History professor studies warfare’s impact on vets

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Associate history professor John Baesler is working on research titled “The American Occupation of Central Hesse, Germany, 1945-1991: The Informal Diplomacy of Citizens and Soldiers.”

Through his research, Baelser aims to understand the experiences of veterans of World War II and the Cold War who were stationed in Hesse, Germany, and specifically how their experiences impacted their lives and views.

“My research project is about the experience of American soldiers who served in West Germany during the Cold War,” Baesler said. “Over 20 million Americans have lived in Germany since 1945, either as members of the armed services or as their dependents. Yet there has been very little research about their experiences there.”

Coming up with the topic was easy for Baesler, since he grew up in a home directly affected by U.S. military presence.

“This research is very personal for me, because through my mother’s upbringing in a garrison town, the history of the American occupation of Germany is part of my family history,” he said. “I grew up as a child surrounded by Americans, listening to American radio, influenced by American pop culture. In a way, I am revisiting my own childhood with this research.”

Prior to the project, Baesler began investigating the relationship between Americans and Germans in 2014.

Because of his mother’s upbringing in Butzbach, Germany, a garrison town, he was interested in how the interaction between American soldiers and Germans impacted both groups.

Informally, Baesler began looking into the issue by visiting the town his mother grew up in.

“I visited the local archives in Butzbach, a small town in south-central Germany, because that is where my mother is from,” he said. “She told me many stories about life in a small town with a lot of American soldiers, all the interactions, some good, some problematic. I always wanted to look into this history more closely, so two years ago, I started in earnest.”

The project officially began in the fall, when Baesler, along with his student research assistants Alissa Kane and Jerri Burdo, created a questionnaire for their participants. Each question was created to uncover the information the research is focused on finding. Once the questionnaire was finalized, Baesler submitted it to the SVSU Institutional Review Board for approval.

“Any research with human subjects requires such a review to make sure that ethical standards are maintained,” Baesler said.

Once the project was approved, Baesler and his assistants began seeking participants. The search proved to be a difficult task, since the profile for eligible participants is rather limited. Baesler has utilized outside resources to locate and identify potential participants.

“It has been harder than expected to find veterans in the Tri-City area who fit our profile, which is why we started to cast our net wider, contacting local historical societies, museums, etc. to find volunteers,” Baesler said.

Freshman Kaitlyn Farley, a history major and English minor pursuing a career in secondary education, is now the only research assistant involved. Her duties include interviewing veterans and learning more about the relationships between American GIs and Germans. Farley, a Vanguard reporter, also has weekly meetings with Baesler to discuss the project.

“I meet with (Baesler) once a week to touch base and review the progress we have made,” Farley said. “The biggest push right now is finding veterans who are willing to interview, so we have been creating and distributing flyers and getting in contact with museums and VA halls.”

To date, approximately 14 veterans have been interviewed, either in person or through written questionnaires. Once the project is completed, its results will be donated to SVSU Special Collections in the Zanhow Library. Additionally, Baesler intends to write scholarly journals about the research, as well as a book if enough information can be gathered.

“I hope that my research will help record the variety of experiences that millions of Americans made abroad and help historians to assess the significance of these experiences,” Baesler said.