What is the US cultural identity

American identity

Bernd Stöver: "United States of America"

Reviewed by Erik von Grawert-May

What does American identity stand for? (dapd / Paul Sancya)

In his book, Bernd Stöver describes the history of the USA from the first colony to the present. The historian can boast when it comes to portraying American culture. Fascinating how he depicts them right down to the ramifications of pop culture.

Anyone who dares to undertake a complete history of the United States, including culture, from the very beginning to the present day, deserves great credit. The tome is full of facts.

And you think the author has to be American. Every historical phase is reported in detail. But it is a German contemporary historian, a contemporary historian to be sure, who ventures into the 16th century. Then the first European colonists began to gain a foothold in America.

An amazing panorama is spread before our eyes. I don't know what Bernd Stöver left out. Since you are instructed about everything, you get the feeling of having an expansive lexicon in front of you, which, however, reads well. You don't like to put it down. No dry stuff!

Very ambitiously, he wants to combine the history of the state structure with that of the mentality in order to fathom the identity of the Americans. How do you write something like that, he wonders ...

"... as a retrospective global success story of the first 'nation of Europeans overseas'? As the story of the oppression that began with Columbus (...) and the extermination of those who had already populated the double continent ten thousand years earlier?

Or is it more like a fearful story of the vision of a 'New World', started above all by outsiders and dissidents, which gradually expanded with the migration to the west (...) and mixed expectations of salvation history with political realism? "

His answer is wise. It offers a bit of everything. As for the oppression since Columbus, he doesn't skimp on strong words. His accusation goes as far as that of the genocide of the colonists against the Indians. With Marc Twain's humor one could say that America would have been better not discovered in the first place.

But Stöver has not written a humorous book. He's too interested in the other issue, which deals with the fear of Americans, with outsiders and dissidents. He pursues this line with great persuasiveness up to the present day.
With his Iraq war, George W. Bush revealed a mentality that is deeply anchored in America's self-image.

"Cover: Bernd Stöver: United States of America" ​​(C. H. Beck Verlag) After all, since their flight from Europe the dissidents had once been interested in a fight against monarchical despotism, which prevented them from freely practicing their religion. In the fight against the despot Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush was guided by very similar motives. The author even brings Barack Obama into this tradition. How not: on the personal instructions of the newly elected president, far more terrorists have been killed than under his predecessor.

One almost thinks that basically they are still encapsulated isolationists who were dragged into the world against their will by the two world wars. And who now rule this world because they can't help it. Admittedly, the author would not go that far. It is the reader's exuberant temperament that inspires.

The contemporary historian draws his trump card when portraying the dominant American culture, the superculture, as he calls it. Fascinating how he depicts them right down to the ramifications of pop culture. And yet one creeps the dark feeling that the light-footedness with which this happens has played a trick on the author. Is he making things too easy for himself? Hear him in his own words:

"The riddle of why American culture began its triumphal march around the world can (...) easily be solved: it has simply been there since the global US involvement, it was easily available and accessible everywhere and sometimes even promised to be revolutionary.

Worldwide, even in the most remote corners of the world, US products established themselves and with them, not least, the basic ideas of the American lifestyle, which almost silently pushed other traditions into the background. "

Does this answer really solve the puzzle? Doesn't he answer one riddle with another? How could Americanization displace other traditions almost silently? Isn't the American lifestyle more associated with the reverse, the loud? If, however, it has prevailed rather quietly, then this indicates hidden abilities of infiltration into foreign cultures.

And since it happens on a global scale, it is likely to be about an ability to impose itself almost unnoticed on the world. Using the example of a world-famous It girl, the author lets us take a closer look at his cards:

"Significantly, the icon of US pop culture at the beginning of the 21st century became Paris Hilton, who appeared full-time as the daughter of a hotel empire. In the opinion of many observers, her most prominent characteristics were not having any characteristics, but a global media presence, which, significantly, is not most recently through pornographic images and films that came into the public eye by chance. "

On this point, Bernd Stöver follows Neil Postman's thesis that American society is so superficial and infantile that it is amused itself to death. Even if there is a lot to be said for it, one has to ask oneself why an American woman manages with next to nothing to attract the attention of the whole world - porn-loving hotel heiress or not.

It seems to me that in places like these, the author sinks below his level. However, this cannot affect its overall presentation in the slightest. And it hurts the reviewer to have to come to the end for reasons of space and only be able to mention in passing what he found wise on the one hand and exciting on the other.

It is wise to answer the question of who will be number one in the future: the USA or China, statistically with the gross national product of America. It is still way ahead there. Historians are not prophets.

On the other hand, it is exciting to follow what Bernd Stöver, to give just one example of many, assumes the historical greatness of Mikhail Gorbachev. However, we want to withhold this from the reader so that he can see this great success of a historical work for himself.


Bernd Stöver: United States of America: History and Culture
From the first colony to the present

C. H. Beck Verlag Munich