How many American youth support communism

United States

Dr. Heinrich Bortfeldt

Dr. phil. Heinrich Bortfeldt is an author and historian, he lives in Berlin. Study of history, English / American studies. Doctorate on images of Germany in the USA. Numerous publications on German-American relations and German contemporary history.

Quasi overnight, with the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990, not only was the state unified, but the main power of the West, the USA, had acquired 16 million allies within the framework of NATO. But what did you even know about each other? Basically, a negative perception dominated on both sides, which was shaped by the hostilities of the Cold War. There was official anti-Americanism in the GDR and anti-communism or simple ignorance in the USA. Nevertheless, a closer look revealed a more differentiated picture.

The Wall and the Cold War made unhindered cultural understanding between the GDR and the USA impossible. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)



1. Framework conditions: USA and GDR - the unequal

When German-American relations were mentioned in the times of German second statehood, it was usually and automatically understood to mean West German-American relations. That was quite understandable, because the GDR as the “second” German state always remained in the shadow of the Federal Republic. For the world power USA, the GDR was too small and too unimportant. Politically, it was considered an artificial structure that, as Moscow's most loyal satellite, was not only overshadowed by West German-American relations, but also by American-Soviet relations. Why should Washington develop a special interest in the GDR when all the basic questions in this regard were decided in Moscow anyway? Seen in this way, the GDR could not develop an independent US policy. American policy on Germany was fixated on the Federal Republic, its most important ally. For a long time Washington respected Bonn's claim to sole representation; their GDR policy was largely coordinated with Bonn. Any revaluation of East Berlin should be avoided. Only in 1974, in the course of relaxed American-Soviet relations, Willy Brandt's new Ostpolitik and the Basic Treaty, did the USA diplomatically recognize the GDR. Although the Americans were largely indifferent afterwards, this step was an enormous gain in prestige for East Berlin. But there was no question of normalization. The GDR was not an equal partner. Official political, economic and cultural contacts developed, but there was little room for improvement. The decisive blockades on the American side were the violation of human rights in the GDR, symbolized by the Berlin Wall, the non-granting of democracy, free elections, freedom of travel and self-determination. The GDR's refusal to recognize American-Jewish restitution claims also played a role. In addition, the GDR had no lobby in the USA, unlike other Eastern bloc states such as Poland or Hungary. GDR refugees went to the other German state and not to the USA. The US Communist Party was also barely able to lobby. It was too small, too unimportant, also too orthodox. Their use would have been counterproductive. Nevertheless, from Washington's point of view, the GDR as the victorious power of World War II inevitably always remained in view of its four-power responsibility for Berlin and Germany as a whole. In addition, from a military point of view, the GDR was the westernmost outpost of the Warsaw Pact, which was directly adjacent to NATO. [1]

The GDR only received more attention in the first half of the 1980s, when Honecker tried to sound out the vacuum created by the death of Brezhnev and the transition party leaders in Moscow for an independent policy. So Honecker distanced himself from the Soviet Ice Age policy, criticized the missile stationing on German soil and favored a policy of dialogue with Western partners. That was very well recognized in Washington. In the course of the American policy of differentiation at the time, the first deputy American foreign minister, Whitehead, traveled twice to the GDR to examine the seriousness of Honecker's policy. In return, Hermann Axen, a member of the Politburo, traveled to the USA in 1988 and was also received by George Shultz, the then American Secretary of State. These were the highest-ranking mutual visits before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It remained an interlude. The American side could barely see that GDR policy was sustainable, and when Gorbachev came to power in Moscow in 1985 and wanted to make socialism attractive again with perestroika and glasnost, Honecker failed in Washington with his stubborn attitude and unwillingness to reform. Honecker's dream of being welcomed to the center of power in the western world, the White House, did not come true. Only the first freely elected Prime Minister of the GDR, Lothar de Maizière, was granted a reception in the Oval Office.

