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Duke Fellow Explores U.S./German Cultural Differences

For Thomas Stelzl, a semester spent as a high school exchange student in Wisconsin seeded a strong interest in American culture, and how it differs from German culture and politics.

“I’m drawn to American Studies because of the U.S. influence in the world,” said Stelzl who came to Duke from the University of Passau in Bavaria for a two-month, post-graduate research fellowship sponsored by the Duke Club of Germany and the Bavarian American Academy.

“When I tell people I am in American Studies and they ask what it is, I say ‘cultural studies.’ Sometimes I get as a response, ‘American culture, does it exist?’” Stelzl said. “People think of culture as being this Shakespearean thing. It’s different in the U.S. There is a distinctive American culture very different from European and German culture.”

Stelzl’s research straddles several fields including American Studies, political science and intercultural communication. In Germany, he is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate who teaches seminars in cultural studies and American literature, exploring iconic moments in U.S. history such as Watergate and 9/11.

At Duke, Stelzl has been able to focus on researching and writing his Ph.D. thesis, tentatively titled, “Cultural Bias in Post-9/11 German and American Foreign Policy – An Intercultural Comparison.”

Stelzl says that although Germany and the U.S. have a lot in common in terms of trade, human rights and shared values most of the time, there are moments when foreign policy doesn’t translate well — or not as well as we expected.

“Of course, there are hard reasons like different capabilities and interests, but a very important factor is cultural differences. For example, American exceptionalism. There is no German equivalent anymore,” he said. “In post-WWII Germany there cannot be an equivalent.”

Stelzl says the countries also differ in their tolerance for military action with Germans much more hesitant to use their military because of historical experience.

“When was the last time massive numbers of German military forces were unilaterally sent abroad? That’s something we don’t want to repeat,” said Stelzl who is being hosted on campus by Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender (REGSS). He will return to Germany in November.

“The fellowship is really helping because I have been able to get a lot of new input, and I can get away from the daily routine of my job and focus on my research for two months,” said Stelzl who has made use of library resources, attended lectures and panel discussions on campus, and also enjoyed festivities surrounding the inauguration of Duke’s president.

“My university won a prize for being the most beautiful campus in Germany. It’s a young university at the intersection of three rivers. But I think Duke can compete with the beauty of campus. It’s a bit like Disneyland for academics.”