Germany was a superpower in 1941


On May 5, 1928, the German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann and the American Ambassador Jacob Gould Schurman were awarded honorary doctorates in Heidelberg. This day symbolizes the short phase of active cooperation between the USA and Germany in the Weimar Republic. Schurman, the former student at Heidelberg University, made the construction of the New University possible by collecting donations. At the history seminar, German-American relations in the age of the world wars are an important subject of research. Detlef Junker, founder of the Schurman Library for American History, reports on the inability of German politicians trapped in their germanocentric worldview to assess the USA realistically.

The rival European great powers have exerted hegemony and rule over the world since the Age of Discovery. This European-centric world system gradually dissolved since the beginning of the 20th century, mainly because the New World took the place of the Old World. With the expulsion of the last European colonial power from the western hemisphere in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the victories in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Cold War, the liberal, capitalist and market economy model of society and state of the USA prevailed, at least in the industrialized one and engineered world. Future historians may be tempted to call our saeculum "the American century". As in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe remained the US's central problem in the 20th century. On its way to world power and since 1941 to global superpower, a pro-American balance was the necessary minimum and American hegemony was the optimum of its European policy. Therefore, from the establishment of the German nation-state in 1871 until the present, it was in the vital interest of the USA to keep Germany in the position of a liberal-democratic and market-economy-capitalist state of medium size in Europe. The two attempts of the German Reich to break out of this limited position and to become a world power itself - in World War I through hegemony over Europe, in World War II through racially based rule from the Atlantic to the Urals - therefore had to go to war against the USA twice and lead to defeat. The description and explanation of the German-American antagonism in the age of the world wars from 1914 to 1945 as well as the short phase of active cooperation in the middle years of the Weimar Republic from 1923 to 1929 are therefore an important subject of investigation, especially by American, German, English and French scientists . Heidelberg historians have participated in the research problem under two overarching questions. First, the misperception, the faulty and selective perception of the USA by the German foreign policy elite and the people. Up until 1945, German politicians were incapable of making a "change of perspective", particularly with regard to the USA, and of understanding the country on the other side of the Atlantic on the basis of its own assumptions. The inability of the German elites trapped in their germanocentric world to correctly assess the aids, political traditions and decision-making processes of the USA was the decisive cause of the notorious German overestimation of self in the years 1917 and 1941 as well as of the catastrophes of 1918 and 1945. This In Heidelberg, misperception has been worked out particularly in studies of Stresemann and the USA, Hitler and the USA, the Germans' image of America in the Third Reich and the Latin American policy of the Third Reich. The second focus of research in Heidelberg is the development of American globalism in the 1930s and 1940s during the tenure of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). While the German claim to world power was not just about perception and reality, but also claim and reality, on the other side of the Atlantic, the National Socialist challenge brought perception and reality to coincide. The USA developed into a world power that no longer limited its national interest to the western hemisphere, but defined it globally. In the following, the results of perception research will be presented using the example of Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). International history has devoted most of its attention to these two German politicians of the 20th century. Historians have only recently analyzed their perceptions of America and their significance for actual German American policy. Liberalism and nationalism shaped the worldview of the national liberal Stresemann. A bit pointedly one can say that the liberal, especially the economically liberal Stresemann succeeded very early on in recognizing the objective importance of the USA for the world economy and world politics. The war passion of the First World War, on the other hand, clouded the view of the nationalists, pan-Germans, even chauvinists and savage annexationists. It led to devastating misperceptions on the part of the USA and, in some cases, to betrayal of its fundamental liberal beliefs. Only the shock of the defeat of the German Reich in 1918 allowed him to face the "new facts", to see the USA in its real meaning again and to make the relationship with it the axis of his foreign policy during the Weimar Republic. Stresemann was an economist. He gained two basic convictions as a member of the Reichstag, syndic of the Association of Saxon Industrialists and President of the Federation of Industrialists as well as managing director of the German-American Business Association, and especially through a trip to the USA in 1912, which took him through ten industrial and commercial centers on the east coast and the Middle Westens led: "Today politics and international politics are primarily world economic politics". The USA is potentially the strongest economic power, for Germany a trading partner and competitor at the same time. For the "colossal strength" of the USA in the economic field, Goethe said "America, you have it better - than our continent, the old man." After the defeat in 1918, this realization remained a central element of his foreign policy coordinate system. Therefore, when Stresemann took office as Foreign Minister in 1923, he had a concept for a revision of foreign policy for the benefit of Germany, which relied on global economic interdependence and the paramount importance of the USA. Because all capitalist states were in