The GDR did a lot to get rid of the image of the walled state in the USA. In the cultural field in particular, the GDR offered everything it had to offer. Well-known GDR artists have stayed and made regular guest appearances in the USA since the 1970s. They included the writers Christa Wolf and Günter Kunert, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Kurt Masur, the internationally celebrated opera stars Peter Schreier and Theo Adam, and the Brecht interpreter Gisela May. The ice skating princess Katarina Witt enchanted the hearts of many Americans. The most important contribution was probably the glamorous art exhibition “The Splendor of Dresden”, which was shown in Washington, New York and San Francisco in 1978/79. It attracted around 1.5 million art lovers. Ironically, this event was associated less with the GDR than with "Germany", that is, with the Federal Republic. [2] The GDR instrumentalized its cultural policy towards the USA - albeit with little success.


2. Images of America in the GDR

There was no picture of America in the GDR. If you wanted to make a rough distinction, there was the official, state-decreed, largely ideological image of America on the one hand and the private, everyday cultural image of America on the other. Both influenced each other; There were nuances in both images and changes over the years.

2.1 The official picture of America

East German images of America were strongly influenced by the development of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union in the post-war period. The GDR as a satellite of the Soviet Union inevitably got caught up in this suction. Thus, the attitude towards the “class enemy” was politically preprogrammed. It was ideologically shaped by Lenin's theory of imperialism, according to which the “reactionary and misanthropic nature of imperialism” must be overcome, especially in the form of the main power of the West, the USA. An enemy image, both politically and ideologically, was thus given. It leaned heavily on the Soviet reasoning of the time. It was particularly crude in the heyday of Stalinism in the 50s, but also in the 60s. Campaigns were run against “modernism”, “cosmopolitanism”, “objectivism”, “American decadence”, “American militarism”, against the “American way of life”, against jazz, rock'n roll and beat, against “riveted pants” ( Jeans), against “long-haired people”, “hooliganism” etc. With this rigid approach, basically only own deficits were exposed, which resulted from the desire for more cosmopolitanism.

In the 1970s and 1980s the image of America became more differentiated. The policy of détente and dialogue contributed significantly to this, as did the international recognition of the GDR, not least the diplomatic recognition by the USA in 1974. The GDR had to be more open to the world. Attitudes towards the United States have now also become more diverse. With the diplomatic recognition and with Honecker's central concern, one day to be received in the White House, the dispute turned out to be more flexible. In addition to the “aggressive warmongers”, “realistic forces” were now increasingly identified, which one could certainly include in Honecker's attempt to create a worldwide “coalition of reason”. The “other America” with which one could show solidarity was also increasingly discovered: for example with the black communist civil rights activist Angela Davis or with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez because of their anti-war songs. In the GDR, a “singing movement” was created, influenced by the state-controlled youth organization FDJ, which referred to the tradition of the American hootenanny. Once a year there was a "festival of political songs". In 1973 the 10th World Festival took place in (East) Berlin. Although politically instrumentalized, they were still a window to the world for many young people in the GDR. Western television was tacitly tolerated, jeans were no longer frowned upon, nor was beat music, concerts with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were held. The pressure in the GDR pocket had grown so that the SED leadership had to admit that if they couldn't prevent Western influence, they wanted to at least capture it and control it politically.

2.1.1 The official image of the USA in the GDR (using the example of school books in the GDR)

The core of the so-called unified socialist education system in the GDR was the ten-class general polytechnic high school. The educational content was designed to give the pupil a high degree of (selective) general education and to educate him “politically and morally” in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist worldview. The USA image was subject to this dictum in a special way, as it was not a "normal" country, but the "main power of imperialism", which, as President Reagan said, socialism, the "evil empire" wanted to throw the stake of history. The United States as a subject was mainly taught in the subjects of history, geography, civics and - surprisingly - only marginally in English lessons. It was not until the Abitur level that a more detailed treatment of America was planned as part of foreign language teaching. There were binding curricula and uniform textbooks for all schools in the GDR. Within these state guidelines, each teacher had limited individual leeway that he could use - or not. The students were confronted with the subject USA for the first time in the 7th grade, i.e. at the age of 13. In the history lesson of this grade level, the "Origin of the United States of America" ​​was covered on seven pages. The students learned about the North American Indians, the "Boston Tea Storm", the struggle for independence and the declaration of independence. Names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette and even Steuben were memorable. Colored images, such as that of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia or that of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, reinforced this emotionally appealing mood. With the exception of the forced displacement of the Indians, the emergence of the United States was consistently rated positively as a “bourgeois revolution”. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was acknowledged "of fundamental importance for the development of progressive thinking in Europe". This positive image of America broke off abruptly in the following school years. In accordance with Lenin's definition of imperialism, according to which at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the developed western industrialized countries, above all the USA, had grown into their “imperialist”, that is “putrid,” “parasitic” and finally “dying” stage, The United States was continuously treated primarily under this verdict. Since, according to Lenin, imperialism was a “reaction all along the line”, the image of history to be conveyed could basically only be negative. The curriculum about the USA was thus ideologically predetermined.

