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Doing Area Studies: Present and Future Perspectives on the History of Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin

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From Interest in Latin America to Contested Latin American Studies

Research on Latin America has long been a tradition in Germany and especially in Berlin, with interest dating back to Alexander von Humboldt’s expeditions (1799–1804). Early research focused on a distant region whose society and landscape, especially, were largely unknown in Germany. The aim was to explore this region and to produce new knowledge about the “other” in order to better understand the world in its complexity. From early on, decision-makers in political and economic arenas increasingly demanded detailed information about different regions of the world.

Area studies began to receive some attention in the first half of the twentieth century but really took off in the 1970s in the midst of the Cold War. This was especially true for research on Latin America, which German-speaking circles began to engage in more intensively during these years due not least to their proximity to the frontlines of this conflict. In West Germany, an increasing number of people became interested, for example, in the debates about development and dependency, the discussions about the so-called Third World, and the clash of different ideologies in the global East-West conflict. In particular, the military dictatorships, especially in South America, the violations of human rights, and the violence on the continent dating back many centuries received a great deal of attention.

Many scholars who had developed an awareness of the turbulent past and present of Latin America were also interested in learning more about the region. Both the political systems in Latin America and area studies became politically controversial fields. Numerous US Americans and Europeans, especially, working at newly established or further expanded centers for regional studies engaged in and stimulated the debates about Latin America’s future. This was also true of scholars from various disciplines who were active in Berlin and interested in Latin American politics, society, as well as the economy and culture of the region in general.

Reactions to the 1973 Coup in Chile within Academia

In this context, scholars’ personal connections to Latin America — many of them had lived there for years — as well as international solidarity were important. For many, especially students, political activism and support for those persecuted during the dictatorships also played a key role. Frequently, the challenge for scholars was to take a position, for example, on the political and social situation, the destruction of trade unions, or censorship in Latin American countries. At the same time, they tried to analyze these developments as objectively as possible, collect data, and write articles and books about the recent developments.

The debates following Chile’s so-called September 11, which will be commemorated this year for the fiftieth time, illustrate the sensitivity of the topic. The overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected, socialist president Salvador Allende by right-wing, US-supported military forces in 1973 caused heated debates in academic institutions, including the Institute for Latin American Studies, which was founded in 1970 at Freie Universität in West Berlin. Some social scientists there, in particular, were critical of the developments and expressed their concerns. Many of the institute’s scholars felt closely connected to the Chileans. These scholars in Berlin immediately and virulently condemned the coup d’état and demanded that the West German government in Bonn take action. In a draft of their statement, they asked the German federal government not to recognize the coup leaders and not to provide economic or technical support for the military regime. They also advocated supporting the protection of human rights in Latin America and generously offering asylum to politically persecuted Chileans in the Federal Republic of Germany.

In what follows, I share some reflections on the challenges of writing the history of area research institutes. Using my own institution, the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and a research project that we recently developed with a group of students as an example, I make some suggestions for further research.

New Perspectives on the History of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin

Poster for the exhibition “Aufbrüche und Umbrüche: 50 Jahre Latein-Amerika Institut der Freien Universität Berlin.” Poster design by the author.

In telling the history of this particular institute, how can we approach this episode? Universities, academies, and research institutes tend to look back in festive publications on their achievements, especially in the context of anniversaries. However, it is equally important to approach the history of institutions, in general, and this one, in particular, from a critical perspective and to take into account the activities and responsibilities of scholars in conflicts and historically charged times.

Frequently, historians are interested in the history of institutions at which they themselves are or were active. Such historians can limit their potential bias in the writing of their institution’s history by developing collaborative research projects and involving different and especially younger scholars in them. Scholars of different generations tend to ask different questions since they are less concerned with how they themselves or their colleagues are or will be portrayed in the institutional history. Furthermore, it seems important to rely not solely on the institution’s internally preserved documentation but to also consider additional sources from other places to prevent an overemphasis on the in-house perspective. Moreover, it seems appropriate not to present the successes alone in a chronological account but also to focus on turning points in which institutions failed to achieve their self-imposed goals.

