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Reisen in die Moderne: Der Amerika-Diskurs des deutschen Burgertums vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg im europaischen Vergleich.

By Alexander Schmidt (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997. 328pp.).

This useful book is an exploration of German attitudes toward the United States during the second half of the Kaiserreich from 1890-1914, at a time when Germany's own intensive confrontation with modernity before, during, and after the turn of the century made the American model, as a vision of a possible German future, simultaneously attractive and repellent. The monograph's title neatly captures Schmidt's fundamental point that, for German Bildungsburger traveling to the United States at this time, the journey was a negotiation not just of physical space but also of social time: America was a kind of time machine by means of which Germans could explore the paradoxical processes of modernization at a relatively safe remove from their own home base, where the demands of social class and ingrained prejudice made it far more difficult for them to recognize the same processes.

Drawing upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Schmidt identifies, on the positive side of the America discourse, Germans' fascination with what they perceived as the achievement of social equality and freedom of opportunity in the United States; an admiration for Americans' rigorous work ethic, along with their pragmatism and flexibility; and astonishment at the prodigious achievements of the American economy and American industry, together with a corresponding respect for the high standard of living purportedly enjoyed by the average American and a beneficial absence of class hatred. On the negative side of the America discourse, Schmidt makes it clear that for most German travelers the perceived achievements of the United States coincided with significant problem areas, located above all in the spheres of the family, education, and city planning. German travelers tended to view the relationship between the sexes in America as perversely equal, if not indeed skewed toward the total domination of husbands by their wives specifically and of men by women more generally. Likewise, the American approach to child-rearing struck most German visitors as excessively lax, with the result that, as one German journalist noted, only in America could one find "so many spoiled, aggressive, and fresh children ..., and nowhere else so much disrespect for parents and every authority" (200). While Germans admired the ready availability of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education in the United States, they criticized what they saw as American superficiality, exaggerated pragmatism, lack of thoroughness, and inattention to the great achievements of Kultur. Likewise, for many Germans American cities appeared both ugly and dangerous, lacking the attention to beauty and the orderliness of European cities. It is a testament to the judiciousness of Schmidt's approach, however, that, far from simply labeling the German discourse on America as cliche-ridden, he carefully differentiates between those aspects of the discourse that were unrealistic and those aspects that were based on astute observation of the American scene. Schmidt also notes that the German tendency to ignore social discord and the existence of the poor in the United States corresponded to similar obfuscatory tendencies within Germany itself, tendencies which did not dissipate until after World War I, when class conflict in Germany became impossible to ignore.

Schmidt identifies a characteristic ambivalence in the German view of America on both the positive and the negative sides, locating the root cause of this ambivalence in the concept of a dialectical process of modernization which leads to differentiation, individualization, rationalization, and domestication on the one hand; while, on the other hand, simultaneously creating new systems of domination and dependency characterized by: an increasing velocity of life that has long since reached inhumane dimensions; the worship of the almighty dollar to the detriment of the natural environment; and finally the mechanization of human life itself. For Germans, this dialectical vision of American modernization increased the desire to improve and control the process on their own side of the Atlantic, tending to strengthen already ingrained preferences for statist control. Far from wanting simply to imitate the American model, Germans wanted to appropriate and improve on it, creating their own German path to modernity. Schmidt points out that it was to a large extent this German desire to escape from the paradoxical nature of modernity that led both to war and to the further disintegration of the German and European bourgeoisie.

However Schmidt is careful to point out that the model of the German Sonderweg does not precisely fit this history of German mentalities, since synchronic comparison with the discourse on America in other European countries - particularly England, France, and Italy - clearly shows that most of the German tropes were present, albeit with different mixes and emphases, in the other countries as well. Indeed, Europeans' confrontation with the sheer otherness of American modernity increasingly led them to a recognition of European similarities. Europeans were nowhere so European as in their judgments of America. One of the most fascinating strengths of Schmidt's study is this emphasis on the way Europeans, in discursively constructing America, were also discursively constructing Europe itself.

Published during a period of relative German economic and social malaise in which Germans are once again comparing their own nation to the American model and seeking both to imitate and improve on it, Schmidt's monograph is an excellent synchronic and diachronic study of mentalities characterized by long duration. It will of course be useful for historians interested in cross-cultural comparison and concepts of modernization; moreover, although Schmidt remains objectively aloof from current debates, his study is fascinating reading for those interested in the genesis of today's political and economic ideas.

Stephen Brockmann Carnegie Mellon University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brockmann, Stephen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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