The Americanisation of the Culture of Weimar Germany
By: Malte Goebel
For: Marline Otte
Course: HIS 496S, Ethnicity in 20th Century Popular Culture
Date: April 7th, 1999


In this essay, I will examine the influence of American thoughts and ideas on the Weimar Republic. I will show how the American cultural influence was a product of their economic presence in economically and emotionally depressed post World War One Germany.

The argument is roughly divided into four parts. The first part will examine the German state of mind directly after the First World War and explain why certain parts of the population were so suspectible to American influences. The second part will deal with the American influence itself, in particular with economic issues and the German perception of the rationalisation of economy, Taylorism and Fordism. The third part will be about the cultural influence of America on Germany, first with the perception of American culture in Germany and then with German culture that has been influenced by the American, focussing on Jazz. The fourth part will show the fate of the Comedian Harmonists as an example.

When talking about things like the "German mentality" or general "feelings" in Germany, it should not be implied that those feelings or beliefs were shared by the whole German population. It is clear that a population of more than sixty million people is not a homogenous body. Especially during the time of the Weimar Republic, the German population was highly polarized.

The outbreak of the First World War was warmly welcomed in Germany. Germans from all political arenas and levels of education believed that German superiority would win a war. When the war was lost after four years of hard fight, and a peace treaty was planned, Germans believed they would be treated fairly. They lay their hope and confidence in the 14 point program that the American president Woodrow Wilson had announced in 1918: a peace on the basis of the right of self-determination of the people, freedom of trade, unbiassed decisions in colonial questions, and the foundation of the League of Nations.1 Wilson's 14 points were a big issue in Germany between the armistice and the final signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and many people laid their hopes for a fair peace upon the USA. 2

When it became clear that the peace treaty would not be based on Wilson's proposal but include by far harsher conditions for Germany, the first result was rejection of all things American. 3 People felt betrayed by the USA, although it was mainly their own politicians that had exploited the notion of a fair peace treaty in German daily politics. But soon this feeling was torn back by stronger ones which were the direct outcome of the lost war.

The loss of the war left Germany in deep despair. Many Germans could not believe that the war was lost, because the war propaganda had painted an image of a strong, victorious Reichswehr. The signing of the armistice and the abdication of the Kaiser shocked the German public. "The end of the monarchy was perceived by many Germans as the collapse of a whole world, as a breakdown of fundamenals and burst opening of dams, on and in which the nation used to live and find its political form and culture." 4

Germany descended into chaos, both physically and mentally. With the abdication of the Kaiser, left-wing workers' and soldiers' councils attempted a revolution, which was fought against by right-wing freecorps. At the same time, soldiers were flooding back into the country, their four years of absence from civil life resulted in integration problems. Having to face the reality of a lost war and a destroyed country, or the fact that a system they believed in had let the promising youth be killed on the battlefields of the First World War, many people looked for models for future development. The one power that could best suit as such a model was the USA.

The United States went back to their isolationist policy after the war. The League of Nations, although it was the mental child of president Wilson, and the Versailles Peace Treaty were not ratified by the America Congress. The United States refused to take any political action outside the American continent; this fact is significant, as the US had emerged from the war as the leading world power. In contrast to the American political inactivity, their economic power was felt everywhere, as was American culture. "The USA were economically present in Europe and Asia after the First World War, but absent concerning military and international association politics." 5 In 1923, the United States produced 49% of all products worldwide. 6 In the years between 1919 and 1927, the American economy grew ten times as fast as in the years of 1900-1919. 7

It is no wonder that this economic success attracted attention from other nations. The German public, dominated by middle class and intellectuals, never tired of praising the American accomplishments in economic issues. Even those from a socialist background, such as the Social Democrats and unionists saw the United States as a model for future German development. The US capitalist system seemed to create a population without the polarization into extreme left and right wings that was present throughout the whole Weimar Republic. Not only did it provide a solution for economical problems, but it also solved political problems. 8

The American economy was highly impressive to the Germans of the time. American practices which were believed to improve the economy streamed into Europe. The US was seen as a land of rationalisation and pragmatism. Two concepts were applied, Taylorism and Fordism.

