Amid the tensions between Germany and the United States over the NSA’s surveillance, worries arise about a growing wave of animosity among Germans toward America. The contrast with the early idolization of President Barack Obama and the current mood is evident in German public opinion polls. Yet, snapshots taken in polls do not necessarily explain the causes of attitudes or how deep they run. We know the all-pervasive media plays nearly as large a role in mood swings as do actual events. But, in gauging how national images are perceived across borders, it is often useful to take a step back from a moment of measurement and look at a larger and longer picture of those images and how they came about. For example, Germany’s images and perceptions of the United States cannot be understood without drawing on the story of a very complex relationship going back decades, if not centuries, and impacted by multiple factors shaping the narratives along the way.

A deep dive into this story is told by Manfred Henningsen, a German scholar who studied political science in Germany in the 1960s and then immigrated to the United States, where he taught over the following four decades in Hawaii. In 1974, he published Der Fall Amerika (List Verlag, 1974) in which he traced the challenges that Europeans, especially Germans, faced in coming to grips with the United States since its inception in the eighteenth century. He argues that most Europeans engaged in substituting European realities for American experiences, blending out the divergence of different historical narratives. The case of America was frequently approached, critiqued, and interpreted for purposes having to do with European self-perceptions.

Written four decades ago, Henningsen offers an interesting review of how Germany impacted the evolution of U.S. culture, particularly its educational and scientific dimensions. But, he takes full aim at literary and philosophical figures and their uncomfortable relationship with the United States—even as a refuge during the Nazi era in Germany. He relates that to the critics of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he finished the book offering parallel analysis of where the United States is seen more as a metaphor for either a threatening future society or a less than desirable alternative for Europe. He cites chapter and verse of playwrights and authors, as well as social scientists and psychologists, who found the United States seductive, but also threatening. Sigmund Freud proclaims, for example, “America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.” And others cannot find common ground with American culture, because they were unable to accept its premises. In contrast, there were many German émigrés, who came, stayed, and became major voices particularly in the educational and scientific worlds. One thinks of Fritz Stern or Carl Deutsch as only two examples.

The book is an interesting reminder of the sometimes crooked road of German-American relations in the realm of ideas and self-perception. Henningsen argues that many Germans have tried to deny the case of America as it unfolded and to transform it into an argument for their own purposes at home. He suggests that the reality of America was in fact a threat at many pivotal points, but largely because it represented what Germany was not yet capable of becoming. Therefore, to identify chinks in that image of America was part of an anti-narrative that continues into the present.

Four decades after writing Der Fall Amerika, Henningsen wrote Der Mythos Amerika in which tries to explain to a German audience how the American struggle with its own sense of self has been evolving for better—and in some cases for worse.
His first book is a refresher course for those interested in the evolution of European efforts to understand that continuing story. I think we all should be anticipating more clashes, arguments, and misunderstandings across the Atlantic as Germany, Europe, and the United States continue to rethink and revamp relationships in a fast moving environment. We are marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year, and the ripple effects of that event continue to show up. Looking back on how we have built past perceptions might contribute to getting us to refine current perceptions and that could be a useful tool for the future.