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According to James Ceasar's Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought, the term Americanization originated in the feeling among German immigrants of a growing estrangement of German Americans from their cultural roots back in Europe. But even if the word was not yet in use in the first half of the nineteenth century, the notion may well be traced back to the nation-building project that the United States began in the late eighteenth century. The United States had defined itself as an immigrant society and was faced with an influx of large numbers of people, at that time mainly from Europe but nevertheless of very diverse ethnic backgrounds. The task—according to the political elites in Washington and other vocal groups—was to turn the newcomers and also those who had already settled in the remote parts of the country farther west into "Americans," by which they meant active and loyal citizens. This pressure on the newcomers to become part of the existing society and to support its constitutional framework continued throughout the nineteenth century and evolved into a purposeful "Americanization" campaign in the early twentieth century.


However, how the concept came to be generally understood in the twentieth century and is being understood in the early twenty-first century is an altogether different matter; for it shifted to the question of the impact that the United States is deemed to have outside its own national borders as an economic-technological, military-political, and cultural-intellectual power. This shift appears to be due not only to the successful internal nation building and consolidation of American society during the nineteenth century but also to its rise as an industrial nation. Before the beginning of the twentieth century, North America was viewed by many Europeans, but also by educated people in other parts of the world, as an untamed continent, populated by trappers, cowboys, and "Red Indians." Its economy was primarily agricultural. In European eyes, it was a faraway continent, largely self-sufficient and not in any tangible way immersed in the world economy and its global trading structures.

By the late nineteenth century, this image was no longer in tune with reality. During those years, the United States underwent a process of industrialization as rapid as that of other latecomers in Europe, notably imperial Germany. Its expanding manufacturing centers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Michigan developed not only large capacities but also organizational infrastructures and practices of running an industrial enterprise that were highly innovative and, by the standards of the time, modern. Consequently, the United States began to appear in the rearview mirror of the great powers of Europe, whose imperialist politicians had more or less carved up the rest of the globe among themselves and now puzzled over the future role and socioeconomic dynamics of this "America" in world politics and the global economy. It certainly had the size and the material resources to compete with all of them. Its people were innovative, assertive, and smart enough to pose a major challenge.

It is probably no accident that the sense of facing a new competitor was particularly acutely felt in Britain, where debates on the future viability of its empire had become more heated after the turn of the twentieth century and in the wake of the poor performance of the British army in the Boer War in South Africa. Perceiving the course of world history in cyclical terms of the perennial rise and fall of great powers, writers and politicians in London wondered if the hegemonic position that the country had enjoyed in the nineteenth century would sooner or later have to give way to a global American empire. This shift was seen not merely in political-military but also in technological-economic and sociocultural perspective and accounts for the success of a book that the British journalist William Stead published in 1902 under the title The Americanization of the World. By then other Europeans had similarly become more aware of the rise of the United States on the world stage and that it offered a model not only of modern industrial production and organization but also of political and constitutional ordering. Only now, some seventy years after its first appearance, did Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835, 1840) became more widely read in Europe. Even in Germany—a country that saw itself as an up-and-coming Great Power eager to challenge the older ones, and Britain in particular—people began to speak of an "American danger."


One response to these developments was for Europeans to travel across the Atlantic to see the New World in person. The famous sociologist Max Weber, whose family had earlier on invested in American railroad stocks, was one of these visitors. In addition to academics, industrialists also took one of the modern ocean liners to study the American industrial system. This interest increased after the end of the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, where, in the American pavilion, visitors had been able to view the latest steel-cutting machinery and other technological developments. However, businessmen and engineers who traveled to the United States after the turn of the century were interested not merely in American technology but also in workshop organization and management techniques. In this connection they frequently tried to get an interview with Frederick Taylor and other apostles of the scientific management movement that promoted factory rationalization and the idea of incentives to both workers and entrepreneurs to change industrial practices and attitudes.

By 1914 these visitors would also go to Michigan to inspect Henry Ford's assembly lines and to learn about his ingeniously simple recipe of how to link the mass production of cars and other consumer durables to the creation of a mass consumer society. By not pocketing all the profits of rationalized production but by using the benefits of cost reduction and greater productivity to pay bonuses to his workers and to lower the price of his automobiles, Ford ensured that his cars, which had hitherto been beyond the financial means of the average family, became affordable. It was the beginning of mass motorization in America.

While some European industrialists were fascinated by Ford's innovations, others remained skeptical. They wondered about the transferability of Taylorism and Fordism to countries with different traditions, manufacturing practices, and employers' and workers' mentalities. Thus Renault cars in France and the Stuttgart electrical engineering firm of Robert Bosch began to experiment with ideas imported from America. But by 1913 the introduction of what became known as the "Bosch tempo" had run into so much resistance from the work-force in Stuttgart that the local metalworkers' union proclaimed a strike. It showed Bosch the cultural limits of "Americanization" and generated a good deal of schadenfreude among his more conservative colleagues, who had pointed to the differences between the American and German industrial systems and had predicted this kind of trouble.