Another expression for Taylorism is "scientific management". Frederik Taylor, an engineer in the "Midvale Steel Company", invented this kind of management even before the First World War. The kernel of his program was the division of labour in hundreds or thousands of exactly calculated small steps. This rationalisation was made possible by a scientification of management and production. The elimination of all useless steps led to an increase in production by forty times. 9

Fordism was invented by Henry C. Ford. His use of the assembly line in the production of his famous "Model T" car made it possible for him to produce fast and cheap automobiles in high numbers. This is the basis for mass consumption. Division of labour was also part of his philosophy. The "Model T" was produced in 7882 small steps.10 Labour became stricter and was determined by stop-watch and assembly line. It was no longer the worker who determined his speed of production, but he had to adapt the speed dictated by the machine. The already mentioned high growing rates of the American economy (ten times as big in the nine years after the war than in the twenty first years of the century) were only made possible through the employment of Taylorism and Fordism.

Fordism especially was warmly welcomed in Germany and found a supportive audience in the general public. It also spurred a big backdraft of secondary literature, examining and analysing Henry Ford's writings, whose autobiography was soon to become Germany's economic bible. 11

American culture spread over Europe in different ways. Indirectly, the economic influence brought with it American goods and mass-consumerism mentality. More directly, American culture came with American soldiers during the First World War, who were in the western European countries of Britain, France, and Belgium. Their presence also affected the people in Germany. The high American cultural influence on Europe after the Second World War can be explained with the stationing of large contingents of American troops in Europe until long after the war was over.

The American cultural idea was also the outcome of the German feelings described above. Broadly speaking, both conservative and cultural progressive streams had the same origins with regard to these feelings. For the more conservative people, the collapse of the old Reich and the monarchy was the collapse of a world, as previously stated, and they used it as a starting point for the desire to restore that old world or at least parts of it. For them, the experience of the revolutionary conditions of 1918/19 was a trauma that included not only the extreme left but also the moderates and later the democrats in general. For the more progressive and also younger people, the downfall of the old monarchic system created possibilities and the energy to create something new, oriented towards American influences. The end of the war created euphoria in Europe, which was reflected in a desire for the modern and the new. 12

One of the major American influence in Europe, and particularly in Germany, was jazz. Jazz came to Britain in 1919 as what was later called Dixieland-Jazz, played by whites. The development of jazz "confirmed America as the source of new popular music in the developing urban age." 13 In their critiques, jazz was contemptuously dismissed by the musical establishment as "jungle music." 14 Jazz dances such as the Charleston and Rumba were also perceived as exotic or African. Josephine Baker became an example of the symbol for the sensuality of the new dance. Another is this citation of a young woman from Berlin about Rumba: "and if you repeat 'Rumba' quickly, sometimes you can imagine those grinning negroes playing drums with their hands." 15 In the same context, German conservative papers (who under almost a monopoly of Alfred Hugenberg, the later chief of the national conservative party, controlled more than two thirds of the market) complained about the "contamination of the German youth" by "alien Niggerjazz and jungle dances", which inevitably would lead to "racial disgrace" and thus to the end. 16

The rise of the "Comedian Harmonists"17 serves as a good example for the American influence on Weimar German culture. It is an example for the introduction of a new style of music and the German adaption and advancement of those influences. The Comedian Harmonists were an a-capella band consisting of five singers and a pianist, and are to be counted among the most famous musicians of the Weimar Republic. Their fame in Germany was only later equalled by the Beatles, 18 but never before and after that there was such a "hype" of a German band in Germany. The Comedian Harmonists were founded by Harry Frommermann in Berlin in 1927, after the example of the American band "The Revelers" (also used in different spelling "The Revellers"). The Revelers were an American a-capella-band consisting of four singers and one pianist founded in 1917. They used to make more convential music and had successful gigs on stage and in the recently invented radio, but in 1925 their frontman Wilfred Glenn decided to change their style and try something new to employ jazz. The result was something thrilling for America: a-capella jazz was an absolute Novum. The relaxed style of singing with the use of jazzy sound effects was strongly appreciated by audience on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1925, the record company Electrola published the first records of the Revelers in Germany. The music was indicated as "Negergesang", "Negroe's singing", due to the unconventional Jazz style. 19 Harry Frommermann felt their singing as something revolutionary and new. His fascination with the appearance of the Revelers resulted from the fact that not every singer wanted to give a single expression, but that the voices worked together and achieved one sound. As he put it, "it was not only their style, but the joy of singing emitted by their records." 20 This joy of singing can referred to what was mentioned above: Americans were generally seen as more optimistic people. Furthermore, inventing an unconventional style, work with precision, charm and ideas can be seen as an example of what Germans admired at Americans. In contrast to that, German vocal music was sensed as stiff, lacking rhythm and "having seething beards".21

The foundation of the Comedian Harmonists was at first supposed to imitate the American model. Their first name "The Melody Makers" was an obvious reference to one of the earlier names of the Revelers (they were called "The Merrymakers"). The renaming into "Comedian Harmonists" shortly before their first gig 1928 and the fact that it was an English name still reflects the perception that an anglophone name would suit the music better and probably gain more publicity in Germany. There was no question that modernity could only be expressed in this language. As a result of the fact that the German band followed their american model, the first recordings of the Comedian Harmonists were cover songs from the Revelers, first in English, and then in German translation. In advertising for their first gigs the Comedian Harmonists carried the subtitle "The German Revelers".

