How Germany and the United States Became Best Friends

Anne Zetsche

After 1945, the Soviets soon replaced Germans as the State Department’s main enemy in Europe. Washington’s ever closer ties with Bonn drew on the logic of the Cold War — but also on the private networking organizations where business and political elites met.

The development of the US-German partnership was anything but natural. (Getty Images)

Interview by
Colin Adams

Germany’s NATO membership and its close foreign policy cooperation with the United States today seem almost like natural developments. Aside from Germany’s refusal to join the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, (West) German support for US foreign policy has been practically nonnegotiable since 1945. Despite Donald Trump’s threats to remove US military personnel from Germany, around forty thousand troops remain in the country. The two are also close partners in most international organizations, particularly NATO.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Despite a history of mass German migration to the United States from the 1840s and the close cultural bond between the two countries, Germany and the United States were adversaries on the foreign policy front for decades. It was not until Nazi Germany’s capitulation in 1945 and the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 that a true alliance between Germany and the United States was formed.

This postwar alliance was facilitated by a number of public and private institutions in both countries. Two important (and complementary) private organizations that played a key role in its development are the Atlantik-Brücke in Germany and the American Council on Germany in the United States. Historian Anne Zetsche’s recent book, The Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany, 1952–1974, critically examines the political influence of both organizations in the first decades following World War II. She sat down with Colin Adams to discuss why the German-US partnership was anything but a natural development — and examines the role these organizations play in German and American politics today.


CA

Your book describes how elites in the United States and West Germany mediated the postwar rapprochement between the two states. The Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany both played important roles here. Who is involved in these organizations and what purpose do they serve?

AZ

My book focuses on the history of the Atlantik-Brücke and its US sister organization, the American Council on Germany (ACG), during the period from 1949 to 1974. The Atlantik-Brücke (Atlantic Bridge) and the ACG are both vital organs of transatlantic elite networking and coordination, although both played an important integrating function in domestic affairs in each country as well. The Atlantik-Brücke in particular brought together employers and trade unions, as well as politicians, diplomats, former military officers, and media officials.

The current board of the Atlantik-Brücke is made up of politicians from the Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democrats (CDU), the Green Party, and the Free Democrats as well as representatives from multinational corporations and the German Trade Union Confederation. Both the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG thus operate as “hinge groups” that bring together elites from various sectors of society. The role of such groups is crucial in abrogating the artificial divide between public, state, and private structures. These groups enable business elites (who are, by definition, not democratically elected) to gain privileged access to political decision-makers on an informal basis. This option isn’t available to the majority of people and is thus problematic in a democratic society. What’s particularly interesting about the Atlantik-Brücke and the ACG is that they enable this privileged access on a transnational basis.

CA

What were the central questions that guided your research?

AZ

I was interested in who founded these organizations and their motivations, who makes up the membership of both groups, how these organizations were financed, and the activities that the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG pursued. What role did the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG play in German-American relations after World War II? Were these groups partially responsible for the relatively quick rapprochement between two countries that had so recently been such bitter enemies? The geopolitical explanations for the Cold War and the resulting split into Western and Eastern blocs are well known. But this doesn’t really tell us how the attitudes and resentments between Germans and Americans were transformed on the social and individual levels.

I was also interested in the sociological aspects of these two organizations, specifically in the composition of its members. My research is a critical exploration of how closely private, non-democratically legitimated figures worked with public officials, politicians, and diplomats to help shape international relations.

CA

Who were the key figures involved in these organizations?

AZ

The idea behind the founding of the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG arose shortly after the end of World War II. The founding members were a mix of Americans and Germans with ties in both countries. Eric Warburg was a German Jewish banker whose family’s assets were expropriated by the Nazi government in 1938. Warburg emigrated to the US shortly thereafter, attained US citizenship, and would later return to Germany in the 1950s. Another founder was Christopher Emmet, a wealthy New York intellectual, political activist, and journalist who spent years in Germany prior to World War II. Other German founders included the journalist Marion Gräfin Dönhoff (who would later become publisher of the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit) as well as Erik Blumenfeld, a Hamburg merchant and CDU politician.

These four figures sought to establish two organizations that would be tasked with fostering reconciliation and friendly relations between Germans and Americans, as well as between the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the United States. All four founders had strong connections on both sides of the Atlantic, which enabled them to help weaken long-held prejudices in both countries. At the very least, the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG were able to soften anti-American sentiments among West German elites after the war. In the United States, the ACG helped establish a new image of Germans as a democratic people despite their Nazi past.