In the history book of class 8, which outlined the German and international development from the revolution of 1848/49 to the November revolution of 1918/19, the USA appeared on only two pages in connection with the "beginning struggle for the redivision of the world". Using the example of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States was presented as a bellicose power in order to underpin Lenin's doctrine of the connection between imperialism and war. The USA was also treated in the 8th grade as part of geography lessons. With 22 pages they appeared clearly highlighted compared to our friendly Cuba with 8 pages. The students mainly learned something about the economic regions and the development of the USA to the most powerful industrial power in the western world. There was differentiation insofar as the impressive skyscrapers of New York were contrasted with the desolate Harlem, the efficient agriculture with constant overproduction crises. Overall, however, the inhumane excesses of a brutal capitalist system were primarily described. The impression was fed that the US alone was a country of racial discrimination, drug addiction, crime and social decline. The brutal capitalist exploitation was established on the basis of the industrial conurbations of the north, and the wage workers of the south were degraded to “modern slaves”. Attached tendentious statistics suggested the imminent decline of the USA. Now it is undoubtedly beyond dispute how much the country suffers from crime, drug problems and social tensions. But the whole variety of showing the country's beauty in addition to the ugly, really introducing the country and its people, was incompatible with the given ideological premises. In grade 9, the United States continued to be covered in history and civics classes. The United States appeared in history class primarily with World War II and the shaping of the post-war order. The opening of the Second Front was emphasized, but the sole motif was later supremacy over parts of Europe. The Americans appeared less as liberators than as those who “bombed German cities day and night”, such as Dresden. The Western powers, above all the US, were held responsible for moving away from the Four Power Accords and for the transition to the Cold War. In civics lessons at this grade level, the United States was treated as part of the “historical replacement of capitalism” according to Lenin's theory of imperialism. As a result, the US was an undemocratic country threatening peace, ruled by the military-industrial complex - an obstacle to social progress.

The class 10 history textbook focused on the history of the GDR from its founding until the 1980s. In the international part, the USA played a certain role. They were positively mentioned in connection with the test ban agreement of 1963, the Soyuz-Apollo project of 1975 and the summit meeting between the Soviet and American presidents Gorbachev and Reagan. Otherwise, the traditionally negative image of the USA prevailed as an international warmonger, which would threaten world peace and progress. This textbook was still in schools in 1989, the year of the fall of the Wall. There was no sign of a new approach to international politics or a move away from Lenin's theory of imperialism - at a time when a “new way of thinking” had long been the trend in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. It was entirely in line with Education Minister Margot Honecker's unwillingness to reform. The students often felt agitated and bored; the one-sidedness was evident. The teachers stood between state guidelines and often better knowledge.

In the entire English course in grades 7 to 10, only two lessons in grade 10 were reserved for the USA. The information conveyed in it was more than scant. You learned a few facts about New York, otherwise familiar things from other subjects were repeated - just in English. Both lessons in the USA were so unkind and boring that they really did not encourage you to study the country in more detail. Since this subject matter was also at the end of the course, i.e. in the summer months, they often fell victim to being “heat-free” anyway.

