In a story that has unfolded in that special academic slow-mo, Don Heinrich Tolzmann — the president of the Society, who had served since 1981 — was accused in a review of one of his books of plagiarism back in 2003 (here, and here) and will probably soon lose his job at the University of Cincinnati over it. [NOTE: As laid out in the comments on this post below, the review did not specifically use the word 'plagiarism'] Tolzmann didn’t represent the Schnitzelbank crew, but rather the other not-so-scholarly part of the society: To quote Robert Frizzell from the review that started the whole plagiarism affair, Don Heinrich Tolzmann has led German-American efforts to join the “contemporary American culture of competitive victimization”. Crucially, Frizzell continues, in a understatement that deserves an official award all its own:
Most scholars who study German-Americans recognize that Germans in America are not strong players at this game.The charges against Tolzmann led him to resign as president, under considerable pressure as I understand it. At the same time, a whole set of officers declined to stand for re-election, triggering a big sea change in leadership, with some solid people nominated to come in. So I submitted an abstract, hoping that the SGAS is about to become a normal scholarly group, freer from their earlier baggage. A lot of others seem to have made the same call — a number of prominent immigration and American historians, literary scholars, and other people were there. I saw some good papers, had some good discussions, and so on. Then came the banquet.
The annual dinner is specifically an awards banquet, featuring this year the presentation of an “Outstanding Achievement Award”. It only struck me when I got there that somebody would get this, and it darted across my mind that Tolzmann’s name was surely floated. Well, that thought should have stuck instead of darting out my ear: Tolzmann was given the prize, in absentia of course. Stunned silence, then scattered applause, and then arms reaching for the bottles of wine on every table. Frizzell, of the key book review, was sitting where I could see him, and did a remarkable job of looking stoic. Half the audience looked more like they had food poisoning. When the dust settled, to the extent it did, came the after dinner presentation:
Ei, du schöne Schnitzelbank: A never-ending storyOoops, rubber-chicken (and breaded eggplant) buffet dinner instantly becomes drug trip gone bad. Again, you could see hands reaching for wine bottles on tables. Now, the actual talk was remarkably informative, and filled with pretty amazing images. Like most people, for example, I had no idea the song went back to at least the 1830s in Europe. (It has been thought by many to be an American song, and it’s certainly not well known today in Europe.) And I didn’t know that Groucho Marx had done the song as part of his early Hans Pumpernickel routine. And the speaker drew attention to the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes in some old Schnitzelbank posters, even pointing to possibly parallel racial stereotyping in some American versions. So there was some real substance involved, even if it wasn't central to the story of how "the Schnitzelbank brings us all together". The evening ended with singing the song, of course.
Wow, precisely as the Society rids itself of a dark side, the Schnitzelbank side rises to the fore, and with an audience containing a lot of serious scholars. I spent the rest of the evening trying to fit those pieces together. I have now seen beyond the initial shock: The speaker meant well, surely, probably trying to lighten things up after what he knew would be a hard moment in the Society's history. However that plays out over time, the society is moving in a better direction, but it's got a ways to go.
Image from here.