Uta G. Poiger,
Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: 
Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany

(Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2000)
333 pages, UCSB: DD239.P65 2000.

Book essay written by Michael Duerr
February 2004
For Prof. Marcuse’s upper division lecture course Germany Since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004

About the author:
Michael Duerr is a Political Science and History major in his senior year. Areas of study include the development of democratic governments in Europe as well as modern European history with particular emphasis in Germany. This topic was of interest because of exemplification of how the exportation of culture affects countries in an increasingly globalized world.

Poiger’s book illustrates how as Germany began to rebuild in the years following World War II, American cultural imports began to augment traditional German culture. New movies and styles of music were quickly embraced by German youth, and this was perceived as a serious threat to German culture and the sense of racial and gender order. These new icons became staples in the lives of many German youths. Poiger delves into the effects of these imports had and how people on both sides of the wall dealt with the problems they posed.
This essay examines the concerns and remedies posed by parents and the government in both East and West Germany. American music and movie exports found a strong following in German youths. Often, these cultural movements were objected to by parents and politicians, and many of the problems of the day were blamed on these pop icons. From fashions to youth riots, the effects of American imports had a distinct impact on the German persona.


Today, when people are asked to give their impressions of Germany, they speak of a country known for culture, arts, classical music, nice cars and a couple of world wars. Many see a country that today is a participant in the European Union, and one of the great trading partners in the global economy. What often remains unquestioned is how this nation, once divided, became the westernized powerhouse with a culture that in many ways mirrors the culture of the United States. Over the years, German culture has influenced the entire world, and at the same time world culture has influenced Germany. It can be contended that the influence of American cultural exports in the post World War II era had a dramatic effect on German cultural norms. These changes were often met with concern and criticism from the national elites as well as well-meaning parents. While East and West were ideologically split, both showed high degrees of concern over this threat to German culture.

Since World War II, the recovery of Germany has been nothing short of astonishing. Germany had been laid waste during the war and under the surrender agreement, had been split into three and later four zones of occupation. The United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain and later France all had influence over the daily lives of the German people. This was mainly due to the fact that Germany’s entire infrastructure, including radio and movie production, had been devastated along with the rest of the country. For years after the peace, both Germanys would rebuild themselves from the ashes and in the process reshape their society.

One of the principal sources of entertainment for both East and West Germany in the years immediately following 1945 was the Armed Forces Network (AFN). While American music was being broadcast to the German people over AFN, citizens also found a new supply of consumer goods such as cosmetics, clothing, movies, and books flowing from western factories. The majority of these items had to be imported and thus reflected American norms, as all production within Germany was geared towards the rebuilding of the nation.

American GI’s brought many American cultural staples to Germany. One of these was Jazz music. Jazz was something that had always been looked down upon in Germany. During the Weimar and Third Reich years, American music had been considered by many to be substandard and thus shielded from the general population. Even when jazz did make it to Germany during the Nazi period the big brassy sound would be replaced by strings, as the Nazis felt this would make it more suitable for a German audience (56). With the end of Nazi rule, Germans began to listen to unaltered American jazz on AFN and on their new record players. It was not long before the youth in both East and West Germany embraced this music. This was of much concern to the elders, as many felt that "jazz fans’ fashions and dances ran counter to West German visions of male and female respectability" (57).

The objection to jazz was two fold. First, it upset the traditional German view of male-female gender roles. Females, who were seen as a fairer sex and for whom sexuality was limited to marriage and motherhood, were dancing in ways their elders deemed improper. The second threat was to German racial superiority. Jazz, often performed by African-Americans or Jewish-Americans, had been a threat to the Nazi belief of racial supremacy. In West Germany, an effort to counter this feeling was pioneered by Joachim Berendt. He set out to create a new interpretation of jazz whereby sexuality was downplayed and notion of a "jazz intellectual" was created (139).

