American Culture in Cold War Germany

Never underestimate the power of a well-researched and well-crafted academic monograph. While the number of sales of these books may not be high, they are the foundation of how we know the world and ourselves. Academic scholarship informs everyone: professionals, students, textbooks, and future generations, serving as the building block for popular understanding. Well done academic monographs are a delight to read and digest. To be sure, some are cluttered with jargon and others may get lost in the weeds. Not all, though, and coming across an accessible and rigorously researched monograph is a cause for celebration – and a review.

A dear friend recently gave me a copy of Uta G. Poiger’s Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany. Poiger, now a higher education administrator, wrote the book as an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation at Brown. As one would anticipate with a dissertation, it is extensively researched and relies heavily upon primary sources. It is very good history.

The book’s scope is Germany after World War II and the influence of American popular culture on German culture and policy. Poiger looks at the ways that “German-ness” in East and West Germany developed in contact with American culture. It is a great question, for the very idea of German national identity was hotly contested in the post-war years. Nazi Germany was a disaster and both the Soviet and US spheres were competing for influence with competing visions and values. National identity does not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, context is essential. We learn about ourselves through learning about others. It was very much the case in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. Note that under Nazi rule, access to American culture was forbidden in Germany. When the Allies won and occupied Germany, the shock extended beyond military defeat. Germans encountered a massive influx of American culture, in everything from clothes to music to personal identity. Poiger investigates all of this, with a special focus on how the two countries, East Germany under communist rule and West Germany under the Allies, differed and aligned in their approaches. She is particularly good on how gender was at the center of the discussions. Race, too, was very important. Framing all of these issues was the long shadow of the horrors of the war.

Almost immediately following the war’s conclusion, all of Germany retained significant anti-Black, anti-Semitic and anti-women tendencies, courtesy of influential cultural gatekeepers. These traditional thinkers associated Americanism with femininity, sexually loose women eager to undermine traditional gender morays, and a breakdown in family. Further, the sexualization associated with Americanism was linked to Jews and Blacks, who were considered subversive. By the 1950s, when Germany was rocked with a series of youth riots, American culture was blamed by many. For conservative thinkers and officials, Americanism was a stepping stone to fascism. Ironic, isn’t it? By the mid-1950s, the two Germanies split on this issue, with western German thinkers increasingly identifying angry youth as expressing psychological, not political, anger. The framework in communist Germany, on the other hand, was political. In both countries and cultures, consumer consumption was often evaluated in service of the Cold War positioning.

Moving from mass media to music in the middle of the book, Proeger digs deep into the polarizing influence of jazz. Many in Germany had linked jazz to lower classes, to a lack of culture and sophistication, and, in some degree, to degeneracy. This legacy of Nazism lingered. Jazz, and later rock, were of great concern to officials in both countries. Leaders worried about gender, class and racial upset the popular music could foment. In the west, however, as White figures such as Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando were seen by youth as icons, racial anxieties cooled to some degree. The book ends with a brief look at the 1960s and the coming next wave of youthful rebellion.

Jazz, Rock, and Rebels is a strong reminder of the importance and influence of popular culture. It is often highly contested and understanding how, and what, shapes it and why is always of value. Looking at a historical example sheds light on the past and also offers insight into what is happening today. Back to the library to read and learn more!

David Potash

One Comment

  1. It wasn’t just East/West Germany. I remember a similar situation in Hungary when my generation started a Revolution in 1956. The Hungarian Revolution began on 23 October 1956 in Budapest when university students appealed to the civil populace to join them at the Hungarian Parliament Building to protest against the USSR’s geopolitical domination of Hungary through the Stalinist government of Mátyás Rákosi.

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