the same boat, he calculated, the economic recovery of Germany lay in the well-understood interests of yesterday's enemies, especially the dominant economic power of the twenties, the USA, which defined its foreign policy at the time primarily as foreign trade policy . However, according to Stresemann, economic rationality will only prevail if Germany commits itself to the principle of peaceful change, adheres strictly to the multilateral and cooperative method and takes the interests of other states into account for a long time, for example the security interests of France; and when it kept the nationalist right in check domestically - from which he had renounced - which lacked any sense of measure and possibility. That is why he supported American economic intervention through the Dawes Plan (1924), probably the most important foreign policy decision of the Weimar Republic. Because the economic security through the Dawes Plan made the political security treaty of Locarno, Germany's entry into the League of Nations and the evacuation of the Rhineland possible. The plan was the beginning of the end of France's political domination in Central Europe after the First World War. With American help, Germany was freed from the helpless object role of 1919. In the First World War, however, the deluded nationalist and annexationist Stresemann had his passionate propaganda for unlimited submarine warfare - which, according to Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, meant the USA and "Finis Germaniae" would definitely enter the war - with two statements about the USA justified that turned out to be wrong. The American government is bluffing that the American people are not ready for war. In addition, Americans of German origin would stand in defiance of the old fatherland, as it were as a guard of Germanness on the Hudson. The completely unrealistic expectation that the first loyalty of German-Americans was not to their new homeland but to their old homeland, which was revived in the Third Reich, goes back to misjudgments that Stresemann acquired during his trip to the USA. He also believed in the statements of the naval experts and professors of the Kiel Institute for World Economy, who "proved" that Great Britain could be brought to its knees by unlimited submarine warfare before the USA intervened actively in Europe. The most important reason for Stresemann's unreserved support for the demand for unrestricted submarine warfare, however, was his conviction, which he maintained until the summer of 1918, that Germany would end the war only with a peace of dictation and victory, but not with a peace of negotiation and agreement could. At the end of 1916, the submarines were the only remaining "miracle weapon" for him, in order to be able to force such an end to the war. The details of the Siegfried he wanted changed depending on the war situation, but in essence his "unassailable, larger Germany of the future" always ran beyond Germany's economic, political and military hegemony over Europe, rounded off by a German colonial empire in Central Africa. The fear of the future economic superiority of the USA was a central motive of his plan. Because only a European economic area dominated by Germans would have the size and raw material base to be able to survive in the "fight for the world market" with the USA and the British Empire. This idea, too, became popular in Germany as of 1940 under racial auspices. Even if the liberal economist Stresemann did not demand a self-sufficient economic area, the agonal, block-building element in relation to the USA was much more pronounced than in the Weimar Republic. Stresemann, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926, had learned from the defeat in World War I that the USA and Europe were only willing to accept a contained, non-hegemonic Germany committed to the principle of peaceful change. Hitler drew very different lessons from the defeat. He was determined to lead the struggle for world power again, albeit more radically and expansively than the annexationists of the First World War. The next war would be a racially based war of extermination and conquest. Germany would, so Hitler announced in "Mein Kampf", be a world power or not be at all. Although as a soldier in World War I he had the chance - like the transformed Stresemann - to form a realistic picture of the USA, Hitler's plan for rule remained fixed on the European area and the land armies. He never had an adequate idea of ​​the worldwide possibilities of the Anglo-Saxon maritime powers, especially the USA. Besides, he hated the water. On land, he wrote in 1928, he was a hero, at sea a coward. Hitler's assessment of the USA, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, found an inner limit in his dogmatic worldview. The fanatical autodidact, who, as an ideologist and programmaticist, claimed to have recognized the eternal content and the meaning of world history in the war and struggle of the races (peoples) for scarce living space at the same time, only took on the information about the USA, that matched his prejudices. In addition to this dogmatic lockdown, other circumstances hindered a realistic understanding of the United States - namely that he had never been to an Anglo-Saxon country, spoke no English, and eo ipso considered democratic traditions to be Jewish, internationalist and a crime against humanity. Overall, his prejudices about America led to even greater distortions of reality than with other famous German "armchair travelers", such as Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx or Karl May. Hitler's image of America was part of two German traditions. On the one hand, he repeated judgments and prejudices about the USA that had been part of German criticism of America since the Romantic era, such as the lack of culture and the materialism of the Americans. On the other hand, a marginal phenomenon of this criticism became dominant with Hitler after the First World War: the anti-Semitic-racist anti-Americanism of the extreme German right. In Stresemann's view of the world - his wife came from a Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism - this aspect was completely absent. After the seizure of power in 1933, the racial component of Hitlerite and National Socialist anti-Americanism initially receded into the background for reasons of political opportunity. It only became an integral part of the party and state ideology when it