From Bilateralism to Isolation - Germany and the United States during the Interwar Years

by Mathilde Dresdler

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 21 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. World War I as a determinant of political relations

2. Mutual perceptions during the Weimar- Years

3. Changing relations- the United Stated and the Third Reich
3.1 Political discrepancies as the source of continuous animosity
3.2 American isolationism
3.3 Roosevelt’s push against unlimited neutrality
3.4 U.S. perceptions of Germany
3.5 Hitler’s perceptions of the United States




In the time after 1918, when the Allies had ended that the First World War, the United States was increasingly supporting Germany in terms of reorganization of government and economy. Germany had then become a republican democracy; otherwise a cooperation of the two nations would not have been acceptable to America. German leading politicians and the economic elite had become aware of the necessity to reform and modernize their country. A, one might say, politically cordial relationship developed during the 1920. Conservatives and nationalists were, to a large degree, against a close cooperation and the modernization that brings evil to society, like corruption. This cooperation was never an equal one. Germany, which aimed to revise the Paris Peace Treaty, had to subordinate due to win American benevolence. However, the United States has not directly intervened politically but mainly economically. It has supported Germany in all major issues in the postwar period. It has not only helped Germany to reorganize domestically but also helped Germany to reintegrate into Europe and the League of Nations. Moreover, diplomatic relations commenced after bilateral trade agreements, peace and friendship treaties after 1923.

In 1933, when Hitler established his dictatorship, relations increasingly worsened. Hitler had, himself, never visited the U.S. nor did he speak English. American comments were always submitted by others. Hitler did not understand the way Americans thought (Sirois 2000: 143). Well, it might have been to no German concern as Hitler wanted to reestablish a strong German nation. To become independent from the Treaty of Versailles and bilateral relations, he rejected and defied them. Both, America and Germany worked toward isolation and bilateral agreements were rejected by Germany from 1933 onwards.

1. World War I as a determinant of political relations

America’s entry into the First World War was one climax in the sharpening relationship between Germany and America. Between the last decades of the 19th century and the American involvement in World War I, tensions were growing more acutely. America’s response of the German unification under the Prussian crown in 1871 was generally and positive, welcoming one. Political tensions arose at the dawn of the 20th century- in the time of imperialism. Divisive political interests in Latin America, namely the dissent about Samoa in 1889, the Venezuela crisis in 1902, and the German refusal to acknowledge the Mexican government under General Victoriano Huerta in 1913 influenced the relationship negatively (Sirois, Herbert: 19). American perceptions of Germans worsened even before the time when Germany induced World War I, and vice versa. In the two decades preceding 1914, Americans showed distrust toward Germany, and the First War caused a consolidation of this distrust and disapproval, the outbreak of the war even lead to “extreme (…) negative images of the other nation” (Krüger, Peter: 174). Prussia- for America- was a symbol for autocracy, militarism and inhumanity. However, both countries shared something in common. They were ambitiously establishing hegemony in their sphere- namely Europe and Latin America. This parallelism of interests culminated into a conflict of interests (namely Germany braking into a new market in Latin America) and reached its peak in the First World War (Sirois, 2000: 16).

The Germans perceived the United States similarly skeptical. Peter Krüger argues that most attitudes were resulting out of old clichés and, most importantly, out of ignorance. Many Germans were lacking in understanding and knowledge of the American political and economic system (1997:175). The United States was far away- geographically and culturally. In the mid- 19th century, especially for the rather poor middle class, America was the country where the streets are paved with gold. But these fables were de- mystified later in that century, when – due to ignorance- the U.S. was a synonym for political corruption, arbitrary presidents and bad administration (Krüger, 1997: 175). The dangers of “mass- democracy” were hereby demonstrated. America’s economic strength was supposedly based on heedless capitalism. The source of that evolution, especially among nationalists, was seen in the lack of culture and the “lack of a well- trained, impartial civil service” (ibid.: 176). This civil service was perceived skeptically by the Americans, for example, John Dewey mentioned the society- state separation, in which the state had the dominant role and functioned as a moral overseer (ibid.: 178). In this Germany, where economy and politics were regulated by the state did Americans see a clash to their individualism. The different set of cultural and political values developed into “fierce ideological warfare” in 1916 to 1918 (ibid.: 173).

Even before America entered World War I, Germans were discriminated in America. In his election campaign in 1916 for example, Woodrow Wilson declared that he did not attach great importance to German- Americans voting for him in the presidential election (Sirois,2000: 17). Moreover, an Anglicization of words and names of German origin took place. This development of discrimination of German- Americans can be seen as propaganda for Wilson’s plan to enter the war due to the fact that the American people was not easy to get convinced for the involvement in that European war. The president had to give the war a moral character: the fight between good and evil, between autocracy and democracy (ibid.: 16). America entered the war in 1917.

