Coca-Cola on the Blue Danube: The Cultural Impact of the American Occupation of Austria

By Marling, William | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Coca-Cola on the Blue Danube: The Cultural Impact of the American Occupation of Austria


Marling, William, Contemporary Review


Pronouncements on the American impact on European culture tend to the apocalyptic. Reputable European and American scholars have proclaimed that EuroDisney is a 'cultural Chernobyl', that Micky Mouse is the key to the Pax Americana, that rock'n'roll brought down the Berlin Wall. The last French government introduced a law to limit the use of English, while Spain's Minister of Culture, Carmen Alborach, citing the 'extinction' of Spanish film, imposed such a severe American quota on cinema that her nation's 1,400 theatres locked out their patrons.

Does the export of American popular culture spell a new kind of American imperium? Or is entertainment simply the United States' last, most attractive export? The US runs billion dollar trade deficits with France, Spain and other nations it is accused of dominating. Are we talking about anything besides economics? Would someone please shed light?

Illuminating this debate is Reinhold Wagnleitner's recent book Coca-colonization and the Cold War, a study of the American 'cultural mission' in Austria after World War II. It has its faults, but it is research, based on actual documents, surveys and statistics; it gives us the history of American popular culture in one nation, and it will be a benchmark for some time to come.

The US occupied Austria - as one of the four victorious powers - until 1955. Austria's strategic position, bordered on three sides by Warsaw-pact nations, argued for a slow withdrawal, after which a beacon of democracy and capitalism would be left behind. American agencies worked hard to create, as the guide books used to say of Vienna, a 'Little America'.

Wagnleitner's book begins with a history of European views of America, in which he traces utopian and dystopian conceptions of the New World. This is easy enough for Britain and France, but he works pretty hard to show a relationship between the US and Austria before World War II: there's Metternich's well-documented antipathy to American democracy, played against a popular Romantic enthusiasm for America (Beethoven considered writing an opera about William Penn), and there's American sympathy for the Hungarian rebel Ludwig Kossuth, but most Austrians lived outside the range of 'The Pernicious Influence' until 1880. At that point America's huge food-stocks and inventions like the Yankee apple peeler and Colt revolver penetrated even to Vienna. The point of this history, for Wagnleitner, is that when Europe subsequently adopts the pop culture products of the US, it is merely importing views it created to begin with - and this explains their cultural resonance. Or is it Euro-centrism in a new guise? Such an historic overview seems to conflict with the main thesis that Wagnleitner develops, namely that there was a US government conspiracy to enslave the world via Micky Mouse. After several pages documenting the apathy of American businesses, the medical orientation of US philanthropy and the absence of coherent government export policies, Wagnleitner suddenly concludes, 'As with the armaments industry, so the seemingly endless resources of the United States - from its Ivy League universities to Hollywood, from opera singers to Tin Pan Alley, from Coca-Cola to Wrigley's chewing gum - were all centrally directed by government agencies'. As he explains it, 'lack of an official cultural export policy itself became the greatest advantage for the projection of US values abroad'. Perhaps his rhetorical footwork should be admired, but a glance at the footnotes reveals a heavy and narrow dependance on Frank Ninovich's The Diplomacy of Ideas (1982) and Emily Rosenberg's Spreading the American Dream (1981). Both are rather dated New Leftists, aflutter in 'hegemony' and 'capitalist imperialism' and so on, and Ninovich's work deals with the Far East.

It is exactly when Wagnleitner gives up on proving an imperial scheme and immerses himself in the minutiae of the American occupation, in the following six chapters, that his research is most valuable. …

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