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For a century and a half Germans have been deeply ambivalent about the United States, and their contradictory feelings say much about their future in Europe and the world
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
In 1989 the Berlin wall came down. A year later the unimaginable had become a reality: Germany, divided in 1945, was reunified, and it was beginning to raise a major voice not only in Europe but also in world politics. Hopes are high that this time Germany will assume a role among nations different from the one it played in the first half of the century. But in East and West there are deep and traumatic memories of two world wars, of how the Germans saw themselves then and of how they treated their neighbors.
Nor has the old “German Question” been forgotten in the United States. Many people wonder about the future of a relationship that for more than a century has experienced repeated ups and downs. The two countries have been bitter enemies in two world wars and rivals as industrial nations, but they have also had close political, military, and economic ties. However hard they may have tried at various times to retreat into their shells and ignore each other, neither has ever been able to afford to do that.
So how have Germans perceived America—that is, America as a society and a culture, not as a political or economic power? The question opens up intriguing problems about Germany’s and Europe’s future. Like many Europeans, Germans have often been unable to make up their minds about the United States. There have always been those who felt greatly attracted to the cultural ideas and products that reached them from across the Atlantic; they have been eager to visit America. Others would flatly refuse to contemplate such a trip and expressed nothing but disgust and contempt, while a third group has remained deeply ambivalent. The latter would probably agree with the French politician who condemned the Disney theme park near Paris as a “cultural Chernobyl,” and they’d also take their kids to the local McDonald’s, of which Munich, for example, boasts no fewer than eighteen. They would contend proudly that America has never produced composers like Beethoven or Mozart, while treasuring their collections of classic jazz records. They would deplore the violence and superficiality of Hollywood movies, but never miss an episode of “Dynasty.”
Germany today is arguably the most Americanized society of Western Europe, but it is also steeped in native cultural traditions and attitudes; it is inward-looking and suspicious of strangers and diversity. In short, Germans are confused about what to make of the United States as a culture and about what to do with its exports, especially Hollywood movies and pop music.
By the turn of the century America embodied to Germans both the “Red Indians” of Karl May and the essence of modernity.
It was no different a hundred and fifty years ago, when during the hungry 1840s and after the failed revolutions of 1848, emigration from Germany rose sharply and contacts between the two countries intensified. Given the poor communications of the time, images of the United States were bound to be fuzzy and contradictory, but Germans had great curiosity about the New World, and people back home implored those who had made the dangerous journey to report on what it was like. In the decades before the founding of the German Empire, in 1871, dozens of books appeared offering advice to travelers. These still make illuminating reading, not least because of the strong ideological messages that they convey. On the one hand, there are condescending warnings about America as a country without Kultur, as one big “Wild West”; on the other, we find admiration for the land of liberty and equality. German novelists who wrote about the New World were similarly divided.
After 1870, as America emerged as a major industrial power, German accounts of the country become more sober and scholarly, designed not only to give practical advice but to analyze the reality. During the 1890s some four million letters arrived in Germany from across the Atlantic every year. The United States now appeared as a country propelled by a pioneering spirit, mobility, speed, courage, efficiency, modernity, a country with low taxation and no conscription but also a land full of ethnic discrimination, where people worked long hours, instantly lost their jobs, and put up with high medical costs and no social security. For years after 1893 Baedeker’s Tourist Guide warned the traveler to prepare for “the absence of deference or servility on the part of those he considers his social inferiors.” The greater role of women was frequently remarked on. In 1903 Ludwig Max Goldberger published a book on the American economy titled Land of Unlimited Possibilities , and the phrase quickly caught on in Germany. Three years later the economist Werner Sombart put out a famous essay, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” His answer lay in upward mobility, rising living standards, and the open Western frontier.