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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 16:37–40.


European–American Cultural Relations in a Historical Perspective


I feel very honoured to be able to present to you some thoughts on the European-American relationship that, I hope, will generate a critical response from my commentators and a lively discussion with all of you. I am grateful that you have come to this presentation and will be even more grateful to receive your thoughts on a subject that has become even more important since the events of September 11, i.e. the trans-Atlantic dialogue and cooperation between Europe and the United States. It is this dialogue that my remarks try to put into historical perspective.

In examining the history of this relationship, you will be particularly conscious of two developments that determined the lives of all Europeans between 1945 and 1989: 1) the Cold War, and 2) the emergence of the United States as one of two super-powers and as the hegemonic power of the West.

As to the Cold War, it is now clear that it led to what the German historian Wilfried Loth has called “the division of the world” into two hostile camps. This conflict profoundly shaped all our lives, and yours here in Hungary no doubt more deeply than the lives of those who grew up in Western Europe or the United States. But it is also quite widely accepted today that, as far as Western Europe is concerned, the Cold War merely accelerated certain developments; it did not constitute them.

The reason for this is that the United States had decided during World War II to involve itself firmly in European and international politics and the economy and to shape the future in line with ideas that America’s political and economic elites had developed during the interwar period. In this respect they had learned their lesson from the mistakes that their predecessors had made after World War I: this time there would be no withdrawal from war-ravaged Europe; no retreat into isolationism that had left the Europeans to sort out for themselves the enormous mess that the war had left behind.

It should be added that, unlike the American public, the business community and men like Ch. G. Dawes recognized in the early 1920s that the United States could not, even in the short-term, withdraw from the world. This is why they appeared in Europe again in 1924 to sort out the reparations problem that had poisoned international relations so far and to help reconstruct and modernize European industry through loans and direct investments.

Sadly, there was not enough time to complete the job. In 1929 the effort was destroyed by the Great Depression, followed by the rise of fascism and another world war in which the U.S. played, as in the previous conflict, a decisive role in securing victory against the Axis powers and the terrifying “New Order” that Hitler and his associates had been trying to establish – a system and society based on looting and mass murder.

When the Americans therefore appeared in Europe as liberators from fascism, the Europeans were prepared to accept Washington’s role as the hegemonic power of the West in economic and security terms. They knew that they did not have the resources to reconstruct and recast their economies on their own. Although there was some resistance to some of the liberal-capitalist principles that the Americans wanted to introduce in line with their vision of a multilateral Open Door trading system, they were glad to accept Washington’s aid and advice.

The Europeans also knew that they could not defend themselves against the perceived military threat that the Soviet Union posed as the Cold War escalated in the late 1940s. Consequently, they also joined, more or less happily, the protective umbrella provided by NATO, the American-led military alliance.

While all this proceeded more or less smoothly, the United States had great difficulties being recognized as the cultural hegemony of the West. The difficulties that they encountered in Europe in this particular field were initially covered up by the intellectual and cultural challenge that the Soviet Union had issued in the early post-war years. It is often forgotten – though I am sure not by this audience – that the Cold War was a comprehensive struggle between East and West. It was not just about economic-technological or power-political superiority of the one side or the other; it was also a competition about the quality of intellectual life, artistic production and the sciences, and in the late 1940s the Soviet model still exerted considerable attraction for intellectuals and academics in East and West, as the successful Writers’ Congresses, organized by the communists, demonstrated.

But by the mid-1950s, the Stalinist dogmas of “socialist realism” and Lysenkoism were much less alluring to Eastern Europeans than they had been before. The dictator had died in 1953. The regime lost some of its terroristic grip on society and its cultural producers.

These developments, which I can only allude to here, were – and this is the crucial point for my analysis – soon registered in the West. It seemed that the Cold War against the Soviet Bloc was being won in cultural terms. Accordingly, it seemed no longer necessary to spend millions of dollars on countering Stalin’s programs – his congresses, art exhibitions, journals and propaganda. The events in Hungary – whose 45th anniversary you have been commemorating here in Budapest in the past days – merely confirmed the impression that Western styles in the arts and Western ideas about social or scientific research were immensely more attractive than the stultifying prescriptions of even the post-Stalinist era.