These four elite figures also represented the key forces that continue to dominate the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG today: finance, multinational corporations, ruling political circles, and the media.

CA

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was not at all a given that West Germany and the United States would develop such close economic and political ties. What were some of the hurdles that advocates of German-American cooperation had to contend with?

AZ

German resentment of Americans had been around since the nineteenth century and was even more widespread by the end of World War II. While many Germans preferred American occupation to Soviet occupation, reservations about the United States remained. It was not just German Social Democrats and Communists who viewed Americans as a people without a culture and who identified the United States as a hotbed of unchecked capitalism and rampant individualism. Indeed, these views could be found throughout German society.

Many Americans also had strong antipathy toward Germans, particularly as details emerged about the Holocaust and German military tactics on the Eastern Front. Most people ascribed to Germans an almost genetic predisposition toward militarism and authoritarianism, thus making them unfit for democracy. Although I should point out here that despite these prejudices against Germans, the Soviets quickly came to replace the Germans as the main enemy for Americans in the immediate postwar period.

Another obstacle for the Cold War partnership between West Germany and the United States was the widely held preference for neutrality, particularly among the Social Democrats. Advocates of this approach thought that a neutral status for Germany — joining neither the Atlanticist bloc nor the Soviet one — could have been even more advantageous for the country. The issue of reducing the US military presence in West Germany constantly reemerged throughout the Cold War. This caused much consternation among the transatlantic elites that made up the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG.

CA

Did the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG seek to accelerate the rapprochement between the two nations?

AZ

Both organizations were key actors in initiating and shaping transatlantic elite networks during the Cold War. As integral components of transnational private state networks, both the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG played numerous roles relating to West German–American relations from the 1950s into the 1970s. One key role was to help with public relations in the United States on behalf of the new West German state, producing an image of a young, democratic state in a divided Europe on the front lines of the Cold War. At the same time, these organizations also helped to communicate and clarify US politics to the West German public (and among West German elites). Representatives from both the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG also acted as informal diplomats who helped to mediate the conflicts described above and to act as political advisers.

From the outset, a central focus of this work was to facilitate personal contacts between Americans and Germans. The Atlantik-Brücke and ACG institutionalized this in the late 1950s through their German-American conferences, which were based on the notorious Bilderberg conferences. These meetings involved a carefully curated group of German and American politicians, diplomats, businessmen, managers, and journalists who could discuss world affairs and German-American relations under strict rules of confidentiality. These meetings were financed by the Ford Foundation, the West German Federal Press Office, and the West German Foreign Office.

CA

You also describe how Eric Warburg, a German Jew whose family’s assets were seized by the Nazis, used his influence on behalf of German industrial firms such as Thyssen and Krupp despite their close cooperation with the Nazi regime. Why did he do this?

AZ

This is actually one of the key questions that I kept coming back to during my years working on this book. Eric Warburg’s return to Germany was by no means uncontroversial, particularly among his family members. But Warburg ultimately saw the crimes of the Nazi regime as an aberration in German history. His return was in part based on a strong connection to his hometown of Hamburg, but he was also motivated by legitimate business interests. Warburg was also encouraged to return to Germany by his friend John J. McCloy, who acted as US high commissioner for Germany from 1949 to 1952. McCloy saw Warburg as a central figure for German-American rapprochement and for the reconciliation between the Jewish community and Germany.

But we also should not underestimate the importance of Warburg’s deep-seated anti-communism as a motivating factor here. Warburg was convinced that an economically strong West Germany was the only way to protect his home country from the threat of Communism. It was in this context that Warburg worked to convince McCloy to spare the August Thyssen steelworks as well as the Krupp gasworks from destruction as part of the Allies’ deindustrialization efforts after World War II. Warburg even put in a good word for Alfried Krupp, who was convicted of using forced labor during the Nuremberg trials. But Warburg also worked as a mediator at the Jewish Claims Conference.

CA

It is often claimed that the Atlantik-Brücke has close ties to the CDU, with many pointing to former CDU treasurer Walther Leisler Kiep’s lengthy tenure as chairman of Atlantik-Brücke, from 1984 to 2000, as well as current CDU chairman Friedrich Merz’s decade as the face of the organization, starting in 2009. But the CDU is not the only political party involved in the organization. What is the Atlantik-Brücke’s relationship with the SPD?

