Relations Between the United States and Germany:
Steven R. Ekovich
The first printed version of the American Declaration of Independence was in German. The very name of the country, America, was given by the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. On the earliest maps of the city of Philadelphia, the "Cradle of Independence," one will find in its environs Germantown, today a suburb, one example of numerous communities founded and for generations populated by Americans of German origin where the language of instruction in the schools and everyday life was German. These examples show that Germans and their culture have played an important role in America since its earliest beginnings. Germans are not strangers to Americans, but have lived beside them, mixed with them and have nourished American culture in many ways. Much of American trade in the nineteenth century, especially in cereals, was with the regions of the European continent that would become Germany. Any view of U.S.-German relations should not lose sight of these long historic connections. As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg once said in a speech to the Reichstag on the eve of American entry into World War I, "For more than a century friendly relations with America had been carefully promoted. We honored them, as Bismarck once put it, as an heirloom from Frederick the Great. Both countries profited by it, both giving and taking." Likewise, the general American perception of Germans and Germany has usually been positive. Even in those periods when Americans were at war with Germans they respected them as soldiers. The general American popular view of Germans is a people that are hard working, intelligent, practical, and brave.
But even if Americans have lived closely with Germans, they have always been far from Germany. Not sharing a border with Germany and therefore living in fear of its military power is a second fundamental component in the American view of Germany. Germany has not evoked the same sentiments of insecurity that it has for European nations. And even though Germany has been perceived as a big, powerful nation, Americans have been able to reassure themselves that the United States is even bigger and more powerful. It should also not be forgotten, in terms of the general background of the American view of Germany, that the United States has always defeated it in major wars, and without suffering tragic destruction and humiliation of its own territory and population. These underlying sentiments, situated deeply in the American psyche, have made it very easy for Americans, whether the general population, intellectuals or policy-makers, to accept without inordinate anxiety, and even a good measure of joy, a strong, prosperous and unified Germany -- particularly a Germany transformed by an open-market economy and democratic political institutions. This goes a long way toward explaining why Americans of all types received the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall with warm feelings of good hope for Germans. In fact, Americans may have felt more at ease and joyful with the crumbling of the wall than the Germans themselves. For Americans, it should be pointed out, the collapse of the wall also represented the collapse of the Soviet Union and American victory in the Cold War. This added an additional positive élan to American sentiments. Those of Germans were undoubtedly intense, but questionably not as purely positive as for their trans-Atlantic cousins and neighbors. It should be recalled that a very significant effort, perhaps the most significant effort, in the American struggle against the "Evil Empire" had been carried out in Germany. The accumulated American emotion that was released from the debris of the wall can also be explained by the fact that in the diplomatic history of the United States its relations with Europe have been fundamentally shaped by four nations: Great Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union -- with the last two taking up most American resources, anxiety and diplomacy in this century, particularly since World War II.
Against the backdrop of these general characteristics in the long shared history between the United States and Germany there has nevertheless been continual movement in the official position of the United States, as well as the perceptions of intellectuals and the general public, that have shaped American relations to Germany in this century -- and particularly as a result of the two world wars. In order to bring the continuities and discontinuities into sharper focus and present a more nuanced picture that will help in understanding the American reaction to the fall of the wall, it is instructive to compare and contrast the U.S. experience with Germany in the two world wars and their postwar periods. It is also helpful to trace the essentials of German-American relations during the Cold War.
