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Germany's America

Death is so permanent — drive carefully
(U.S. Armed Forces road sign in Germany, ca 1950)

When queuing at the cash register of one of Germany's tiny supermarkets, even a non-smoker can't help noticing an odd collection of brands on display on the cigarette shelf. Given the high tobacco tax, many brands are in fact el cheapo no names, but others are familiar: Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Camel, Pall Mall, Philip Morris.

American brands of the post-World War II years are now back in full force on shelves, posters and in commercials, together with smelly but sturdy Zippo lighters.

Given the fact that Germany's gasoline is, due to excessive taxation, four times as expensive as in the U.S. it is amazing to see quite a number of people driving a Jeep or its Asian equivalent, an oldtimer Chevy or Mustang, or riding a somewhat muted (because of local noise limits) Harley Davidson bike. The bigger, the better — the more American, the more fashionable.

Looking up the entertainment section of the newspapers is also interesting: there is a "Glenn Miller Orchestra" touring Germany. Glenn Miller? In Germany? There are also hundreds of jazz bands, jam sessions and jazz festivals in cities and rural areas alike which appear to have become an integral part of teutonic culture.

So teutonic, in fact, that no self-respecting oompah band exists in all of Bavaria which does not play Dixie tunes as a standard part of its repertoire. Imagine a huge smoke filled Oktoberfest tent with 10,000 people pushing up their quart sized steins and chanting "When the Saints go marching in"...

Germany these days is busy celebrating America. But it is not the America of today, it is a revival of the post-war years when large parts of Germany were hosting lots of American soldiers who pampered (and sometimes seduced) German girls (and sometimes boys) with chewing gum, 5-cent Hershey bars and coke (often laced with bourbon). And with Luckies, of course.

Obviously, Germany would be the place for Disney to build a theme park "America, fifty years ago." It would prove vastly more popular than the recent Hanover world exhibit.

Why this infatuation with old America? Many of those who now celebrate the golden days were not even born when Germany was sprinkled with American barracks, their extremely useful PX commissaries, and their AFN radio network featuring "Night Train", for decades one of Germany's most successful popular music programs. Is nostalgic America part of Europe's retro fad?

Critical observers would quickly conclude that Germans are escapists creating their own nostalgic America because they don't understand and appreciate contemporary America and its unipolar politics.

Well, it's probably not as simple as that. There is certainly a groundswell of popular resentment busily fed by the media which love to do what the government carefully avoids doing: poking fingers in any wound they can find.

But despite that America continues being such an important part of life in Germany that there cannot be escapism of any significance. Media continue reporting on a daily basis on American events, big and small, and often excel in detailed analysis. Since 9/11, New York is even more than before in the spotlight of attention.

Without interruption, American fashions continue to arrive in Germany, recently bagel and coffee shops, ciabatta bread (which, despite its alleged Italian origin has also come to Italy from the U.S.), Chrysler cars and Gallo wines. Scores of German business people are closely watching the U.S. for any emerging trend that could profitably be imported into Germany.

As a result, Germany's daily life and culture are influenced by a mix of contemporary and nostalgic American elements. While the impact of contemporary influences is hardly surprising, the revival of the great post-war occupation days is quite unique even if only a few oldies really remember the years when Germans were busy learning English, smoking American cigarettes, collecting jazz records and dancing jitterbug.

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—— Heinrich von Loesch