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Hohn, book cover

Investigating the Culture Clash of West Germany in the 1950s: 'Americanization,' Sexual Promiscuity and Racial Tension

Book Essay on: Maria Hohn, GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003),
337 pages. UCSB: HN 458. R53 H64 2002

by Emma Westman
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Emma Westman

I am a junior history major who is on the EAP exchange from the University of Edinburgh. I was drawn to this course because when studying European history back home, the focus is often on how World War II affected the UK, so it was interesting to be able to study how the aftermath affected Germany and look at it from a different perspective. Höhn's book appealed to me as I am interested in the treatment of women and African-Americans in the 20th century.

Abstract (back to top)

Maria Höhn looks at the impact that the arrival of the American military had on the small West German state of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and how this influx signalled the difficult transition into democracy and consumerism. The main focus of the book is about the relations between the GIs and local German girls, the reactions of the conservatives and clergy, the subsequent redefining of the term prostitute, and the attempts to instigate rigid control over these German women. With the use of factual evidence from the military police and court trials, Höhn works well to prove that the negative reactions were in fact racially motivated, but questions whether this unforeseen chaos was a result of Germany's own racism or was influenced by the Jim Crow laws in the US military. Ultimately it seems that the German fear of 'Americanization' and the supposed corruption of consumerism and materialism was actually a fear of distorting gender and racial boundaries.

Essay (back to top)

At the beginning of the 1950s nearly 70,000 American troops came to settle in the area of the Rhineland-Palatinate in West Germany, a poor rural area that was more used to ploughs and farmers' markets than army tanks and jazz bars. Maria Höhn explores the process of integration of the Americans into German society, and the difficulties they encountered due to the hostility of the conservative and religious sects of society. She presents the debate as to whether the racism towards the black GIs stemmed from the Aryan ideals of Nazism, or whether it in fact developed with the racism of the US Army, and investigates how this aggressive opposition to the American- German relationships led to an attempt to sexually restrain the German women. Evidence is drawn from German newspapers from the 1950s, interviews with Germans living in the Rhineland-Palatinate area during this period, as well as scattered sources from the American GIs themselves. From the evidence provided it is clear to see that whilst many believed the arrival of the Americans poisoned the minds and morals of the people, there were many positive aspects of their presence, such the great prosperity and relations that came with this.

The arrival of the American GIs into the Rhineland-Palatinate region was marked with trepidation and intrigue from both the Germans and Americans. The coming of this “new world” (Höhn, 2003, p.32) sparked a turning point for this area, with the towns of Baumholder and Kaiserslautern being the focal point of this activity. Not only was it the influx of soldiers that had people fascinated, if somewhat aggravated, but the change in the scenery as well. The physical developments were a humiliating reminder of a lost war and the depth to which Germany had fallen in the last few years. Höhn accurately points out that these Germans were recovering from the harsh treatment under the French occupation troops, and so were naturally anxious that it would be the same with the Americans. Not only that, but the speed with which the army “brought the city to the village” was astonishing (p.38). The once cobbled streets and empty hills were now filling with American army barracks, wire fences and airstrips, and this new influx of troops left many in shock at the sudden culture change in their daily lives.

Whilst this initial influx was met with caution and some hostility, gradually the locals began to embrace the new prosperous economy that accompanied the Americans. The evidence produced by Höhn clearly demonstrates that the impact on the occupation troops was not as negative as initially feared, and that in just a few years the military provided Birkenfeld County with over 50 percent of its business (p.42). The rate of unemployment dropped dramatically, and whilst national social policies were trying to revert to the traditional gender roles, the number of women in the workforce in this area increased 130 percent. The Americans opened up many new opportunities to women and allowed them to earn an impressive wage, thereby providing them with a new sense of independence never experienced in this part of Germany before.

This new culture that infected the German towns was eagerly absorbed by the youth, who quickly began to adopt this alternative lifestyle instead of their traditional and, by American standards, lacklustre existence. When the GIs mingled in the towns they brought with them their denim jeans, fast food and coca-cola, and new kinds of music. As Höhn wonderfully phrases it, the “jukebox announced to all that a new age had dawned” (p.43). To many the Americans signalled a sign of freedom, a time to move forward in Europe and build new relations with the West. As one German woman recalled, the “opportunities were unlimited” once the GIs came, as they seemed to be able to get anything and go anywhere with their dollars (p.41).

