Growing Anti-American Sentiment in Germany?

A new report by the Allensbach Institute was recently referenced in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung  with a focus on attitudes in Germany toward the United States. The article suggested that there is a decline in positive views of the U.S., and that there is in fact an increasing level of anti-American sentiment.  We offer both the article ( in German) and three commentaries (in English) on the issue of changing attitudes toward the U.S. in Germany. We also invite our readers to join this discussion through the comment section found at the bottom of this page.

Schleichende Zunahme des Antiamerikanismus, Thomas Petersen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center:

German Anti-Americanism: Yes and No

Rising German anti-Americanism is a question of both relativity and specificity. Germans have lost faith in the United States and U.S. President Barack Obama. Moreover Germans are deeply disappointed in Obama’s failure to live up to what may have been their unrealistic expectations. But Germans’ approval for America and their president is still much higher than it was five years ago, ratings that other countries and politicians would die for!

Just 52% of Germans had a favorable view of the United States in 2012, much lower than that in Italy (74%), France (69%) or Poland (69%). German approval was down 12 percentage points from 2009, the greatest drop off in any country in Europe. And 62% of Germans now think that China, not the United States, is the world’s leading economic power. Nevertheless, German sentiment was still much more pro-American than in it was in 2008, when only 31% of Germans saw Uncle Sam in a favorable light.

The proportion of Germans who say they have “a lot of confidence” in Obama has also fallen, from 56% in 2009 to 40% in 2012. And 87% of Germans still have “a lot or some confidence” in Obama, which in the 2012 Pew Research survey was higher than similar support in Germany for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germans, like people all over the world, are disappointed that Obama has not lived up to their expectations for him. In 2009 69% hoped he would consult with other nations in the conduct of international affairs. Just 45% think he has. A whopping 84% expected him to be fair in dealing with Israelis and Palestinians. Only 61% say he has (yet this is the highest grade any Europeans give him on this issue). Most damning, 76% believed he would take steps to deal with climate change, but a mere 23% think he has. And in an issue that has been in the news lately, 59% of Germans disapprove of Obama’s use of drone strikes.

So there has been an erosion of pro-American sentiment in Germany more than a rise in anti-Americanism. And the White House, the new Secretary of State John Kerry and whoever becomes the new American ambassador to Berlin would do well to take note. But this is not a return to the low point of the Bush administration, when in March 2003 only 25% of Germans had a favorable view of the United States. The current polling numbers may simply reflect a return to more normal public attitudes between the populations of two major countries with differing interests, histories and national psyches: respectful but skeptical.

Michael Inacker, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt and frequent AICGS participant:

The analysis of the Allensbach Institute hurts everybody who feels responsibility for the German-American friendship. But we can not close our eyes to the fact that some observations, especially if they are made with an empiric data base, are quite right. The Iraq war and the administration of George Bush are somehow a watershed. They separate the “good old times” of a broad American oriented partnership and friendship in German public thinking from the outbreak of some traditional anti-Western and anti-American emotions. George Bush, at that time, was only a vehicle for some groups and thinkers in Germany in order to revive an uninformed and unguided German public old-style sentiment.

Now, the good news is that these groups  are not at all reflecting a majority in Germany. The bad news is that we are talking about a very active minority and they pick up a traditional anti-Western and anti-American thinking. Now we see the failure of a lost decade of German-American partnership in the 90s of the last century. After the “care packet myth” and the end of cold war with a broad consensus of a joint project (safeguarding the freedom of the West), the German elite in politics and business did not manage it right to give new joint aims and new joint emotional directions for the Americans and the Germans. We witness a very functional and “cold” relationship instead of a new project that brings — like in the past, such as the Generation of our parents — the younger generation together. We are in danger of becoming strange-friends, with transatlantic relations becoming somewhat of a “cold project.”

Allensbach gives us a warning. It is high time to restart the engine and to get out of the traditional German-American business of the same people doing the same discussions. That is why AICGS is so important. And that’s why even we should pursue new ways and concepts for re-buildung German-American relations that are based, of course, on common interests but also on common emotions.

John Kornblum, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1997-2001) and current AICGS Trustee:

Rejection of the New World by Europeans is nearly as old as the discovery of America itself.  Intellectuals, found it especially hard to accept that Europeans would inhabit a territory freed of their complex social and philopshical theories. Aristocrats cringed at the crude behavior and politicians worried that this new world would spin out of control, as it ultimately did. 