From the start the Europeans, in confronting the question of Americanization, were therefore divided into two camps: those who were open to American ideas about how to manage a company and modern industrial system and others who rejected Fordism and Taylorism. This division applied not merely to factory organization but also to the structuring of the capitalist market. Thus the German steel industrialist August Thyssen became an early advocate of building large corporations that were capable of competing with American, French, or British steel trusts in a marketplace that was oligopolistically organized. Meanwhile many of his colleagues in the Ruhr region and elsewhere in Europe stuck to their preference for cartels, horizontal conglomerates of independent firms that fixed prices and laid down production quotas, thus trying to restrict competition.

These debates on the Americanization of European industry were disrupted by World War I and its chaotic aftermath. But when, from 1924 onward, the war-ravaged national economies of Europe began to stabilize and expand, interest in American ideas revived. Once again European entrepreneurs, academics, and engineers—and this time also trade unionists—traveled across the Atlantic to inform themselves about American modernity. More than that, this time American industry itself came to Europe, either to establish its own production facilities in Britain, France, or Germany or to sign cooperation and patent agreements with individual companies. Thus Ford built factories in the British Midlands and Cologne, while General Motors took a stake in Opel cars in Germany and Vauxhall Motors in Britain. At the same time American and European chemical trusts increased their cooperation.

Next to rationalized American production that held out the promise of generating mass consumption, it was now also American popular culture and mass entertainment that reached Europe. Within a few years, Hollywood established a dominant position in the European movie business. Week after week millions of people would go to see one of the increasingly sophisticated products emerging from the dream factories, some 70 to 80 percent of which came from California. Jazz and new dance forms, such as the Charleston, were embraced as imports from America by mainly young people. However, just as in the case of Taylorism and Fordism, there was also rejection. The critics argued that what was flooding the market from across the Atlantic was cheap, primitive, and vulgar and threatened the allegedly superior and more refined cultural traditions of Europe.

The collapse of the world economy in 1929 put a heavy damper on the American challenge of the 1920s. Investments in Europe shrank as nations retreated behind protective tariff walls. Only Hollywood films continued to be imported, and for Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels the products churned out in California provided a model for the building of a "counter-Hollywood" that would flood Europe with German films. Nor did the interest in the American manufacturing industry and its methods disappear in Europe. American firms such as Ford and General Motors continued to operate until the outbreak of World War II. And when Hitler decided to build a mass-produced Volkswagen (people's car) at Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony based on a design by Ferdinand Porsche, the latter traveled to the United States to study American car manufacturing. By the late 1930s, not only German but also British and French industry had refocused their efforts away from civilian goods and on the rationalized production of military hardware.


Two factors revived the question of Americanization soon after the end of the global conflict in 1945: first, the United States was now unquestionably the hegemonic power of the West after the war had devastated large parts of Europe and greatly depleted the wealth of its nations; second, the United States had begun to learn a lesson from the perceived mistakes made after World War I. This time Washington, instead of retreating into isolationism, committed itself without delay to the reconstruction of Europe. It was a decision that was reinforced by the outbreak of the Cold War against the Soviet bloc. In 1945 and 1946 some Western Europeans still thought that it might be possible to find a "third way" between American capitalism and Soviet communism, but they quickly came to realize that economic self-interest and the need to protect themselves against a possible invasion by the Soviets led them to the side of the United States. They thus accepted Washington's leadership in the fields of politics and defense and also—albeit more grudgingly—in the field of economic reconstruction. The rebuilding of Western Europe with the help of the European Recovery Program (ERP, also known as the Marshall Plan) was tied to the broad acceptance of American ideas about organizing the postwar world economy. This world economy would be liberal-capitalist and required adapting the organizations of production and management to the American practices, including labor relations.

These practices were partly transmitted through study tours, funded by Marshall Plan productivity councils, which took European industrialists, academics, and trade unionists to the manufacturing centers of the East Coast and the Midwest. But there were also local programs and the example of American firms in Europe. Ford and General Motors resumed production at the former sites. American styling began to influence the body design of European cars—for example, of the Opel Kadett and Opel Kapitän models. Cooperation with the big rubber trusts in Ohio led to the introduction of tubeless and whitewall tires. Marketing and packaging also became exposed to American ideas. However, as before World War II, Fordism was never just about modern machinery and rationalized assembly-line production. It was also about affordable prices, and if price tags even for a Volkswagen, a Citroën, or a Baby Austin were initially still out of reach for the average European consumer, manufacturers of mopeds, motorbikes, scooters, and "bubble cars" stepped into the breach. Mass motorization thus advanced in stages as people traded upward.

Yet, as in the 1920s, there was also resistance to these Americanizing trends. Among the entrepreneurs, the conservative coal and steel magnates, especially in the Ruhr region, were the most stubborn critics. Nor did many older generation consumers find it easy to accept lavish chrome grills on cars or Madison Avenue–style advertising billboards. What happened was that in many cases modern designs for automobiles, radios, gramophone combinations, or kitchen appliances either integrated the foreign with the indigenous or offered the old and the new side by side. Furniture provides a good example of this: while many people kept or, if lost in the war, repurchased traditionalstyle heavyset sideboards and settees, others, especially young people, opted for kidney-shaped tables, colorful curtains, and tubular steel sofa beds. Some of these latter designs, it is true, had first been developed by the Bauhaus movement until the Nazis forced its leading lights into exile. Now their designs returned to Europe transformed by the experience of the so-called Chicago Bauhaus. The key point to be made here is not only that European fascism and its aftermath had intensified the movement of people and ideas back and forth across the Atlantic but also that Europe's renewed exposure to America after 1945 resulted in a blending of foreign with native influences. It was a trend that could be observed all over Western Europe.

