AGI News

John Kornblum Remembers Helga Haftendorn

John Kornblum

AGI Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AGI Board of Trustees.

Over the years I have identified two types of “experts” on German-American relations. There are what I would call the “issue” experts. These are writers who chase whatever question or controversy tops the current public agenda. They live within a world of “experts” on both sides of the Atlantic. Their views generally reflect the current mood in this very small community.

There is a much smaller group who have worked hard to understand how normal people think. They delve more deeply into the structures of national behavior. They help us understand why something is happening and give us recommendations for dealing with problems which arise.

Readers will not be surprised when I put Helga Haftendorn in this second group. She is in fact one of the most successful examples of scholars who have added fundamentally new insights to the complicated history of the post-World War II Atlantic world.

In a period where we are once again reading premature obituaries of the Atlantic community, it is important to understand Prof. Haftendorn’s most important contributions to her field. Surveying the long list of her publications, one notices immediately that she invariably sought to identify the systems of political and human behavior that underlie the official policies of important countries.

In a long series of books, articles, and monographs, Prof. Haftendorn carefully dissected the structures of the Cold War nuclear stand-off, for example. She wrote histories of efforts at disarmament; she analyzed important strategic issues, and above all, she related her findings to the broader interests of the countries involved.

Decades after the end of the East-West division, many of these issues seem to be overtaken by events. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. The behavior of East and West during this era was so basic to the history and motivations of the major countries that Professor Haftendorn’s analyses remain important sources for understanding today’s behavior.

Professor Haftendorn’s second area of concentration was German-American relations and especially the motivations of German leaders in the difficult postwar period. It is in this forum where I most often met and exchanged views with her. We met in Hamburg in the mid-1960s, when barely out of college, I was sent to the American Consulate General.

We talked often during the intervening years. I learned important lessons. How to understand the interests of a divided and defeated Germany. How to define the interaction among the complicated factors affecting a Germany trying hard to find some breathing space between the competing powers.

Her vision was one detached from the emotions of the moment. She has given us a sense of continuity which applied to both German states. In the end, I occupied a number of positions which allowed me to influence some of the events from the American side. Dr. Haftendorn’s guidance was often in my mind as I faced the questions of the day.

In addition to her analytical brilliance, Professor Haftendorn was committed to bringing together the policy community on both sides of the Atlantic. She was a committed teacher who carefully groomed her students for future leadership. I was privileged to meet several times with her classes. It was always a rewarding experience.

Professor Haftendorn was tireless in her efforts to organize mutual efforts across the Atlantic to understand the exciting period through which we have all lived. Strongly influenced by her experience as an exchange student in Arkansas in the 1950s, Professor Haftendorn reached out to many corners of the United States. The list of her activities is endless. The roster of those who knew and respected her is equally as long.

We often wonder how historians will look back at the period of our own professional lives. My guess is that the uniqueness with which many of us characterized the dramatic and brutal twentieth century will in the future be seen much more in the context of the many changes which began with Napoleon and the American and industrial revolutions. As they study our era, these historians will certainly make use of the writings of Helga Haftendorn. They will find in these works an early sense of the structure and the continuity which our era represents. I am sure that they will marvel at her ability to understand and describe these patterns, even as they were being created.

I am among hundreds of colleagues and thousands of students who have been influenced greatly by this wonderful person. Her softness of approach could never be confused with weakness of character. She was able to present the toughest of arguments in the most pleasant of manner. This made her even more effective.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.