After Germany’s defeat in 1918, the relationship between the U.S. and Germany recovered only slowly. According to Sirois, scholars misleadingly do only reflect political- and economic- driven statements and therefore perceive a quick revival of relatively good relations, but forget about the crack in the perceptions of the society on both sides (16). The United States, however, was economically and politically becoming a partner for Germany in the postwar years. Even though the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify the Paris Peace Treaty and to join an international court of justice, America wanted to conclude a separate peace with Germany (Glaser- Schmidt: 191). This peace of 1921 constituted a special bilateral relationship of the two nations. Furthermore, it was the basis of diplomatic relations between Germany and the USA, prepared the ground for the later return of confiscated German property in 1928 and made the parallelism of interests of the Allies most obvious (Glaser- Schmidt, 1997: 39). This special relationship was extended economically by the 1923 trade agreement, which shows on one hand a positive American reaction and showed, on the other hand, German approval concerning reparations and the German- American compensation agreement of August 1922 (ibid.: 191). The American intention was to support the world trade as the trade agreement was based on the unconditional most- favored- nation treatment. Contrary to England and France, the U.S. (after Wilson and Hoover, now under the political leadership of Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of State Hughes) was convinced that political and economical security could only be achieved and maintained by German inclusion, not by adherence of the postwar status quo.

All hopes of the Weimar Republic were now directed toward the United States. The cooperation with the country, which emerged victorious out of the First World War, was nothing but self- evident. The United States was pursuing a liberal economic policy and insisted on non- discrimination of Weimar Germany (Link, 1978: 65). After the disappointment about Woodrow Wilson’s peace in 1918, Germany was hoping that the USA would mediate between them and the Allies concerning the issue of reparations. The Treaty of Versailles obligated Germany to recoup all damages and losses resulting from the war. The total of the damage was assessed by 1921 and the Weimar Republic had to shoulder 132 billion Gold Marks within thirty years (ibid.: 66). This total was a tough burden to carry for Germany; the annual expenses on reparations were insurmountable for the German economy and affected all political and economic conditions in the first half on the 1920s. America, at the end of the war, was the main creditor. If Germany had not been able to pay its debts to England, France, and the other nations, they were likewise unable to pay their debts. For the Weimar Republic, it was a vicious circle of non- performance of the treaty, threat economic and military sanctions (ibid.: 67).

The revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the fight against the restricted trade policy were two of the main issues of German foreign policy. In this concern, the United States and Germany had common interests: to establish a liberal, non- discriminating world trade system. According to Link, the Weimar Republic “wollte über die Weltwirtschaft in die Weltpolitik zurückkehren” (1978:65). America was supposed to act as a third party mediating between the Allies and Germany. Although, the United States was one of the allied powers, it dissolved away from the coalition by the Senate’s decision not to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The cooperation with America was therefore desirable for the young German republic; it was not bounded to the treaty made in Paris (Sirois, 2000:23). The U.S., on the other hand, was provided with an opportunity to pursue its own interests in the newly established Weimar Republic. Firstly, Germany presented a market for American goods. Furthermore, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, containment and immunization played a role (ibid.).

After the end of the First World War, most Americans wanted to get back to their domestic issues. There were voices that wanted to leave the postwar reconstruction of Europe in the hands of Europeans. As it has already been mentioned, the Senate had refused to ratify the Paris Peace Treaty, it had refused to join the League of Nations, which had been brought into being by President Woodrow Wilson, and they refused to join the International Court of Justice- in short, they rejected Wilsonian foreign policy as a whole (Bender, 2003:85). Instead of preparing the ground for freedom in Europe, Americans noticed that new conflicts arose. With the slogan “Back to normality”, Warran G. Harding was elected president in 1921. The budget for military expenses was reduced drastically and in 1923, when the French were occupying the Ruhr, the last American troops were withdrawn. The United Stated went back to isolation. Cultivating the isolationism like before the war, however, was hardly practicable due to the fact that it had debtors from all over the world. The total indebtedness of the countries was 12.5 billion U.S. Dollars and another 20 billion Dollars of private debts in 1929. It was within America’s own interest to help Europe’s economy to recover (ibid.:86).

To break the vicious circle of impossible reparation payments and sanctions- that would again endanger German liquidity to pay its debts- the Dawes Plan with U.S. loans to relief Germany’s economy was concluded in 1923 after the German hyperinflation. It softened the burden of reparation payments by a reduction of the annual obligations, and also stabilized the currency. However, despite American intervention in the Dawes Plan, it was only encouraged informally by the U.S. The Dawes Plan was not a formal step of American foreign policy. “Official U.S. diplomacy remained aloof from overt involvement in internal affairs of Weimar Germany“(Glaser- Schmidt: 192).



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Dresden Technical University – Anglistik, Amerikanistik
Germany US America Weltkrieg First World War Weimar Republic Weimarer Republik Franklin D. Roosevelt Hitler Mutual Perceptions Americanization Versailler Vertrag Treaty of Versailles Dawes Plan Max Weber Third Reich German- American Trade Agreement Isolationism Neutrality Neutrality Laws


  • Mathilde Dresdler



Title: From Bilateralism to Isolation - Germany and the United States during the Interwar Years