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A Transatlantic Dialectic

The current uproar over strained German-American relations fails to consider the historical facts.

01.03.2003 · Werner Weidenfeld


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Something curiously superficial is captured in the discussion about German-American relations. The hectic agitation has lent the impression that the long, historical relationship between the two nations revolves solely around the question as to whether the chemistry between the Federal Chancellor and the U.S. President had run afoul or not. In actuality, the historical relationship between the two nations is one of constant change, one that is shaped by divergent stocks of memory, varied sets of stereotypes and a wide variety of interlaced economic and cultural factors. Matters of this complicated nature defy simple, run-of-the-mill political explanations.

The history of the European-American partnership begins not with the Marshall Plan and Nato, but reaches further back to the days of the founding fathers in the United States. Indeed, the ties binding Europe and America have existed since North America's occupation by Europeans, and they are unique in the world. America was borne of the Enlightenment - a belief in reason, human rights, in values such as freedom, equality and democracy. The belief in progress, also a product of European Enlightenment, is the wellspring of the "American Dream."

For many Europeans, emigration to America constituted an act of self-liberation from European constraints. A new world was built in America upon the foundation of the old world's ideals. In contrast to a Europe entangled in bloody conflict, this new, better world was to be the ground upon which the wealth of ideas from the old continent could be quickly realized. In America, as opposed to Europe, the belief in progress grew rapidly and continually, without becoming dogmatic or totalizing.

It is not only Europe's contribution to historical thought which is frequently overlooked; so too are other forms of exchange. Many of the basic principles upon which American society was built-such as its legal and administrative system, its religious beliefs and traditions-came from Europe. This has led to a situation in which Americans, to this day, see their roots as European and fundamental to their identity.

Conversely, America has played an important role from the start in European politics and thought. In Goethe's well-known poem, "America, you are better off," he congratulates America for being spared the sad legacy of feudalism. For Europeans, a much more explosive prospect was Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 prophecy "that we, like the Americans, will sooner or later achieve near equality." Symbolizing an ideal, America has, from its inception, influenced political life in Europe.

In Europe, it was above all the lower classes, the aspirant bourgeoisie and democrats in the last century who pointed to America as the land of modernity-a land in which lineage and class played no role, in which each citizen could achieve economic and social success by virtue of his individual effort. Strong also were the voices in support of a U.S. intervention to support democratic tendencies in Europe. Looking beyond political ideals, many Europeans have been impressed by the extraordinary dynamism of American society, watching it hurdle the restrictive geographic and social borders of Europe. The notion of the "self-made man," American mobility and the willingness to confront problems head-on have inspired generations of Europeans to emulation.

Nonetheless, a great degree of ambivalence has also characterized European-American relations. America grew from the need to gain distance from the ways of old Europe. The new state consciously sought distance from Europe's balance-of-power thinking, its military adventures serving feudal monarchs, its tendency to think in terms of class and its religious intolerance. American fears of European attempts to exploit every opportunity to thwart the maligned "American Experiment" survived well into the American Civil War.

At first, Americans felt themselves to be culturally inferior to Europeans; they found Europeans arrogant and supercilious. Meanwhile, here in Europe, prevailing complaints included the predominance of material thinking in America and mannerless American behavior lacking any semblance of social tradition.

America and Europe have always been aware of their differences as well as their mutual attraction for and dependence upon one another. This dialectical tension has, from the start, lent relations between the two continents a particular dynamism and intensity, which increased at the close of the 19th century-democracy was, after all, denounced as a U.S. export during the Weimar Republic. This dialectic was then unhinged to a large extent by the dynamics of one era: the East-West conflict forced a shared stock of world views and the construction of a common strategy. The threat was too existential, the ethos of freedom too strong for Europe or America to afford allowing a wedge to be driven between them.
This era, atypical in the history of German-American relations, died with the end of the Cold War. Indeed, as the old Atlantic community dissipates, traditional tensions and ambivalence have returned. We must live with this, irrespective of who governs in Washington or Berlin. However, complex times such as these call for the highest degree of reason and masterful statesmanship. The true test for German-American relations lies ahead of us.


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