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Frustrated by Anti-Americanism, US Exchange Students Try to Change German Attitudes

"US students are having a hard time in Germany, as they find themselves having to justify Washington policy from day to day. A new pilot project in German schools is meant to help Americans deal with the endless drill" writes Jan Friedmann in Spiegel:
Despite his affinity for German culture, Janssen has hardly been welcomed with open arms. "I don't like having to play diplomat here," he complains. Many of the roughly 3,200 US students enrolled in foreign study programs in Germany share Janssen's experience. They are reluctant ambassadors, routinely taken to task by students and even complete strangers for the perceived offences of their government at home -- an affront that visiting students and academics from China, Russia and Arab countries rarely encounter.
American students aren't victims of open animosity or the sort of physical attacks which dark-skinned students suffer now and then in some parts of Germany. There are of course no statistics on verbal assaults on Americans.
Yet most US exchange students have similar stories to tell -- stories about anti-Bush tirades by fellow dormitory residents, about Germans with aggressive opinions at a party, or, say, the DJ at some club who had to air his thoughts on the National Rifle Association (in the wake of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech).
Edward Janssen describes a typical conversation with a German student. First question: What's your name? Second: Where are you from? Third: Did you vote for Bush? By that time, says Janssen, the German student will already have launched into a discussion of the Iraq war, the death penalty, gun control or climate protection.
Yes, this constant lecturing of American guests is really annoying and a disgrace. We have written often about it in the Atlantic Review, for instance in Senator Fulbright and statistics of the Fulbright Program, where we quoted Alison Kamhi, a US Fulbright grantee at the University of Rostock and originally from Stanford University:
Being one of the few Americans in Rostock, I took it as my job to provide the Germans in this city with a positive example of an American. Every time I was challenged about Bush or the war in Iraq or consumerism or whatever I took the time to talk to the person, simply to show that all Americans are not anti-European war-mongers, as is unfortunately often the stereotype.
Many other bloggers have written about it as well, for instance Carsten Boesel and others at last year's Carnival of German-American Relations. The next carnival will be soon. Promised. Stay tuned.

The above quoted article is pretty long and available in English at Spiegel International and also describes the "Rent an American" project sponsored by the German-American Institute at the University of Tübingen, which arranges for American exchange students to visit local schools.

The article is popular at Digg and received more than 300 comments in less than 24 hours, which I believe is another indicator that more and more Americans are concerned about Anti-Americanism in Germany. It's time to do something about it.

Davids Medienkritik is creating more awareness about Anti-Americanism in the United States. To reduce Anti-Americanism, however, there have to be more efforts by Germans in German rather than in English, which is Davids Medienkritk's and Atlantic Review's chosen language.
Here is a link to Davids Medienkritik's criticism of the Heilbronner Stimme cartoon "American Way." Cartoons like this are to blame why Germans like to lecture Americans.


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Pat Patterson on :

I remain singularly unconvinced that there is a rise in anti-Americanism in Germany or rather that what there is now is any more than in previous years. I still have vivid memories of being called a fascist and a lot of other words that I couldn't find in my German/English Dictionary when I first visited Berlin in 1982. I made the mistake of looking like a hippy/surfer but admitted to voting for Ronald Reagan and not having any great sympathy for the variousl people's revolutionary movements that were intent on killing any convenient target. But since I was considerably taller than my hosts the "banter" never rose above loud and snide commentary. It's also possible that by referring to the Bundeswehr units near the Fulda Gap as speed bumps I might have upset some people. Most of the open hostility I met was from the baby boom generation who by now have made the long march through society and are in postions that allow them to act on their likes and dislikes. But the idea of having Americans visit schools can only help even if only marginally.

