Prof. Christoph Ehland’s lecture yesterday evening offered an interesting analysis of stereotypical images of “Germans.” (If you want to know what Darth Vader has to do with it, you must read to the end!) Before he delved into specific examples, Ehland encouraged the audience to rethink their notion of the stereotype. It’s not something bad per se, Ehland argued. Rather, it’s a simplified picture of another culture that is often a necessary first step in intercultural encounters. After all, you must start somewhere, and very few of us can engage right away with another culture at a very high and complex level. Stereotypes become problematic, so Ehland, when we don’t move beyond them, when we remain stuck in the simplifications. It’s then that stereotypes turn into prejudices.
Ehland’s first example of a stereotypical American view of the Germans was from the 1880s. At that time, the American economy was doing well, Americans had become more assertive in their identity, and they wanted to revisit the place where many of them came from as travellers. One of the most influential of these travelers was Mark Twain, whose description of Germany and of Heidelberg decisively shaped Germany’s image in the US.
In 1901, German novelist Wilhelm Meyer-Förster published his melodramatic novel Old Heidelberg, which became the template for the 1924 Broadway operetta The Student Prince, by Sigmund Romberg and Doroty Donnelly. Subsequently, the novel was filmed first by German-emigré director Ernst Lubitsch in 1927 and then by Richard Thorpe in 1954, whose version featured the singing voice of Mario Lanza. Ehland speculated that it might have been the popularizing effect of the musical and Lubitsch’s film that saved Heidelberg from being bombed by the US Airforce furing World War II. I’m not sure if that holds up to historical scrutiny, but it’s certainly an interesting thesis.
At the outset of World War I, it was not at all clear that the US would eventually enter the war on the side of Germany’s foes. Betting on the influential German emigrant culture, Germany set up a secret propaganda mission in its Washington embassy and tried to influence public opinion through letters to editors and publications. To counter that, the British also set up an office and soon were able to decisively typecast the Germans. As Ehland argues, their success was based on two factors: First, the German war actions such as the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and atrocities against the civilian population delivered plenty of material that British writers and cartoonists could use. Second, despite the vast number of German immigrants, the German profile in the American public sphere was still relatively new compared to the long history of contact between the British and the Americans. Thus, the image of Germany was malleable and could be formed by new information.
Here are two examples for the stereotyping of the German Empire during World War I:
The second examples is interesting insofar, as it combines US racist imagery with the fear of Germans: The figure of King Kong in the eponymous movie of 1933 goes back to the Lost World genre of Arthur Conan Doyle, which exploited white European fears of an overpowering jungle and black people.
And now to the Volkswagen commercial. Ehland concluded his talk with an interesting analysis: He argued that the Volkswagen commercial turns the menacing character of Darth Vader from a figure modelled on the Nazi storm troopers into a cute wanna-be bad guy we can laugh about. At the same time, the notion of Germanness embodied by the car is under control by the male head of household, who can trick Darth Vader through the use of his remote control. In other words, whatever might have been threatening about Germanness at a subliminal level, is displayed as fully controlled by a (white) American masculinity. Watch the clip again and decide for yourself: