The original idea was to write about the myth of "Americanization," which all Germans believe in (and which I believed as well for many years) but which is a myth. Then I started investigating all the other myths the Germans have about themselves, which they can't see, but which I can only because I have an outsider's perspective.
|This is the entire first chapter.|
Germans Search for Their Identity Like Others Look for Bigfoot
My first encounter with the mysteries of the German soul took place in 1985 in the quaint little town on the Dutch border called Krefeld. In the Italian ice cream parlor "Lorenzo," my fresh new bride introduced me to one of her school friends, who, when she saw that I was American, promptly related her experiences as an exchange student in the US.
"Did you like it?" I asked, full of hope that my compatriots back home, conscious of our international image, were good to her.
"It was the worst year of my life," she said.
All the American kids in her high school were having fun all day, enjoying life to its teenage fullest, but not her: She was an outcast, left in the dark and taunted at every opportunity.
She even knew why.
Shortly after arriving in the US, her host family warned her: "Here in America, a young woman shaves her legs." But not her. She refused, and became the target of endless jokes. Her year in America was a year in hell.
I of course politely apologized for the intolerance and small-mindedness of my ignorant fellow Americans, but still, there was one thing I didn't quite get.
"Why didn't you just shave your legs?" I asked.
"Because then I wouldn't have been me anymore," she answered.
Her answer impressed me. This was a woman with principles, but it was not the kind of principles I was used to. An American would have said something like: "I refused to shave my legs to protest the sexist way women are perceived in society." Young Americans always want to save the world. But it would never occur to them that they would stop being themselves every time they shaved. The girl from Krefeld really believed she would lose her identity along with her leg hairs.
We Americans also know a little bit about losing our souls, but mostly that happens when we get bitten by zombies. Talking to her, I imagined a German zombie in high school, soullessly stumbling through the halls on well-shaved legs.
Germans lose their souls at the drop of a hat, and by far the most popular way to lose it is to lose it to America.
In the very first chapter of the 2004 book, "Wie wir Amerikaner wurden" (How We Became Americans), the author Michael Rutschky writes, "Germany has lost its soul." His book is only the most recent of a long line of popular tracts about the Americanization of Germany - its economy, politics, media and language. As early as 1920, a book by Gustav Wilhelm Meyer appeared with the title, "Die Amerikanisierung Europas" - the Americanization of Europe. Not long after that, the Jewish-Austrian writer Stefan Zweig warned in writing that American pop culture with its silly, primitive dances like the Charleston was threatening to undermine European culture. Zweig's short-sightedness seems symptomatic to me: Germans are always suspecting threats where there are none while blindly overlooking the real dangers breathing down their necks: Eight years after Zweig's anti-American panic attack, Hitler did to the German soul what the Charleston never could.
Come to think of it, the endless fear of losing their souls to some foreign country was one of Hitler's most efficient tools in manipulating the German people: He came to power claiming the French were taking their dignity, the Americans their culture and the Jews their Germanness. In his book "Englischer Kulturimperialismus - Der British Council als Werkzeug der geistigen Einkreisung Deutschlands" (English Cultural Imperialism - The British Council as a Tool for the Isolation Encirclement of Germany), Franz Thierfelder made the convincing argument that the British were trying to rob Germans of their culture by offering English courses. The book was published in 1940, about the time the Battle of Britain was launched.
To other peoples of the Western World, that would have seemed absurd. To the Germans, it was a message they'd been waiting to hear - maybe even eager to hear - for a century, and they still are today.
The unkillable belief that you can lose your identity by drinking Coca-Cola, wearing Jeans, listening to Rock and roll, watching Hollywood movies and eating hamburgers is an exceptionally German conviction. We Americans import German beer, Italian shoes, British movies and Mexican tacos, but none of it threatens our souls. No American, faced with prospect of buying a BMW, would ponder: "Oh my God, am I becoming German?" No American mother would forbid her children the Grimms Fairy tales out of fear that her children may become Germanized. I grew up in Hawaii and I ate more chow mein, char sui, Portuguese sweet bread, bento box and plate lunch, shrimp canton and crispy gow chee, sushi and li hing mui than hamburgers, but never once would I doubt that I was an American. I have lived in Germany for 20 years, I speak German fluently, perhaps more than I speak English, I even dream in German, but I would never imagine that I have become German. The claim, "I have been Americanized" is only proof you need that someone is German: Only a German would make it.
But wait - might the theory of cultural imperialism have some truth to it? There is evidence, after all: The American army has occupied Germany since the end of the war and there's a McDonalds in every major German city. This is the land of Goethe and Schiller - and we have them watching Dharma and Greg. Could they be right? Can eighty million German intellectuals be completely wrong?
One sunny day in the summer of 2005 I decided to test the theory. First, I wrote down the four things people say most often about the Americanization of Germany:
1. "Soon we'll have a McDonald's on every corner."
2. "We'll buy any kind of shit the Americans shove down our throats."
3. "Politics today is only about show, just like in America."
4. "The occupation forced American culture on us."
First point: McDonaldization.
A very German idea, especially as I can hardly even pronounce the word. But also one you can test. So I grabbed my notepad, left my apartment in Schöneberg in Berlin and started walking in the direction of the nearest McDonald's. Along the way, I counted corners.
No McDonald's on the first corner.
No McDonald's on the second corner.
On the third corner I found the first sign of the growing threat of Americanization: A German restaurant dedicated to a Hollywood star. Why a Hollywood star? This is Germany! Is there no German star to name a restaurant after? "The Blue Angel" was named in honor of Marlene Dietrich, the Hollywood star who was born in the neighborhood.
Fourth corner: No McDonald's, but a clear case of cultural imperialism. On the menu of the restaurant called Tuffstein I found Tapas and Tortillas, Pasta and Pizza. Clearly a case of identity confusion, but it was hard to say who the poor restaurant owner had lost his soul to.
Across the street I saw a fast food stand with more traditional German food: French fries and currywurst ... run by a Turkish woman.
Americanization began in earnest on the ninth corner: A little cafe with a blatantly English name: "Downtown." Why not a German name? And why Italian coffee?
I turned onto Haupt Strasse, heading north towards Potsdamer Platz, and walked past Jin-Xin (Vietnamese), √ñz Adana Asma Alti (Turkish) and Khayyam (Persia). I thought: "My God, they're right, this isn't Germany at all." Then I thought: "So many exotic food shops! This kind of variety you only get in Germany."
I hurried on. Turkish Grill, China Grill, Istanbul Grill. Maybe it was the evil strategy of the international gastronomy mafia to confuse Germans with a massive influx of overwhelming diversity. I had already given up hope of ever seeing German food again when I happened across an island of cultural authenticity: "Bratwunder" - the last bastion of defense for the traditional German bratwurst.
Finally I found the real America: Burger King. It wasn't McDonald's, but I didn't have the strength to continue on another five or ten miles. I bought a bag of onion rings - one of the few things Burger King sells that is truly American - and took a look at my notes.
Of the 78 possibilities to buy prepared food so far, 33 were turkish, 29 German, 8 Vietnamese, Thai or Chinese, 5 Italian, 2 Greek, 1 Persian and 1 American. On 41 corners.
According to the German hotel and restaurant association DEHOGA, there are 1,650 hamburger places in Germany if you count McDonald's and Burger King together. On the other hand, there are some 3,500 Chinese restaurants, 12,000 Turkish doner kebab stands and 23,000 pizzerias.
Let me submit a daring thesis: The theory of the McDonaldization of Germany is just a little bit exaggerated.
Nor is it true that fast food in Germany began with McDonald's. On the contrary, the Germans invented fast food long before we Americans got to it.
"Fast food" is defined as full meals prepared en masse beforehand and warmed up on demand with only a minimum of additional preparation. That's not a new idea. As early as the late Middle Ages you could buy hot sausages and warm meals in bowls, often soups, but not only, in marketplaces. In the town of Weimar they found a recipe for the Thüringian bratwurst from the year 1613. The Bavarian "wärschtlamo" or "wurst man" has been around since 1881; in Austria the sausage stand was popular during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. Around that time, automated restaurants from England, which let you choose completed meals in little boxes behind glass, were popular on the continent. Napoleon's soldiers imported the bistro to Western Europe as they retreated from Russia. After the Second World War, the Germans invented the currywurst - a hotdog with ketchup and curry powder - which they often proudly cite as the national dish of Berlin. Speaking of hot dogs - the world's first industrially produced fast food was the hot dog. You could keep it simmering in a pot of warm water all day and slap it in a bun when a customer came by - a German invention.
Ironically, the original hamburger is also most likely a German invention as well. The hamburger as we know it appears to have been introduced to America in the 19th century by German immigrants. It was probably based on an earlier German fast food: a meatball in a bun with a little mustard, which you can still buy in Germany at any outdoor fair. The immigrants improved it - they used an all-meat patty and added slices of tomato, lettuce and onion, making it healthier than the original.
To our shame, the Germans even invented fast food chain first.
If I had turned right instead of the left on the twelfth corner, I would have eventually reached an outlet of the Nordsee - "North Sea," a German fast food empire that is over 100 years old. By 1896, Nordsee had begun selling fish in a bun to workers on their lunch break and soon expanded to warm meals. The first American fast food restaurant, A&W, opened twenty years later in 1919, and by the time Ray Kroc bought his second hamburger restaurant in 1955, launching McDonald's as a chain, there were already some 250 Nordsee restaurants all over Germany and Austria.
McDonald's didn't change Germany's dining culture at all. In fact, it found a quite modest spot in an already flourishing fast food landscape. There is no McDonaldsization in Germany, but there is plenty of McDonald's-phobia.
American companies and brands fill the Germans with more fear than all other countries together. You only need mention Microsoft or Starbucks and someone will say, "The Americans come here and whether we want their products or not, we don't have any choice, they make us buy." The Germans are the only people on earth who are forced to shop, as if our president will personally punch the German chancellor in the nose if Germans don't buy more American products.