GIs and Frauleins stresses the point that while not everyone welcomed the Americans with open arms, the relations between the GIs and Germans were on the whole amicable, and due to the limited living space, many American families lived side by side with German ones. Höhn takes times to explore the daily interactions between the two, and demonstrates that for the majority of the locals, a solid friendship was struck and the two cultures even educated one another and “adapted their traditions to suit each others' needs” (p.72). She produces evidence favourable to the US efforts, informing readers how they held special events for the locals and put on concerts in German, working hard at projecting an image of alliance, not occupation. For example, it became common for the children of both families to be brought up bilingually, giving an impression of unity. Whilst only on a small scale, this interaction helped the international relations between America and Germany, and many hoped it would be a time of social and political progress for West Germany.

However, Höhn is also realistic in her approach, and looks to the counter side of the American presence. Many of the older members of society found the transition of their towns into mini American metropolises disturbing, and in particular it was the conservatives and the clergy who took issue against the supposed moral degeneration of the youth. They failed, or rather refused, to acknowledge any positive impact that occupation troops may have had on the towns, and simply saw the Americans as the source of strip joints, drunken GIs, and the reason so many women were engaging in pre-marital relations. One Protestant clergyman believed that the influence of American culture on the towns was “nothing less than a rape of the local population and the German land” (p.121), and argued that this new consumerism and materialism was causing traditional core family values to fall by the wayside as priorities changed and Germany modernized.

What cannot be ignored when studying this book is the prominence that the German women played in the opposition the conservatives and clergy took up against the GIs. The emergence of intimate German-American relationships was too much for the traditionalists to cope with, and they believed women were becoming too liberal. Association with the GIs soon earned the women the reputation of a whore and the names of “Veronika” and “Soldier's Bride”. Höhn explains the process of branding these women whores and the eventual spying on them as a fear rooted in class-based bourgeois society. She argues that after the upheaval of the Nazi years, the conservatives were desperate to re-establish the patriarchal family, and these new independent women went against that. It is ironic that these conservatives saw this behaviour of the women, not the cruel and murderous Nazi years, as the reason Germany had a bad reputation, but as Höhn brilliantly points out, by blaming the Americans for “destroying German morality” and playing victim to the US, it allowed them to “repress the guilt for their own murderous past” (p.116), and thereby rally support in their attempt to enforce a tight reign over German society.

However, what was central to this issue of prostitution and supposed debauchery was a deeply rooted racist attitude, and Höhn's main investigation is the racial discrimination towards the black GIs. Whilst the conservatives and Church-affiliated organisations were appalled by the so called sexual liberation and degrading of their women mixing with Americans, what really caused them to begin their campaign of the branding and sexual containment was the fact the women mixed with black GIs. What Höhn looks to examine is whether this racism was a product of racist American culture, or was in fact a part of Europe's long standing belief in white supremacy. Bryan Ganaway believes that the race issue was the “most troubling aspect of the German-American encounter after 1950” (2004,p. 550), and it is clear that Germany had difficulty in moving away from the Nazi propaganda and race ideals, towards its new creation of a peaceful democracy.

The Germans referred to the black troops as “ Mockchen”, which was the name given to the Moroccan soldiers brought over in 1920s when the French occupied the Rhineland-Palatinate. This demonstrates that clearly issues of racism and discrimination had been present for many years, and as Höhn points out, the Germans ‘hardly needed the Americans to give them lessons in racism' (p. 101). Although Hitler and the Nazis symbolized a Germany of the past, one cannot underestimate the impact that his propaganda and ideals of racial hierarchy had on the people as it was indoctrinated in them everyday under the Nazis. Millions still accepted the racist opinions that were fed to them during the Nazi years, and it is important to remember that many would have been taught in school from a young age that blacks were different and not equal to whites. It should also be noted that the small towns on the Rhineland-Palatinate had “opted enthusiastically for the Nazis after 1933” (Ganaway, 2004, p.548), thereby making it seem more plausible that the racism the black GIs experienced was part of the long running German attitude. Not only that, but the fact the clergy who had co-operated with Hitler were source of these racist attacks is yet another indication that the racial tension was a product of deeply rooted Nazism.

