Sunday, June 26, 2016

Enemies to Allies – Cold War Germany and American Memory


Book Review:

Enemies to Allies – Cold War Germany and American Memory
By Brian C. Etheridge
Within a few years after the end of World War II, the dominant American perception of Germany changed from that of mortal enemy to that of Germany as an ally. West Germany, in particular West Berlin, became a symbol of the defense of freedom against communist aggression. How did American perceptions of Germany and the Germans undergo such a rapid, radical transformation?  This is the topic of Brian Etheridge’s “Enemies to Allies – Cold War Germany and American Memory”.  Through the lens of what he calls “memory diplomacy”, Mr. Etheridge illuminates the causes of this shift in American perceptions of Germany by examining the roles of various institutions and interest groups in propagating a rehabilitated image of Germany in the historical context of the emerging Cold War.

The central feature of this examination is the dynamic between two competing narratives of Germany, which he calls the “WWII narrative” and the “Cold War narrative”.  The WWII narrative perpetuated the view of Germany and the German people as bearing responsibility for the carnage of WWII in Europe, and of the German character as inherently warlike, aggressive, and inhumane.  The Cold War narrative, on the other hand, drew a distinction between the Nazis and the German people as a whole.  In this view, the average German had been a victim of the Nazis, whose ideology, rather than the German character itself, was to blame for WWII. The emerging concept of “totalitarianism” allowed Nazism to be equated with communism; both were species of the same dangerous ideology.  The real enemies of freedom and humanity were totalitarian ideologies and the aggressive expansion of totalitarian regimes.

Through a rich and thorough discussion of initiatives by governmental and nonstate actors on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1950’s and 1960’s,  Mr. Etheridge sheds light on the ways in which public perceptions were shaped by both official policy and popular culture. Economic, educational, and cultural exchanges, public relations campaigns in the media, and mass entertainment through movies and television were all used by various competing interest groups to advance their preferred narrative in the public mind. Official U.S. policy favored the Cold War narrative. Some veteran’s organizations and Jewish groups, concerned that the sacrifices of the war and the horrors of the Holocaust would be minimized or forgotten, resisted this narrative and continued to promote the WWII narrative’s view of collective responsibility. 

Some of the most interesting and insightful parts of the book are those dealing with the use of popular culture to advance the Cold War narrative. Movies such as “The Search”, “The Big Lift”, and “Judgment at Nuremburg” explored the tensions between the humanity of the average German and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their name. The television shows “Combat!” and “Hogan’s Heroes” portrayed conflicts between the committed fanatics of the SS and Gestapo and the average German who was caught up in world events he could not control. The ethical choices of the average Germans in these shows repeatedly emphasized their humanity, thus contributing to the American acceptance of the Cold War narrative.

Although “Enemies to Allies” is a work of academic scholarship, it only occasionally slips into arcane terminology or dense academic prose. On the whole it is well-written and accessible, and provides a fascinating perspective on the” politics of memory” and how public perceptions are influenced by myriad sources of information.  It is a valuable resource for those whose interests include German history, the Cold War, or the role of public perception in diplomacy. Reading it will undoubtedly lead anyone, especially those who came of age in the late 20th century, to reflect on the sources of their own perceptions of Germany and the German people.

Mood: Reflective
Music: Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, 2nd Movement


COL Bradley J. Foster, USAR, is a student of military history with a lifelong interest in the people, language, and culture of Germany.  A graduate of Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and the U.S. Army War College, he is currently serving on active duty with the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.


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