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Ups and downs

Günther Birkenstock / bkJuly 14, 2014

American spies are being discovered in Germany, all while the NSA spies on millions of Germans. It's increasing the strain on German-American relations. But the two have survived many highs and lows.

Two small flags, one German, the other American, on top of a vehicle's hood.
Image: imago/Seeliger

After World War Two, the United States became Germany's savior. The latter was at its economic, cultural, and moral low point. The country needed help and received it from the US. Instead of parceling Germany up and turning it into an agricultural state, as then Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau had pushed for in 1944, the US government decided to contribute to the economic reconstruction of its enemy in the war as well as other needy states in Europe.

It called for Germany to become economically and politically reintegrated into the international community and to play a role in maintaining stability in Europe. The Marshall Plan made more than $12 billion (nine billion euros) available to European states and turned enemies into friends.

This positive view of the United States was reinforced during the Berlin blockade in 1948. After the end of the war, the Allies had divided Berlin into four zones: The Soviets, the US, the British, and the French were each responsible for one. After the three western Allies enacted currency reforms in 1948 and replaced the nearly worthless Reichsmark with the deutschmark, the Soviets cut off the Western section of the city from the rest of the country. Days later, US and British planes flew aid and other supplies into the city and continued to do so until the Soviets lifted the blockade in 1949.

John F. Kennedy speaks into numerous microphones in a black-and-white photo
Relations were at their height when JFK visited BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Kennedy's Berlin moment

In addition to the US aid, President John F. Kennedy made a symbolic gesture of support to the people of Berlin in 1963. On a visit to the city, he famously declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner" to show his solidarity with residents of the German enclave. America's popularity in Germany was at its apex in the decades following the war as people across Germany idolized rock 'n' roll and film icons like James Dean, who served as role models for young Germans.

The Vietnam War, however, marked a shift in German attitudes toward the US. Huge protests took place in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and photos of napalm bombs and defoliants used in the jungles of Vietnam provoked outrage in Germany.

Young Germans, in particular, expressed their anti-Americanism, according to Udo Hebel, American studies professor at Regensburg University.

"In the 50s, America was the model to identify with, in opposition to Germany's outdated society," he told DW. "This changed in the 1960s, and Germans turned against the ugly face of the USA."

Still the positive ideals of America lived on.

"That creates a constantly paradoxical image," he says.

Fear of the all-powerful partner

The anti-American mood in Germany was further magnified by NATO'sDouble-Track Decisionof 1979, which agreed the stationing of a new generation of US rockets and cruise missiles in the country.

A fake rocket is used by demonstrators to show their disapproval of German policy.
Huge demonstrations took place in October 1983 against stationing rockets on Germans oilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Hebel believes that, after the resolution, many Germans feared a return to the stockpiling of the late 1940s and 1950s. That provoked old stereotypes of the US as an imperialist, materialist state, and many Germans harbored deep fears that the US was becoming all-powerful.

The al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001once again brought Germany and the US closer together. One month after Gerhard Schröder's government promised the US "unreserved solidarity," Germany took part in the US-led military operation "Enduring Freedom" against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

But in 2003, the relationship clouded over once again. Schröder refused to provide any help when then US President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.

The row never lasts

Hebel thinks the current row over the US surveillance operations and secret cooperation with German informants is very serious. The German government has gone as far as to expel the CIA's station chief - an unprecedented step in relations between Berlin and Washington.

But even though the chancellor has expressed her justifiable outrage, Hebel does not think that German-American relations will suffer long-term damage. Over time, and regardless of the political climate, relations have never gotten worse - in fact, they have steadily improved.

This is well-demonstrated by the strong economic links between the two countries and the enduring cultural exchange.

"It's important to see that this has been a history of ups and downs, and that means that, after an incidental dip, things can improve again."