenty-three full-time staff members and up to seventy teaching assistants. This faculty provided a liberal arts education to thousands of students, including about a hundred undergraduate majors, as well as professional training as scholars and teachers to some eighty or ninety graduate students.

Germanic Linguistics also flourished in the 1960s with its outreach to non-Germanic languages and the study of California’s American Indian languages, culminating with the arrival of Herbert Penzl, the author of the first written grammar of Pashto. The second half of the twentieth century brought American semiotics with its inherent interdisciplinary orientation to the West through its addition to Berkeley’s Germanic Linguistics curriculum and through the hosting of the first California meeting of the Semiotic Society of America. In 1994, 700 persons from 50 countries were hosted in Berkeley for the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. At that time as well Dutch Linguistics courses were established and brought under the umbrella of the Germanic Linguistics Specialization, thereby strengthening its interdisciplinary reach among the East, North, and West Germanic languages that it encompasses. To this day, the Program seeks to foster interdisciplinary initiatives in addition to teaching the curriculum essential for competence in Germanic Linguistics.


Thinking across Cultures

We are mindful of our position as a foreign language and culture department within the increasingly diverse student population of our campus where currently over 75 foreign languages are spoken and taught. What is more, German culture itself has become increasingly diversified over the past sixty years as a result of migration, European integration, and globalization.

Critically aware of this unprecedented diversification of German culture, as well as our positions both within and outside it, we attempt in our teaching, research, and advising to tap the creative energies that arise from cultural differences not only between the US and the German-speaking nations of Europe, but also among the multi-ethnic cultural communities that our students represent. In this way, the Department of German is committed to promoting thinking across cultures. We expect our students to gain a heightened sensitivity to language and its uses for the representation of difference, to questions of translation and cultural transfer, to self-reflexive theory and methodology, and the power as well as the critical potential of thinking, speaking, and writing.


Redrawing the Boundaries

A traditionally dynamic site for intellectual pursuit, the department has made important contributions to redrawing the boundaries of German studies as discipline, especially during the last three decades. In the mid-1980s, Professors Hinrich C. Seeba and Frederic Tubach initiated Berkeley’s Interdisciplinary Summer Seminars in German Studies on “National Identity,” sponsored by the DAAD and taught by Professor Anton Kaes for several years. These endeavors were seminal for the creation of three “Centers of Excellence” in the U.S., with Berkeley being the first, later renamed “Center for German and European Studies.” Our annual Berkeley Interdisciplinary German Studies Conference, organized by graduate students, grew out of these initiatives and, in 1993, began a tradition that is still continuing. During those years, the department became a laboratory for multidisciplinary research that incorporated questions of German thought and philosophy, film and media, social and political history, including discourses around gender and migration.

This cross-disciplinary lens opened literature to the broader cultural environment that nourishes it. While expanding the field, we have maintained the essential role of literature within German studies and regularly teach canonical works of German-language authors from 1200 to the present. Throughout our research, courses, and colloquia, we seek to mediate between the analysis of literature as historical product and the appreciation of literary language on its own terms; between close textual analysis and theory-driven inquiries; between high culture and popular media; and between scholarship and social engagement. Our dissertations show that we embrace diverse methodological and theoretical perspectives. What unites us is our commitment — in the open spirit of UC Berkeley — to continually explore new ways of thinking about the field and our position in it.