Book Forum on German Philanthropic History / New Works in the Field

German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective: A Brief History

Editors’ Note: HistPhil continues its book forum on German philanthropic history with a post from Gregory R. Witkowski, the co-editor of the recently published volume, German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America casts a long shadow on discussions of the role of charitable giving, associations, and civil society in a democracy.  While the nineteenth century Frenchmen compared American civic engagement favorably to the state-organized French society, a much shorter trip to the neighboring German states would have likewise revealed active associations and charitable organizations. Perhaps we can forgive Tocqueville for his circumscribed geographic focus but we should not be so blinkered.

German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective, the recently published volume of essays I co-edited with Arnd Bauerkaemper, traces the development of German philanthropic traditions with reference to both the United States and the developing world. Through its coverage of the twentieth century, the work demonstrates that voluntary associations, nonprofit organizations and philanthropic engagement could survive and in some cases thrive in very different political and economic systems, including weak (Weimar Republic) and strong (Federal Republic) democracies, and populist (Nazi) and leftist (Communist) dictatorships. Thus this work challenges not only scholars’ ongoing preference for following Tocqueville’s linkage of the U.S. and civil society, but also his linkage of civil society and democracy. This volume concentrates on specific conditions in Germany but with an understanding that there were multiple streams of connections between Germany, the United States, and the developing world.

Germany has a centuries-long tradition of charitable engagement.  Some of the oldest European charitable foundations were formed on German territory, stretching back to the Middle Ages. The number and capacity of foundations as well as trusts and other broad-based philanthropic institutions increased tremendously in the nineteenth century fueled by industrialization and both the wealth and social problems it generated. While philanthropic engagement played an important role in attacking these social ills, by the early twentieth century the role of the state was also significant and remained so throughout the twentieth century.  Health insurance, pensions and other welfare programs started in the nineteenth century were greatly expanded after the First World War. The hyper-inflation of 1922–1923 wiped out the endowments of many German foundations so that they could do much less after WWI. Moreover, the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s led to the collapse of numerous companies and impoverished at least a sizeable section of the bourgeoisie. United States-based foundations such as Rockefeller and Carnegie stepped into the void to aid organizations supporting democracy and international exchange but only with limited success.

After the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933, the rulers of the Third Reich deprived Jewish philanthropists of their property and gentile bourgeois donors of their autonomy. The new German Communal Order (Deutsche Gemeindeordnung) of 1935, in particular, allowed city councils to disband foundations that the Nazis defined as contrary to the principles of the racial state. Civic organizations were “coordinated” (Gleichschaltung) by the Nazis who sought to eliminate any freedom of organization in the name of creating one community (Volksgemeinschaft). Whereas before the Nazis, Germans had numerous associations often split along class lines, these were joined into one group led by Nazi leaders of the Third Reich. This “coordination” even extended to philanthropic giving as the National Socialists emphasized social action as a means to create a national community. Even organizations with an external focus, like the Gustavus Adolphus Foundation, lost their independence.

Large-scale destruction in the course of the Second World War and a second round of hyper-inflation dealt another blow to the assets that had served as a basis of philanthropy. War and defeat led to the loss of territory and the partitioning of Germany into four administrative sectors. The American, British, and French zones became the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, commonly referred to as West Germany, whereas the German Democratic Republic (GDR) emerged from the Soviet zone in East Germany. Despite the postwar “economic miracle” of rapid economic growth, West Germany’s middle class only gradually recovered from these setbacks from the 1950s onwards. While West German policy makers took both money and inspiration from the United States nonprofit sector, especially the big foundations, indigenous German philanthropy developed in a highly regulated marketplace that kept a regulatory law from the Nazi period.

State intervention was more extreme in the GDR. Many foundations had lost the basis of their wealth through the land reform enforced as early as 1945. Eight years later, foundations were deprived of their role as independent institutions promoting welfare and scientific advancement. The East German state tried to limit independent action among its citizens and eliminated many institutions that could challenge the authority of the regime broadly, i.e. provide services that the state also provided. Nonetheless, the East German authorities were neither consistent in their application of this approach nor completely successful. Christian churches maintained the greatest independence, providing institutional shelter for engaged citizens to meet and address issues far beyond religious instruction. In the late 1980s, they ultimately became centers for political opposition. The Protestant and Catholic Churches succeeded in establishing collections for international causes, for instance launching “Bread for the World” in East and West Germany. These church–run efforts inspired other independent collections for international humanitarian causes that fed into the opposition movement that ultimately challenged the East German regime.

