The Other Special Relationship: the United States and Germany

Aboard Queen Mary 2

The relationship between the United States and Germany began before there was a United States.

Colonists from the Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and Hesse arrived as early as the 17th century, soon after the Thirty Years War. They settled in Pennsylvania, becoming known as “Pennsylvania Dutch” — a famous misnomer, because they were not Dutch but Deutsch.

During the America Revolution, Germans fought on both sides: Mercenaries from Hesse (the Hessians) for Great Britain and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben for the Americans. Von Steuben – whose imposing statue rises in Lafayette Park in Washington, right across from the White House – introduced Prussian-style discipline and drill into the fledgling US Army. Frederick the Great supported the American cause, not because he believed in overthrowing kings and instituting republics (he most certainly did not!) but because he welcomed the chance to give England a bit of grief.

In 1851, Heinrich Heine wrote a poem, “Dieses ist Amerika!”, which ran in part:

This is America!

This is the new world!

Not the present European

Wasted and withering sphere.

This is no graveyard of Romance;

This is no pile of ruins,

Of fossilized wigs and symbols

Or stale and musty tradition!

A new country! New the fervor,

New the flowers, new the fragrance!

Here the very air is heady

With invigorating perfumes!

Heine never traveled to America, and his poem was really about Mexico, but hundreds of thousands of Germans, excited by thoughts like these, sailed to the United States in the years just before and after the Civil War. Many, including my own ancestors, settled in New York, but most went to the Middle West, to states like Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

The traffic also went the other way, as American students of means sought the superior higher education available in Germany. One of these was John Lothrop Motley, a Boston aristocrat who studied at Göttingen in the 1830s. There he was a drinking companion of a fellow student named Otto von Bismarck. They were more than just two young men who enjoyed taking beer and schnapps together. As the German historian Lothar Gall has written, “The American was one of the few real friends that Bismarck had in his life.”

Motley became a historian of the Dutch republic and became Abraham Lincoln’s minister to Vienna. In 1864, during the crisis over the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein that ultimately led to war between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bismarck took time to write: “Jack my dear: Where the devil are you, and what do you do that you never write a line to me? Do not forget old friends.”

There is no direct evidence that the Bismarck-Motley friendship influenced German-American relations of the era, but Prussia did support the North during the Civil War.

Relations between the two burgeoning nations remained amicable, ruffled only by a clash over some small islands very far from each: Samoa, in the South Pacific. In the closing years of the 19th century, both the United States and the German Empire were building new steel ships and eagerly seeking bases and coaling stations for them. In particular, both coveted the excellent natural harbor of Pago Pago. In 1900, a conference divided the archipelago, with Germany getting the western part (today’s Independent State of Samoa) and the United States getting the eastern part, including Pago Pago, which it retains to this day.

If the dispute over Samoa was settled amicably, another conflict a few years later almost brought the United States and Germany to war.

This was in late 1902, when Venezuela defaulted on some loans by European powers, and Britain and Germany threatened to impose a blockade until Caracas paid up. US naval intelligence warned President Theodore Roosevelt that Germany might use the crisis to acquire territory in Venezuela in lieu of cash, which would be a direct challenge to the so-called Monroe Doctrine warning Europe off the Americas. Heedless of the danger, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent units of the Imperial German fleet to the Caribbean.

Roosevelt, it should be noted, was a great admirer of Germany. As a teenager, he had studied in Dresden, and he spoke what a biographer called “vigorous if ungrammatical” German. Frederick the Great and Bismarck were among his personal heroes. He liked to quote Goethe, Schiller, and the Nibelungen Lied. And one of his closest friends and tennis partners was a German diplomat, Baron Speck von Sternburg.

Fondness for things German aside, in the Venezuela crisis Roosevelt put to use his personal motto, the African proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He sent naval units under Admiral George Dewey to the Caribbean, and he spoke softly to von Sternburg, saying with a tone of regret that he would feel “obliged” to use force if Germany seized land in Venezuela or elsewhere in the region.

Though they would not meet for several years, Roosevelt had correctly sized up his opponent, the Kaiser. He knew that Wilhelm dreaded being humiliated, so he gave the emperor a way to save face.  There were no angry speeches, no press releases, and no other public posturing. Roosevelt offered to press Venezuela into paying its debts, the Kaiser gratefully agreed, and the crisis ended.

