What does America despise most?

How the Old Continent has despised America for centuries

In the Ukraine crisis, left and right anti-Americanism breaks out openly. None of this is new. A little foray through history.

Vienna / Washington. You have to think of this place as the antithesis of paradise. Swamps and dense forests alternate. There are no large plants or animals here. But the people, they revert to animals. Because of the climate, everything on this New Continent is doomed to degenerate. The French natural scientist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon laid the "scientific" basis for the burgeoning anti-Americanism in the 18th century with his degeneration thesis.

The rejection of the new state structure on the other side of the Atlantic will pave its way through the European centuries, it will attack the nobility and poets, it will prove to be the lowest common denominator between radical left and right.

Anti-Americanism found a new outlet in the Ukraine crisis. The hatred of America is now pouring out reflexively in Internet forums, mixed with ordinary criticism of US politics. Notorious reference is made to the Iraq war in order to parry criticism of the Russian annexation of Crimea. As if there was a connection and as if both could not be critically questioned. America is once again the big elephant in the china shop. And the enemy of the enemy becomes a friend: Russia. The right celebrates Putin as a symbol "against feminism, moral decay and tolerance for homosexuals - this nonsense from the perspective of the right that they attribute to the USA," says Andrei S. Markovits, professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “And no matter what the US does, it's always wrong. The liberals accuse the US of not helping Ukraine enough. Both left and right insinuate that the US is threatening peace-loving Russia imperialistically, ”said Markovits, who also grew up in Vienna.

The accusation of anti-Americanism is often misused as a club against any kind of criticism of US politics. “Anti-Americanism is not a rejection of what the US is doing, but of what it is. And you can hardly change who you are, ”says Jesper Gulddal from Newcastle University in Australia.

The NSA scandal, for example: Justified criticism of the “catastrophic espionage” has turned into “national hysteria” in Germany, according to Markovits. Simultaneous revelations about the machinations of other secret services, such as the British or French, turned into marginal notes. The fact that Snowden's asylum provider Russia also has a “differentiated and brutal secret service” is hardly mentioned, according to Heiko Beyer from the University of Wuppertal. Anti-Americanism is also reflected in this double standard. If you want to research early anti-Americanism, it is best to read up on two Austrians. In Ferdinand Kürnberger's 1855, widely acclaimed novel “Der Amerika-Müde”, the title is program. The punch line: Kürnberger never crossed the Atlantic, the Viennese relied on the diary entries of his compatriot, the poet Nikolaus Lenau. And this Lenau resorted to the poultry to illustrate the depravity of the “heavenly stinking grocer's souls”: “That seems to me to be of serious, deeper meaning that America has no nightingale at all. It seems to me like a poetic curse (...). A Niagara voice is needed to preach to these villains that there are even higher gods than those struck in the mint. You can only see these guys in the pub to hate them forever. "


Scapegoat America

The findings of the Austrians will run through the aristocracy and late romantic literature. World stars like Charles Dickens also exhibit it: the superficial American, brutal, rootless and cultured, with no sense of manners. And materialistic. This image of America, riddled with consumerism, sharpened at the turn of the 20th century. Right and left ideologues will draw it. Heiko Beyer calls it “a shortened anti-capitalism”. It extends to the present. In the globalized world there is a psychological need for a scapegoat for the failings of capitalism. And who is better suited for this than the inventor country of the credit card and modern assembly line production?

It makes this European anti-Americanism so strange that it - unlike its Asian or Latin American offshoots - does not feed on historical injustices. For centuries Washington showed no power-political interest in Europe. "And the later contacts between Europe and the USA were largely found to be positive," says Gulddal. But neither America’s decisive contribution to the annihilation of Nazi Germany nor its financing of European reconstruction can eradicate this -ism.

The early, not yet political, anti-Americanism of the 19th century may also be an answer to the opposite phenomenon: this glowing Americanism, filled with all too high expectations, which culminates in waves of mass emigration. The ruling houses of Europe ruling "by the grace of God" and condescendingly on America feel threatened by this new mass democracy, just like the Nazis later.


Obama the European

After the end of the Cold War and the associated loss of importance of the USA as the protective power of Western Europe, anti-Americanism is creeping into a mass phenomenon. He will mingle with the criticism of George W. Bush's “War on terror”: “The old images of the nobility and intelligentsia are being adopted by broad layers of society at this time,” says Beyer. And when Obama does not fit into the picture, “there is a tendency to portray him as a social democratic European”. The Australian Gulddal is convinced that all this effort serves to establish a European identity. And not just since the beginning of the EU unification process, but for 200 years. It helps this old, diverse continent if it knows what it is not: America. Identity through segregation and exclusion.

In 1781, 20 men stomped through the snow in the New Hampshire woods. They go hunting at the behest of the later US President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson should describe their prey in great detail. It's a big moose - and at the same time the end of Buffon's degeneration thesis.

("Die Presse", print edition, June 21, 2014)