The English teachers found themselves in a particularly awkward position. They chose the English language because of special, naturally positive, references. But everything was "second hand".How should they arouse joy in the language, country and people when much was ideologically occupied and they were also refused to travel to an English-speaking country? With this restriction, many English teachers used additional sources of information, such as specialist books, illustrated books, American fiction, and not least Western television, to expand their knowledge of the USA. Of course, the image of America for many students was more complex and went far beyond the curriculum of the school. In addition to the textbook picture, there was mainly a (West) TV picture and a music picture from the USA. Quite a few students felt motivated for English lessons precisely because of the English-language music. [3]


3. The private image of America

In addition to the official one, there was a private, very diffuse image of America. Since the (normal) GDR citizen did not know the USA from his own experience, he obtained his picture from other sources. The first coins were certainly made through Indian and cowboy stories by Karl May and Friedrich Gerstäcker. From the 1960s, with the advent of television, the image of America was immensely enriched by western television. Children's and youth series such as “Lassie”, “Fury”, “Bonanza”, “At the foot of the blue mountains”, “Smoking Colts”, in which not only the longing for Wild West romance was deepened, but also in the end always the good triumphed over the bad were formative for this generation of young people (incidentally, in the west they made “Wild West films”, in the east, on the other hand, DEFA made “Indian films”, comment by Lothar G. Kopp / bpb). Colorful series about glamor, glamor and insidiousness of the 70s like in “Dalles” and “Denver Clan” gave a glimpse into a completely different world of high society that the GDR citizens now experience from their own experience of the workers 'and farmers' state of the GDR really didn't know. Although not very demanding in terms of content, they were still very exciting and entertaining. “Dalles” even advanced to become a street sweeper. In addition, there were also quite critical TV programs about America, e.g. by Thilo Koch and Werner Baecker. Films that were shown in the cinemas of the GDR, such as "The Magnificent Seven" or "Only Horses Are Given the coup de grace" or "Bloody Strawberries" achieved cult status. Those who wanted to deepen their image of America could either buy books by Mark Twain, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, even Jack Kerouac, or at least read them in the larger libraries. How great the longing for the “other planet” (Kunert) was describes the book by Ulrich Plenzdorf “The new sorrows of young W.” from 1972. It was also brought to the stage and celebrated by young people. It is about youth rebellion and the glorification of "blue jeans". A song is dedicated to them. “Blue Jeans” and “Coca-Cola” were not simply pants or drinks in the GDR, they were symbols of another more colorful and open world. This private picture of America was a hodgepodge of different pieces of the mosaic, which often came across as transfigured and naive and rubbed against the official picture. So there were contrasting images, but certainly also overlaps. Despite the positive mood, a critical view remained, especially with regard to American foreign policy with the feeling of threat ("power arrogance") and the obvious domestic political problems such as homelessness, the gap between rich and poor, racism, crime and drug addiction. Overall, however, curiosity and sympathy predominated. [4]


4. The fall of the wall, the peaceful revolution and reunification: turning points in mutual perception.

Even before the fall of the Wall, in view of the wave of refugees, the Monday demonstrations and the fall of SED General Secretary Erich Honecker, at a time when the “German question” seemed to be returning to the agenda of international politics, it was the American President George Bush Sr., Who on October 25, 1989 in an interview with the "New York Times" said that he does not share the "concerns of some European countries about a reunified Germany". In doing so, he set the tone at an early stage as a representative of the Western leadership by tying the content of Ronald Reagan's request from 1987 on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate, when the latter exclaimed: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. ”Bush warned caution, because the difficult to understand development should not end in chaos or civil war and under no circumstances should challenge the Soviet occupying power. In doing so, he stood out positively from the other victorious powers of the Second World War, in which concern and skepticism about a possible reunified Germany dominated. In the period that followed, the American government, in close coordination with Bonn, created a framework, the 2 plus 4 talks, in which the external aspects of German unification could be resolved. President Bush unreservedly stood behind Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had caused international excitement with his 10-point plan for reunification. Bush and his Foreign Minister Baker were the decisive protagonists who convinced the Western allies France and above all Great Britain, but also the Soviet Union, of the advantages of German unity for a stable, just and lasting peace order in Europe. In the case of East Germans, America's contribution, and especially President Bush's, is somewhat underexposed. Here, above all, Gorbachev is credited with having decisively promoted German unity. It is undisputed that Gorbachev had to go the longest and most difficult path to give up the GDR and ultimately to agree to German unity. He had completely different obstacles to overcome within his own ranks. Nevertheless, without the early and stringent American support, German unity would not have "taken place" as it actually happened. [5]