Even up to 1917 most Americans were against U.S. entry into the European war. American involvement posed a particularly difficult dilemma for German-Americans. The theme sounded in German language newspapers was that although "the hearts of millions would be saddened by the knowledge that they must wage war against their kin, the loyalty of German-Americans towards the country of their adoption would come first." When the U.S. did enter the war, it was all the more important for German-speaking Americans to rally to the Stars and Stripes because the powerful patriotic emotions stirred up were turned against antiwar radicals and German-Americans who did not satisfy the public demand for all-out support of the war effort. Many states even forbade the teaching of the German language, while certain citizens resorted to such absurdities as renaming sauerkraut "liberty cabbage." But this jingoist reaction went only so far. When former president Theodore Roosevelt called for establishing military courts to punish "subversives," President Wilson saw this as alarming and stopped the trend with a public statement that compared military courts to Prussian militarism. During World War II Americans of German origin would be spared these emotional attacks, which this time would be suffered by Americans of Japanese origin. One of the most ugly chapters in American history is the internment of Americans of Japanese origin in isolated camps and the confiscation of their property - a rejection and humiliation never suffered by German-Americans. It took more than forty years for the U.S. government to apologize to its citizens of Japanese origin and to offer them a symbolic monetary compensation.
The First World War was also a severe and disorienting blow to American intellectuals on the left. In the years before the war when the ideal of international proletarian solidarity seemed close to realization and the Germans seemed to be leading the way, American radicals assumed that European workers had achieved the political strength and maturity to oppose war and declare their solidarity with the Second International. The American left was deeply disappointed and divided by the reaction of European Socialist parties in support of their militaries and the siren song of nationalism. The antiwar position of the left was gradually eroded in the first years of the European conflict and by April 1917, when President Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war, most leading socialist writers and politicians had already advocated America's intervention against an imperialist Germany, some hoping evidently that the war would bring the advent of socialism. But as the leftist writer Randolph Bourne despaired, "The individual as a social being in war seems to have achieved almost his apotheosis." Bourne and others came to believe that even more than culture or class conflict, war was the real catalyst that moved the masses to idealistic acts of self-sacrifice and "delusions of organic wholeness."
After the war, American intellectuals debated among themselves the causes of the conflict, the place of the United States in European affairs, and the future of Germany. An interpretation of Germany history that gave a large place to pessimism was proposed by the pioneer American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. His interpretation is worth noting because it incorporated themes that would later be picked up by future intellectuals as well as in official American policy. In his Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, published during the war in 1915, he concluded that Germany was inherently unstable and pugnacious because it was a society that had borrowed modern technology and industry from England, but without British liberal political institutions and liberties. Germany was the leading "disturber of the peace" precisely because its industry and commerce were highly developed and thoroughly modern while its cultural outlook remained almost medireview. The well-known historian Barrington Moore would later describe nineteenth-century Germany as a Victorian house with a modern electrical kitchen but insufficient bathrooms and leaky pipes hidden decorously behind newly plastered walls. For Veblen, the future of Germany meant that either its modern side would gradually come to dominate and replace its quasi-feudal side and its authoritarian values, or Germany would be overtaken by its pre-modern side and use its industrial and technological sophistication in the most destructive of ways. This interpretation has led some to believe that Veblen predicted the advent of Nazism in Germany. In studies he did for the U.S. government and in his An Inquiry into the Nature of the Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (1917), he would even advocate that an international organization be given the responsibility of transforming German society by the eradication of all vestiges of German militarism and imperialism. However, this approach to a defeated Germany would only be applied after the Second World War. It is useful to compare and contrast American policies toward Germany in the two postwar periods.
It is often forgotten that following World War I American troops remained as part of the Allied occupation forces in the Rhineland. At the Versailles Peace Conference President Wilson had opposed an independent Rhineland and Prime Minister Lloyd George an occupation, but Premier Clemenceau's insistence on security for France had ultimately led to a compromise requiring Allied troops to stay on for fifteen years. Once having reluctantly agreed to this, President Wilson recognized several good reasons for American participation: to ensure the preservation of German unity, to render the occupation as moderate as possible, to assuage French fears of Germany, and to help guarantee that Germany respected the Treaty of Versailles. He apparently believed that shifting the duty of occupation to the League of Nations within a few years could minimize opposition to it from the American public. The Rhineland issue was a critical one because the interests and demands of the several belligerents clashed with greatest intensity on this particular front. The French and the Belgians saw it as the most easily controllable and exploitable area of Germany. The Germans saw it as a vulnerable but integral part of their nation. The British and Americans saw the French domination of the Rhineland as a threat to postwar liberal institutions and the reintegration of Germany into the family of nations. After the First World War the Americans had no wish to use occupation as an instrument to change the German people and the fabric of German society. It took Nazism and the widespread destruction of the Second World War to modify the American approach.
