Philanthropy and Historical Research

A Call for More Transnational Histories of Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: To our readers in the U.S., welcome back from a long holiday weekend! We continue our discussion of the field with the below post by Thomas Adam. In the next week, we will be discussing philanthropy and humanitarianism on the global stage. As always, though, please reach out to HistPhil‘s editors with commentary and blog post ideas that go beyond these themes. 

Growing up in walled-in East Germany might have conditioned me to search for connections and zones of contacts that are not immediately obvious. While the Berlin Wall severely constricted the movements of East Germans, they still wore American jeans, listened to English music, watched soap operas aired by West German TV stations, and dreamed of vacationing in the Mediterranean. Every evening East Germans tuned in to TV shows such as Dallas and Baywatch, which allowed us to participate in an imaginary world that did not know borders.

During my graduate studies at the University of Leipzig in the 1990s, when internet and email were still in their infancy, my work on working-class culture led to an interest in private social housing enterprises. The largest German housing trust – the Meyersche Housing Trust in Leipzig created in 1900 – fascinated me and access to its archive and the archive of its architect opened up a new world: the world of philanthropy and civil society. However, working on the provision of social housing by private citizens quickly turned me into something of an outcast in a German academic culture that celebrated the state as the only legitimate source of social services.

The fascination with this topic grew even further when I realized that housing trusts in Leipzig did not develop in isolation but were part of a transnational phenomenon. I quickly understood that nineteenth-century social housing was a hot topic among social reformers across regional and country lines. References in my Leipzig sources to similar enterprises in London were the starting points for broadening my understanding of modern history. Increasingly I felt that concepts of history that limited inquiry to cities located within just one nation cut phenomena such as social housing into pieces, thereby destroying the meaning of the phenomenon. Looking at the Meyersche Housing Trust from a perspective limited to the German nation state turned the story of this institution into an anomaly. Private action did not fit a storyline of a state-centered society. Connecting the Meyersche Housing Trust with similar institutions in London and New York gave meaning to the story. Suddenly this housing trust was one of many experiments in private provisions of working-class housing. The anomaly became a local manifestation of a global and transnational phenomenon.

The desire to reconstruct the nineteenth-century transnational network of social reform brought me from the University of Leipzig to the University of Toronto and later to the University of Texas at Arlington. I immersed myself in primary sources about social housing enterprises in London, Toronto, Boston, and New York and increasingly noticed that proponents of social housing in German, English, Canadian, and American cities spoke the same language of reform, used the same concepts, shared similar but often modified approaches, and most importantly visited each other, wrote letters, and produced descriptions of the endeavors they observed during their transatlantic travels. Social housing reform was not a local or national issue; it was a transatlantic one. In contrast to historians such as Daniel T. Rodgers and Axel Schaefer who continued to focus on state action rather than the actions of individual citizens, I narrowed my research from the beginning to private and philanthropic actions.

When I realized the entanglement of private support for social housing projects in German, English, American, and Canadian cities I became curious whether the same would also hold true for other elements of urban society such as museums and libraries. And as in the case of social housing, I easily found a plethora of sources, which showed the many exchanges that occurred in the field of cultural philanthropy between continental Europe and North America. The founding of museums and libraries with regards to their organization, function, and funding was inspired by central European models. This contradicts traditional claims that American museums, to take just one example, emerged in opposition to the feudal museum of continental Europe. The entrenched scholarly tradition of focusing exclusively on state-funded (royal) museums and of neglecting the many museums funded by bourgeois donors caused American scholars such as Judith H. Balfe to forgo any serious investigation into the connections within the museum world across the Atlantic. Yet neither social welfare institutions nor cultural institutions within the transatlantic world emerged anywhere in isolation. These institutions were shaped by experiences and observations of similar institutions in other cities.

