Transnational Institutions

Transatlantic Exchange Processes in the Twentieth Century

This section offers short entries on a variety of institutions that supported transnational networks and fostered transatlantic transfers. The migrants featured in the Transatlantic Careers section frequently helped to promote transcultural exchanges and transfers within the context of such transnational institutions throughout the postwar Atlantic World. Academic research and education, urban development, business, and consumer culture are examples of the many areas of society that were influenced by flows of knowledge which transcended national boundaries. Beyond individual migrants, public and private institutions frequently played a central role in facilitating these processes, serving as vital nodes in a broader network of exchange.

Transnational Institutions

Transnational institutions can take a variety of forms and the small selection presented here is in many ways eclectic. A few are large, well-known internationally active organizations such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. They funded scientific and professional exchanges in numerous fields, but were often also tied to the larger mission of Cold War American cultural diplomacy. State institutions, such as the European Recovery Program were another significant part of transatlantic transfer processes and frequently drew on the expertise of migrants with transatlantic careers in various professions. A variety of smaller and lesser known organizations, such as the International Federation for Housing and Planning also provided forums for professional and intellectual exchange, funded research trips, gathered and published information about international developments, and facilitated exchange in specific areas. 

The organizational structure of these institutions was not necessarily always international. Many were firmly rooted in a national context, but still played a vital role for transatlantic exchange. The New York Museum of Modern Art is one example of an American institution that significantly strengthened the connections between Europe and the United States in the fields of art and architecture throughout the twentieth century. By organizing exhibitions both in the United States and abroad, the museum helped lay the groundwork work for the transnational development of the modernist movement after 1933. The Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne serves as an example of a different kind of institution linking both sides of the Atlantic in the fields of architecture, urban design, and planning. Nazi persecution and World War II had forced many members of national CIAM chapters to emigrate and CIAM evolved into a truly transnational organization, with international committees working on specific issues. Central to our selection of institutions is therefore their role in creating or maintaining networks and conduits of transnational exchange.

Networks often emerged around institutions in very specific moments in time. The persecution of European Jews during the 1930s and 40s gave rise to organizations such as the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars which assisted émigrés from various professional and academic backgrounds. In the United States, the New York World’s Fair provides an example for an institution that was a nodal point in bringing together scores of émigré architects, product designers, but also intellectuals and those interested in America’s emerging consumer economy. The war, finally, involved many migrants in U. S. military and intelligence efforts and the Office of Strategic Services provided an example for an institutional framework within which many émigrés were able to contribute  their expertise on specific aspects of their European homelands and began to voice their opinions about a postwar reconstruction of the continent.

A final set of institutions formed very much the core of the Cold War Atlantic community. On the one hand, there were networking organizations such as the Atlantik-Brücke which aimed to foster elite ties between the United States and Western Europe. Their agenda frequently included the proliferation of a shared set of “Western Values.” On the other hand we included organizations such as the Assembly of Captive European Nations which brought together Eastern European refugees exiled by communist regimes. Their voices, amplified by U.S. government support, also added to American perspectives on a divided Cold War Europe.   


Our Concept of Transfers

Our broad definition of transnational transfer thus includes the import, export, and circulation of knowledge and practices across national and cultural boundaries. People, goods, ideas, concepts, and institutions are able to move across borders and can thus become objects or agents of transcultural exchanges and transfers, adapting them from the context of one society to that of another. Our research project primarily looks at transfer processes involving Europe and the United States in four research areas: urban planning, social sciences, consumer culture, and business relations. We ask what crossed the Atlantic, how it changed in the process, and how the transferred material was received or what impact it made.

Transatlantic transfers—we hope to demonstrate by focusing on institutions in multi-polar networks—were not a one-way street even at the height of the “American Century.” While several of the featured institutions seem emblematic   for America’s “hegemonic role” in the postwar decades, most attest to the ways in which Americans continued to pay attention to European art and design trends, drew on the expertise of European-born scholars in many fields, and included European voices in their Cold War policy. Generally, transfer is a narrower concept than influence. More than a simple diffusion of ideas, transfer processes always involve selective appropriations and transformations which make the transfers amenable to the needs and circumstances of the receiving society.[1] Regarding the content of exchange, it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of transfers across borders, as recent studies on the impact of forced emigration to the United States or on the “Americanization” of postwar Europe have shown. The impact of products, ideas, concepts and migrants in different cultural contexts can be fully understood only by taking processes of adaptation, localization, and resistance into account.[2] While the transfers discussed here are often closely linked to one individual, it is important to keep in mind that migrants themselves are usually affected by the relocation process. They soak up new influences while building on their cultural backgrounds, and change their new environment.[3] Thus, the history of transfers is rarely one of simple copy-and-paste across borders, but rather transfers are fluid, touching multiple national or cultural contexts.

The Project in the Context of Transnational History

Today, Americans as well as Europeans live in a globally interconnected world. The European Union makes a strong mark on the economic and legal decisions of its member states, multinational businesses have broken out of the frame of national markets, and students look for educational opportunities within an international context. States exist within interdependent networks that cross borders and affect processes and decisions on every level of society. This is an accepted fact of life in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Historians, however, have only recently begun to pay close attention to the multitude of external influences and connections which shaped and entangled the histories of all nation states since their inception in the nineteenth century.

