Flipping through the visitor book at the end of a new exhibit in Bonn on the United States, it comes as no surprise to find entries like "Guantanamo = USA, shame on you!" or "Propaganda style: The winner writes history." America took a big hit in popularity with Germans because of the Iraq War. And, despite President Barack Obama's outsized personal appeal, his climate change policies and drone warfare have done little to improve America's overall standing here.
Still, "The American Way: The USA in Germany," at the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a national museum dedicated to postwar German history, explores this 68-year-old relationship and strongly concludes: No, the love has not died. It's just complicated -- or, as the museum prefers to say, "special."
The exhibit, two years in the making, is divided into four sections that examine how American security policies, economic interests and everyday culture have shaped postwar Germany. The first, "Victor and Vanquished," welcomes visitors with a black-and-white film of American bombers dropping their payloads over Germany during World War II, before detailing how the US later imposed order, meted out justice and molded the nation from the ground up. But America's role quickly morphs from that of victor to helper as the focus turns to C.A.R.E. relief packages, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, all of which served to recast the image of Americans in West Germany from that of occupiers to something else, the topic of the next section.
In "America as a Role Model?", the focus turns to everyday life. Cars, jeans, films, Tupperware, comic books, hula hoops, Coca-Cola machines, jukeboxes -- the displays show how American culture inundated Germany in the early postwar years. This was the honeymoon period of the relationship, when many Germans fell in love with American culture. One look at the visitors tells you it was fun: A woman marvels aloud at vintage jeans and excitedly reminisces with a friend about her first pair. A 50-year-old teacher unabashedly does the twist to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" before an on-screen jukebox and two younger colleagues.
One of the most striking images here is of "We Are Building a Better Life," a housing exhibition held in Stuttgart in 1952. The photo shows a crowd of Germans looking over railings into a roofless model house while actors demonstrate the domestic comforts of the modern American home. Watch and learn, the message seemed to be.
Penetrating the Iron Curtain
While Germans were eager to embrace America's consumer culture, by the late 1960s, an increasing number were openly rejecting its politics. The mood grows briefly but decidedly less chipper when the roughly chronological path comes to a large photograph of student leader Rudi Dutschke at an anti-Vietnam march in 1968 next to a sign that reads "Ami Go Home."
These political tensions are quickly swept aside in favor of the country's cultural allure, though, embodied by iconic pop culture characters, from a massive Sesame Street doll, the original R2D2 robot from "Star Wars" and a replica of the "Captain America" Harley Davidson chopper from the 1969 road film "Easy Rider." The cult show "Dallas" also features large, though there is notably no trace of David Hasselhoff, beloved in Germany for both his music ("Looking for Freedom") and television roles.
The next section, "Enemy Country and Place of Longing," is the museum's nod to how West Germany's love affair with the US was perceived on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in communist East Germany. It starts with objects that highlight how authorities there tried to prevent the West from gaining popularity. But it also shows how they ultimately failed to block American cultural influences. Clothes, music and even breakdancing ultimately did penetrate the closed society.
The final section, "Confronting Global Challenges Together," returns to politics and looks at how the relationship has become more complicated since German reunification in 1989. The central elements are mangled pieces from the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 -- part of an airplane window, a staircase floor sign, the back lights of a fire truck and two twisted building pieces -- all suspended in a haunting glass display that makes them seem to be falling from the sky. Equally powerful are the torn identification tag of Sebastian Gorki, a Deutsche Bank employee and one of 11 Germans killed in the attack, and a young German boy's drawing of a plane flying into a skyscraper flanked by "I am very sorry" in both German and English.
The exhibit then briefly dives into the more polarizing post-9/11 challenges to the German-American relationship: the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the darker episodes of the "War on Terror" and the financial crisis. But the final object is one of hope: a placard reading "Obama für Kanzler" ("Obama for Chancellor"), which was held up during then-candidate Obama's speech in Berlin in July 2008.
When asked why non-Germans should visit the exhibit, museum spokesman Peter Hoffmann says "because of all the cool display items." And he's right. Many of the roughly 1,000 items -- photos, audio and video recordings, objects, projections -- have never been seen in Germany or anywhere else outside the United States. In fact, slightly toning back the Germany-specific focus would leave you with an excellent exhibit on postwar Americana in its own right.
There are plenty of wow-inducing objects big and small: the massive warhead tip of a V2 rocket, a 1957 mint-condition Ford Taunus, handwritten Elvis notes for a song he sang in German. And, delightfully, the cowboy hat, cowboy boots and driver's license of Konny Reimann, a German whose love of the freedom mythically embodied by the American West led him to move his family from the port of Hamburg to the plains of Texas in 2004.
That the exhibit is mainly geared toward Germans can be seen in a curious, chapel-like alcove at the center of it all. Here, visitors are invited to answer (German-only) questions about their feelings about the US, such as "Do you like Americans?" and "Should the USA be a role model for us today?" Visitors can also see how their answers match up with those of other visitors and respondents to a 2013 survey by the Allensbach Institute, a German opinion research organization.
The idea of shifting opinions and feelings runs throughout the entire exhibit. "We very consciously and repeatedly embedded survey results in the exhibit," says Hans-Joachim Westholt, a museum researcher who helped design the project. "And something you frequently see in the polls is a differentiation between America as a political power and the question: 'Do you like the Americans?'"
Museum spokesman Hoffmann adds that this continued love despite increased criticism "is practically the subject of the exhibit."
And their findings are backed up by non-German polls, too. For example, Transatlantic Trends 2012, an annual survey published by the German Marshall Fund released last September, found that 70 percent of Germans have a positive view toward the United States. Meanwhile, a survey published by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes project last June found that over half of Germans (52 percent) still have a favorable view of the United States, though the figure has dropped 12 percent since Obama's first election victory in 2008, the point at which the exhibit's chronology curiously ends.
"There has always been a cultural constant of anti-Americanism in postwar Germany, complicated by guilt, indebtedness and projection," says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund's office in Berlin. "But there is also a great deal of affection -- and no president, policy or war can ever take that away."
"We try to make clear that there are fissures in the German-American relationship," Westholt says. "But I would in no case go so far as to say that the Iraq War destroyed the image of Americans here."
Both Hoffmann and Westholt say the response has been "super," a fact supported by throngs of visitors seen on several visits. "And I think people leave with the feeling: 'Man, for us the US really was an important, and perhaps the most important, state we were involved with'," Westholt says.
Westholt's choice of verb tense brings up the question of why this exhibit is being held now. Spokesman Hoffmann notes that the museum has been doing a series on Germany's neighbors and that the US fits into this category somewhat as "an occupying force, partner and economic competitor."
But, when asked if it has anything to do with America's "pivot" away from Europe toward Asia, which began under President George W. Bush and has continued under President Obama, the so-called first "Pacific president," Westholt admits that the issue was "in the back of our minds."
In any case, with continued military base closures, the American presence in Germany is waning, leading to a declining immediacy in the US-German relationship. But out of sight is not out of mind, and a tapering presence has yet to erase the sentiments. Indeed, continued affection is clearly reflected in the visitor book at the end of the exhibit. Negative comments are far outnumbered by positive ones, like an entry that thanks the exhibition for "reawakening many long-forgotten memories."
One comment, in particular, is frequently repeated throughout the book: "I (heart) USA."
The free exhibition can be visited until Oct. 13, 2013. For more information, visit the museum's website, where a free tablet app showing several of the objects on display can be downloaded. Although currently only available for iPads in German, English-language versions and Android apps will soon be available.