After the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty and the U.S. withdrew from the Rhineland, Americans turned their attention inward, although they kept a wary eye on Europe, especially the newborn Soviet Union. The Great Depression further absorbed Americans in their own problems. In general, American public opinion expressed no great distress over Hitler's advent to power in 1933. The mainstream American press put its emphasis on the need in Germany for order and stability. Also, many Americans viewed the rise of Hitler's Germany as the inevitable consequence of the unfair Versailles Treaty with its impossible restrictions imposed on Germany's recovery. Others vehemently rejected the whole experience of World War I and the vengeful nature of the anti-German peace settlement. There could also be found magazine writers who saw Hitler as a desperate but understandable answer to Woodrow Wilson's planetary pretensions for liberal democracy. By the 1930s the anti-German hysteria of the war years had disappeared and many Americans, perhaps making amends, began to once again see the greatness of the Germans and their culture. The land of Goethe and Einstein re-emerged as a land of spiritual idealism and scientific and technical achievement. The Germans were perceived as virile and honorable, clean and efficient, generous and hospitable -- a reflection, perhaps, of how Americans wanted to view themselves. Because of this sympathetic identification many Americans felt that Hitler by no means represented the real Germans, the solid, middle-class "good Germans" who would moderate the excesses of Nazism and protect the highest ideals of German civilization.
America's mixed response to Nazism and Germans in this period should be contrasted with the attitudes expressed toward Italian Fascism a decade earlier. For while some of the same themes reappear -- Versailles humiliation, Bolshevik threat, the need for order and authority, etc. -- American opinion of Italians and Germans differed strikingly. Much of the apology for Italian fascism sprang from a scorn for Italians and Italy. In the American press the Mussolini experiment was presented as a step in the Americanization of Italy because it imposed on what was viewed as an indolent and improvident people the virtues of discipline and hard work. The Germans, on the contrary, were viewed as already possessing these uplifting Anglo-Saxon values. It was thus concluded that the highly cultured and ambitious German people needed Nazism less than Nazism needed them, leading many Americans to tolerate the aberration because of their faith in the sobriety and prudence of the people themselves. As John P. Diggins notes, these misperceptions led to a delicious irony during World War II when Americans called upon the "undisciplined" Italians to overthrow their government, while no such appeal was extended to the "orderly" Germans who had, it seemed, so willingly and completely regimented themselves to the Nazi state. During the war, American opinion changed direction and now became sentimentally attached to the essential goodness of Italians who had been tragically misled. In a poll in 1942, Americans were asked: "When the war is over how do you think we should treat the Italian people?" Fifty percent chose to "treat them kindly, humanely, fairly, as we would like to be treated." The American view of Germans had, on the contrary, by then become vindictive. In a poll on Germany's future (worded differently), approximately three-fourths of Americans felt that Germany should be demobilized and occupied; forty percent wanted to see the nation broken up into small states and de-industrialized; and, even more telling, almost half of the respondents believed that German labor should be forced to rebuild other devastated countries, and over 80 percent desired to see Germany saddled with a harsher peace than that imposed at Versailles.
Two months before the D-Day landings, Secretary of State Cordell Hull repeated in a radio address the aims of the American war effort and the policy to be adopted toward a defeated Germany. "We have found no difference of opinion among our Allies that the organization and purposes of the Nazi state and its Japanese counterpart, and the military system in all of its ramifications upon which they rest, are, and by their very nature must be, directed toward conquest," said the secretary of State. He went on to add that if there were to be security and stability in Europe, the conditions of lasting peace would require dismantling fascism and all its works and the creation of a "free and democratic way of life" as well as "the expansion of production, employment, and the exchange and consumption of goods, which are the material foundations of the liberty and welfare of all peoples."