Considering the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin as a particular example within the history of Latin American Studies can help us to open new perspectives for developing a future research program that would emphasize collaborative approaches. In the specific case of the project on the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität, I argue that we, too, should constantly reflect on our own distance from the object of investigation and examine our own relationship to the particular institution. In 2020, our institute’s fiftieth anniversary prompted a new approach for dealing with its history. The project was developed by five Master’s students enrolled at the institute in Interdisciplinary Latin American Studies with the support and guidance of two senior historians. In addition, a sociologist and an economist brought in further perspectives and provided advice. The students undertook primary research and worked in the University Archives, in public libraries, and in the collection of the papers and files of individuals, as well as newspaper clippings, from the Ibero-American Institute also located in Berlin.

The group reviewed minutes, student pamphlets, syllabi, correspondence with both private and professional content, photographs, and posters from various individuals. With a certain distance to the events, the students promoted multiple perspectives on the history of the institute and on Latin American studies, particularly in the 1970s. They were also interested, for example, in analyzing the media coverage representing various political perspectives. Furthermore, the participants agreed that consulting the Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office would add value to their research by giving them a broader perspective on how the scholars protested the coup in Chile and how mobile they were in crisis situations. The students worked with an oral history collection and also conducted their own interviews with former members of the institute.

In doing so, the group went beyond the written and visual documentation that was already available. The students managed to gain insights into the everyday life of scholars who contributed to the production of knowledge about Latin America. Some of these scholars were politically active, competed for funds to conduct their research, and repeatedly tried to inform university administrators, government officials, and the public in general about the developments, especially in South America. It was particularly interesting to examine the cases in which the scholars positioned themselves in the 1970s in relation to the events they rejected while at the same time trying to remain as objective as possible in their publications.

The results of the student project were shown in 2022, first at the Institute for Latin American Studies and subsequently online. Photo by the author.

The students also gained new practical experience during the project. They learned, among other things, that not all documents about their institution’s history are open to the public. Some files were restricted due to them being sealed for a set period of time. Others were withheld from the students to protect personal data. Guided by their professors, the students put together an exhibition in German, Spanish, and Portuguese that is now also accessible online.

The Potential of Examining the Entanglements of Area Studies

The project revealed possible future avenues for research about area studies institutes and the potentials of a knowledge perspective for such research. Taking institutes of area studies as a starting point, historians can look at how they inspired one another and how they built up their networks. In 1962, for example, two Berlin-based scholars involved in the planning of the Institute for Latin American Studies gathered information about other institutions. Wolfgang Hirsch-Weber, a political scientist working in West Berlin, was one of them. He noted in a letter that knowledge of other institutes would be helpful: “Certainly, one will have to look at some similar institutions — for example, in Amsterdam, London, and Paris — before setting up the center. One will be able to take these institutions as models in some ways, but one will also break new ground.”

The history of area studies can also offer new insights into the topic of knowledge circulation from South to North, which has not received much attention as yet. For example, theories of dependency emerged in Latin America in the mid-1960s and found fertile ground at the Institute for Latin American Studies in Berlin.

Threats to academic freedom and international solidarity among scholars are also important subjects in the history of area studies. Tracing the paths of mobile scholars offers insight into their contacts and shows their support of colleagues from and in Latin America, among other places. Moreover, the Academic Freedom Index regularly produces data on how the situation for academics has developed in different countries. At the same time, new programs are created with the aim of offering endangered scholars protection and an academic future in another country. Looking at the situation in the 1970s and the networks of some Latin Americanists raises awareness of this still relevant issue.

In addition to the commitment to academic freedom and solidarity among university members, it is also important to consider the moments and circumstances characterized by immobility. For example, members of the Institute for Latin American Studies had hoped to provide a very high number of scholarships and positions for threatened researchers. Yet, the sources make it clear that after September 1973 this was not possible. Nor was it possible to bring down the military junta in Chile immediately by raising an outcry within the international academic community. One of the first statements the Berlin scholars made suggested that they had hoped to have this effect.

This blogpost has provided insight into the history of area studies and, in particular, of Latin American Studies with a special focus on the developments in the second half of the twentieth century. Taking the example of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and a recently concluded research project with a group of students, I presented some new perspectives for developing a future research program that goes beyond the more traditional institutional history. It emphasizes collaborative approaches, includes different generations and sources, and takes into account the circulation of knowledge from the South to the North as well as the challenges scholars faced in times of crisis.

Karina Kriegesmann has been a research associate and lecturer at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin since 2016. She is currently the Dean of Studies and coordinator of the Master’s program at the same institution. She received her Ph.D. in History and Latin American Studies from Freie Universität Berlin in 2019. Her recent research deals with the transregional history of Latin American Studies and academic freedom during the Cold War.

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