In January of 2002, a group of Heidelberg professors and administrators set up an interdisciplinary initiative with the aim of establishing a new center for the study of the United States of America at Germany’s oldest university. The first order of business of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) was to develop a novel graduate studies program: the Master of Arts in American Studies (MAS). To raise public awareness of its activities, the HCA initiative also organized a public lecture series, “Typically American,” during the winter term 2002-03, which soon attracted a broad audience. Within a year of its creation, the HCA opened a small office from which it continued to develop the MAS and future research projects and conferences.
Ten departments from six faculties committed themselves to the program, enabling a broad range of disciplines to be represented at the HCA: American literature and culture, economics, geography, history, law, musicology, philosophy, political science, theological studies, and sociology.
In December of 2003, thanks to the generous support of Heidelberg entrepreneur and philanthropist Manfred Lautenschläger, the HCA was able to settle into more spacious quarters in Heidelberg’s beautiful Weststadt.
Four months later, the center hosted its first conference, the HCA Spring Academy 2004 on American History, Culture, and Politics. Twenty-six European and American Ph.D. students from ten countries and six academic disciplines participated in this conference. The annual Spring Academy has since become a highly regarded forum for international Ph.D. students in the field of American Studies and has to date attracted more than twelve hundred applications from more than 65 countries.
After Heidelberg University and the Ministry of Science, Research, and the Arts of the State of Baden-Württemberg both approved the statutes of the HCA as well as the regulations governing the proposed new Master’s program, the HCA was officially inaugurated as a central academic institution at Heidelberg University on October 20, 2004. Simultaneously, the first class of the MAS program enrolled. A Board of Directors was established, convening for the first time in December of 2004, and was subsequently joined by a Board of Trustees.
During the following years, the HCA substantially expanded its activities. This would not have been possible had it not been for another major donation. In early 2006, Curt Engelhorn acquired the “Haus Neukirch,” a beautiful baroque town house in the heart of Heidelberg’s historic city center. With restorations still under way, the HCA moved into its new home, the Curt and Heidemarie Engelhorn Palais, in May of 2006.
The Curt and Heidemarie Engelhorn Palais opened up a whole new range of possibilities for the HCA. In order to fully realize the new potential, Heidelberg University, the State of Baden-Württemberg, and private donors agreed to set up a matching fund for the future development of the HCA. This fund enabled the HCA to initiate a joint venture with the American Academy in Berlin, bringing renowned fellows of that prestigious institution to the region as part of the Academy’s Baden-Württemberg Seminar. In addition, the HCA was able to introduce a year-round Fellow-in-Residence program in 2007 and add another three young scholars to its staff, thereby broadening its research and teaching capacities. These were much needed, as a year earlier, in 2006, the HCA had launched a three-year English-language Ph.D. with a multidisciplinary curriculum.
The next major development was the commitment of Heidelberg University in the spring of 2009 to provide funding for the HCA on a permanent basis once its start-up financing expired. In light of this reassuring news the HCA could celebrate the fifth anniversary of its founding (and the 70th birthday of its founding director) at Heidelberg Castle. The center’s vibrant growth continued. In October, the HCA not only celebrated its fifth commencement but also dedicated its new academic facilities, a modern annex to the landmark palais. The fall of 2009 also saw the first semester of the Baden-Württemberg Seminar under the exclusive direction of the HCA.
In late November of 2009, the HCA learned that its application – supported by Heidelberg University – for the creation of two professorships to be shared with the Department of Geography and the Faculty of Theology, respectively, had been approved by the state government. These professorships were allocated under a special program designed to alleviate the impact of two classes of secondary school graduates hitting German universities in the same year, 2012. In the spring of 2011, Ulrike Gerhard came to the HCA as Professor of Human Geography of North America, and Jan Stievermann joined the HCA as Professor of the History of Christianity in the United States. A few months earlier, the HCA had successfully completed negotiations with the English Department over a joint appointment of Günter Leypoldt, Professor of American Literature and Culture. This was the second joint appointment after Manfred Berg, the Curt Engelhorn Chair of American History, in 2009. With two “bridge professors” and two joint appointments, the HCA has now established firm operational “bridges” to the departments of History, English, Geography, and Theology.