Yet, despite these developments that were favourable to the West, the Americans continued to spend large sums of money on cultural programs, though much less in Eastern Europe than in the countries of the Western alliance. It is this puzzle and phenomenon that I would like to turn to now and try to explain.

I believe that this shift in resources had little, and certainly less and less, to do with the Cold War against the East, but everything with another culture war that had been going on for much longer.

When the Americans appeared on the international stage after World War I, if not before, and began to export not just manufactured goods and financial services but also their music (jazz in particular), their films and other products of mass culture, the response of Europe’s educated elites was one of horror. To many of them American popular culture and Hollywood were primitive, vulgar and cheap. By contrast, they saw European (high) culture as sophisticated and refined. In short, there was only one culture; America in this vision was an Unkultur.

It is this “superiority complex” of the Europeans that survived even the compromising horrors of World War II. However battered the Europeans felt in material terms in 1945, their sense of disdain for America’s cultural products was undiminished, at least among the older generation. Indeed, it was reinforced when Hollywood, jazz, and rock’n’roll appeared in Europe in the 1950s. To be sure, there were many young people who responded with enthusiasm and rioted at rock concerts. But in the eyes of their elders, this was even more appalling.

There is no need for me, I believe, to go into the details of these European elite perceptions of the U.S. as a cultural system. Many of the arguments advanced against American society and its unbecoming features are around to this day – and not just among French intellectuals.

It is difficult to exaggerate how embittering it was to many educated people in America who knew Europe and its cultural life but also their own, to be faced with what to them were prejudices born from ignorance and malevolence. They had been educated in the Ivy League universities; they had enjoyed the nation’s orchestras, dance and opera companies and art collections. They had seen New York’s or Chicago’s skyscrapers. In their view the centres of modern culture had moved from Paris, London or Berlin to the cities of the United States.

Some of these American intellectuals who were upset by European prejudice began to write in defence of American culture in which they even included popular culture. They pointed to its diversity, richness, vivaciousness. Jazz was to them a prime example, also because it highlighted the contribution of America’s minorities to Western music and other creative arts. Indeed, these writers also challenged the European differentiation between “high” culture which was refined and “low” culture that was uncouth. Their definition of culture was broad and included also the sciences.

What therefore propelled the continued American cultural offerings to Europe in the 1950s was to put across to its intellectuals and educated elites who were cultural anti-Americanists a different image of the United States. There was one difficulty though: when the Republicans came to power in 1953, President Eisenhower had a different agenda of public spending. He wanted to save money to be able to reduce taxes.

It was at this point that the “private sector” stepped into the breach in the shape of the big philanthropic foundations. The Ford Foundation, which had emerged as the largest foundation in the world, in particular invested huge sums in cultural and academic ventures. Ford funded lecture tours of eminent American scholars and writers, art exhibitions, ballet companies. It established American Studies programs at European universities and funded research centres such as the “Maison des Sciences de l’Homme” in Paris. It subsidized intellectual journals like “Encounter”, “Preuves”, “Der Monat”, and “Tempo Presente” which purveyed an Atlanticist vision of modern culture.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom became a major vehicle for these efforts, but its work, ironically, ultimately undermined the work of the big foundations. The problem here was that the CCF was also funded by a government organization that was the only one to continue its support of culture in a major way: the Central Intelligence Agency under Allen Dulles.

After rumours about the CCF’s secret finances had circulated in the early 1960s, the cover was finally blown in 1966/67. The revelations of its links with the CIA destroyed the CCF, but also led to the gradual withdrawal of the big foundations from trying to convince European intellectuals and academics that America was also a “cultured” nation.

But let me end on a positive note: Looking back on my topic from the vantage point of the new century, I believe that the once “hard-line” attitudes of Europe’s elites have softened. Knowledge and understanding of the hegemonic power across the Atlantic has vastly improved. There may still be ambivalences that we feel when we look at America. But Europe’s cultural anti-Americanism is much weaker and much less one-sided than it was in the early post-war period. This at least is the historical verdict that I would like to discuss with you. Thank you.


*The following essay represents a digest of remarks made at the Europa Institute Budapest on November 9, 2001, by Volker R. Berghan, Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University in New York. In recent years, he has worked on the European-American relationship during the post-war decades. His book entitles “America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe” was published by Princeton University Press in the Spring of 2001.