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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 between, as before, there were those Germans who were ambivalent. Surprisingly, perhaps, among them was Adolf Hitler. Historians continue to debate what, beyond racism and the hatred of Jews, the Nazi leader actually stood for, but it has become increasingly clear that he cannot be identified with the agrarian wing of his party, whose members preached the de-industrialization and de-urbanization of Germany and a return to “blood and soil.” Hitler knew the importance of industry and technology, not least for the implementation of his expansionist plans. He realized that in the twentieth century a war of conquest could not be won without a strong industrial and scientific base, with rationalized, standardized production churning out sophisticated weapons. He also learned that satisfying the expectations of a better life among millions of urban consumers was a key to the stability of his regime. That is why he vigorously promoted the growth of production, both for military strength and for popular loyalty. Of course, his war of expansion had to be won, and this would require temporary austerity to finance rapid rearmament. Still, all the while Hitler never stopped talking about a mass-consumption society. In fact, he even began to put it into practice when the first Volkswagen (”people’s car”) went into production in 1938.
Germany’s power and prosperity were to be reflected in the imposing buildings that the architect Albert Speer designed on Hitler’s orders. Time and again the Führer wandered among the models for them. The actual buildings were intended to overawe the viewer while symbolizing the might and the durability of the “Thousand Year Reich.” Hitler was fascinated by the monuments of ancient Rome, which he thought was the only true world empire that had ever existed, but Rome was not his only or even his primary point of reference. Time and again he looked across the Atlantic as he formulated his mass-production and mass-consumption Utopia.
“Modesty,” said Hitler in 1941, “is the enemy of progress. In this respect we resemble the Americans. We are a demanding people.”
He had a healthy respect for the economic power and military potential of the United States, but a respect modified by skepticism. He believed that American power was threatened from the inside by the country’s “inferior races,” above all by Jews and blacks. In his warped view of the world, these groups undermined the biological fiber and political hegemony of the white Anglo-Saxon “race.” But until this process had run its course, the United States, the Führer feared, would pose a serious threat to his ambition of making Germany a world power.
Given his notion that history was propelled by cutthroat struggles between nations and races, Hitler assumed that a final struggle between Germany and America was inevitable. As he put it in 1928, “The ultimate decision on the outcome of the war for the world market will depend on the use of force rather than on business strategies. . . . Swords must be given priority over plowshares, just as the army takes priority over the economy.” To prepare for this global conflict, he would need a territorial base comparable to that of the North American continent. He would also need American technology and industrial organization. He admired Henry Ford not merely as an anti-Semite but also as a brilliant organizer of mass production and herald of the mass-consumption society.
That was the background for Nazi policies and attitudes toward the United States between the late 1920s and President Roosevelt’s openly hostile Quarantine Speech of October 1937. Wanting to avoid a premature conflict, Hitler began to woo and appease Washington as soon as he took command of German foreign policy in 1933. In an interview with an American journalist that year, a mere three weeks after his appointment to the Reich chancellorship, he claimed to feel a “sincere friendship” toward the United States. Until 1936 the Nazi press consistently portrayed Roosevelt and the New Deal in a favorable light.
Meanwhile the cooperation that had developed between German and American industry during the 1920s continued. Ford and GM-Opel built cars, trucks, and even military vehicles, and the latter had 50 percent of the market by 1935. ITT took a 28 percent stake in Focke-Wulf’s bomber production. Huge posters on city billboards urged Germans to enjoy an ice-cold Coke. In 1936 Ferdinand Porsche, the father of the Volkswagen, studied Ford’s plants in Michigan, and in 1937 North German Lloyd advertised more than forty tours of industrial America. Not just steel bosses and engineers went. So did lawyers, marketing specialists, department-store managers, road engineers, and experts of all kinds. Even the German Labor Front organized three trips to study the U.S. economy in the spring of 1939.