- 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
When this gigantic struggle ended in 1945, and Nazism had been wiped out, German images of the United States were confused and twisted not only by the legacy of Goebbels’s hate propaganda but also by the total chaos that the Third Reich had left behind. On the one hand, there was bitterness and resentment at the Allied occupation authorities and their initially punitive policies; on the other, there was gratitude for the food parcels and material help extended to millions of destitute people. Whatever American cultural imports reached postwar Germany, they were brought during the occupation by GIs who, when it came to their German girl friends or handing out Hershey bars to children, cheerfully ignored nonfraternization orders. It took until the early 1950s for the economic and political situation to stabilize and for Germans to begin to sort out their feelings toward the United States. By then the Cold War was at its height, and American political and economic predominance in Western Europe was simply irrefutable. Germany’s entrepreneurs, many of them back in their prewar roles, were among the first to appreciate this. They knew that the structures and traditions of their businesses would have to be adapted to those of the United States if they were to compete in the new world market being created by Washington and American corporations.
For a third time German interest in American technology and industrial organization grew intense, promoted in part by men like the Marshall Plan administrator Paul Hoffman, a former president of Studebaker, and his deputy, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., an economics professor at MIT. As the latter put it, the United States needed to exploit “to the full the example of its own accomplishments and their powerful appeal to Europeans (and others) among all groups.” Coca-Cola and the movies, he pointed out, “may be regarded as two products of a shallow and crude civilization. But American machinery, American labor relations, and American management and engineering are everywhere respected.” He hoped that “a few European unions and entrepreneurs can be induced to try out the philosophy of higher productivity, higher wages, and higher profits from the lower prices of lower unit costs.” He argued that the forces fostering change were “so powerful that. ... it will not require enormous sums of money ... to achieve vaster increases in production. But it will require a profound shift in social attitudes, attuning them to the mid-twentieth century.”
Once again a new generation of German engineers, managers, and experts traveled across the Atlantic to study American industry and consumer culture with a view to transferring its practices and ideologies back home. There was enthusiasm, but as before, there was also rejection, with arguments on both sides very reminiscent of the debates on “Americanism” during the 1920s. As before, German attitudes toward Hollywood movies, rock ’n’ roll, and American music split along generational lines. By the mid-1950s many young Germans knew more about Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa than about Beethoven and Mozart. Elvis Presley reduced his German audiences to fits of hysteria. They enjoyed the aura of sexual freedom as they mocked the Prussian stiffness and soldier worship of their fathers.
Youth rose in rebellion against the culture of an older generation, anxious, after the moral and cultural catastrophe of Nazism, to provide orientation for a society traumatized by war and Cold War. This “Americanization from below” challenged gender boundaries, deeply worrying conservative politicians and religious leaders. American cultural imports attracted some, including many young women, as vibrant and liberating and offended others as radical and decadent, wild and primitive, and, above all, threatening. This split in perception has persisted to this day.
In the end German attitudes toward America tell us less about the United States and its culture than about two Germanys that have been wrestling with each other for more than a century now. One is inwardlooking, averse to innovation, provincial, nationalist, and nostalgically tied to its customs. The other has adopted Fordism and all that has grown out of it, blending American ways with German traditions in a new synthesis. The result is the idea of a society open to the outside world, accepting difference and diversity, working toward multiculturalism.
The Nazi attempt to combine an inward-looking German culture with American technology and industrialism foundered not merely because of the superior military power of the United States in World War II but also because of the contradiction inherent in Hitler’s aims. Ultimately Fordism could not be reconciled with dictatorship or with the destruction of difference and creativity through ruthless state violence. And now we find the old and the new Germany struggling again, with American culture giving both sides the ammunition to support the type of society they cherish and condemn the type they loathe. The outcome of this cultural struggle will determine the future role of a reunified Germany within Europe. What is more, much of this current debate is going on in other European societies with almost identical arguments about homogeneity and diversity. A bitter battle thus is raging over the future place of all of Europe in the post-Cold War world.