There was also a predominantly positive mood among the American public - with the self-confidence of a world power. In a survey carried out by the Los Angeles Times in January 1989, 61 percent said they were positive about a possible German reunification. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, particularly touched the Americans deeply. Fifty percent of the American public followed this event closely. That was a great result, considering the multiple disinterest of many Americans in international events. In general, the political changes in Central and Eastern Europe were seen as the most important event of 1989. In the spring of 1990, the Americans remained positive towards the two German states, although the Federal Republic (of course) received higher sympathy ratings than the GDR. Nevertheless, the values ​​for the GDR were higher than for Hungary and the Soviet Union. The images of the peaceful character of the East German revolution, of the tears of joy, the “celebrations on the wall”, the lying in arms of East and West Germans who were separated for years by the wall and barbed wire, touched the hearts deeply many Americans. Nobody had expected the fall of the wall so suddenly, the surprise and joy were all the greater. For many Americans, their ideals of freedom have come true. They were enthusiastic about the East Germans' desire for freedom and their courage to overthrow a communist dictatorship. In addition, they believed themselves to be victorious in the cold war. There were only concerns in some Jewish circles, but these never became politically relevant. The first East German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, enjoys great recognition and admiration in America and was the second German to be honored by US President Obama with the Freedom Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States of America.


5. The wall is gone: new opportunities on both sides

The new beginning in East Germany was accompanied by America with many good wishes. But what did you know about each other beyond the existing clichés from the days of the Cold War? For the East Germans, the USA was a strange star, a different planet until 1989. He seemed inaccessible, for some an object of hate, for others a place of longing. Due to the practical travel ban, there was basically no / hardly any personal contact between East Germans and Americans. But now the border was open and freedom of travel was at the top of the East German agenda. The curiosity was great and many took advantage of this opportunity to get their own picture of the “land of unlimited possibilities”. Quite a few Americans, on the other hand, saw the East Germans - if they knew anything about them at all - as prevented, disguised West Germans, who were actually only prevented by the Wall from being like the West Germans. The first pictures after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when East and West Germans hugged each other, suggested so. But just a few months later, a certain lack of understanding was mingled with the unadulterated joy at the impatience of the East Germans on the one hand, who had been expected to enjoy the gain in freedom for longer, and on the other hand, the West Germans, who obviously found sharing difficult. Many Americans were not aware of the "Ossi-Wessi" problem, the complexity and long-term nature of the German unification process after 40 years of separation. After the phase of euphoria, German unity had become part of everyday life. Regardless of this, there was a bonus for the former GDR residents in America. When they came out as Ostler in the USA, they were admired as exotic for a long time. Curiosity and joy prevailed. Some Americans seemed to have discovered the East Germans for themselves - and after 40 years of isolation found them refreshingly curious, friendly and humble. In comparison with West Germans, East Germans performed surprisingly well. In the USA the awareness grew slowly that the East Germans are a bit different, that they were socialized differently. After the first frenzy of joy, questions arose as to how long the 40-year-old communist indoctrination would have, to what extent the stable West German democracy would be influenced or even endangered, to what extent the Bundeswehr might be infiltrated with the takeover of parts of the GDR People's Army, to what extent the rather negative attitude of East Germans to NATO and US foreign policy could have wider implications. Was it possible to trust the new allies who had no experience of democracy for decades? Was it now possible to simply transfer the experiences that had been made during the democratization of West Germany to East Germany? Or should everything be left to the West Germans? [6]

