German Anti-Americanism in Context

By Berendse, Gerrit-Jan | Journal of European Studies, December 2003 | Go to article overview

German Anti-Americanism in Context

Berendse, Gerrit-Jan, Journal of European Studies

The anti-American rhetoric which suddenly emerged in Western Europe's intellectual discourse during the showdown of the Second Gulf War in 2002-3 is more than a political act. The new patterns of antagonism are symptoms of a process of cultural emancipation that commenced in the 1990s. Surprisingly, the rationale behind the growing demise of the project of Americanization which dominated the Cold War is a critical examination of Europe's entanglement in a postmodern culture industry and its global markets. In the aftermath of unification, Germany's cultural scene has been meticulously scrutinized by its own intellectuals, who perceived the cultural imperialism of the USA as a threat. To some extent based on anti-American traditions that originate in Germany's period of Romanticism, contemporary intellectuals are acting as the guardians of the cultural values of so-called "Old Europe'. However, it will be argued that the appraisal of the political and cultural intimacy of both continents will not only result in a schism but will also foster new and exciting transatlantic liaisons.

Keywords: Americanization in Europe; Europe and the aftermath of 9/11; Germany and anti-Americanism; globalization and the US culture industry; Gulf War II


One of the underlying principles of the rift between members of the European Union during the political 'rows' in 2002-3 over the war in Iraq is related to the specific maturation process of what US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has identified as 'Old Europe'. Not surprisingly, Europe's quest to implement a more independent, hence more mature liaison with the USA comprised a significant number of outbursts of anti-Americanism. The verbal eruptions did not emerge overnight: 'Anti-Americanism has been endemic among the ruling classes in continental Europe since 1776 at the latest', as stated in the 1988 Annals of the American Academy of Political Science. (1) On the same account, it has been observed that the idea of Europe is based partly on the principle of oscillating between (pro-)Americanism and anti-Americanism. But as the twentieth century ended, so too did the long-standing West European preoccupation with America. The New York historian Mary Nolan argues that:

   [t]he demise of Americanism is intimately related to the end of the
   American century so grandiosely proclaimed in the 1940s. America no
   longer commands undisputed economic hegemony; the Fordist model
   of mass production, high wages, and mass consumption has exhausted
   itself in America and elsewhere ... The global economy of the 1990s
   is a far cry from the wartorn and prostate world system of the late
   1940s, however, and it is far from clear whether American control,
   democratic decentralization, or highly concentrated international
   capitalism will triumph. (2)

Throughout history, the United States of America has lost a considerable amount of its governing power, Many Western European states rejected the United States as the sole viable guarantor of national survival, economic recovery and cultural prosperity; at the same time they were highly dependent on what the US provided. (3) Needless to say, in terms of culture and entertainment, Hollywood is still very powerful in influencing life in most parts of urbanized continental Europe. America has provided the models that Europeans 'selectively appropriated and modified, and a language that they spoke with different class and gender accents'. (4)

Yet, in the 1990s, the balance in the vibrant love-hate relationship between the continents shifted, and whilst the USA became a more dominant power, post-Cold War Europe introduced new patterns of antagonism in order to reshape its future identities, after the sudden change in the political landscape in 1989-90. In this process, influential representatives of Western Europe started loosening their ties with the United States of America, whereas others (not just Eastern European nations) were eager to establish new or strengthen existing transatlantic foreign relations. …

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