After the two German states had been unified in 1990, state regulation of philanthropy was increasingly called into question. As a result of more liberal laws and the wealth accumulation by the generation that lived through the economic miracle and beyond, the number of nonprofits has increased dramatically. Germany has well over 18,000 foundations, about 2/3 of which were formed since unification in 1990, and 600,000 nonprofit organizations, many of which have likewise been recently formed. Germany’s social welfare program is still based on a few nonprofit umbrella organizations (Spitzenverbaende), three of which are religiously affiliated. While these organizations receive virtually their entire budget from the federal and state governments, they provide care at the local level, continuing the practice of subsidiarity that has been a hallmark of German social welfare in the twentieth century.

Germany is facing many of the same social problems as the United States today and, like the United States, relies on public, nonprofit and for-profit solutions to address them, albeit with a very different set of priorities and a much more active state.  An understanding of the German approach to philanthropy is important for American scholars and practitioners but such an analysis also poses potential challenges. Clearly there are important differences even in terminology that need to be accounted for in a comparison of both philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in both nations. A few examples of differences in foundations in Germany and the United States should make these differences clear. In Germany organizations are defined by both their legal form and a charitable purpose so that, for instance, a foundation in Germany may have a non-charitable purpose. For example there are “family foundations” that set aside money to maintain a private estate; that is, descendants cannot use this money for other purposes. These are foundations for private and non-charitable purposes and therefore do not receive the tax advantages of a charitable foundation. At the same time, German law requires no distinction between a corporate foundation and a corporation. The most obvious example of this is the Robert Bosch Foundation, which is the owner of the multinational Bosch Corporation, but there are many other examples as well.

While these comparisons are important, German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective shifts the analytical focus from the singular interactions between donor and recipient to multiple forms of connectedness, entanglements, and transfers at various subnational or supranational levels. Transnational history transcends the national paradigm, highlighting nations’ positions in a wider geographical context. As such, it paves the way to symmetrical or asymmetrical comparisons and more complex, multilateral studies of cross-border transfers and interaction. Not least, the transnational approach is directed against static conceptions of philanthropy that proved changeable across the twentieth century and across different geographic regions.

Philanthropic exchanges were mediated by donor conceptions of themselves in a global environment and often by perceptions of others, whether in the United States or in African nations such as Kenya and Nigeria. German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective features the many exchanges that occurred between Germany and the United States (e.g. support for the Deutsche Hochschule fuer Politik and for the Lincoln Stiftung) and highlights how they became mediated by both the Cold War and globalization. Volker Berghahn’s work on American foundation support for rebuilding Germany during the Cold War is one case of transatlantic philanthropy mediated by East-West relations [look out for a post from VB tomorrow – Eds.]. Here foundation officers supported West German rebuilding efforts both out of a sense of connection but also out of concern for the rise of communism. The volume also demonstrates that transatlantic exchange between German and American nonprofit organizations cannot be reduced to a bilateral relationship. In fact, the relationship has been inextricably intertwined with philanthropic activities in the Third World, especially since the 1950s. Here Nina Berman’s account proves useful in understanding the way in which Africa served as an “other” that influenced German philanthropic giving patterns [And expect a post from NB soon too – Eds.]. In this way, our volume complicates the philanthropic exchange by underscoring that there is often an external reference point in addition to the donor and recipient that plays a critical role in mediating the size, form, and function of a philanthropic gift.

Tocqueville’s account of nineteenth century America is certainly evidence that the notion of global encounters has a long history. But scholars of American philanthropy have too often neglected these transatlantic exchanges as well as the different historical traditions that developed in individual countries. With one of the largest nonprofit sectors in the world, more nonprofit organizations per capita than the United States, and a long history of philanthropic engagement, Germany is a good place to expand this discussion and I hope that our volume and this blog will open up more of those opportunities.

-Gregory R. Witkowski

Gregory R. Witkowski is the Associate Professor of Philanthropic Studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, where he has worked since 2011. A historian by training, his research focuses on state and philanthropic efforts at social change, evaluating the connections between philanthropy, civil society, and democracy.​

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