Scott Brunstetter on :

I recall from my own experiences as a Fulbrighter back in those challenging days of 2001-2002 many a tirade from Germans, who wanted to tell me how wrong the US was in its polices. That I supported some of what the Bush Administration had done, until December 2002 when the President chose to do an "end-around" the UN, only made matters worse. This is not a new phenomenon; it is not a question of being too "sensitive." That it is now receiving a lot more attention is, however, quite telling. I do not think it is a question of anti-Americanism. Labeling it as such does not help. Instead, I believe the problem rests on the fact that many Germans are strongly opinionated, especially on matters of war and peace. A factor of history and education, most Germans are ingrained with a sense of disdain toward war and the death penalty for example. Over the years, and I think unfortunately, that healthy disdain has developed into a sense of arrogance that creates sparks when it collides with opposite opinions. Now, that is not to say that Germans are wrong and the Americans, for example, are right. I myself learned much from Germans during my year there, so much so that the issue of global warming is now one that I closely follow. My continued research into the German Green Party for my dissertation has also opened a number of interesting political perspectives to me. However, in much the same way that Americans often no very little of Germany (if they know more than beer and Lederhosen, that is a start), Germans, though they are extremely well read and informed, often have a somewhat limited perspective of the United States beyond policy and societal ills. >From what I remember and from what the story Joerg sent suggests, >Germans appear more interested in telling any American, irrespective of their viewpoints, how wrong America is. Yet polls today clearly show that support for the Iraq War and for the President himself hover around the 28-32%. As such, why should any American in Germany be seen as a purveyor of a minority viewpoint? Would it not make more sense to try and understand the political realities that govern the US, than make assumptions based on nationality? To put it in the context of Joerg's question: American students or visitors in Germany are ambassadors of American society, not of US government policy. This hard and direct "criticism culture" is, in my opinion, counter-productive to inter-society dialogue and exchange. Many Americans who visit Germany, and vice versa, are guilty of the "ugly American" syndrome--allowing their own cultural norms to blind them to what the other society has too offer and represents. Perhaps we must now also speak of an "arrogant German" syndrome--allowing political assumptions to define a society. To be sure, both societies are guilt of both. One need only look at the American President and his blatant disregard for international society to see the latter in action. Regular Americans, such as religious conservatives, NRA advocates, or animal rights activists, are also guilty of the "arrogant German" syndrome. We as Fulbrighters, both past and present, must address both of these challenges. Over the fifty plus years of the German-American Fulbright, we have done pretty well in countering the "ugly American" problem. Through direct experience in each other's society we bring direct interaction that can inform both sides of the cultural and societal norms of both Germany and the US; myths are dispelled and replaced with facts. Yet, we fall short in addressing the "arrogant German" syndrome, in part because it is relatively new. And given the prevalence of politics in both societies today and the continuing strained relations, we should focus more on this gap of communication. Though arguments of "what is wrong with each society" must surely remain, I believe we should focus more on understanding the tremendous dynamics and arguments within each of our societies that define the most challenging issues of our time. All of the issues Joerg mentioned--the war in Iraq, the death penalty, and gun laws--all have their proponents and detractors in the US. In Germany, issues such as using military force, socialized medicine and work laws, which often draw the ire of the educated American, also have numerous political nuances. We should all strive to understand those nuances and explain them to our counterparts. To be sure, on both sides there will be those that will continue with the "ugly American" and "arrogant German" syndromes. Being an Ambassador, especially in the face of such verbal abuses, is not easy and can be very uncomfortable. I myself was subject to a one hour tirade in December 2002 on the ofrthcoming US invasion of Iraq by one I had thought my friend on one of my last days in Germany. Yet at the same time there can be successes. One of my fondest memories was a discussion about the US and its policies with a German on the S-Bahn in Berlin. After 30 minutes of explaining the intricacies of American politics and diplomacy, the man was shocked to learn that I was an American and told me that I had changed his view on some aspects of the US. These successes may be few and far between and may not even exhibit themselves immediately, but it is through our hard work as Ambassadors of our societies that they become possible. We as Fulbrighters are chosen because we represent some of the best our respective countries has to offer. And the mission we undertake is not easy, but I firmly believe it is necessary and over the long term pays enormous dividends that can only benefit our two countries. Wishing you all the very best. "Mit internationalischen Gruessen," (In the words of Joschka Fischer from October 1995) Scott Brunstetter Fulbrighter 2001-2002 Berlin

David on :

Scott, Thanks for your comment. You are an excellent ambassador for America.