Americans for their part found a need to define themselves as the opposite of the Old World they had left. This led to an often annoying trait of self-congratulation which continues to this day. The foundation for the ongoing battle between North Americans and Europeans over who is the rightful heir of the treasures of Western societies is part of the structure of this bifurcated psychology. It will never be overcome.

Take the words of wrote Frances Trollope, an English gentlewoman who lived with her family in the United States for seven years in the 1820’s. “I do not like them.  I do not like their principles.  I do not like their manners.  I do not like their opinions.  I do not like their government,” she wrote.   

Mrs. Trollope later became famous for her book Domestic Manners of the Americans, which she published after her return to England. Mrs. Trollope was the first of many European travel writers who sent home dramatic reports on Americans during the 19th century. Count Alexandre de Tocqueville’s  Democracy in America remains a classic analysis of an admirer of American society which is relevant even today. But the majority seemed to agree with Sigmund Freud, who said in a letter to his wife after his first visit to the United States  “Amerika ist ein Fehler, ein gigantischer Fehler.” 

Describing this debate, the renowned American historian Henry Steele Commanger concluded:

“Ultimately it was clear that those who asked ‘Was America a Mistake?’ were not really talking about America, they were talking abut the Old World, about nature and civilization, Mercantilism and Physiocracy, about the corruptions and misfortunes that afflicted their own societies.”

Thus, polls which describe a growth of anti-American sentiment in Europe must be taken with a large grain of salt. They usually arise in times of trouble or uncertainty. Even when the American President is popular, as is the case today, the society which he represents offers too little stability of behavior to suit most Europeans. They want two things from America:  conformation of their own views and a promise that their way of life will be protected whatever comes. 

Fact is, the Atlantic community has guaranteed both aspects for most of the postwar period.  But at times like today, in the 1980’s, during the Iraq war, or at a number of other occasions, the social criticism of America becomes more harsh. It rarely concerns America itself.  Rather It is, as Professor Commanger suggested, a social commentary on Europe itself. 

Additional commentary on American sentiment within Germany by John Jornblum from his 2009 book Mission America, which he co-authored with Dieter Kronzucker:

Mission America, Chapter 4: Hope and Rejection, John Korblum and Dieter Kornzucker


Stefan Baron, former head of Global Communications at Deutsche Bank and former AICGS Trustee:

The latest Allensbach stats are not alarming at all in my view. I think they’re rather pretty positive for the U.S., given their growing detachment from Europe/Germany over the past years, the new geo-political developments (rise of Asiapac in particular) and their own internal degradation (debt/decaying infrastructure/growing violence etc). The good thing is that the negatives are not immutable. One can do something about it. They can be turned into positives through political leadership. America started to become less important for the German psyche with re-unification and the fall of the Iron Curtain. And I welcome this as a natural and healthy phenomenon. Countries as human beings should find their psychological balance in themselves. 

Alexander Privitera, AICGS Senior Fellow and Director of the Business and Economics Program:

In a recent study, the German polling Allensbach Institute paints a worrying picture of German-American affairs. In it, Germans’ views of the U.S. are described as clearly deteriorating. Despite the still very strong popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama in Germany, America’s image has clearly failed to fully recover from the deep plunge it took earlier in the decade when the U.S. government launched the war in Iraq. Asked to answer the question “who is Germany’s best friend,” 24% of respondents said France and only 22% replied the U.S. Over the previous decades, roughly one half of respondents had always ranked the U.S. as Germany’s best friend.

What is striking, according to Allensbach, is the fact that German views about the U.S. are now dominated by what the polling institute calls clichés, such as the high level of stress Americans have to deal with, the high crime rate, and social inequality.

The findings were published on the German daily newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” and triggered a flurry of reactions. Whether the poll should be viewed as a sign of growing divergence between the two western partners, or merely as a snapshot that reflects the uncertain mood of a Germany that has growing doubts about the ability of any country to provide all the answers to today’s global challenges, is worth debating. The American question is nothing new for Germans. And it is often the reflection of how Germany views itself rather than how much the bilateral relationship has truly changed.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Alexander Privitera

Alexander Privitera is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS. He focuses primarily on Germany’s European policies and their impact on relations between the United States and Europe. Previously, Mr. Privitera was the Washington-based correspondent for the leading German news channel, N24. As a journalist, over the past two decades he has been posted to Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, and Rome. Mr. Privitera was born in Rome, Italy, and holds a degree in Political Science (International Relations and Economics) from La Sapienza University in Rome.

Bruce Stokes

Pew Research Center

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

John Kornblum

AICGS Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees.