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Germany’s America

June 2024
16min read

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

In 1989 the Berlin wall came down. A year later the unimaginable had become a reality: Germany, divided in 1945, was reunified, and it was beginning to raise a major voice not only in Europe but also in world politics. Hopes are high that this time Germany will assume a role among nations different from the one it played in the first half of the century. But in East and West there are deep and traumatic memories of two world wars, of how the Germans saw themselves then and of how they treated their neighbors.


Nor has the old “German Question” been forgotten in the United States. Many people wonder about the future of a relationship that for more than a century has experienced repeated ups and downs. The two countries have been bitter enemies in two world wars and rivals as industrial nations, but they have also had close political, military, and economic ties. However hard they may have tried at various times to retreat into their shells and ignore each other, neither has ever been able to afford to do that.

So how have Germans perceived America—that is, America as a society and a culture, not as a political or economic power? The question opens up intriguing problems about Germany’s and Europe’s future. Like many Europeans, Germans have often been unable to make up their minds about the United States. There have always been those who felt greatly attracted to the cultural ideas and products that reached them from across the Atlantic; they have been eager to visit America. Others would flatly refuse to contemplate such a trip and expressed nothing but disgust and contempt, while a third group has remained deeply ambivalent. The latter would probably agree with the French politician who condemned the Disney theme park near Paris as a “cultural Chernobyl,” and they’d also take their kids to the local McDonald’s, of which Munich, for example, boasts no fewer than eighteen. They would contend proudly that America has never produced composers like Beethoven or Mozart, while treasuring their collections of classic jazz records. They would deplore the violence and superficiality of Hollywood movies, but never miss an episode of “Dynasty.”

Germany today is arguably the most Americanized society of Western Europe, but it is also steeped in native cultural traditions and attitudes; it is inward-looking and suspicious of strangers and diversity. In short, Germans are confused about what to make of the United States as a culture and about what to do with its exports, especially Hollywood movies and pop music.

By the turn of the century America embodied to Germans both the “Red Indians” of Karl May and the essence of modernity.

It was no different a hundred and fifty years ago, when during the hungry 1840s and after the failed revolutions of 1848, emigration from Germany rose sharply and contacts between the two countries intensified. Given the poor communications of the time, images of the United States were bound to be fuzzy and contradictory, but Germans had great curiosity about the New World, and people back home implored those who had made the dangerous journey to report on what it was like. In the decades before the founding of the German Empire, in 1871, dozens of books appeared offering advice to travelers. These still make illuminating reading, not least because of the strong ideological messages that they convey. On the one hand, there are condescending warnings about America as a country without Kultur, as one big “Wild West”; on the other, we find admiration for the land of liberty and equality. German novelists who wrote about the New World were similarly divided.

After 1870, as America emerged as a major industrial power, German accounts of the country become more sober and scholarly, designed not only to give practical advice but to analyze the reality. During the 1890s some four million letters arrived in Germany from across the Atlantic every year. The United States now appeared as a country propelled by a pioneering spirit, mobility, speed, courage, efficiency, modernity, a country with low taxation and no conscription but also a land full of ethnic discrimination, where people worked long hours, instantly lost their jobs, and put up with high medical costs and no social security. For years after 1893 Baedeker’s Tourist Guide warned the traveler to prepare for “the absence of deference or servility on the part of those he considers his social inferiors.” The greater role of women was frequently remarked on. In 1903 Ludwig Max Goldberger published a book on the American economy titled Land of Unlimited Possibilities , and the phrase quickly caught on in Germany. Three years later the economist Werner Sombart put out a famous essay, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” His answer lay in upward mobility, rising living standards, and the open Western frontier.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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