It was after World War II, when the full horrific extent of Veblen's old fear of the deadly combination of barbarity and modernity came to tragic fruition, especially when evidence from the Nazi death camps was made public, that the Americans were determined to do something to change German society, what they had hesitated to do after the First World War.
The early Allied postwar occupation policy can be summed up by attempts to bring about demilitarization, denazification, decartelization and democratization. But the pursuit of these goals was soon to undergo changes in the light of the evolving international situation, especially the onset of the Cold War. The occupation policy that was eventually adopted fell in between two contending plans. The first was advocated by Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury and an influential advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. Morgenthau proposed that in order to finish with Germany as a nation of "aggressors through the ages," to solve what became known as the "German Problem," a defeated Germany should be eliminated as an industrial power and "pastoralized" into an agricultural economy. The other plan proposed restoring as completely and as soon as possible the old Germany, including its pre-war elites purged as much as possible of the Nazi criminals and adventurers who had penetrated it, so that Germany could resume its place as an industrialized participant in the world economy. The partisans of the latter policy foresaw the East-West split and wanted a united Germany as a strong Western bulwark against communism. The policy that eventually emerged after the war was anti-Morgenthau. It was thought that the destruction of Germany as a modern state, even if it were desirable, would not only require splitting the country into small and weak units, but also probably require the indefinite presence of Allied troops standing by to squash the expected revanchism. But it was also understood that simply eliminating the few Gauleiters and similar top Nazi elite would not be enough to build a democratic and non-belligerent Germany. A more thorough denazification and a deeper transformation of German society would be necessary.
Denazification was carried out most thoroughly in the American zone (southern Germany), but even here it was less far-reaching than many would have preferred. Denazification meant not purge, but "rehabilitation" -- the re-absorption of former Nazis and collaborators into a liberal democratic Germany. The result of both denazification and the prosecution (or non-prosecution) of Nazi crimes may be summed up as follows: The top elite of the Nazi regime, small in numbers, was eliminated or eliminated itself; most of the collaborationist elite, in administration, justice, education, and the economy, remained in or reentered positions held under the Nazi regime. The "new-old" elite was comprised of former Nazis and their collaborators, leaders of important social-economic groups, augmented by a new group of democrats.
What was the impact of this occupation? The grand plan to solve the "German Problem" by revamping society through a "revolution" from above, by a reintegration and renewal of elites, was not carried to completion at great speed. The Americans in particular desired a quick West German integration into NATO and, via the Marshall Plan, into the Western economic and trade system. They also did not want to undermine the socioeconomic structure of a corporate industrialized nation, a consequence that was feared had there been a complete replacement of elites. There was also an American fear of the resurgence of a militant German left. The occupation plan adopted, then, aimed at putting in place the conditions necessary to constructing a western-style liberal democracy in Germany.
The American plan for the democratization of German society was not limited to the construction and reconstruction of democratic institutions. The Americans set out to create new citizens by remodeling the instruments of political socialization such as the media, the schools and civil society. The goal was to build a stable democratic attitudinal base upon which a "de-Prussianized" and stable democratic political system could be erected. Rarely has a nation undergone such a self-conscious attempt to change and remold politics and political attitudes in a democratic direction. In order to remodel German society some of the earliest tools of postwar American political science were applied. German society was extensively polled and analyzed, building up an immense mass of statistical data that could be used to measure the impact of occupation policies. An irony of history is that to a large extent the psycho-cultural study of politics in American political science has its origin in the work of European, and of course German, intellectuals. Many classic works on the non-political roots of political attitudes -- works that delved into psychological and social variables -- were written by scholars trying to answer the questions raised by German National Socialism. As Gabriel Almond says in his presentation of the evolution of American political science, the phenomena of German politics seemed to invite the sciences of the irrational and the nonrational to join forces in efforts to explain them. He adds that the theories and methods which were applied in an attempt to understand the tragic historical puzzles of Nazism and its irrationality and destructiveness came primarily out of American social science in the first decades after World War II. And even though the field of social science was at that time primarily an American enterprise, Almond reminds us that those German and Italian scholars who as refugees brought with them their sociological, social psychological, and psycho-anthropological traditions, had enriched it. We ought not to forget this strong European, and particularly German, influence on political culture research, another example of the influence of Germans on American civilization.