AZ

It’s true that the Atlantik-Brücke has a reputation as a CDU club. Founding member Erik Blumenfeld was also a CDU politician and a close confidante of Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s and early 1960s. But the Atlantik-Brücke also had ties to SPD politicians such as Max Brauer, who was a member of the Atlantik-Brücke’s advisory council during his tenure as mayor of Hamburg. In the mid-1960s, Social Democrat Fritz Erler was elected to Atlantik-Brücke’s board of directors, followed by future SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt later in that decade.

Both the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG consciously sought to ensure representation from multiple political parties from the outset. During his first visits to postwar Germany in the late 1940s, Christopher Emmet sought to revive contacts with Social Democrats. Over the course of years, organizations such as the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG had an integrative effect on the SPD and helped contribute to establishing the SPD as an electable alternative to the CDU. Achieving this was only possible by helping the SPD to shift away from many of the key tenets of West German social democracy, such as neutrality and anti-militarism. This transformed SPD signed on to many of the creeds of the Atlanticist alliance: acceptance of the (free) market economy, a turn away from anti-militarism, and acceptance of rearmament and NATO membership.

However, it is important to recognize that the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG operated in a wider context that included other institutions such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Bilderberg meetings, as well as institutional relationships between US trade union confederations (AFL and CIO) and the German Trade Union Confederation and the SPD. We should also not forget the role that the CIA played during this time. The CIA helped funnel significant sums of US government money to support Willy Brandt in intraparty power struggles in order to promote those elements within the SPD that advocated for strong integration with the West.

CA

Elite organizations such as the Atlantik-Brücke rarely attract public attention despite their influence among key public and private actors. What are your key insights into how these organizations really work?

AZ

My research uncovered three key trends that helped shape the work of the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG. First, these organizations contributed to the establishment of a reliable and sustainable cross-party consensus on foreign policy that was centered on a strong relationship between West Germany and the United States. This required a shift among West German Social Democrats away from anti-militarism, neutrality, and socialism. The elite transatlantic networks found in both organizations played an important role here. Second, both organizations further strengthened the transatlantic partnership by facilitating exchanges among elites in the business communities in West Germany and the United States. Third, both the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG used their numerous contacts among academics and the media to promote this consensus in the public discourse.

CA

What can left-wing organizations learn from the history of the Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany? Should these elite groups be seen as adversaries, or should members of the Left seek access to such groups?

AZ

This is not a purely theoretical question. A few years ago, Die Linke MP Gregor Gysi actually sought to gain membership for a party representative in the Atlantik-Brücke. After all, the Atlantik-Brücke has always been committed to being a cross-party organization, and the Green Party has been a member for years. When Die Linke’s Stefan Liebich sought to become a member of the Atlantik-Brücke (at Gregor Gysi’s request) in 2015, there was much indignation within the party. The idea behind gaining membership to the Atlantik-Brücke was that it would enable Die Linke to gain access to important information, particularly regarding foreign policy issues. But the biggest reason for joining would be to allow Liebich to introduce Die Linke’s positions on a number of important topics into this transatlantic elite network.

Whether or not Die Linke would succeed here is another matter. My research and evidence of the postwar evolution of the SPD suggest that the integrative effect of such elite circles is very strong. It is unlikely that any individual left-wing voice that takes part in these private discussions would have a significant influence on the elite consensus found in organizations such as the Atlantik-Brücke or any similar organization.

In this respect, I am critical of this approach. In my opinion, those on the Left, as well as left-wing political parties such as Die Linke, should instead seek to develop alternatives to these elite private organizations. It is immensely important to network and integrate left-wing voices in politics, the media, academia, culture, and economics on both sides of the Atlantic and at the wider international level. This will allow us to strengthen common ideas and goals for a different, more just world and, crucially, help put these ideas into action.

Frequent exchange among diverse left-wing voices is crucial to achieving this. This is an area where we can definitely learn something from these elite organizations — particularly when we take future generations into account. At the end of the 1960s, elites within the Atlantik-Brücke and ACG saw that the generation that developed the transatlantic consensus following World War II would soon retire and give way to a new generation that would have more influence over domestic and international affairs. The transatlantic worldview thus had to be imparted to the next generation of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantik-Brücke and ACG introduced the Young Leaders Conference in the late 1960s or early 1970s in an effort to identify the elites of tomorrow, connect them to each other, and socialize them into the Atlanticist worldview.