FEUCHTWANGEN, Germany — After Amy Gutmann’s father fled the Nazis in 1934, he swore never to set foot in Germany again. For the rest of his life, he boycotted German goods and only spoke English to his daughter. Germany, he impressed on her when she was growing up, was “very bad.”
Nearly a century later, Ms. Gutmann, a respected democracy scholar, has moved to Germany — as the new U.S. ambassador. With antisemitism and far-right ideology once again resurgent, and with Russia waging war on Ukraine close by, her new role is not a job, she says: “It’s a mission.”
That mission is personal as well as geopolitical.
Earlier this month, Ms. Gutmann was striding up a cobbled alleyway in Feuchtwangen, the sleepy Bavarian town where generations of her German ancestors had dwelled before a Nazi mayor burned down the local synagogue and declared his town “Jew-free.”
“You’ll forgive me for speaking not only as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, but as Amy Gutmann, the daughter of Kurt Gutmann,” Ms. Gutmann, 72, told a crowd of local dignitaries. “I would not be here today were it not for my father’s farsightedness and courage.”
The timing of her official arrival as ambassador on Feb. 17, Ms. Gutmann said in an interview, felt particularly poignant, coming one week before the invasion of Ukraine by a revisionist Russian president who has been accused by her own boss of committing “genocide” in his quest for empire.
Seventy-seven years after America and its allies defeated Hitler’s Germany, the two countries are now united against Russian aggression. A big part of Ms. Gutmann’s job will be to keep it that way.
“Germany and the U.S. today are extremely strong allies and they’re allies in defense of human rights and in defense of the sovereignty of democratic societies,” she said. “It closes a loop, while leading us forward into an era that my father never had the opportunity to witness.”
When President Biden called her in April 2021, she was the longest-serving president of the University of Pennsylvania, a mathematics major turned political philosopher who had written more than a dozen books about democracy.
“Do you want to be my ambassador to Germany?” Mr. Biden asked her.
Ms. Gutmann was sworn in on the Hebrew Bible her German grandmother Amalie, for whom she was named, had brought with her from Germany.
Germany has welcomed Ms. Gutmann not just as a representative of a new administration but of the American ally of old — before it turned fickle and abrasive during the Trump years. Ms. Gutmann’s predecessor, Richard Grenell, threatened to stop sharing intelligence with Germany and posed for selfies with lawmakers of the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
Repairing America’s alliances was one of President Biden’s main foreign policy objectives and Germany was central to this effort, making Ms. Gutmann a perfect candidate, said Julianne Smith, a longstanding Biden adviser and now the U.S. ambassador to NATO.
“The president believes that Germany is an indispensable partner for us and he wanted to send someone that he knew well,” Ms. Smith said.
(Before Mr. Biden offered her the job, Ms. Gutmann had offered him one in 2017 as a lecturer at her university, an offer that came after he lost his son Beau and “saved” him, as he once described it.)
“It was just obvious in his mind that she was the right person at the right time,” Ms. Smith said. “She is a proven leader and she is an intellectual giant.”
When her father died in 1966, Ms. Gutmann was only 16 and Germany was still filled with former Nazis.
In the three decades since reunification, the country has worked hard to own up to its history — and apply the lessons of that history.
But it took the arrival of over a million refugees from the Middle East under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, in 2015-16, for Ms. Gutmann to fully trust Germany’s transformation.
“I was deeply moved by Merkel’s welcoming of refugees,” she said. “It made a strong, perhaps decisive difference in my sense of Germany’s commitment to human rights.”
She added, “Germany today is a model of acknowledging the past.”
That acknowledgment was on display in Feuchtwangen, where the director of the local museum guided Ms. Gutmann through an exhibition on 800 years of Jewish life in the town that also described in unsparing detail the persecution of Jews under the Nazis.
Among the exhibits were items from Ms. Gutmann’s own family. A photograph of her grandfather. A postcard written by her grandmother. As a gift, Ms. Gutmann was handed copies of her father’s report cards. “German was not his strength it seems,” she said, laughing.
“Everybody gets report cards, but to see something in which there were semi-normal times for him was a high point,” she said later. “I only knew my father after he was traumatized.”
Her father, an Orthodox Jew who fled Germany as a teenager and later organized the escape of his parents and four siblings, barely spoke to Ms. Gutmann about his own past, but he taught her about the Holocaust.
“He clearly did not want me as a child to know — let alone to carry forward — his emotional trauma, but he definitely wanted me to carry the lessons of ‘never again’ forward,” Ms. Gutmann recalled.
Raised in the small town of Monroe, N.Y., Ms. Gutmann said she felt like “a strange kid,” as she put it, her Jewishness and intellectual curiosity making her a double outsider.
Her mother urged her to do well in school. After winning a scholarship, she became the first in her family to go to college and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard before teaching at Princeton for nearly 30 years and becoming president of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.
Her book “Democractic Education,” which shows why democracies need a robust public education system, is a standard in the field.
“One reason I wrote about democracy and education was that it is a path out of tyranny,” she said. “The first thing the Nazis did was to close down the press and burn books.”
The Gutmann house in Feuchtwangen, where her father grew up, has become a bookstore, which delighted her. “Oh my God! If this were a Hollywood script, it would be a bookstore,” she said, before purchasing half a dozen books for her grandchildren.
Her father had been an apprentice with a metallurgist in nearby Nuremberg, home to the biggest Nazi Party rallying ground, where he boarded with a Christian family that treated him well. But when he watched them flash the Hitler salute at a passing Nazi march, he knew it was time to leave.
“He fled when he could because he saw what was happening,” Ms. Gutmann said. “One of my missions is that people need to know how important it is to speak up early.”
For all Germany’s efforts to apply the lessons from its past, one great leap remains, she said: Long reluctant to spend on its military, let alone deploy it, Germans have to trust themselves to lead on military matters.
“Diplomacy is the first recourse — but it often does not work against brutal tyrannies,” Ms. Gutmann said.
That, too, is a lesson from World War II, she said: “Were it not for the military force of the allies, Hitler would have won.”
“And now we have Putin,” she added. “Without military force, there is no way Ukraine can defend its sovereignty. At this moment, as in many other moments in the history of democracies, we have to have not only the military might, but the willingness to use it.”
In Germany, that realization is still sinking in. The government has committed to a 100-billion euro rearmament program in what Chancellor Olaf Scholz dubbed a “Zeitenwende” — or historic turning point — but Berlin has been criticized for dragging its feet on delivering heavy weapons to Kyiv.
“I believe the Zeitenwende is real,” Ms. Gutmann said. “If there’s anybody who’s not disposed to be soft on Germany, it’s me. But I do think we have to recognize what a historic moment this is, and we will continue to urge Germany to do more.”
Ms. Gutmann worried that both Germans and Americans “overestimated how enduring democracies are — they’re not, unless you fight for them,” she said, adding, “Everything we do makes a difference. And everything we don’t do makes a difference.”
For all her eagerness to visit Feuchtwangen, the night before she traveled there, Ms. Gutmann barely slept.
“I was worried sick that I would go there and feel they hadn’t really come to terms with the past,” she recalled, “that I would be disappointed and I wouldn’t have been able to hide it — and it would have been just a terrible moment.”
By the time she left the town, she was reassured.
Addressing the small photograph of her father in her hands, she said, “You would be so proud of not only your daughter, but of your country, the United States, which became your country, and the country that you had to leave — and what they have become: Two of the greatest allies still fighting what you would tell me is a fight that could never end.”