Reading America

Amerika Haus Libraries were “soft power” at its best: The case for public diplomacy

“The library is not only a diary of the human race, but marks an act of faith in the continuity of humanity.”

— Vartan Gregorian, former Director, N.Y. Public Library


Literature is the spiritual home of a nation.

– Hugo von Hofmannstal, Austrian poet and essayist

Ten years ago last November, the Amerika Haus Library in Vienna closed its doors – with Amerika Haus Berlin, the last of an extraordinary 60-year old success story in public diplomacy.

Founded in the first years after World War II, Amerika Haus Libraries were set up in every major city in Germany and Austria, to bring American intellectual openness to societies recovering from a decade of tyranny, violence and war.

The libraries were an inspiration in “Soft Power” – an open door policy of lending libraries filled with American literature and ideas, of art, science, politics and history, books rarely available in translation and long forbidden under the Nazis. Open shelves, open doors, open arms.

In Vienna, the first Amerika Haus took up most of the block on the Ring across from the State Opera, a massive space on two floors that quickly became the meeting place of students and scholars, and an ad hoc mixture of just about everybody.

Herberth Czermak began going there two to three times a week in the mid 50s, while still in high school. He would light up a Pall Mall – pausing to look at the slogan: “Wherever Particular People Congregate”, that appears beneath the coat of arms – and flip through the pages of Life Magazine and large photo albums like Arizona Highways. He, “like everyone else” was fascinated with pictures of American icons like novelist Ernest Hemingway or trumpet player Louis Armstrong at the New Port Jazz Festival, and he wandered through the stacks just for the pleasure of being able to do so.

And so began a life-long love affair with all things American.

“All I could think,” he said recently at a Viennese Kaffeehaus, “is that someday I would get there.” Speaking today with a flawless New England accent acquired as a graduate student long ago, his face lit up at the memory.

“You heard American English there – this fascinating lingo that you were beginning to fall in love with. It was all so fascinating, all so new.”

This seems particularly ironic at a time when the U.S. image abroad has been battered by eight years of disdain for engagement and contempt for international law. What better way to counter this than to share the best of American culture with the world beyond?

“The Amerika Haus Libraries were so important; they were like nothing else,” said Helena Kane Finn, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs in Berlin, and former Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, in a recent interview.

“We desperately need venues where people who are interested in the U.S. can come together and discuss literature or politics, the ideas and issues of the moment, where you get that direct personal engagement. The social aspect of that is so important.

Over the last decade, many centers of English-speaking culture have died out in Vienna: In addition to the 1998 closing of the Amerika Haus Library, 2006 saw the closing of British Council Library and Big Ben Book store in the 9th District British Book Store. The Viennese Kaffeehäuser help keep German language literature alive, hosting literary events of all sorts and simply as congenial grounds for reading, coffee and conversation.

But in the English-speaking world, Shakespeare & Co Booksellers in the Sterngasse, tiny as it is, stands alone as a true cultural hub. The appealing Pickwick’s Café/Bar, Book & Video Shop, for example, has felt forced to go the pub route, with happy hours and quiz nights and audio volumes less-than-conducive to thought or conversation. Theaters and movie houses are doing better, thankfully. Still, it’s not the same. People meet at a theater bar before and after the show, but time is short and unlike the Viennese cabarets, opening hours at these gathering spots generally do not extend past the show.

Amerika Haus Libraries served as bridges between two worlds, hosting an endless stream of public events, receptions, lectures, readings, concerts and round tables.

“All the people showed up at all the events – to talk about literature or foreign policy. They were meeting under our auspices: That’s been lost,” Finn said. “And it has harmed our ability to engage with the community in an informal setting. If those relationships and opportunities break down, it’s much less effective.”

Roswitha Haller was director of the Amerika Haus Library in Vienna for 21 years, from 1977 to 1998, and saw the library through several transitions. When she started in 1978, Amerika Haus had already been cut back to a reference library. Her predecessor, like a lioness protecting cubs, had taken matters into her own hands.

“She had hidden the books in the basement,” Haller said, with thinly veiled satisfaction. When the call came to restore the circulating library, they were able to reopen in a matter of weeks.

Late in 1998, word came down that a new Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate was planning to gut the cultural programs at its embassies around the world. High on the list: the Amerika Haus Libraries.

In Vienna, the decision was effective immediately. The local staff was devastated.  Haller walked through the rooms with this writer, like a defeated general on the battlefield, picking her way among the bodies of her dead. It all seemed like such a waste. Later, she confided that she had hoped they could again save the collection, that the political atmosphere would change. In the end, she and her staff were forced to disperse the books to various repositories, in city, national and university libraries by topic, where they might be found by diligent researchers.

But what did it matter? Who needed physical libraries anymore in this Era of Online?

So the seductive open stacks of American literature and ideas vanished, along with the reading room, writing tables and easy chairs that had welcomed readers of all ages. To a large extent, the active program of public readings and literary forums also ended, and the space became just another venue for the occasional visiting lecturer or panel discussion.

The books were replaced by the American Reference Center, by data bases and online info searches, which, it was promised, would serve the public as well or better in this new digital age.

So the reading room disappeared, as did walk in access, even before the attack on the Twin Towers. Now it was by appointment only, and the rapid decline in visitor numbers spurred a transfer to a smaller space on Schmidgasse, and then to Sensengasse, a tiny side street near the Embassy in the 9th District.

And just at the time when the U.S. prestige abroad was positioning itself for a free fall, the State Department was dismantling one of the best ambassadors it had ever had.

“Ten years afterwards, people still ask about it,” says American Reference Center director Eva Mohm. “It’s amazing…. Well, maybe not so amazing. It was a place people really cared about.”

Still, she is quick to add, there is the ARC., a U.S. government repository and on-line archive where researchers can get their hands on hundreds, even thousands, of hard to get specialty journals, particularly in the areas of public affairs, economics and social issues – resources that come with the support of two professional research librarians.

“I do try to explain the resources we have,” she said. “I wouldn’t want people to think that there was nothing. We actually have a lot…”

“But of course it’s not the same.”

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