At the same time, the relative speed with which living standards rose dictated how quickly Fordism in both the productionist and consumerist sense proliferated. Nevertheless, even in those countries where material prosperity came at a slower pace, the images of consumerism that appeared on billboards, in newspapers ads, and in magazine articles helped to create desires and expectations. These in turn induced consumers to plan their next major acquisition, while the manufacturers came under pressure to respond to the popular quest for a better life.

There was yet another aspect to the growing presence of American ideas in the production and marketing of goods in Western Europe during the 1950s. Just as Fordist production reappeared, so did American popular culture and mass entertainment. If living standards rose too slowly to make the purchase of a car or washing machine immediately affordable, prices for movie theaters and rock or jazz concerts were within the reach of enthusiasts. Consequently, film stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean or rock musicians such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley achieved a similar status in many parts of Western Europe as they had first gained in the United States. This popular culture had a democratizing impact on the young people who began to see and listen to it. Gender relations began to change. Postwar social conventions and behavior patterns were being challenged and slowly softened up. If many parents, family politicians, and churchmen were initially appalled by the arrival of American cultural imports, over time they, too, became more tolerant, partly because they came to recognize that the fears they had harbored of the moral and political dangers of American popular culture were exaggerated.

In these circumstances the expansion of consumerism and popular culture continued. Toward the end of the twentieth century, America was very present in Europe in many spheres of life, and resistance to it, which had remained quite vociferous, especially among the educated middle classes in the 1950s, had weakened. Still, Americanization never went so far as to obliterate indigenous traditions and practices. Wherever one traveled in Western Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, one could never mistake that one was in the United States rather than in Italy, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden, or Germany. The indigenous and the "American" had either come together in a peculiar new mix, or they existed side by side. It depended on the sphere of social reality whether the foreign element had succeeded in leaving a stronger or weaker mark on the original local product or practice.


The complexities of these interactions and negotiations between American industry and popular culture, on the one hand, and between the societies that came under the hegemonic influence of the Western superpower after World War I and even more directly and persistently after 1945, on the other, have not always been given full recognition by those social scientists and historians who turned their attention to the postwar processes of European reconstruction. At the one end of the spectrum of opinion were those scholars who viewed Americanization as a steamroller that flattened existing institutions, traditions, and practices, leading to a sprouting of purely American "plants" in its wake. Not surprisingly, this interpretation was soon countered by a school of thought that believed that the economies of Europe pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and that not even the tangible aid given by the Marshall Plan had made much of a difference. Focusing on market structures and labor relations, they had a point in that traditions proved noticeably resistant and durable in these spheres. The writings of the British economic historian Alan Milward were particularly influential here, as were the books of Werner Abelshauser in West Germany.

Other economic and business historians came along to undermine Milward's and Abelshauser's arguments and to demonstrate that American ideas and policies were powerful enough to wrench European entrepreneurs away from traditional behaviors and mindsets. Before long, the debate among those working with quantitative materials spilled over into questions of more intangible cultural patterns. Early cultural and literary historians still took the steamroller approach when they spoke of the "Coca-Colonization" of European culture. What came to be emphasized in the early twenty-first century were the subtle processes of encounter and negotiation between two different industrial cultures and cultural systems more generally. As a result, economic and business history, in the past firmly wedded to hard statistical data, took a "culturalist turn" and is interested in less tangible shifts in entrepreneurial behavior. Similar developments have occurred in research on consumers and their responses to American imports. The experience of Japan in these fields has meanwhile also been made the subject of scholarship.

All this has created a wider acceptance of the notion that Americanization is a useful analytical tool for examining the structural and mental changes in postwar Europe (and Japan), but it also means that one has to consider a greater durability of indigenous structures and attitudes in some fields than the early steamroller interpretation of these processes had allowed for. Furthermore, it is thought important not only to look at changes at the macroeconomic and national level but also to take into account possible generational, class, and gender differences within a particular nation. These differences were probably more marked in the Americanization processes of Europe during the interwar years or in the 1950s. But they should also be borne in mind when testing the concept with regard to later decades, not least because it has become more difficult to delineate precisely what is American and what is not in a world that has become more interpenetrated economically and culturally.

See alsoAutomobiles; Cinema; Consumption; Fordism; Globalization; Industrial Capitalism; Jazz; Marshall Plan; Taylorism; Technology.


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Ceasar, James. Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought. New Haven, Conn., 1997.

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Fehrenbach, Heide, and Uta G. Poiger, eds. Transactions, Transgressions, Transformations: American Culture in Western Europe and Japan. New York, 2000.

Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

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Wagnleitner, Reinhold. Coca-Colonization and Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1994.

Volker R. Berghahn

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