The American commitment to investing in the five new federal states was initially relatively small. It was mainly branches in the old federal states that were ready to invest. The revitalization of the traditional automobile location Eisenach by the General Motors subsidiary Adam Opel AG, which took over the "Wartburg" plant, completely modernized it for one billion DM and made it the flagship of American investments in the new federal states, had a model character. After only 19 months of construction, the new plant opened in September 1992. In the second half of the 1990s, Dow Chemical made a decisive contribution to the revitalization of the traditional chemical site in the Buna / Schkopau area with an investment of 4.5 billion DM. Other investments were mostly in the consumer-oriented branch such as Coca Cola and McDonalds. An “Amerika-Haus” was opened in Leipzig and the “Amerika-Haus” in West Berlin expanded its activities to include the new federal states. Many large libraries in the disbanded US bases went to East German educational institutions. The German Marshall Fund was the first American foundation to open its second office (next to Bonn) in (East) Berlin. It developed special programs for East Germans. Up until February 1992, programs for political-economic dialogue, media policy, environmental protection and teacher training were made available to the tune of 1.6 million dollars. Travel grants brought mainly younger budding political and media executives to the United States. Exchanges were organized for teachers. The United States Information Agency brought together East German and American experts as part of the “International Visitor’s Program”, and youth exchanges were organized. From October 1990 to August 1991, the Fulbright program awarded grants to 20 East German scientists. The German Academic Exchange Service also sponsored East German scientists who wanted to travel to the USA for research stays. The Atlantik-Brücke with its "Young Leader's Program" and its "Youth for Understandig" contributed in many ways to exchange and better understanding. The German Studies Association or the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, based in Washington D.C. increasingly included Eastern Germany.

The American programs and initiatives, and overall American engagement in the new federal states, were diverse and helpful. But they (inevitably) focused on young intellectuals and leaders, that is, on the new elite. To have brought this new elite out of their previous isolation and to have familiarized them with a cosmopolitan climate and with values, traditions and other cultures is a lasting merit of American engagement and a gain for the difficult transformation process in the new countries. The wish of no less high school students to be allowed to spend a year at an American high school was fulfilled - and this with unforgettable experiences. It was definitely an investment in the future. Former opponents could now become partners and even friends. [7]


7. Opinion polls among East Germans after the fall of the Wall

Representative surveys on the image of America were regularly carried out by the Allensbach Institute in West Germany. They didn't exist in the GDR. In the old Federal Republic of Germany there have been relatively constant levels of sympathy since the 1960s, around 50 percent (“I like them”), a good 20 percent reacted negatively (“I don't like them”). In February 1991, Allensbach asked former GDR citizens this question for the first time. 37 percent said they were positive, 23 percent were cautious / disapproving (“I don't particularly like them”). A survey carried out in the summer of 1990 by the Bielefeld Emnid Institute in collaboration with the Leipzig Central Institute for Youth Research came to the result that 60 percent of East Germans and 74 percent of West Germans had “a good opinion” of the USA, while 32 percent of East Germans and 19 percent of West Germans had “a bad opinion” about the US. The sympathy values ​​for the American commitment to German unity were extremely high (60 percent of East Germans; 74 percent of West Germans). No other nation achieved such high values. [8] A survey of 2100 young people from the state of Brandenburg in 1997 came to the result that the vast majority had a good to very good attitude towards the USA. ("Rather good" -61 percent, "very good" -26 percent). Almost all of the respondents wanted to get to know the USA personally and learn more about the country. There were above-average sympathy ratings among high school students. In contrast, there was a fairly high degree of rejection among clearly left and right-wing youths. The image of the USA also appeared less friendly among the parents and grandparents' generation. The ideological trench warfare of the Cold War and the socialization of the GDR had obviously left deeper marks on this generation than on the younger generation. In their image of the USA, the young people remained critical with regard to social contrasts (poor-rich), the high potential for violence in American society and the military component of American foreign policy. 72 percent were of the opinion that the US interfered too quickly in other countries' affairs and 70 percent saw the US as a state that uses its military power too quickly to resolve conflicts. ("World Police Role").

The authors of this survey come to the conclusion that the East German adolescents judged the USA in a differentiated manner, also critically, but overall favorably. "Bridges of curiosity and sympathy" are clearly recognizable. [9] With the fall of the Wall, the GDR's official image of America changed in a historically short time. Overall, the few opinion polls in East Germany after the fall of the Wall show that the USA and the Americans did not achieve as high approval ratings as among West Germans, but that they were getting closer. This is all the more astonishing and impressive if you take into account the years of indoctrination and the official negative image of the USA in the GDR.