All of this stems not just from an obsession with getting the story right. By looking at philanthropy in this transatlantic perspective, variations in philanthropic activities appear more clearly and dynamics missed previously come to life. Nineteenth-century philanthropy was shaped by local contexts and involved a broad range of institutions, from foundations and associations to stock companies. Social scientists such as Helmut K. Anheier who prefer to look at philanthropy through the lens of modern definitions of philanthropy all too easily dismiss for instance institutions that combined market mechanisms with philanthropy as either marginal or simply as not belonging to this field of study. Yet, contemporaries clearly identified these institutions as philanthropic and these institutions dominated contemporary discussions about philanthropy. Many of the same social scientists, of course, celebrate the recent formation of hybrids such as the initiative, which from a historical perspective do not actually represent an innovative model.

Telling the story of philanthropy as a transnational phenomenon does not suggest that philanthropy worked in identical ways in every location. Breaking with models of diffusion according to which the margins adopt the ways of the center (as, for instance, in the faulty model of Americanization) I developed a model of intercultural transfer that helps us to understand the conundrum that such transfers contribute simultaneously to making cultures more similar and more distinct. The inclusion of donors in Boston and Leipzig into the transnational discourse about social housing did not result in the creation of identical institutions in these two places. While core ideas about combining market mechanisms with social housing provision (philanthropy and five percent model) provided the basis for the creation of limited dividend companies in Boston and Leipzig, these ideas had to be fitted into local social, cultural, and economic contexts. Every idea underwent several modifications and mutations before it started to work in a specific local context.

This model of intercultural transfer can help inform contemporary efforts to implant an understanding of civil society into post-authoritarian societies. After the end of the Cold War, Western politicians assumed that the transfer of Western-style civil society organizations into Eastern European countries would be welcomed by Eastern European political activists. Western European advocates of civil society did not, however, take into account the fact that Eastern European intellectuals and activists had developed very different models of civil society which involved concepts of economic democracy alien to the Western European discourse. And so though, in Eastern Europe, the revival of civil society was closely connected to political and cultural emancipation, it did not focus on the restoration of private property rights. In the period of transition in 1989-90, East German opposition leaders Wolfgang Ullmann and Konrad Weiß, to take just one example, suggested the socialization of the ownership of East German factories by transforming these enterprises into shareholder companies in which each East German would receive an equal number of shares. Foundations and non-profit associations did not fit neatly into the intellectual world of many Eastern European civil rights advocates and in fact appeared alien to them. History teaches us that intercultural transfers are successful only when the receiving society experiences the need for the import of an idea and initiates the transfer of that idea. Attempts at forcefully imposing foreign ideas on other culture almost always fail.

While intercultural transfers shaped the modern world and created interconnected yet distinct modern societies, these processes have received too little attention from social scientists and historians, including historians of philanthropy and civil society. Delving into the study of these transfers is a daunting task since one needs to develop an eye for related phenomena. The integration of alien ideas into a society always went along with their reshaping and renaming. Different terminologies in two cultures often obscure the relatedness of phenomena; scholars need to see through such surface differences to spot the underlying relationship. Graduate programs in history, unfortunately, continue to produce experts in national history rather than scholars who organize their work around a historical phenomenon that cuts across national languages and borders. This training renders historians blind to the interconnected nature of the human experience and does not prepare them to formulate research questions that go beyond their national focus. Neither the training nor the prospective job market proves conducive to this type of transnational history. And that is a shame, both for the field of the history of philanthropy and for the philanthropic sector that could benefit from its scholarship.

-Thomas Adam

Thomas Adam is professor of transnational history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the editor of Philanthropy, Patronage, and Civil Society: Experiences from Germany, Great Britain, and North America (2004) and the author of Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Urban Society in Transnational Perspective, 1840s to 1930s (2009). He recently finished two new books “German History Reconsidered: Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815-1989” as well as “Living and Giving Transnationally: The Mond’s Family Private Support for Public Institutions in Western Europe from 1890 to 1938.”

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