Global Politics

Germany to Close Last American Cold War Era Cultural House

By Tom Dreisbach

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"Windows to the West" — that's how the US government described the so-called Amerika Häuser in West Germany. They were cultural and educational spaces built in the ruins of post-World War II Germany — places for Germans to learn more about America, and for America to spread a positive message about the West.

With the Cold War long over, the Bavarian state government has decided to close one of those windows. After 54 years, Munich's Amerika Haus will have to leave its home.

It's easy to see why the Amerika Haus in central Munich is one of the city's most coveted pieces of real estate. Just look out the window.

"You have to imagine that this is like Dupont Circle in Washington, only much more fancy," said Amerika Haus Director Raimund Lammersdorf.

The Bavarian government built the Haus in 1957 out of gratitude to the US for liberating Germany from Hitler. They built it what had been a center of Nazi bureaucracy.

"So we're here right in front of the library," Lammersdorf said.

After years of Nazi censorship, the Amerika Haus was one of the first free libraries Germans could visit in the post-war period. These days, the offerings are more modern including DVDs like "Mad Men".

"We have a DVD collection of those DVDs that you usually don't get here in Germany," Lammersdorf said.

An estimated 50,000 visit the Haus each year. Some to get help applying for student exchange programs in the US.

Lammersdorf opens the door to the Haus's crown jewel.

The theatre's round lights and the dark wood paneling give it a 1950s vibe. So much so that the theatre is protected as a historic place.

Here, the Haus hosts American jazz and bluegrass bands, organizes mock political debates, and shows American movies.

"There's a lot of scholarly research done on the Big Lebowski, so we had an event on that, and a lecture before and a discussion, and then later we showed the movie and we also served White Russians," Lammersdorf said.

For decades, the US government used the Amerika Haus — and others like it throughout West Germany — to promote a positive image of the United States as part of the post-war "re-education" of Germany.

"Particularly during the Cold War, it was a means of American propaganda, which happened all over the world," Lammersdorf said.

The US no longer determines the Haus's mission. Uncle Sam stopped footing the bill in 1997, eight years after the Berlin Wall came down.

But some dedicated supporters with a sense of history decided to save Munich's Amerika Haus. They secured funding from the Bavarian government, and corporate sponsors. The US government still provides small ad hoc grants.

But now one of the few remaining Amerika Hauser faces a new threat.

The Bavarian Government wants to evict it from the historic building and give the space to a German engineering academy. Government spokeswoman Christa Malessa says the Academy is important for Bavaria educationally and economically, and this was the only building that fit its needs.

She says the fact that the US government cut funding for the Haus also played a role in the decision.

"There is no doubt that this relationship still has a strong basis," Malessa said. "But this is also about seeing what kind of activities still make sense. You could say that this relationship has achieved a sort of normalcy, compared with 30 or 40 years ago."

But many Germans feel a sense of duty when it comes to history, so the decision to evict the Haus has drawn criticism.

The Munich-based newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, called the move, "one of the greatest diplomatic mistakes the Bavarian government could have made."

The national newspaper Die Welt wrote (Gr), "This is not how you treat a friend."

The US Consul General in Munich, Conrad Tribble says he'd hoped for a different decision from the Bavarian government.

"I look at someplace like the Amerika Haus as an institution that is also a part of US national security," Tribble said.

Even though the US cut funding, Tribble says the US State Department still collaborates closely with the Haus on events, and helps coordinate exchange programs. He says these programs make a difference.

"Cause that's only way we're going to maintain these relationships that keep us safe, keep us engaged, keep our society engaged with the world in ways that our beneficial to us," Tribble said.

Still some say the Amerika Haus is an anachronism.

"It seems to me that it would be a little short-sighted to say, you know, if we don't have this Amerika Haus, therefore we don't have any more dialog with America," said Jack Janes, the executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. "Because that really would be a blind spot with regard to the enormous amount of exposure that Bavaria, in particular, has to the United States."

He notes the deep economic ties between Bavaria and America, which are not going away. The Bavarian government says it will continue to support the Haus, but it hasn't named a new location.

As Jack Janes told me, the Haus essentially achieved its goals: the wall fell, Germany reunified. So the Haus's current predicament may simply be a product of its own success.

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    The words "Amerika Haus" are emblazoned on the door to the library. When it opened in 1946, Munich's Amerika Haus provided one of the first public libraries to Germans after years of Nazi censorship. (Photo: Tom Dreisbach)

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    The library at Amerika Haus is free and open to the public and provides access to American research databases as well as a wide selection of books. (Photo: Tom Dreisbach)

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    Raimund Lammersdorf, director of Munich's Amerika Haus, stands on the stage of Christoph Peters Auditorium. (Photo: Tom Dreisbach)

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    Raimund Lammersdorf, director of Munich's Amerika Haus, stands on the stage of Christoph Peters Auditorium. (Photo: Tom Dreisbach)