When war came to Europe in 1914, the United States was officially neutral, in part because Americans did not consider it their fight and in part for domestic political reasons:  President Woodrow Wilson did not want to upset German-Americans proud of the old country or Irish-Americans who detested Great Britain.

The Imperial German ambassador to the United States was Count Johann von Bernstorff, of whom it was said that he owed his success to his willingness to be bored during Washington dinner parties. Von Bernstorff’s job was made even more difficult after 128 Americans lost their lives in the submarine sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in 1915.

There were also the activities of a young German officer, Franz von Papen. As military attaché to von Bernstorff, he took steps to “disorganize and hold up” shipments of American-made munitions to the Allies. Von Papen claimed he never oversaw acts of sabotage, but after incriminating documents were found in a German diplomat’s briefcase, snatched on a New York subway by a fast-acting US Secret Service agent, he was expelled.

(Franz Von Papen is one of those fascinating characters who keeps appearing again and again in history. From the United States he was sent to help Germany’s Turkish allies quash a revolt by Arab tribes advised by Lawrence of Arabia. After the war, he entered politics in the Weimar Republic, eventually becoming chancellor. It was he who brought Adolf Hitler into government, believing that old hands like himself could control and influence the Nazi upstart. He soon learned otherwise. Hitler sent him to Austria as ambassador before the Anschluss and to Turkey during the Second World War. In both posts Von Papen loyally served the Third Reich, but he was adjudged not guilty of war crimes by the tribunal at Nuremberg, one of only two defendants to be acquitted.) 

When he took the country to war in 1917, Woodrow Wilson constantly stressed that the US had no quarrel with the German people, only with their “military masters”. Indeed, the US would not agree to an armistice with Germany until Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated.

Largely because its losses were far lower than those of its allies, the US did not wish to treat Germany with the same vengeance as did Britain and France. This was less out of tender regard for Germany than a rejection of the Old World’s way of reaping the spoils of victory.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points did not call for punishing Germany beyond the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France and the detachment of Silesia to create an independent Poland. At Versailles, Wilson resisted the imposition of reparations. He eventually conceded the issue to placate Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, but the US never asked for reparations for itself.

During the 1920s, the United States sought sincerely, if inadequately, to help the enfeebled German economy. Under what was called the Dawes Plan, there was a curious circle by which Wall Street bankers bought bonds issued by Germany, the proceeds from which were used to pay reparations to Britain and France, which used the money to repay the loans they had received during the war from America. This scheme may have made little sense, but politicians in all four countries could claim great success.

As to German-American relations during the Nazi era, I enthusiastically recommend the book In the Garden of Beasts by the master story-teller Erik Larsen. It is the pathetic tale of a history professor, William Dodd, whom Franklin Roosevelt plucked from obscurity to be his ambassador to Germany. The German foreign ministry considered Dodd a less important figure than his British and French counterparts, and he was sneered at by his own staff, composed of old-school snobs. Meanwhile, his adult daughter was having an affair with the head of the Gestapo. It is quite a yarn.

As the Second World War drew to a close, there was discussion at the highest Allied levels of the fate of Germany. One participant was Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the Treasury. Morgenthau was a member of a prominent German Jewish family with an estate adjoining Franklin Roosevelt’s up the Hudson River from New York City. His father had been Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. His son Robert became the prosecuting attorney in Manhattan for decades, retiring only at age 90. His niece was the major American historian Barbara Tuchman. He would head the Treasury Department for 11 of Roosevelt’s 12 years as president.

At the conference between Roosevelt and Churchill held at Quebec City in September 1944, Morgenthau proposed “converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.” He also wanted to break up Germany into several smaller states, as it had been before 1871. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed in principle to the plan, though Churchill may have seen it as the price of obtaining a $6 billion loan from Morgenthau’s Treasury.

After the conference, Roosevelt wrote his secretary of War, saying, “It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. I do not want them to starve to death, but … the fact they are a defeated nation, collectively and individually, must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war.” This was FDR sounding more like Clemenceau than Wilson.

Morgenthau may have though he had won, but he reckoned without his colleague Cordell Hull, the secretary of State. Hull was a former senator from Tennessee and a follower of Woodrow Wilson who believed in free trade and good will among nations. He was ill at the time of the Quebec Conference and could not attend. When he learned of the Morgenthau Plan, he was aghast.

