Germany’s America

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Hitler’s plans for Germany’s future socioeconomic organization and culture, especially his architectural ambitions, continued to make frequent reference to the United States. The remodeled main railroad station for Berlin was to be larger than Grand Central Terminal in New York. A bridge to span the Elbe River between Hamburg and HarburgWilhelmsburg was to be the “largest bridge in the world,” so that Germans could say, in Hitler’s words, “What does America mean with its bridges? We can do the same.” When it turned out that soil conditions in Hamburg militated against achieving the same long span as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, he ordered that the lanes be broadened to obtain at least the same square footage. Berlin’s largest assembly hall, with a seating capacity of 180,000, was going to dwarf Carnegie Hall. “Modesty,” Hitler proclaimed in September 1941, “is the enemy of progress. In this respect we resemble the Americans. We are a demanding people.” Accordingly the German Stadium in the Party rally grounds outside Nuremberg was to accommodate 405,000 spectators.

In this climate of making American technology the yardstick, American cultural imports, like cinema and music, also kept their niche. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was a movie fan who had long recognized the power of the medium, and Hollywood films were shown widely in the 1930s. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Clark Gable were as well known as any German stars. Nazi censors became adept at approving escapist and romantic movies while Goebbels built up a film empire of his own, to counter Hollywood’s hegemony and produce films with strong ideological messages.

Propaganda Minister Goebbels built up a film empire to counter Hollywood with his own ideological messages.

The subversive influence of American jazz and big-band music was harder to control. Jazz, relying on improvisation, free interaction among musicians, and lyrics evoking memories of slavery and repression, became a forbidden fruit, viewed as dangerous by a racist dictatorship that espoused conformity as a virtue. Young, mainly middle-class people who refused to conform listened to jazz in “hot clubs” or bought records with false labels to mislead the authorities. To them this was defiance and dissent. Although the regime harassed and later persecuted so-called Swingheinis , the Nazi leadership was reluctant to stamp out American music altogether, not wanting to upset those who simply enjoyed big-band dancing. During the war swing was popular with the troops. There is a story of a Goebbels aide who, after a big-band audience had began to shout “’Tiger Rag! Bei mir biste scheen! ’ [You are wonderful],” declared solemnly that American and Jewish numbers were forbidden, whereupon he was pelted with apples. He told the musicians, “Play what you want!” and scurried off.

Jazz illustrates Nazism’s ambiguity toward “Americanism” and American culture particularly well. Hitler’s interest in technology and industrial management notwithstanding, the social framework within which America’s mass-production and mass-consumption society operated was anathema. Behind the splendid facades of Speer’s architecture lurked a regime that had effectively disenfranchised its population; democracy had died in Germany in 1933. Hitler’s chauvinism and racism envisioned a homogeneous, closed society that condemned ethnic minorities to helot status and extinction. The specter of Jesse Owen winning gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games was intolerable. Nor did the image of the emancipated woman, first imported from across the Atlantic in the 1920s, sit well with the Nazi ideal of a devoted Gretchen bearing future soldiers for the Third Reich’s wars of conquest.

And so Hitler’s respect for, and interest in, America—always ambivalent and never enthusiastic—flip-flopped and then turned into all-out hostility and rage after Roosevelt in 1937 began block Nazi ambitions. During the war the Führer’s anger grew boundless as he slowly realized that American industrial and military superiority was precisely what would destroy him and his dictatorship. World War II was, after all, a struggle over the principles according to which the industrial-technological societies of the twentieth century would be organized.