Like the Nazis, the East German government considered jazz to be an undesirable form of music. The communist government was wary of any Western influence, and "like their Soviet counterparts, started an outright campaign against jazz" (150). Concern over the sexual overtones of jazz and its ensuing variants led to a movement against jazz. Again, much of this campaign was based on the perception of the female being the softer sex, and thus the empowerment created by jazz was upsetting to the social order.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of jazz in the East German view was that of its political ramifications. In the 1950’s, an interesting duality developed between East German elites. Some socialists believed that the opulence and overindulgences associated with jazz could be interpreted to favor the socialist cause. The opponents of jazz in the socialist East objected to the decadence of jazz because it was a manner of exporting American imperialism (159). The East began to crack down on jazz clubs, and by the latter part of the decade many of the big promoters of jazz were under surveillance by the Stasi.

Another source of change came from American movies. In the years following World War II, the two main genres available in movie houses were westerns and gangster films. Some embraced the new movies, but they did not achieve the same mass following that later films would receive. Still, when a group dubbed "the Gladow Gang" was tried for robbery and murder, the East German press blamed its behavior on the influences of American gangster movies and pronounced a "general indictment of American culture and policies" (48).

The genre of movies that would the greatest affect German society most during the 1950’s were the young rebel movies with stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando. These movies were blamed for instances of delinquency and hooliganism committed by youths known as Halbstarke. This became a generic label for any youths seen emulating the fashions or attitudes portrayed in movies like Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle. Blue jeans and leather jackets became fashionable, and problems arose when youths began to emulate the behavior seen in their favorite movies. This ranged from general insolence to instances where motorbike groups refused to adhere to the rule of law (80-81). It was not uncommon for youth riots to break out after movies, which caused great concern on the part of parents and statesmen.

It was only natural that these fashions, coupled with a general trend towards misbehavior, drew the ire of the government. While there were attempts at crackdowns, the Halbstarke also became an element of the Cold War. In the East, clashes between West German youths and police officers were used as examples of the failures of America and the ways of the West (94). For a time, the East German government encouraged Halbstarke behavior in the West as it was seen as a form of resistance to the capitalist regime. Before long they changed their opinion, saying Halbstarke behavior was not beneficial for the general socialist good (107). Similarly, West Germany looked to the Halbstarke movement in East Germany as proof that market economies were preferred. The West German government gradually came to accept youthful resistance, and with this much of the reason for youthful resistance was removed.

Many in the music world would argue that Rock ‘n’ Roll is a descendant of jazz. In the latter part of the 1950’s, Rock ‘n’ Roll found its way to Europe. It was not long before this new music took hold in Germany and found a large fan base. Both East and West Germans were not prepared for the full effect singers like Elvis Presley would have on their youth. Common to both nations was concern over "uncontrolled female sexuality and male aggression and perceptions of racial difference" (168). The Halbstarke of the early 1950’s now included females, who joined their ranks at staggering numbers. As shown before it was not uncommon for the misbehaviors of German youth to be blamed on American singers and movie stars. Google marcuse 133c to find where this essay is published on the web. The move away from passive female and well mannered male behavior was attacked in the newspapers and elicited action from the government (180). West Germany attempted to combat this trend by giving formal dance lessons and other cultural socialization classes in an effort to refine German youth. The East German government attacked the rock artists directly, saying they were not part of the socialist ideal. Their rationale was that personal life was secondary to the good of the nation (194).

Along with the gender norms that had been threatened, it was of concern to elites and parents that their children would listen to music from another race. In their view, American music was bad, but African-American music even much worse. In describing the music coming from America, words that had previously been uncommon and objectionable in the German vocabulary, such as "Nigger", worked their way into the German lexicon (176). Although such derogatory terms had been frowned upon in the post war era, this language was now deemed acceptable for both individuals and the press to describe the distasteful music.

Those who sought to imitate their favorite musician frequently found themselves ridiculed by both the press and their parents. It was not uncommon for dress codes to be established that prevented children from imitating the dress of their favorite musician (179). Part of the concern regarding the dress of musicians such as Elvis or Billy Haley was the threat to established German fashion, but the major component was the threat posed to the established sexual norm.