“This was a scheme that would cause the eternal resentment of the Germans,” Hull later wrote. “It would punish all of them and future generations for the crimes of a portion of them. It would punish not only Germany but also most of Europe.” Hull said that despite the agreement at Quebec, “I did not regard the matter as closed.”

So Hull went to the White House and spoke to Roosevelt, not as a humanitarian but as a fellow politician. He said that when – not if – the Morgenthau Plan leaked out, it would hurt Roosevelt’s campaign for a fourth term as president. That proved convincing. The plan did leak out – most likely from Hull’s State Department — and Roosevelt quickly disavowed it. “No one wants to make Germany a wholly agricultural nation again,” he said.  “Yet somebody down the line has handed this out to the press. I wish we could catch and chastise him.”

So, Germany got the Marshall Plan instead of the Morgenthau Plan. It was a wise and generous response to the devastation of Germany that avoided another vengeful peace . Today, we can easily see that a diminished and de-industrialized Germany could not have been a strong ally of the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

After 1945, Germany was a wreck, lacking industry, food, clothing, warmth, and security against a triumphant and menacing Soviet Union. But what it had in rich supply was Konrad Adenauer, who became chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (known as West Germany) in 1949. In the words of Henry Kissinger, a prewar German immigrant to America: “By the time Adenauer had become chancellor at the age of 73, it seemed as if his entire life had been a preparation for the responsibility of restoring self-respect to his occupied, demoralized, and divided society.” Kissinger’s patron, President Richard Nixon, called Adenauer “our own Iron Curtain, a man of iron will [and] infinite patience”. He was “the West’s most effective, articulate, and consistent spokesman against … an empire founded on godlessness and spiritual oppression.”

In 1952, Josef Stalin called for a general European settlement built around a unified, armed, and neutral Germany. Kissinger observed that “Had Stalin offered the so-called Peace Note four years earlier – before the Berlin airlift, the Czech coup, and the Korean War – it almost certainly would have stopped German membership in NATO in its tracks. Indeed, it is quite possible that German membership in the Atlantic Alliance would never have been considered.” But Adenauer rejected German neutrality out of hand, asserting that “one cannot sit between two chairs.”

The West’s commitment to a free Germany was sorely tested when the Soviet Union raised the Berlin Wall in August 1961. President John F. Kennedy reinforced the US garrison in the divided city but did nothing more. Even before the Wall went up, Kennedy told an aide: ‘It seems particularly stupid to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on an Autobahn or because the Germans want Germany reunified. If I’m going to threaten Russia with a nuclear war, it will have to be for much bigger and more important reasons than that.”

Kissinger called the post-Berlin Wall period “the low point in German-American relations”. Willy Brandt (then mayor of Berlin and later chancellor of West Germany) claimed that his opening to the Eastern bloc, named Ostpolitik, resulted from the failure of the West to react more forcefully to the erection of the Wall. President Nixon had “grave reservations” about Ostpolitik but, because he felt Brandt lacked Adenauer’s emotional attachment to the Atlantic Alliance, he viewed the possibility of Germany’s further drift eastward a far riskier possibility.

In 1971, the US and USSR reached agreement over access to Berlin, after which Kissinger said it “disappeared from the list of international crisis spots.” America under Nixon then began to look outside of Europe for strategic leverage against Moscow, settling on Mao Zedong’s China. Germans and others in Europe felt the US was now more interested in Asia and the Middle East than in them.

This uneasy state of affairs continued until the administration of President Ronald Reagan. It was during the first year of that government, in 1981, that a routine diplomatic meeting in Washington began a friendship that would strengthen the German-American alliance and remake the map of Europe. I am honored to say that I was present for this meeting, which took place in the West Wing of the White House.

This was the occasion when the leader of the German opposition, Helmut Kohl, met George H.W. Bush, then Reagan’s vice president, for the first time. Despite not speaking the other’s language, they became fast friends. The next year, Kohl became chancellor of West Germany, and in January 1983, Bush came to Bonn to help Kohl in that year’s crucial elections. Together they flew on Air Force Two to Berlin to make a joint appearance at the Wall. Kohl’s party won the national election, and he would welcome Bush’s ascension to the presidency in 1989.

Alone in the US foreign policy community, Bush had a vision: The unification of East and West Germany. His national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, later wrote: “Reunification seemed as distant a prospect as it had for the previous 40 years…. [After all,] East Germany was the prize of World War II, the Soviet Union’s most reliable ally, and an important economic partner. Losing it, and accepting that loss, would mean acknowledging the end of Soviet power in Eastern Europe…. Bush was the first in the administration to back reunification unequivocally, as well as the first western leader – a point Kohl never forgot.”