Scholars in the United States and in Europe have begun to question the national focus of historical research.[4] They have broadened the analytical frame for their research beyond national borders and look for more complex explanations of historical processes. It is important to note that the nation state remains a central point of reference for this approach. Nevertheless, transnational history is responding to historiographical traditions that portrayed national developments as self-contained or even “exceptional.”[5] The core assumption of transnational history, understood in this way, is that the history of a nation “must be studied in a framework larger than itself.”[6] This means that in order to fully understand the history of the United States, for example, one has to look beyond its land borders, across the Atlantic, and into the Pacific World. Work on the history of transfers has been crucial to such endeavors.

Other approaches towards the transnationalization of history go further and connect with new trends in migration research. Some studies focus on so-called transmigrants and on specific transnational communities, which exist outside the framework of nation states altogether. Transmigrants are deeply rooted within communities in more than one state. They frequently alternate between these communities and cross national borders in the process. Their professional as well as private lives build to a large degree on these transnational relations.[7] Migration history has only recently emphasized these trends and scholars were able to identify transnational spheres which have resulted from cross-border migration in the modern era.[8] Transatlantic Perspectives aims to connect these different strands of transnational history by looking at the exchanges facilitated by transmigrants and the impact they had on historical developments in Europe and the United States.

Atlantic Crossings: Exchanges Throughout the Twentieth Century

Transfer and exchange processes between Europe and the United States date back to the colonial era. Recently, the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century have received considerable attention from scholars — even more than the years after World War II. An important impetus for the discussion of the transnational frame of local developments as well as the intense transatlantic exchange came from research on the American Progressive movement. American and European responses to the social questions of industrialization and urbanization were shaped by exchange and discussion across national borders. Professional transnational networks formed to address issues such as city planning, sanitation, hygiene, and workers’ insurance. In many cases, European concepts were adapted in the US but the flow of ideas was not unidirectional.[9]

Much of this transnational exchange was focused on the development of the industrial city. Further studies have picked up on the strong tendency of European and American local governments to bypass the national level and work on their problems within a transnational frame.[10] In particular, the planning of the built environment was a discipline that offered the opportunity for transatlantic careers as evidenced, for example, by the international success enjoyed by many former members of the famed German Bauhaus school.[11] The forced emigration of thousands of political and religious refugees from Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, among them many academics and professionals, helped set the stage for further processes of transatlantic knowledge production.[12] Transatlantic Perspectives aims to project the research questions that have been fruitfully applied to the first half of the twentieth century to the period after World War II. In conventional narratives, this era frequently appears as one of unidirectional influences exerted by the United States on Western Europe. The transnational institutions and transfers featured on this website help to tell a more complex story.

[1] Jürgen Osterhammel, “Transferanalyse und Vergleich im Fernverhältnis,” in Vergleich und Transfer. Komparatistik in den Sozial-, Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, ed. Jürgen Schriewer and Hartmut Kaelble (Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2003), 439-466, 449; Kiran Klaus Patel, “Transatlantische Perspektiven transnationaler Geschichte,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 29, no. 4 (2003): 631f.

[2]  Richard Pells, Not like us. How Europeans have loved, hated, and transformed American culture since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[3] Patrick Farges, “‘I’m a hybrid (W. Glaser)’. Hybridität und Akkulturation am Beispiel deutschsprachiger Exilanten in Kanada,” in Exil, Entwurzelung, Hybridität, ed. Claus-Dieter Krohn (München: Ed. Text Kritik, 2009), 40-58.

[4] Ian Tyrrell, “Reflections on the Transnational Turn in United States History. Theory and Practice,” Journal of Global History 4, no. 3 (2009): 453-474; Kiran Klaus Patel, “‘Transnations’ among ‘Transnations’? The Debate on Transnational History in the US and Germany,” American Studies 53 (2009): 451-472.

[5] Cf. Matthias Middell, “European History and Cultural Transfer,” Diogenes 48, no. 1 (2000): 24.

[6] Thomas Bender, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 7.

[7] Nina Glick Schiller, Linda G. Basch, and Christina Szanton Blanc, eds., Towards a transnational perspective on migration: Race, class, ethnicity, and nationalism reconsidered (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1992); Alejandro Portes, “Globalization from Below. The Rise of Transnational Communities,” in The Ends of Globalization. Bringing Society Back In, ed. Don Kalb et al. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 253-270.

[8] Tobias Brinkmann, “Taking the Global View: Reconsidering Migration History after 1800,” Neue politische Literatur 55, no. 2 (2010): 213; Brian McCook, The borders of integration: Polish migrants in Germany and the United States, 1870-1924 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011).

[9] Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic crossings: social politics in a progressive age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Axel R. Schäfer, American progressives and German social reform, 1875-1920. Social ethics, moral control, and the regulatory state in a transatlantic context (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000).

[10] Nicolas Kenny, “From body and home to nation and world: the varying scales of transnational urbanism in Montreal and Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century,” Urban History 36, no. 2 (July 2009): 223-242; Pierre-Yves Saunier, “Transatlantic connections and circulations in the 20th century: the urban variable,” Informationen zur Modernen Stadtgeschichte 1 (2007): 11-23.

[11] An excellent example is the career of the German urban planner Werner Hegemann who moved from the USA to Europe several times during his career. Christiane Crasemann Collins, Werner Hegemann and the Search for Universal Urbanism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Cf. further Ellen Shoshkes, “Jaqueline Tyrwhitt. A founding mother of modern urban design,” Planning Perspectives 21, no. 2 (2006): 179-197.

[12] Marita Krauss, “Exilerfahrung und Wissenstransfer. Transatlantische Gastprofessoren nach 1945,” in Elitenwanderung und Wissenstransfer im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Dittmar Dahlmann and Reinhold Reith (Essen: Klartext, 2008), 35-53.