- Historic Sites
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
War, revolution, and defeat exacerbated many Germans’ fears of American culture, while others continued to admire the United States and even see American economic and technological power as the only hope for reviving the ravaged Weimar economy. By the fall of 1923 hyperinflation had reached such heights that a tourist dollar was worth 4.2 trillion marks; the country faced total collapse. The next year, after a drastic currency reform, things began to look up again. With American diplomatic help an internationally agreed payments schedule, known as the Dawes Plan, was adopted to deal with the thorny issue of German war reparations. The Dawes Plan cleared the way for the flow of American investments into Germany, which was still generally considered the industrial powerhouse of Europe, merely needing its potential to be reactivated. By 1928 U.S. capital exports to Germany had reached $1.4 billion, with another $1.6 billion given in short-term loans. Some seventy-nine American firms established branches in Germany or took major stakes in German companies. Opel Cars, the first German automaker to develop a Model T type of vehicle (the ever cheaper Laubfrosch, or Froggie), was taken over by General Motors. Ford built an assembly plant in Cologne. In Essen, Coca-Cola opened a major bottling plant. Chrysler put up a production facility near Berlin in 1927. IG Farben Chemicals and Zeiss Optics signed cooperative agreements with American trusts.
All this hectic activity led to another rush to study the secrets of the New World’s industrial success. As P. Riebensahm, an engineering professor at Berlin and himself a visitor to America, put it, “At first a few leading personalities came [to the United States] individually; then major firms sent employees in groups of twos and threes. ... Soon the passenger lists of the beautiful ships of Hamburg-America Line and North German Lloyd looked like a register of the leading industrial firms of Germany.” Among the travelers were top entrepreneurs like Carl Koettgen of Siemens, Wilhelm Zangen of United Steel, and Gustav Krupp, who wrote to a colleague afterward: “I have gained valuable impressions in America.... I can only advise you also to see that country once again.”
In 1928 IG Farben sent Wichard von Moellendorff on a tour to “examine the transferability of experiences to Germany.” He came back particularly impressed by the fact that “both the American and the Russian doctrine of salvation are focusing on the idea that a modern national economy should be more concerned with the ‘poor’ than with the ‘wealthy’ consumers.” The liberal economist Moritz Bonn, who knew the United States well, drew a rather more scathing contrast with German ways: “American entrepreneurs like Ford know that the masses will only tolerate the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of a few if they themselves derive a corresponding advantage from it. In a wealthy country like America, one permits the entrepreneur to earn as much as he likes, provided that those through whom he makes his money also benefit from it. The authoritarian German capitalism, and heavy industry in particular, has never allowed others to share in their earnings. Obsessed by technically perfectly correct organizational ideas, it has tried to achieve the removal of all dispensable intermediate links.”
Meanwhile, in the mid-1920s, not only products and economic theories came from America; so did new ideas about consumption, leisure, and popular culture. Hollywood films, the embodiment of a new mass-consumer culture, became so popular that soon millions of Germans were going to the movies at least once a week. Next came popular live entertainment: the Tiller Girls, the Charleston and the foxtrot, and, above all, jazz. Culture was no longer for a select few to enjoy in conceit halls, opera houses, and private theaters; Madison Avenue-style advertising urged ordinary Germans to seek distraction and escape from the drudgery of their daily lives. Department stores put affordable fancy clothes within the reach of “factory girls” and women office workers. It was chic to dress and behave like the emancipated American “modern woman,” who wore lipstick and smoked cigarillos.
If the United States had shifted in the German imagination from a land of settlers battling Indians to the center of modern urbanism and industrialism, the spread of earlier reactions remained virtually unchanged. There were still those like the famous literary critic Alfred Kerr, who in his 1925 travel account Yankee Land openly declared his love of New York and California and praised the “Yankee” as an unrivaled inventor and daring schemer, and there were those for whom “asphalt jungles” and “Chicago” were the symbols of all the evils America stood for. Jazz and Hollywood were manifestations of decadence, of a sick and doomed urban culture that must be replaced once more by small-scale, harmonious, orderly agrarian communities. These anti-Americans were anti-modern, anti-industrial, anti-urban, and illiberal. Many of them could be found on the extreme right, supporting the rising Nazi movement.