The American relationship to Germany was quickly transformed with the onset of the Cold War. Now the U.S. preoccupation with Germany became a complement to its obsession with the Soviet Union. The "German Problem" became subordinated to the struggle against the "Evil Empire" to the extent that an economically healthy and even rearmed Germany became the key to containing Soviet communism in Europe. There would be no progress in Europe without including Germany, but there could be no improvement in Germany, especially in the sectors administered by the Western allies, without antagonizing the Russians. The road to the creation of two Germanys was therefore taken -- even though official U.S. policy would continue to remain in favor of German unification, but on Western terms, of course.
The two Berlin crises of 1948 and 1961 are revealing examples of the American perception of Germany during the Cold War. They demonstrate the degree to which American anti-communism had merged into a defense of a reformed Germany; a defense that included risking American lives for Germany! In a Gallup poll in July of 1948, 80% of Americans were prepared to stay in Berlin even if it meant war with the Soviet Union. This support did not vary by more than 4% across income groups and party affiliation. At the time of the Berlin crisis in 1961, American public opinion had become increasingly favorable to Germany and the Germans. In a Gallup poll of 1949, 43% of those polled believed that if there were another world war Germany would be on the American side, while 32% believed it would not. In 1953, 58% of Americans considered the Federal Republic of Germany a solid ally. American public opinion also came around to supporting the official position of the U.S. government that there should one day be a reunified Germany. A Gallup poll taken in 1945, just before the final capitulation of the Nazi regime, showed that 40% of Americans supported breaking up Germany into several entities, with 32% against and 28% giving no opinion. Ten years later, in 1955, 74% of Americans hoped that West Germany and East Germany would one day be re-united. Only 8% were opposed. Americans with a university education were 81% in favor of reunification.
As the Berlin crisis mounted in the summer of 1961, Gallup polls showed that an overwhelming percentage of Americans, at least 75%, were in favor of going to war to keep Berlin from falling into the Russian camp. This remained above 60% during the crisis. Although a huge majority of 80% would have preferred the UN to settle the dispute, only 40% thought this realistic. Since 55% thought that there was "almost no chance" or "not too good a chance" that the Russians would give in, the polls show that a significant majority of Americans were resigned to war with the Soviet Union over the control of Berlin. At the same time, 60% were "very worried" or "fairly worried" that a world war would break out in which atomic bombs would be used. Over 80% thought their chances of surviving such a war was 50-50 or less. President Kennedy's approval rating during the crisis remained above 70%, probably reinforcing the political honeymoon most newly elected presidents enjoy. It is interesting to note the point to which the American public was willing to go by 1961 to defend the former capital of Nazi Germany. Of course Americans had not changed their fiercely anti-Nazi attitude. This was dramatically demonstrated by their reaction to the trial in Israel of former Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann , which was going on at the same. Thirty-one percent thought that Eichmann should be executed, 43% imprisoned for life, 17% had no opinion. Thus, American public opinion by this time had dissociated to a very great extent anti-fascism and the defense of Germany.
