Berlin's John F. Kennedy Institute

Student carrying books

Berlin's John F. Kennedy Institute

The John F. Kennedy Institute (JFKI) at the Freie Universität Berlin is the largest interdisciplinary research and teaching institute of its kind outside America. In its six departments, 264 Bachelor and 135 Master’s students are studying subjects such as the culture, literature, politics and economics of North America. In 2013 the institute is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
by Andreas Maisch,

After President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, the university decided to name the newly founded Institute of North American Studies after him. Just a few months earlier President Kennedy had held his famous speech in front of Schöneberg Town Hall, including the sentence that Germans remember best: “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which became a 
beacon of hope in the Cold War years.

The JFKI’s interdisciplinary approach stands solidly in the tradition of its founder Ernst Fraenkel, who was not only a jurist, but also a political scientist. As a Jew, the democracy theoretician had to flee from the Nazis to the USA, but he still returned to Germany. He provided the theoretical grounds for Germany’s lasting ties with the West. He saw the Federal Republic as a western democracy in which the diverse interests of the citizens should freely interact, unlike in totalitarian systems. This is reminiscent of the individualistic “American Way of Life”. According to Fraenkel, the common good cannot be predetermined. It has to evolve from the regulated play of forces of the different interest groups.

Professor Irwin Collier, who is chairman of the institute’s council, is concerned about the development of the political system in the USA. “The wings of the parties are gaining in strength and have a great deal of power in the presidential preliminary elections,” he says. Consequently, this makes the compromises more difficult which are essential in democracies. “Society in the USA is divided, and it will remain so in the foreseeable future,” says Professor Collier, who regularly explains the American economic policies or election results for the German political programme Phoenix. He says that the JFKI is also prepared for 
public discussions. “A political order, in which human rights are guaranteed, is 
still one of the greatest challenges of our time – and the last word has by no means been spoken.” Human rights and civil rights have always been a focus at the institute since it was founded, and will continue to be an important topic at the institute of Fraenkel and Kennedy.

But how does the institute extend its influence beyond the university? “By posing questions that are not asked elsewhere,” says Boris Vormann, a PhD student at the institute’s Graduate School of North Amer­ican Studies. Questions such as: What are the political and economic foundations of North America’s economic order? How does Evangelicalism affect social structures in the USA? “Interdisciplinarity is not 
simply a slogan at the institute. It acts as a basis for asking truly critical questions. In this way the institute also contributes towards the political education of its international body of students,” Mr. Vormann explains. The different cultural backgrounds of the graduate students also open up new perspectives. Almost half of the PhD students come from abroad, for instance from Iran, Norway or South Africa. PhD student Julia Püschel cites the interdisciplinary lectures, which are given by a different speaker each week, as a good example of the institute’s impact. “This lecture series attracts a lot of people who come from outside the academic sphere.” In this way the JFKI reaches beyond academia and into society in general. ▪

by Andreas Maisch,