President Barack Obama's summer 2009 visits to Omaha Beach and the Buchenwald concentration camp evoked events that have profoundly shaped the relationship between the United States and Germany. Nazi crimes against humanity, World War II, and postwar occupation dominate our collective memory to this day. They also mark the moment in the history of both societies when American military and cultural hegemony achieved its absolute zenith, as exemplified by GIs, jeans, rock n’ roll, and the Cold War. Given the enormous differences and power imbalances of 1944–5 and the early postwar years, does it make much sense to compare Germany and America?
From this perspective, it is easy to forget that Germany and the United States had very similar starting points when they entered modernity at the end of the nineteenth century. To understand the paths subsequently taken by the two countries, their differences and similarities, the rivalries and alliances that shaped German and American history in the twentieth century, we would do well to revisit the late nineteenth century.
ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The surprising closeness of the two societies is reflected in the matter-of-fact way Germans and Americans compared, looked at, listened to, and took stock of each other at the turn of the last century. “North America appears as a typical Low German settlement in the West, while Prussia seems to be the same thing in the East,” remarked the German American writer, August Julius Langbehn, in 1890. In both Germany and America, he continued, we see “a mad dash towards all kinds of cultural accomplishments,” and even the German capital city seems “North American” because “a significant portion of the population is made up of immigrants.” Similarly, the German American psychologist, Hugo Münsterberg, magnified the irony in each country's perception of the other and had a good laugh in the process when he wrote at the beginning of the new century:
In the eyes of Americans the German is a poorly dressed, scruffy, uncouth Philistine, a clumsy, narrow-minded pedant, who takes pleasure only in his pipe, beer, and skat [a card game], who marches in parades and is paralyzed by bureaucracy, marries only for money and treats women like servants or toys, who bows to authority and brutalizes those beneath him, who fears the policeman, quarrels with his neighbor, and hates anything progressive.