This favorable image of Germany was maintained and even reinforced with the coming of age of generations in both countries whose personal experiences were much more distant from World War II and its horrors. By the time of the arrival of George Bush Sr. in the White House, public opinion could easily accept giving Germany increased diplomatic weight, shifting slightly away from the previous tilt toward the United Kingdom, which was particularly pronounced with the previous president, Ronald Reagan. In a speech delivered in May 1989 in Mainz, President George Bush invited the government of Helmut Kohl to join the United States as a "Partner in Leadership." That was six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the path to German reunification. It was hoped that Germany would help advance American interests within NATO and the European Union. A strong, and even united, Germany was viewed as being able to do this more effectively. The policy of "Partners in Leadership," however, suffered serious erosion under the political-diplomatic winds of Operation Desert Storm. American policy-makers were taken by surprise by their privileged partner's hesitation and slowness at providing the U.S. the rapid and complete diplomatic support it wanted during the Gulf crisis and war, even though Germany paid its share of the bill. It was not only that the U.S. found it difficult to convince Germany to use force, even limited armed force, but even the use of German bases as transit points and staging areas for military operations in the Gulf was conceded only with the greatest reluctance -- and even this had to be hidden to a certain extent from the German public, which in turn meant that the German antipathy to American force then had to be hidden to a certain extent from the American public. Americans discovered, in an ironic sense, that they had solved the old "German Problem" much more thoroughly than they believed as German leaders and the German public opinion displayed an abhorrence, even a militant abhorrence, to the use of arms in the resolution of conflicts. The de-Prussianization of Germany society had become so profound that when the Americans wanted the support of German arms, or at the very least German support of American arms, they found that the Germans possessed, to put it in generous terms, "a less nuanced view of the use of force" than other European powers. When the roll call was made during the Gulf War, it was once again the World War II allies that answered "present!" and could be seen before their publics as standing together for the wartime group portrait.
As a result of the German reaction in the Gulf crisis, U.S. policymakers' view of Germany as a reliable "Partner in Leadership" underwent transformation. They became more distant were tempted to expect less from the Germans. As a consequence, British and French diplomatic stock went back up. Nevertheless, the American view of the role of Germany that continued to emerge was that of the preeminent power in Europe, as well as a figure among the great international powers - despite being burdened with new internal problems related to absorbing the former GDR and faced with regional challenges related to the extended borders of an enlarged Germany. There were also ambivalent feelings about the role the new Germany would play in filling the huge power vacuum left by a collapsed Soviet Union and, in the eyes of others, a declining America.
When the Democratic Party, led by Bill Clinton, took the White House in 1992 fundamental change in relations with Germany did not take place, although the debate about Germany's place in a post-Cold War Europe continued. German-American relations were even reinforced by the personal amity established between the new U.S. president and Helmut Kohl as well as his successor Gerhard Schröder, whose own political party had adopted a political move from the left to the center similar to that of the party of the American president.
Along with the recognition that Germany is an important and growing power, there is the expectation that with its new status it will also have to shoulder new responsibilities and bear their corresponding economic costs. On the other hand, there are those who believe too much is being expected of the new Germany. It is called upon to take a central role in trade negotiations, be a leader in the unification of Europe, devote substantial financial aid to the ex-communist East, help stop Balkan fratricide, find homes for millions of immigrants, and play a more active international role. However, when Germany does assume a leadership role and accept the new burdens that go with it, Americans frequently worry and complain about the heavy hand of "Germanic" diplomacy. These complaints must be placed, however, against the background of the American belief that Germany will never again want to be responsible for a hegemonic European military adventure. The Germans will knock at the door, even push on it firmly, but will not break it down. Perhaps, finally, the Americans want Germany to lead when, where and how they desire -- and even then they may not always completely appreciate the style in which it is done.
In any case, as we have seen here, American policy toward Germany has consistently advocated German unity and the integration of a prosperous and powerful Germany, on the condition that it be also capitalist and democratic, into the international system as a responsible actor. The end of the Cold War, German reunification, the Gulf War, and the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo have all shifted the emphasis in American relations toward Europe. But the family heirloom of U.S.-German relations that Bismarck described as inherited from Frederick the Great has kept an honored place in its American home - despite several necessary restorations.