This development went hand in hand, however, with new obligations, as the HCA was required to establish a three-year B.A. program in order to create the necessary capacities for the anticipated students. The first half of 2010 was therefore dominated by conceptualizing a new course of studies that would be true to the HCA’s multidisciplinary custom, yet geared toward a different, that is undergraduate, clientele. Under the guidance of Dr. Andreas Barz from the Dezernat für Studium und Lehre and with support from the Faculties of Philosophy, Theology, Chemistry and Earth Sciences, Modern Languages, Economics and Social Sciences, and Law, as well as several student representatives, the B.A. in American Studies (BAS) was developed in record time and shepherded through the bodies of the university. When the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research, and the Arts finally authorized the results, barely four weeks were left before the university’s application period for the fall term closed. This program became an instant success; in the fall of 2016, a total of 98 B.A. students are enrolled at the HCA; to date, more than twelve hundred have applied.
The HCA also continued to expand its activities both as a center for interdisciplinary research and as a facilitator of transatlantic academic exchange. Since 2012 the HCA together with Heidelberg University’s Faculty of Theology has been annually awarding the James W.C. Pennington Award, generously endowed by the Lautenschläger Foundation. In the same year the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany was inaugurated. The center is a partnership between the Department of Theology and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies with the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Divinity School. Together these institutions seek to further work on Edwards and early American religious history by supporting and advising related academic projects, by providing primary and secondary source materials, offering seminars, organizing lectures and conferences, as well as by engaging in student and faculty exchange both with Yale and the other international centers. In 2015 a new cooperation was initiated between the HCA and the University of Notre Dame, specifically its department of history and American Studies program. The focus will be on doctoral and post-doctoral exchanges as well as on research collaborations. So far delegations met for two colloquia, and each side will host a post-doc in the academic year 2016-17.
In the fall of 2016, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) approved a grant application worth EUR 3.5 million for a new research training group based at the HCA. The projects of the group focus on "Authority and Trust in American Culture, Society, History and Politics." It rests on the shoulders of ten researchers from different disciplines including geography, history, linguistics, literature, political science, and cultural and religious studies. In addition, associate scholars from Germany, Europe, and North America are be involved in the new research training group. The emergence and transformation of authority in state and civil society, social institutions, urban spaces, culture and religion, are at the center of the group's research program, as well as the shifting trust relationships inside the United States and in the transatlantic world. Professor Manfred Berg (Curt Engelhorn Chair of American History) serves as spokesperson of the research training group, Professor Günter Leypoldt (Department of English) is the deputy spokesperson. The first four-and-a-half-year funding period began in October 2017 and involves ten doctoral students, four research students, and one postdoctoral scholar. The research training group will make important scholarly contributions to this field and at the same time offer an innovative qualification program that will help young scholars to launch their careers inside and outside academia.
In the spring of 2017, Professor Welf Werner of International University Bremen accepted a position the university had created two years earlier to ensure the succession of the HCA's founding director, a joint appointment at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences and the HCA. In February 2018, the HCA board of directors designated him as the center’s new director. Welf Werner has added economics to the center’s portfolio, giving due regard to the discipline’s intertwining with history and political science. Since then, the HCA has put a stronger emphasis on “Global American Studies,” thus enlarging the traditional transatlantic perspective. One manifestation of this widened perspective is the Juniorprofessorship “Migration and the Americas,” created in cooperation with the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies (HCIAS). HCA professors are also involved in the work of Heidelberg University’s Center for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS). At the same time, the center moved towards establishing a “digital HCA” by increasingly documenting high-profile events through video on its website; in addition, HCA graduate students founded the HCA Graduate Blog. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic amplified this development since it rendered all in-person teaching and events impossible for three semesters. Hence, while classes moved online, the HCA at the same time launched the podcast “Corona in den USA” and conceptualized the Ruperto Carola Ringvorlesung entitled “Quo Vadis USA?” as an exclusively online format.
In November 2021, the DFG approved a second round of funding for GKAT. A total of 4.3 million EUR for a period of four and a half years will enable two additional cohorts with ten Ph.D. students each to gain fundamental insights into the relationship between authority and trust in the United States. Professor Günter Leypoldt and Professor Ulrike Gerhard serve as spokespersons for GKAT. The research training group sharpened its profile by adding three new principal investigators, Professor Welf Werner (economic history), PD Magnus Schlette (social philosophy and philosophy of religion), and Junior-Professor Soledad Àlvares Velasco (ethnicity and migration in urban areas in Anglo and Latin America).