The German press perceived them as a somewhat American phenomenon. In a critique in "Die Frechheit", a supplement to the program of a cabaret, the authour wrote: "Gosh, they sound like a refined version of the Revelers. If those boys came from America, they would be a sensation in Berlin." 22 With the time the ensemble developed their own style - they were not as focused on jazz as the Revelers were, but also had the ability to intonate music of a range from arias from Rossini's "Barber of Seville" to German folksongs, "from Brahms to Blues". But still, among the most loved songs from the Comedian Harmonists was the "Creole Love Call", a song without text, only with the five voices imitating a Jazz-orchestra. Another song refered to Rumba - its title (repeated over and over again) neatly exemplifies the above mentioned statement by the Berlin woman: "Mein Onkel Bumba aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba."

In addition to all this, the Comedian Harmonists can alse be a symbol for America. The Comedian Harmonists were a figure for multiculturalism:- of the six members of the group, three were Jews, three were Christians. Four were Germans, one was Bulgarian, one Polish.

The story of success of the Comedian Harmonists was in fact an American story of success "from rags to riches". A story of poor people (except for the pianist, Erwin Bootz, who had comparatively rich parents), some of foreign origin and not all being able to speak proper German, who became one of the most celebrated stars of interwar Germany.

As a side note, the end of the Comedian Harmonists was not American at all. The band was forced by the Nazis to break up in 1935, and the Jewish members of the group had to emigrate from Germany. Just recently through a movie the Comedian Harmonists re-gained publicity in Germany and also North America. The last surviving member of the group, tenor Roman Cycowski, died in November 1998 in Palm Springs, California.

Despite their political isolationism, the United States was economically the most powerful country in the world. Culturally, the jazz movement infiltrated Europe on the coat-strings of American economic supremacy on the depressed continent. These facts account for the strong identification with American ideals in the Weimer Republic inbetween the two World Wars.


Bibliography

  • Bisgy, C.W.E. Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe. London: Elek, 1975.
  • Boeckenfoerde, Ernst-Wolfgang. "Der Zusammenbruch der Monarchie und die Entstehung der Weimarer Republik", in: Karl-Dietrich Bracher, Manfred Funke, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen (eds.), Die Weimarer Republik 1918-1933. Politik - Wirtschaft - Gesellschaft. Duesseldorf: Droste, 1987, pp. 17-34.
  • Czada, Peter. Comedian Harmonists. Ein Vokalensemble erobert die Welt. Berlin: Edition Heinrich, 1993.
  • Elefanten Press (ed.). Die Wilden Zwanziger. Weimar und die Welt 1919-1933. Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1986.
  • Fechner, Eberhard. Die Comedian Harmonists. Sechs Lebenslaeufe. Weinheim, Berlin: Quadriga Verlag, 1988.
  • Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture. The Outsider as Insider. London: Secker&Warburg, 1969.
  • Grupp, Peter. "Vom Waffenstillstand zum Versailler Vertrag. Die aussen- und friedenspolitischen Zielvorstellungen der deutschen Reichsregierung", in: Karl-Dietrich Bracher, Manfred Funke, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen (eds.), Die Weimarer Republik 1918-1933. Politik - Wirtschaft - Gesellschaft. Duesseldorf: Droste, 1987, pp. 285-326.
  • Hermand, Jost. Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik. Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1978.
  • Junker, Detlef. "Die Aussenpolitik der USA 1920-1940", in Otmar Franz ed. Am Wendepunkt der europaeischen Geschichte. Goettingen: Muster-Schmidt, 1981, pp. 200-217.
  • Koch, Christiane. "Arme Zeiten - Heisse Stimmung. Alltag der 20er", in Elefanten Press (ed.), Die Wilden Zwanziger. Weimar und die Welt 1919-1933. Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1986, pp. 30-43.
  • Noellenheid, Achim. "Macht und Meinung. Zur Pressegeschichte der 20er Jahre", in Elefanten Press (ed.), Die Wilden Zwanziger. Weimar und die Welt 1919-1933. Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1986, pp.143-147.
  • Nolan, Mary. Visions of Modernity: American Business and Modernization of Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Oliver, Paul. "Jazz is where you find it: the European experience of Jazz", in C.W.E. Bisgy, Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe, London: Elek, 1975, pp. 140-151.
  • Watts, Michael. "The Call and Response of Popular Music: the impact of American pop music in Europe", in C.W.E. Bisgy, Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe, London: Elek, 1975, pp. 123-139.
  • http://ac.acusd.edu/History/text/ww1/fourteenpoints.html (April 7, 1999)
  • http://www.comedian-harmonists.de (April 7, 1999)


