Germans, once America’s best friends in Europe, don’t like their big brother from across the sea anymore, a 2019 Pew poll reveals. Nearly two-thirds view the relationship as “bad,” while barely one-third defines it as “good” (up from 24 percent last year). On the other side of the Atlantic, though, affection abounds. Three-quarters of Americans cherish the relationship, and not even two out of ten think it is “bad.”
The gap is striking, but so is the paradox. If the Germans find the Yankees so unlovable, why do they gobble up everything American? Germany is probably the most Americanized place in Europe. The latest proof came on the day after Thanksgiving, when Black Friday dawned. This ur-American shop-till-you drop orgy has suddenly descended on the Fatherland. “BLACK FRIDAY!,” screamed the tabloid ad pages (in English), and so did the TV commercials. Some stores even did the Americans one worse by hyping “Black Thursday” and even “Black Week.” Roaming the streets, the American Santa Claus in red and white has driven out the good old deutsche Weihnachtsmann.
German cultural history knows neither Thanksgiving, nor Black Friday, nor the Pilgrims, nor the Philadelphia police, who, according to legend, coined “Black Friday” in the early 1950s. They dreaded the masses invading downtown, clogging traffic, and forcing the city’s finest into endless overtime. Another legend says that merchants, suffering from meager November turnover, were suddenly “in the black” as sales soared on post-turkey Friday.
Never mind that Black Friday has absolutely no roots in the land of Kant and knockwurst. America is one huge “demonstration effect,” as sociologists who want to avoid normative terms like “model” call it. Germans, and other Western countries, just lap up everything the United States has to offer, even as France’s Emmanuel Macron goes mano-a-mano with Donald Trump over NATO and tariffs. Historians of culture scratch their heads, mumbling about “imitation without affection.”
Germans and their European brethren eat, drink, listen, dance, watch, and dress American. They wolf down burgers and chew on bagels.* They gulp Coke and smoothies. They listen to pop and rap, and they dance to rock, as their elders once gyrated to boogie and swing. They watch Netflix and the latest “blockbuster,” a term that has burrowed into the German vernacular along with thousands of others. They drop three-figure sums on U.S. designer jeans while the hoi polloi sport turned-back baseball caps and hoodies.
German dictionaries keep adding hundreds of American expressions to their latest editions. Phrases are appropriated wholesale. Teens ask each other: “Bist du okay?” (“are you okay?”) or “Wie geht’s deiner Mom” (“how is your mother?”). Body language, taken straight out of U.S. movies, has been Americanized as well. When the kids want to ironize something, they use both hands to draw quotation marks into the air. They want to be cool, hip, and happy. “To chill” has turned into chillen. On the Net, they liken stuff and posten their Selfies. A thumb drive is ein Stick.
Grown-ups throw around Hype, Work-Life Balance, Fake News, or Low-Carb, the only concession to German orthography being the capitalization of such nouns. The language police, the German Language Association, is horrified. But why would anybody drop “laptop” in favor of the recommended, clumsy Klapprechner, literally: portable hinged computer?
Appropriation, alas, does not make for affection, stirring subliminal if not open resentment. And why wouldn’t it? Once, Germany could take pride in its global cultural sway (as could the French, who now proscribe Americanisms by law). Think Kant and Hegel, Göttingen and Heidelberg, Bach and Bauhaus, Nobel laureates like Max Planck and Albert Einstein. The latter, though, absconded to Princeton, along with thousands of first-rate minds who fled Hitler.
Today, Americans haul in the most Nobel Prizes. In global rankings American universities capture 16 places in the top 20. Ambitious German parents would just love to see their offspring at Harvard or Stanford. So, these backward and boorish Yankees occupy the heights of lowbrow as well as high culture, Europe’s treasured patrimony.
Unearthing the roots of resentment sharpens the paradox. Why take umbrage and still swallow American ways wholesale? Is it America’s sheer military and material power that feeds cultural domination? Not quite. Previous giants had similar clout. But note a unique difference. The sway of Rome, the Habsburgs, Britain, and Soviet Russia always ended at their military borders. Yet the United States needs no gun to travel. Nobody is forced at gunpoint to gorge on Big Macs or shell out $25 for admission to New York’s MoMA. They want to go there.
The former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine offers an explanation. He attributed to America “this certain psychological power . . . this ability to shape the dreams and desires of others.” But whence this “psychological power?” Two reasons come to mind.
One: America is the steamroller of modernity. Unencumbered by the strictures of the Old World—church, monarchy, nobility, guilds, and unyielding tradition—America was indeed a Novus ordo seclorum, something new under the sun. Those ex-Europeans were free to try the new and shed the old. If they hated their landlords, they moved on into the vast reaches of the country. If they did not like their priests, they founded new congregations. Failure spelled not doom, but a second chance. A permissive market bred an inventive entrepreneurial culture that gave us both the Mafia and Thomas Edison, the huckster “Elmer Gantry” and Jonas Salk, who eradicated polio. Above all, Americans invented convenience. Air conditioning, fast food, and power steering would soon sweep the rest of the world.
Two: Founded by WASPS, America evolved into the first universal nation, peopled by nationalities from around the globe that bring new perspectives to settled ways. Lacking networks and support systems, newcomers not only have to work harder. They also have to come up with new ideas and products to make it. A Bavarian Jew created Levi’s, a piece of apparel that conquered the world. His Swabian co-religionist Carl Laemmle founded Hollywood, which along with other immigrants like Sam Goldwyn, a peddler, spread the celluloid version of the American Dream across the planet. Sergey Brin, the son of Russian immigrants, thought up Google, the universal search engine.
Untethered from the Old World, this universal nation could create images, icons, and ways of life that matched modernity’s progress across both oceans. This may explain why the world looks through Windows and YouTube while glued to their iPhones 24/7, why it takes to fast food as mothers abscond to the workplace, why it bypasses libraries in favor of Google, why it prefers the egalitarian habits of American social life to the stern rules of custom and tradition. The universal nation has turned into the universal trend-setter—even in Iran, where the United States is branded as the Great Satan.
Such a wondrous career poses a vexing problem. America, this continental-sized magnet and “demonstration effect,” also bestrides the world as the Great Seducer. She offers what the world wants; the temptress is a supply-side siren. Yet this has a price. As people succumb, they hate the seducer for beguiling them, and we despise those, including ourselves, who yield to the lure as something we want, but should not. So, in the American case, repellence goes hand in glove with boundless attraction.
Here is an amusing example. When Shrek 2 was shown at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, hundreds of protesters converged on the movie house to denounce America’s war in Iraq. The police dispersed them, but as they withdrew, they noticed large bags of green Shrek ears along the Croisette, the fabled avenue along the beach. So many of them reached in to put on the free goodies. “They were attracted,” noted the reporter of the New York Times, “by the ears’ goofiness and sheer recognizability.” So forget the angry condemnation of the Iraq war. Though a PR gag, those iconic Shrek ears were simply irresistible.
The polls show again and again that Germans do not cherish the Americans they once loved as friendly occupiers and protectors. But they keep copycatting them. Nor have George W. Bush and Donald Trump been the only targets. Soon, the early enthusiasm for Barack Obama waned. The problem is not this or that president, but an America that is both overwhelming and beguiling. Imitation is the flipside of resentment. Why else this bizarre celebration of Black Friday in Germany? It is as “German” as Halloween, which was largely ignored when labeled All Saints. Today, it is a nationwide party for German kids, complete with zombie and vampire outfits taken from U.S. series. “Hi” has gestated into a universal greeting, and “High-Fives” into a gesture of brotherly triumph.
*The lowly bagel nicely illustrates the irresistible march of the American Way. Bagels were originally blanched and baked in 16th-century Poland, then wandered with Jewish emigrants into Germany and thence to the Lower East Side. Now, they have returned to the Old Country as echt American food.