Even with all the objections to American Rock ‘n’ Roll, the demand for Elvis singles in Germany forced music companies to manufacture albums in record number. Although officials sought to stop the influx of American goods, a drive to purchase these products remained. Citizens, especially in the East, were able to find new and innovative ways of getting their favorite music and movies. East Germans would often go to West Berlin to take in a movie or purchase records and smuggle them back. Another method was having somebody in the West mail packages that contained the requested material (131-32).

A question that remains is whether the experiences in Germany with regard to cultural change are different than those found anywhere else. While the German elites and parents were brooding over the potential ramifications of American pop culture in their society, many other nations experienced similar problems. For example, German authorities tried to ban Elvis due to the perceived threat to morality and culture. In America, concern over the sensual shaking of Elvis’ hips resulted in his music being banned by many cities. British Beatle mania occurred all across the globe. A similar case existed for Marlon Brando movies, were concern was over the disrespect for authority. The details of the threats posed may differ, but both nations feared the impacts of pop culture in similar ways.

Perhaps the largest single reason for objection to American influence in Germany can be explained by nationalism and national pride. Many times the East used what was happening in the West as propaganda during the Cold War. More often, both sides of Germany often found themselves in opposition to American culture, the major difference being how they dealt with the problem. Much of the concern in Germany with regard to music and movies was over the original source of the material. While jazz from the United States was looked down upon, German renditions of jazz was in many cases deemed acceptable. American cultural imports to Germany had a large impact on society. For example, jazz broke down some of the racism that had previously existed. Some movies as well as dress styles were accepted, as they did not pose as great a threat as other cultural imports. This led to the augmentation of German culture, as society was willing to accept some outside influence.

Many musicians and historians argue that performers like Elvis added to American culture while permanently altering that of Germany. This view is rather myopic, as any sizeable cultural change though history, positive or negative, has had ramifications in nations other than the one in which it was pioneered. As with any cultural change, divergence often starts with the youth. The elders reject this perceived threat, and the youth push back harder. One day, the youth will take the place of the elders, and a similar string of events will play out between the former Halbstarke and their children. The addition of American culture did indeed alter German cultural values. While the old ways of Germany may not be as prevalent today, the world will always remember contributions by musicians like Johann Strauss, painters like Albrecht Altdorfer, and philosophers like Immanuel Kant. Although American culture has irreversibly influenced the German tradition, it has by no means destroyed it. Germany continues to write history, and for all the "ill influence" of American pop culture, the nation seems none the worse for it.

Sources Section

Works Cited

Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany, (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2000), 333 pages, UCSB: DD239 .P65 2000.

Book Reviews

Andrea Orzoff. "Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany. (Book Review)" German Politics and Society, Fall 2001 v19 i3 p117-23 (link)
Orzoff reviews Poiger’s work positively, though she criticized that Poiger fails to define what pure German culture was, and notes that most of the work deals with males only.

Peter Townsend. "Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany" Journal of American Studies, Dec 2002 v36 i3 p550
A fairly short review, Townsend notes that this book augments existing work on cultural influence, with particular influence on the German case.

Suggested Reading

Ralph Willett. The Americanization of Germany, 1945-1949. (New York: Routledge, 1989), 151 pages, UCSB DD257.2 .W54 1989
Although it received poor reviews, Willett’s work is a good supplement to Poiger. Willett only deals with culture until 1950, thus much of the later cultural effects are missed.

Heide Fehrenbach and Uta G. Poiger. Transactions, transgressions, Transformations: American Culture in Western Europe and Japan, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), 258 pages, UCSB: D1065.U5 T7 2000
Examines the impact of American culture on foreign cultures. Poiger editsis the editor and includes a section on American impacts on Germany.

Richard F. Kuisel. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization, (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1993), 296 pages, UCSB: DC59.8.U6 K85 1993
A similar study of the impact of American culture in France in the post World War II era.

essay by Michael Duerr, Feb. 2004; prepared for web by H. Marcuse, 3/11/04, 3/24/04
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