It is ironic that in their new democracy the Germans supposedly rejected discrimination against Jews, but were willing to segregate blacks, and treat them as outcasts. However, it is also clear that the treatment of Jews was still fundamentally discriminatary, and as the owners of some of the GI bars, Jews were blamed for providing German women and black GIs a place to socialize, and thus they too were seen as directly playing a part in the moral degeneration of West Germany.

However, attention must be given to the idea that this German racism was influenced by the racist attitudes projected by the US army, and certainly Höhn seems to sway her argument more towards the fact that this stringent racism was in fact fuelled by the Americans' own treatment of their black GIs, rather than a continuing German trend. She asserts that whilst the Nazi legacy left an impact, the Germans rejected its racist language and “drew instead on the example of American racial segregation” when arguing against interracial relationships (p.86). Richard Voeltz believes that there was “no simple continuity from Nazi racism to racial attitudes in the 1950s” (2002, p337), and I believe that this is a sound argument, as the transition between antisemitism and the racism against the GIs was of a complex nature, and cannot simply be assumed to be of the same nature. The fact that the army came across with segregated units and Jim Crow laws played an influence on the attitudes of Germans, as if they saw the Americans treating their own people that way, it may have appeared more acceptable for the Germans to do it too. The treatment of the white military police against the black GIs would not have projected an impression of friendship and equality either, as they often used violence against them and allowed them to say very little in their defence. Even though by 1953 87 percent of the black troops were in integrated units, one soldier recalled that the troops were “integrated in bodies, but not in spirit” and this would have been evident to the German townsfolk (p.96). At a time when discrimination was part of everyday life for blacks, it was hard for the locals to ignore the unwillingness of many white GIs to socialise with the blacks, and it may have encouraged racism on their part too.

It must be noted, however, that in contrast to the racism some people advocated, many blacks felt at ease in Germany, and were amazed at with openness and friendliness with which the Germans approached them. Höhn goes so far to say that the blacks believed that “Nazi racial propaganda had not left a deep impact on German attitudes toward blacks” (p.91). Having seen evidence that this was generally the case, one can accept this statement, and certainly Höhn is able to back this up by including evidence from a black soldier whose experience in Germany taught him “what it is to walk into any place, any place, without worrying about whether they serve colored” (p.92), while another was surprised “at how friendly some of the white people were” (p.93). Many would have been amazed that white women would even talk to them, let alone date them. So whilst some Germans had racist prejudices against the black GIs, many of them were indifferent to the color of the GIs and simply enjoyed the new culture and relaxed attitudes they injected into their lives. However, since there are no thorough surveys on how the blacks viewed their time in Germany, there are limitations how far one can investigate these claims, and one is restricted, for the majority, on researching using the evidence of the white men.

As previously mentioned, it should not be taken as read that the American- German experience was rejected and despised by all. There was also a strong backlash against the conservative attempts to prevent the spreading of Americanization, and most people rejected the idea that simply talking to a black GI meant you were sexually corrupt and a prostitute. Newspapers like the Die Freiheit and the Pfalzische Volkszeitung apparently echoed national sentiment that the spying and severe restrictions imposed were too strict and were reminiscent of the Nazi control.