gradually became clear to Hitler from 1937 onwards that the USA refused the National Socialists the desired "free hand" to build a racial empire from the Atlantic to the Urals. Hitler had blamed the Jews for America's entry into the First World War: the Jewish race, the Jewish press, the Jewish-dominated "international loan capital", the "capital and trust democracy". As their puppet, President Woodrow Wilson drove the American people to war. The alleged Jewish conspiracy was clearly the main motive for Hitler's anti-Americanism in the early years. He brought American materialism into a close connection with the Jews: "Americans put everything above business. Money remains money, even if it is soaked in blood. With Jews, the purse is the most sacred thing. America would have accessed with or without U -Boat." His books "Mein Kampf" and "Second Book", which he wrote between 1924 and 1928, provide more information about Hitler's image of America. At that time, the strong economic and cultural presence of the USA in Germany under the heading of "Americanism" triggered a new discussion on the importance of the USA, even among the extreme right. Hitler was forced to refine his image of America. It is therefore no coincidence that longer passages about the USA can be found only in his "Second Book" from 1928. The few statements in "Mein Kampf" have a consistently admiring undertone and differ considerably from the criticism of the early years: Due to a correct immigration and racial policy, the Teuton is master of the USA, albeit always endangered by the Jewish "bacillus". America was an (almost) exemplary racial state for Hitler at the time. In any case, it was an exemplary spatial state, which, because of the favorable ratio of population and area - the decisive criterion in Hitler's ideology - represented the model of a world power, destined to replace the British world empire. These approaches emerge even more clearly in his "Second Book". The USA appears as a prototype of a world power with adequate living space and correct racial policy through immigration laws, with a large domestic market, high standard of living, extraordinary productivity and technical innovation as well as mobility and mass production. At the same time, however, they appear as a danger and a challenge for Europe and Germany. Hitler criticized the "unbelievable bourgeois-national naivete" who believed that this challenge could be met within the framework of a free world economy and free world trade. He attacked the very concept of global economic integration that Foreign Minister Stresemann practiced. Hitler also criticized the pan-European movement of his time, which indulged in the illusion of countering America's threatening hegemony by founding the "United States of Europe". The necessary struggle with the USA - there was no peaceful coexistence between competing states in his imagination - could only be waged through a racially revolutionized Europe under German hegemony. Only such a state would North America "be able to stand up ... in the future". When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, his ambivalent view of the United States was complete. In his judgments, prejudices, clichés, stereotypes, images of enemies and hatred, nothing changed until 1945. Depending on the political situation, he activated the negative or positive components of his image, and Nazi propaganda followed his line in each case. The ambivalent American image of the Weimar Republic was able to continue to have an impact in the peace years from 1933 to 1938/39 because the National Socialists tolerated freedom of journalism. The USA had lost importance in the world economic crisis. Foreign policy isolationism, the neutrality laws of the 1930s, and official benevolence towards the New Deal - Roosevelt's economic reform program - contributed to this, as did Hitler's long-cherished hope that the United States would not return to Europe politically and militarily.The USA was present in many ways in everyday life during the Third Reich - for example in film and jazz, advertising, as tourists - and the Nazis obviously saw no reason to prevent this as long as racial dogma was not touched upon. The confrontation with the USA as a symbol of modernity, with the positively or negatively assessed "Americanism" continued, albeit with reduced intensity. The old leitmotifs of America's perception from the Weimar Republic such as technology, rationality and productivity, America's media and goods world, mass consumption and mass entertainment as well as the leisure industry, sport and body cult did not disappear from published opinion. The traditional stereotypes of cultural criticism such as the accusations of materialism and lack of culture also continued to apply. The plurality and ambivalence in the production of images of America only changed with Roosevelt's famous quarantine speech in October 1937, in which Roosevelt for the first time seemed to announce an active foreign policy against the "aggressor nations". The climate of opinion in the controlled Nazi press became more hostile and, after the declaration of war on the USA on December 11, 1941, turned into open hatred. Hitler himself returned to his early perception of America. The overriding theme of the propaganda against the USA became his basic conviction that Roosevelt was not acting independently but as an agent of international Jewry; that Jewish capitalism and the Jewish world conspiracy that comprised the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were also driving the American people to war. Since Hitler had no means to influence the political will of the United States from the day America entered the war, he embarked on hateful monologues at headquarters about the "gangster" Roosevelt and the "Jewishness" and "neglected" American People. Politically, he was only under illusions. He hoped for a break between England and the USA, that Roosevelt would fail in the presidential elections in 1944 and finally, after the death of the President he deeply hated on April 12, 1945, that the "miracle of the House of Brandenburg" would be repeated was saved by the sudden death of Tsarina Elisabeth in 1762. But the miracle did not materialize. Hitler did not lead the Reich to world power, but to its downfall. The US misperception has cost the lives of millions of people.

Prof. Dr. Detlef Junker
Historical seminar, P.O. Box 10 57 60, 69047 Heidelberg,
Telephone (06221) 54 22 76