The impossible dream became at least partway conceivable with the “fall of the Wall” that November and the subsequent rapid disintegration of East Germany. Kohl decided not to push reunification on his own but only in coordination with Bush, who later said, “I in a sense gave [Kohl] a green light. I don’t think I ever cautioned him against going too fast.”

The question of speed was always central to reunification. Bush, while wanting a united Germany in NATO, was also concerned with how reunification would affect the Soviet Union. His counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, was under pressure not just from hardliners in his own government but, rare for the USSR, public opinion. Soviet citizens remained fearful of Germany and could not forget the losses nearly every family suffered during the Second World War. Gorbachev’s father had fought in World War II, and three uncles died.

There was another constraint on German reunification, and it came not from Moscow but from London. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was thrilled to see the end of communism in East Germany but wanted to slow its reunification with the West. She said she wanted “to create a breathing space in which a new architecture of Europe could be devised where a united Germany could not be a destabilizing influence.”

Her foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, said Thatcher “did not believe that Germany would subordinate itself to a process of European integration. Given new strength, Germany would be tempted to assert once again, though no doubt by different means, a dominance over others.” To her successor as prime minister, John Major, she was more blunt, telling him, “Never trust the Germans.”

(It was said that Mrs Thatcher, confronted with the allegation she was anti-German, declared that, on the contrary, “I love Germany! In fact, I love it so much I want two of them!” But I could not find this on the historical record.)

Also hesitant was President François Mitterrand of France, who was caught between two histories: Of three German invasions over a 75-year period and of the post-World War II reconciliation between the two nations that Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann forged with Konrad Adenauer. In Mitterrand’s own time, Franco-German relations lay at the heart of the developing European Union and were the key to Paris’s influence over the future of Europe.

It was Bush’s strong desire for German reunification and his personal leadership that overcame the doubts of his allies and resolved the issue.

Gorbachev came to Washington at the end of May 1990 for a decisive summit with Bush. The President told his guest that with regard to the future of Germany, “We do not want winners and losers” and that he did not want the USSR to feel threatened by either the United States or a united Germany.

Then, Bush later recalled, “I reminded Gorbachev that the Helsinki Final Act [of 1975, which the USSR had signed] stated that all countries had the right to choose their alliances. To me, that meant Germany should be able to decide for itself what it wanted. Did he agree? To my astonishment, Gorbachev shrugged his shoulders and said, yes, that is correct.

“The [Cabinet] room suddenly became quiet. I nodded to him. “I’m gratified that you and I seem to agree that nations can chose their own alliances. We support a united Germany in NATO. If they don’t want in, we will respect that.”

“I agree,” answered Gorbachev.

“With the second part?” Bush asked.

“With both parts,” responded Gorbachev.

And in that moment, history was made.

The reunification of Germany was a far more complicated process than I have mentioned here or could mention even in a series of lectures. It involved many officials from many nations in many meetings over many months. But it is enough to say reunification of Germany was one of the great diplomatic achievements of the 20th century and possibly many centuries.

The story of German-American relations since 1990 is one of ups and downs, as in all bilateral relations: One major down came in 2003 when Gerhard Schroder was chancellor, the second George Bush was president, and the issue was the invasion of Iraq. Two years later, Angela Merkel became chancellor and relations both personal and bilateral improved. In his memoirs, George W. Bush wrote that “In addition to serving as a staunch advocate for freedom, Angela was trustworthy, engaging, and warm. She quickly became one of my closest friends on the world stage.”

Merkel was in many respects the Adenauer of our times, stalwart, steady, and wise — not just in German-American ties but for her country and the entire western alliance. Her calm stewardship of state saw that alliance through presidents as different as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

The ongoing challenge for her successor, Olaf Scholtz, and Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, is to maintain western unity and resolve in the face of a crafty, German-speaking former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Once assigned to the old East Germany, Putin bitterly laments the death of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact. His claim that he had to crush “Nazis” in a neighboring state with a Jewish president and his control over German energy supplies both pose an ominous threat to the European order established by the elder Bush and his friend Helmut Kohl and maintained under Angela Merkel and her counterparts in the White House.

And that history is being made right now.

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