Exporting the American Model? ‘Americanization’ and Postwar Western Europe

“The Briton, instead of chafing against this inevitable supersession, should cheerfully acquiesce in the decree of Destiny, and stand in betimes with the conquering American”.

The quote above is taken from William Thomas Stead’s famous 1901 book The Americanization of the World which marked a significant point for historical understandings of emerging American cultural influence globAmericanization of the Worldally. What has made Stead’s book a milestone is that it marked the first time the term Americanization was applied to describe developments outside the US. Since the publication of Stead’s book and the rise of American influence globally, historians have come to identify periods of cultural development through the frame of Americanization. A simple and concise definition of Americanization such as that of Mel van Elteren (2006) understands it as the “influence of one or more forms of Americanism on some social entity, material object or cultural practice”. Historians have popularly understood the cultural developments that took place in Western Europe during the postwar period as an example of Americanization sourced from US intervention in European affairs. However, recent scholarship on the period has argued that Americanization is far too simple as an explanation and that the influence of Western European states has been granted little significance.

The phenomenon of Americanization is not something that was continuous from the late 18th century but occurred in spurts based on global developments. Volker Berghahn (2010) identifies three distinct waves of journalistic and academic writing on Americanization, with the first occurring before 1914, the second in the interwar period and the third in the postwar period. My analysis of the third wave of Americanization literature has been specifically concerned with the nature of cultural developments in Western Europe during the postwar period. In regards to Western Europe, the third wave Americanization literature is distinguished by its focus on the US participation in reconstruction after the Second World War and the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union.

While many historians have considered the transmission of American culture in Western Europe as the direct result of US intervention in postwar reconstruction, recent scholarship has sought to identify the nature and significance of European influence. The most significant of these studies is denoted by the term Westernization, which understands the source of the developments of the postwar period as the product of a transatlantic community of values between the United States and Western Europe which saw mutual cultural exchange (Nehring, 2004). Westernization began as a project in the late 20th Century at Tubingen University under historian Anselm Doering-Manteuffel and would come to have an immense influence on historical representations of Western Europe in the postwar period. The emerging popularity of the approach of Westernization was accentuated in March 1999 when the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. dedicated a conference to the topic which saw presentations by the leading historians on Western Europe.

In my analysis of the historical representations of Western Europe, I have come to the conclusion that the Westernization perspective provides a valuable contribution to the developments of the postwar period. Obviously the idea purported by many historians that the US effectively reconstructed its own values and institutions in Western Europe without them having any kind of influence on the  developments is not just unlikely, but impossible. Those who frame their understandings of the period through the ideas of Westernization identify developments across all aspects of Western European society that owe much to the influences to their own context.

Examples of how Westernization has encouraged new perspectives on the developments of the postwar period range right across Western European society. For example, Mary Nolan (2012) argues that rather than being influenced by American New Deal ideas, the creation of a much stronger and universal welfare state than the US owed much to the strength of socialist parties and ideas in Western Europe. In reference to the rapid industrialization, Paul Ginsborg (1990) argues that Italian industry was hampered by protectionist policies which with their removal, had a much greater influence than American efforts. In West Germany, Volker Berghahn (1995) argues that industrial elites retained the industrial organization and practices they practiced prior to and during the war and adapted it to the new circumstances of postwar Western Europe. Even with the rise of consumerism, Western European states still managed to retain some element of control over the way in which it emerged. Paolo Scrivano (2005) argues that aversion to American culture saw a form of mediation that combined Western Europe imagery and traditions with consumption practices, effectively creating a ‘hybrid’.

As these examples illustrate, Westernization provides a valuable contribution to the historical understandings of the cultural developments in Western Europe during the postwar period. Westernization goes much deeper than the Americanization approach, acknowledging that Western European states had a significant influence on the changes that occurred across all areas of society. However, much of the Westernization literature continues to be based on West German experience creating both a need and opportunity for further exploration of postwar experience in other West Europe states.

References

Berghahn, V. “The Debate on ‘Americanization’ among Economic and Cultural Historians.” Cold War History 10 (2010): pp. 107-130.

Berghahn, Volker. “West German Reconstruction and American Industrial Culture, 1945-1960.” In The American Impact on Postwar Germany, edited by Reiner Pommerin. New York: Berghahn Books, 1995, pp. 65-82.

Ginsborg, Paul. History of Contemporary Italy. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Nehring, H. “Westernization: A New Paradigm for interpreting West European History.” Cold War History 4 (2004): pp. 175-191.

Nolan, Mary. The Transatlantic Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Scrivano, P. “Signs of Americanization in Italian Domestic Life.” Journal of Contemporary History 40 (2005): pp. 317-340.

Stead, William Thomas. The Americanization of the World. London: Review of Reviews Office, 1901.

Van Elteren, Mel. Americanism and Americanization. Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 2006.

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One comment on “Exporting the American Model? ‘Americanization’ and Postwar Western Europe

  1. stephaniefehon says:

    Thanks for such an interesting post! I thought your opening quote was fascinating- it’s nearly identical to a contemporary quote I came across in another course, and it’s interesting that American exceptionalism has altered so little. I really enjoyed the discussion on the post-War developments that are usually attributed to Americanisation, and how historians are now attributing the changes to European nations themselves. Changing the paradigm to Westernisation has a greater impact than I thought- I really enjoyed reading this!

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