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
By the turn of the century, German interest in America, while still inspiring the likes of Karl May’s novels about trappers and “Red Indians,” increasingly turned to its industries. The United States, for good or ill, was coming to be seen as the embodiment of cultural and technological modernity and progress. At the 1500 Paris World Exhibition the American pavilion, with its demonstrations of new steelmaking techniques, became a magnet for engineers and entrepreneurs. They were particularly fascinated by the standardized production methods and precision-tool machinery on display. Soon scores of experts began to travel across the Atlantic to admire the Brooklyn Bridge and visit the industrial cities of the East Coast, Ohio, and Michigan. By 1903 the journal of the influential Association of German Engineers had opened its pages to reports like Paul Moeller’s account of his seven-month journey through industrial America. He urged managers to follow the American example and move toward greater standardization and incentive-based wage systems.
Sooner or later visitors from Germany would come across the name of Frederick W. Taylor and the scientific management movement, devoted to the scientific planning and monitoring of the actions of employees. A translation of Taylor’s 1906 essay “On the Art of Cutting Metals” appeared quickly, and his famous Principles of Scientific Management , of 1911, published in German within a year, became an instant bestseller and had to be reprinted three times in the spring of 1913 alone.
Taylor’s 1903 work Shop Management had taken three years to be translated, for it had first raised the large question of whether the attitudes and values that underlay his movement were as easily importable as new steel-cutting technologies. Many Germans harbored serious doubts. As the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung observed in 1906, the adoption of American-style methods in industry would have “cultural consequences” that were still difficult to perceive.
German industry resisted cheap mass production for fear that its traditional concern for high quality would be undermined. No less a person than Thomas Edison observed in 1911 that Germans were too responsive to the special wishes of individual customers to fully standardize their products. An executive of the Daimler Company in Stuttgart, makers of Mercedes luxury cars, put it this way: “Here [we do things] meticulously and thoroughly; over there it is skimping and rushing.” Indeed, as Henry Ford experimented with assembly-line production, cars all over Europe continued to be individually built by highly skilled craftsmen in small workshops. In Germany only Opel moved toward cheap volume production, and it was promptly dubbed a “business organized along American lines.” Part of the resistance came from craftsmen who were members of trade unions with enough power to disrupt production severely if they disliked new ways.
At the Robert Bosch Electrical Engineering Company in Stuttgart, the directors were very open to technical and organizational ideas developed in America. In 1913 H. Borst, a member of the Bosch board, managed to have a long conversation with Taylor; Borst was won over and subsequently advocated scientific management in Stuttgart. However when Bosch tried to introduce Taylorized production on a large scale, the Metal Workers’ Union mounted the barricades. It hated what came to be known as the “Bosch tempo,” and suddenly the company had a major strike on its hands. The conservative captains of other German industries could hardly contain their Schadenfreude . They had long been suspicious of the industrial culture emerging on the other side of the Atlantic, and they expected that the innovations of that culture must also mean the loss of social hierarchy and deference, which, as Baedeker had warned, had already disappeared on the other side of the Atlantic. Daimler Cars proclaimed: “Over here we are still a long way away from the American situation where every Mr. Jones owns a car. With us the automobile is for the most part a vehicle for the better-off classes.” Finally, might not Germany succumb to “racial chaos,” gangsterism, and the spirit of the “Wild West”? Yet the pull of America’s relative cultural and technological modernity proved irresistible in peacetime. As the journal Der Motorwagen had observed in 1905, “Americanization” was already under way “at an accelerated pace.”