Interview with Michael Steinberg at the American Academy in Berlin

“The themes of populism and nationalism are more than German and more than American. They are equally important in the United States where there’s a very strong political insurgency you might call, that is informed by American nationalism and American populism.” – Michael Steinberg

I am with Michael Steinberg, the president of the American Academy in Berlin-Wannsee. The American Academy is a research and cultural institution that fosters the dialogue between the U.S. and Germany. Mr. Steinberg, when you started as a president, you said, you wanted to focus on integration, immigration and refugee issues. How is that reflected in the current program of the academy?

Steinberg: The idea was to create several themes that would inform conversation on topics that everybody was thinking about. So, this year we have three fellows who are working in various different fields on topics related to migration and integration. And we have several additional programs, conversations among fellows, scholars in Berlin who come to see us in various lectures. So, it’s the general topic that people are very interested and that has an important comparative to mention between the U.S. and Germany

Host: You are convinced that the US and Germany can learn a lot from each other. Do you mean that on a political level?

Steinberg: The 20th century is really a century of immigration and U.S. German relations in the middle of the century were, of course, informed through migration from Germany to the United States. That’s the history of this house, the Hans-Arnold Villa. So, it has a very personal dimension to our own history as an institution. And then of course in the last two last years the immigration flow into Germany, in a way, has switched the roles that the United States and Germany have played. And in my opinion it’s a very powerful example what Germany has done, whether one is for it or not, and there is a reversal of historical positions, so that comparison is extremely interesting for scholars and extremely important for everybody to know about.

Host: Of course this decision that Angela Merkel made in 2015 has earned her a lot of criticism, and we have now a far-right populist party in the German Bundestag. Do you have an opinion on that?

Steinberg: The themes of populism and nationalism are more than German and more than American. They are equally important in the United States where there’s a very strong political insurgency you might call, that is informed by American nationalism and American populism. So, this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and it’s another theme that we are spending quite a bit of time on this year as well.

Host: Is there populism in culture?

Steinberg: Absolutely, in fact I think a lot of political decisions and political momentum lives in culture. And especially in questions of cultural identity and the frictions between different cultural identities: how people identify. So, that culture as a way of living and also culture in terms of its forms: literature, cinema, music, dance – all of these things are important and also quite political.

The great advantage of the American Academy and really our unique position is that we relate these different fields to each other. So, that our fellows include political thinkers, they include scholars in various fields but also visual artists, composers, fiction writers, nonfiction writers and the community builds here where people learn from each other. So that the political thinkers learn from the fiction writers, and you can keep on going with these examples, and that’s what I really love about everyday life at the American Academy.

By Monika Müller-Kroll