  • Footnotes

    1 http://ac.acusd.edu/History/text/ww1/fourteenpoints.html (April 7, 1999).
    2 Peter Grupp, "Vom Waffenstillstand zum Versailler Vertrag. Die aussen- und friedenspolitischen Zielvorstellungen der deutschen Reichsregierung", Karl-Dietrich Bracher, Manfred Funke, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen (eds.), Die Weimarer Republik 1918-1933. Politik - Wirtschaft - Gesellschaft (Duesseldorf, 1987), pp. 291ff., 305ff.
    3 Jost Hermand, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik (Munich, 1978), p. 49.
    4 Ernst-Wolfgang Boeckenfoerde, "Der Zusammenbruch der Monarchie und die Entstehung der Weimarer Republik", in Karl-Dietrich Bracher, Manfred Funke, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen (eds.), Die Weimarer Republik 1918-1933. Politik - Wirtschaft Gesellschaft. (Duesseldorf, 1987), p.17.
    5 Detlef Junker, "Die Aussenpolitik der USA 1920-1940", in: Otmar Franz ed., Am Wendepunkt der europaeischen Geschichte (Goettingen, 1981), p. 202.
    6 Hermand, p. 49.
    7Ibid., p. 52.
    8 Ibid., p. 49.
    9 Ibid., p. 51.
    10 Ibid., p. 52.
    11 Mary Nolan, Visions of Modernity: American Business and Modernization of Germany (Oxford, 1994), pp. 30ff.
    12 Paul Oliver, "Jazz is where you find it: the European experience of Jazz", in C.W.E. Bisgy, Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe (London, 1975), p. 140.
    13 Michael Watts, "The Call and Response of Popular Music: the impact of American pop music in Europe" in C.W.E. Bisgy, Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe (London, 1975), p. 126.
    14 Oliver p. 140.
    15 Christiane Koch, "Arme Zeiten - Heisse Stimmung. Alltag der 20er", in Elefanten Press (ed.), Die Wilden Zwanziger. Weimar und die Welt 1919-1933. Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch (Reinbek, 1986) p. 42.
    16 Achim Noellenheid, "Macht und Meinung. Zur Pressegeschichte der 20er Jahre", in Elefanten Press (ed.). Die Wilden Zwanziger. Weimar und die Welt 1919-1933. Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch (Reinbek, 1986), p. 44.
    17 Background about the Comedian Harmonists: Peter Czada, Comedian Harmonists. Ein Vokalensemble erobert die Welt (Berlin, 1993); Eberhard Fechner, Die Comedian Harmonists. Sechs Lebenslaeufe (Weinheim, Berlin, 1988); for a rough overview: http://www.comedian-harmonists.de (April 7, 1999).
    18 Czada, p. 10.
    19 Czada, p. 12.
    20 Czada, pp. 13f.
    21 Fechner, p. 153.
    22 Czada, p. 24.



    Kommentar

    Malte, Dein Essay ist interessant und gut geschrieben. Die Struktur wird gleich am Anfang deutlich, und auch die Übergänge sind "smooth". Es bleibt aber unklar, warum Du die Comedian Harmonists als Beispiel genannt hast. Ist es wichtig, daß sie "multikulturell" waren, wenn ja warum!?
    Das Essay ist am Ende nicht gut abgerundet. Es fehlt eine "conclusion", die alle Teile noch einmal zusammen betrachtet. Das ist schade, da es so vielversprechend anfing. Du begründest kaum, warum Jazz so "amerikanisch" war. Die rassistischen Untertöne werden zwar genannt, aber nicht analysiert. Was ist genau das deutsche Bild von Amerika? Die widersprüchlichkeit sollte vielleicht mehr herausgearbeitet werden (primitiv - ultra-modern). Wie genau hat sich das Bild geändert in den späten 1920ern? Du beschreibst das etwas, es könnte aber noch genauer sein.
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