American businessmen, however, tell hear a different tale: They say Germany is one of the toughest and most hostile markets in the world.
When McDonalds came here and the newspapers began bemoaning the demise of European dining culture, other American fast food chains perked up their ears. Wendy's, for example, America's number three fast food chain, quickly realized that the German market for hamburgers was sorely underdeveloped. In America there are a dozen major hamburger chains, in Germany there were only two. There's always room for one more, thought Wendy's, and began to invest, opening shop in multiple cities in the early 80's.
A few years later, they were all closed.
It's a bit insulting to my American pride, to tell the truth. What kind of a country doesn't have room for at least three hamburger chains?
And while we're asking fundamental questions: Was kind of a country doesn't like family-friendly video shops?
Our video shops in America are for the entire family: The kids range among the racks and decide with their parents what the family is going to watch. In German video shops, kids are verboten. When that odd factoid became known, Blockbuster decided to close this market gap before someone else did. In 1995 it celebrated its grand opening with 25 stores in Munich and Berlin and drenched those towns in advertising. One Blockbuster manager bragged to the press that Germans would be glad to finally have a video shop that wasn't full of "filth."
Two years later, Blockbuster closed its stores and retreated out of Germany without celebrating its "Grand Closing."
A manager of the competing Berlin chain, Video World, told me in confidence: They were scared when Blockbuster showed up. With nearly 5000 shops, Blockbuster was the biggest video chain in America. Video World only has 50 shops. But, he added: "Blockbuster didn't understand the market."
Porn in Germany is not sold in separate "adult" stores, it's sold in the back rooms of normal video shops: They just put up a sign at the front entrance forbidding children to enter. Papa rents "The Lion King" for the kids and "Housewives Home Alone" for Mama. And Germans love their porn. Porn profits are so high that some video shops made 30% of their turnover with it, especially in the 90s, before the Internet came. Germans walked past Blockbuster straight to Video World.
Then came GAP.
The Germans love jeans, which were once American working clothes, after all: It should be simple enough to sell them real American fashion. That must have been what the clothing store giant was thinking. German retailers broke into a panic when GAP showed up in the nineties. With 1,290 stores in America and nearly 350 more worldwide, GAP is the world's largest clothing retailer and the most powerful as well. The Germans didn't care. GAP had to close its shops here in 2004 - all of them. And it wasn't because Germans don't buy foreign clothes. Other than GAP, all the world's big clothing retailers are here and doing well: H&M from Sweden has 270 shops, the Spanish chain Zara runs 37 stores and the Italian giant Benetton owns 250 outlets. Germans just didn't like GAP.
American exporters know the Germans are the richest consumers in Europe and also the hardest to please. Only the Germans don't know that.
I called the German Federal Bank - the Bundesbank - and asked how much crap we Americans really force down German throats.
"Less than France, that I can say," the Bundesbank statistician told me.
What? I would have sworn that America is the biggest exporter to Germany, if not to the entire world. In fact, Germans buy more products from France than from America.
"But Americans export much more to Germany than Germans to America, no?" I asked. My national pride was at stake.
Not at all, said the expert.
Americans still don't buy German currywurst, but they buy nearly everything else. In 2004 Germany exported products and services valued at 64,8 billion euros to America - nearly a third more that America exported to Germany.
"Guess how many German companies have subsidiaries in America," said the statistician. Well over 3400 - while American companies only have 1400 subsidiaries in Germany. German companies in America range from Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the biggest and most influential publisher in the USA, to DaimlerChrysler and BMW, who run factories in America, to German banks. "There are very few German chemical firms that do not produce in the USA," he said.
Americans don't watch many German movies and for some strange reason Germans have never managed to establish a worldwide hot dog fast food chain (I would call it "Oktoberfest"), but those robots you see taking away American jobs in factories? Most them either come from Germany or have parts made in Germany. Come to think of it, just about any complicated mechanical product probably has German parts in it.
While the Germans constantly and loudly bellyache about being Americanized, they are secretly busy Germanizing us.
America is just as flooded with foreign products as Germany or any other country: Our biggest furniture chain is Ikea, our biggest publisher is German - Bertelsmann - and our favorite toy is Japanese: PlayStation. But for us, it's a sign that we're international and modern and have discerning tastes. We put a positive spin on something that is... well, positive. Come to think of it, that's probably how most countries interpret their penchant for foreign products.
The real question is not why Germans buy so many American products, but why they interpret that as "proof that we are being manipulated, used and pushed around."
|Some notes on "Planet Germany"|
Planet Germany became my first bestseller. It was published in two different paperback editions.
It was the first book I wrote in German, with the help of Astrid, and our first book together.
The publishers talked me into wearing a cowboy hat for the cover and for press appearances - I had never had a cowboy hat and would be embarrassed to wear it in the US, but I fell in love with it immediately.
Here's what Der Spiegel wrote about it.
Buy the book.
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