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When William Watts Folwell was inaugurated as the first president of the University of Minnesota in 1869, he brought a vision of higher education that grew out of the experience of studying philology in Berlin and traveling abroad from 1860-1861. In 1883, the state of Minnesota passed an act establishing “a professorship of Scandinavian language and literature” at the University. The earliest courses of German offered here date back to the 1860s; the first record of a German department is in 1900. The first Scandinavian PhD was granted in 1897, the first German MA in 1909, and the first German PhD in 1919.

After 1945 and throughout the Cold War period, foreign languages had a strong presence on university campuses, including at Minnesota, where field-shaping initiatives flourished. From 1976-1993, the department hosted a Dutch Writer-in-Residence, with support from the Dutch-Flemish Foundation for the Translation of Dutch Literary Works and the Netherlands Ministry of Culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, the German department began several transformative projects, including a series of international and interdisciplinary conferences. It received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, international funding sources, and the local arts community for the interdisciplinary research project, "Germany in the Twenties: The Artist as Social Critic," and celebrated the 750th anniversary of Berlin’s founding with a conference that resulted in the publication of Berlin Culture and Metropolis. Meanwhile, the department played a pivotal role in transforming foreign language education, an effort that had an impact across the Upper Midwest through the Minnesota Articulation Project. Following the 1994 merger that formed the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch, a unique orientation to research, teaching, and service evolved that positions the department to adapt to the demands of 21st-century land grant universities. In 1998, the Center for German and European Studies came into being thanks to faculty efforts.

The Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch is renowned among Germanic languages and literature programs for its innovative interdisciplinary approach. The department played a salient role in the development of interdisciplinary German studies in North America in the 1980s and 1990s. Faculty members advanced early efforts of the German Studies Association and Women in German that expanded the discipline, moving from literary texts to embrace visual and media culture, intellectual and cultural history, and gender and sexuality studies. The department also achieved recognition for its excellence in medieval studies and philology, its pioneering joint degree in German and Scandinavian literature and culture, and its distinctive approach to second-language education.

In the 1993 and 2005 national rankings of graduate programs in German, the department ranked among the top ten, making it the highest ranked graduate program in the humanities at the University of Minnesota. Today the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch, located in Folwell Hall, is one of the largest programs of its kind in the U.S.