Greg on :

//"I don't like having to play diplomat here," he complains.// What a big wimp! He shouldn't travel outside his country, then. As Scott says: " I believe we should focus more on understanding the tremendous dynamics and arguments within each of our societies that define the most challenging issues of our time. All of the issues Joerg mentioned--the war in Iraq, the death penalty, and gun laws--all have their proponents and detractors in the US." Responding to any "aggressive interrogation techniques" ;) is easy.

Mike Caron on :

Ok, as a former 4 year resident of Germany, I have to say that I, too, experienced what people are calling "anti-americanism." Although, I would venture to say it's more anti-american-politicalism; mostly because I found that I was generally liked as an american, but I was also asked to account for my country's polical actions in the world. What did I know? In the states, I didn't really care about politics. The war? Who cares? I was a very self-centered, rich, white single man. What did I care about the human justice of going to war over two blown up buildings in NYC? Positively, my views have changed since then. I also have to say that in Germany, I was forced to wrestle with these things because they affected my friendships with Germans. Although I think that I furthered a general amicability of american personalities, I certainly didn't show that Americans had a clue of what was going on. I've certainly learned a lot about politics since then too. In response to the German's views on Bush, let them read the constitution, and not even very far for that matter. The constitution says that there is NO declaration of war outside the approval of the Congress. I did the research and all these anti-war people VOTED for the war! Why is the attack only on bush? Why is the attack not focused more generally to the people of America? Bush merely suggested it, but congress, representing the people of America, voted to go! Go ahead and hate bush, but hate congress as well, and for that matter, hate lazy americans who didn't phone their representatives and senators to vote against going to war. Get off your high horse and put blame where it should be.

Tuomas on :

After I moved to Berlin this spring, I recognize the words of both Joerg and Scott from many conversations. Both resident and visiting Americans seem to find "anti-Americanism" in the pure fact that many Germans challenge the superiority of the American political system - and its decisions. I disagree. Comparing the experience reported by Polish friends in Berlin, I would be prepared to agree that some or many Germans have anti-Polish sentiments: Some Germans seem to consider Poles as undesirable work mates, neighbors and customers. Similarly, it's obvious that there exists anti-feelings towards Turks and people from that corner of the world. I can not detect anything similar with regard to Americans or English speakers. Instead I see that Americans get more invitations to social gatherings than foreigners of other nationalities. Yes, German students of all kinds are better versed in political issues than many of their American counterparts, and do in general take debates on political issues more seriously. I don't really understand why, except maybe for the Germans' historical experience of undemocratic societies up to 1918 and then again 1933-1949/1990. Yes, Germans of all kinds are critical of how America acts in the world - and aswell of certain domestic policies. But criticism of policies is better not to be mistaken for anti-Americanism. Maybe what we see is a certain disappointment with America. More than any other nation, it was America that Germans looked up to when West Germany in the second half of the 20th century was rebuild as a democratic society. I agree with Scott that some, maybe many, Germans easily express disdain in conversations with Americans, but I do interpret these situations differently. For instance: Germans I know are in general sensitive, and disdainful, for expressions of Nationalism, Militarism and Supremacism, and may sense such messages in attitudes and utterings that very few Americans would understand that way. From visits at my kid sister, who studies in the U.S., I also know that the social norms for conversations and topics (among students) are rather different if comparing Protestand Continental Europe with Protestant American East Coast. I think the issue at stake is to learn Americans abroad to cope with these conversations rather than to learn their host nations to follow American conversational etiquette.

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