This was inevitably going to be a complex period in which Germany made the difficult transition from fascism to democracy, and tried to leave the Nazi legacy behind. Many embraced these times of ‘Americanization', and saw this as a time of new opportunities, but Höhn is also realistic in her approach by reminding readers that it was not without reservation and some hesitancy that relationships were forged. Belinda Davis believes that Höhn's work appeals to a ‘broad audience' (2005, p.148), but there is a certain level of academic knowledge that is required to fully understand and appreciate the research and results that are found in this book. It would appear her intended audience is perhaps those with some prior knowledge of German history, and Ganaway goes as far as to say that GIs and Frauleins is so valuable that it belongs ‘on every graduate syllabus for modern Germany' (p.550). There is no doubt this is an invaluable study to the process of the German-American encounter, and it highlights the different stages of development and modernization that West German society had reached by the 1950s. Höhn's social history does much to inform of the complex racial ideals of both Germany and America, and one can see there is clearly much to be explored about the way in which these interacted.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • Davis, Belinda. ‘Review of Höhn’, Women’s Historical Review , Volume 14, Number 1, (2005), pp.147-149. < ebsco link >
    Davis believes that Höhn provides a detailed and careful study of the issues of morality, gender and race in post war Germany, but stresses that the book could have improved with more investigation into the issue of class and clearer explanations of terms for non-scholars.
  • Ganaway, Bryan . ' Review of Höhn', Journal of Popular Culture, Vol 37, issue 3, (2004), pp.548-550. < ebsco link >
    The review calls Höhn’s work ‘invaluable’ and agrees with her thesis statements. The author has a greater focus on the issue of Germany’s transition from Nazism to democracy and consumerism than other reviews.
  • Kater, Michael. H. ‘Review of Höhn’, German History, Vol 21, issue 2, (2003), pp.269 -270. < http://gh.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/21/2/269 >
    Whilst Kater compliments Höhn on this great insight into the ‘erotic and economic’ aspect of the US presence, he provides counterevidence to contradict the author’s thesis and argues that she does not do enough to explore the attitudes of the young German women themselves, nor does she fully investigate whether the racism towards the GIs was Nazi hatred or American disdain.
  • Voeltz, Richard. A. ‘Frauleins and Soldiers’, H-Net Reviews (2002). < http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=6913>
    Voeltz looks at GIs and Fräuleins as a complex piece of work that lays the ground work for the deeper issue of German xenophobia that followed modernization and Westernization.
  • Also reviewed in JMH, JAH, JSH, Social History, GP&S, AHR.[all on EBSCO]
  • UCSB Hist 133c review by Jonathan Rosecrance (2008)

Books and Articles

  • Alvah , Donna. Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 291 pages. UCSB call no.: UB403. A469 2007
    Alvah’s book concentrates on the positive aspect of the American presence in Germany, and the friendships that were made in these foreign relations. She also looks and the role of gender and politics in the role and experience of American military families overseas, concentrating particularly on Germany.
  • Junker, Detlef. The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 688 pages. UCSB call no.: E 183.8.G2 U7213 2004
    This handbook looks at U.S relations with both East and West Germany from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It covers the economic, political, military, cultural and social aspects of the U.S presence in Germany, but does not look at the issue of racism in great detail.
  • Schroer, Timothy. L. Recasting Race After World War II: Germans and African Americans in American-occupied Germany (Boulder, Col.: University Press of Colorado, 2007), 259 pages. UCSB call no.: D 829.G3 5316 2007
    Focuses on the post war problems of racism in Germany and within the US Army itself, and gives a detailed account of the concerns many Germans had with interracial relationships between white German women and African-American GIs.

Web Sites

  • Maria Höhn faculty webpage, Vassar College History Department Website, <http://collegerelationsweb.vassar.edu/history/web/faculty/bios/hohn.html>
    A brief description about the author Maria Höhn and her work from the Vassar University faculty page.
  • About. com, “Black History and Germany 1, 2, 3 and 4” (in archive.org since Feb 06, last revised Jan 08), <http://german.about.com/od/culture/a/blackhistger.htm>
    Covers the history of blacks in Germany, including their treatment under the Nazis, the presence of African-American GIs in the 1950s, and the impact of the interracial relationships on German society. A useful resource for investigating German attitudes of racism.
  • Paulick, Jane, “Sleeping with the Enemy” (May 2003), <http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,1564,1569141,00.html>
    The website has a short article with photos about the relationships between GIs and German women, discussing the attraction of the Americans and the stigma that came with dating them. It provides a brief but interesting overview of the subject.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/17/08; last updated: 1/4/09
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