Riots, rowdies and rock'n'roll: The reception of American popular culture in West Germany between 1956-1959

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2004

23 Seiten, Note: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Historical settings in post-war Germany

3. Hidden and open Anti-Americanism

4. Rock’n’roll devils’ advocate: The launch of BRAVO in 1956
4.1 The editorial side of BRAVO
4.2 Advertising in BRAVO
4.3 Money makes the world go around
4.4 Both sides of the story

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Happy birthday rock’n’roll! Since there seems to be a general agreement that April 12th 1954, when Bill Haley and the Comets recorded their famous “Rock around the clock” in Manhattan, New York, marks the beginning of the rock’n’roll revolution, admirers from all over the world have launched a reminiscent “party” with revival concerts of rock’n’roll icons, giving an extensive account of how they have seen the 1950s and the rise of a new music era.

In a non-representative survey, initiated by the German e-mail-provider GMX, seven percent of 22420 voters think of Bill Haley, and 27 percent of Elvis Presley as their personal rock-legend.[1] The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan were also among the highest rankings. So one third of the vote after gave their vote to rock’n’roll legends who have decisively coined the beginnings of this new music sweep.

A unified view on how the rise of rock’n’roll had come about stays an illusion though.

German rock idol Peter Kraus stated in an interview with German national television station ZDF in cooperation with the German press agency dpa on April 7th 2004:

Die Vorstellung, dass sich plötzlich die ganze Jugend jubelnd in Lederjacken geworfen hat, ist völlig falsch. [...] Die Leute haben gedacht, so etwas kann es nur in Amerika geben, denn die Amis würden ja sowieso spinnen. [...] In Amerika ging es wild zu, hier in Deutschland spielte sich eher die brave Abteilung dieser Bewegung ab.[2]

A far more rebellious account is given by German rock legend Udo Lindenberg who sees the changes of time in a different way:

[…] es gab sehr viele Schlager und der Himmel hing voller Mandolinen, und es schnulzte also nur so vor sich hin, bis dann plötzlich granatenmäßig also der Rock’n’roll da irgendwie einschlug und da irgendwie so ein Erdbeben verursachte und so ‘ne gesunde Unruhe ins Land brachte.[3]

But was Lindenberg talking about the same time that Kraus was talking about? Was not his experience and definition of rock'n'roll a different one to what Kraus had in mind?

This paper tries to give an account of what happened when rock’n’roll and other products of American popular culture made their entrance into post-war Germany. Certain aspects shall be elucidated to prove the fact that it was about far more than just music. Because of this widespread subject this paper focuses particularly on the time span between 1956 and 1959 and solely on the reception in West Germany. Was the rock’n’roll movement the anti-authoritarian working-class rebellion, a sort of blue-collar 1968? How did the media represent rock’n’roll and what conclusion did it draw with regard to the growing influence of American culture in Germany? Newspaper and magazine articles of that period of time as well as firm insights of research on that topic shall help to clarify these questions.

2. Historical settings in post-war Germany

After the end of World War II, with the German country, and soon afterwards, the German countries both physically and mentally traumatized and stigmatised, losing World War I, losing World War II and being on the brink of becoming the plaything of the Cold War, intellectual elites were trying to find a way between the capitalism of the USA and the communism of the Soviet Union.

The intellectual elites in Germany were strongly trying to fulfill a recollection of traditional, war-free German culture and to re-establish a cultural national background untouched by the chaos of war. But this was not as easy as many had thought it would be. The occupation of allied troops also swept a new cultural influence into the country and the dilemma of cooperation with the United States on the one hand and regaining an autonomous cultural identity on the other hand was created. But while many of the country’s elites “came to accept, albeit grudgingly, the leadership position of the United States […] in powerpolitical/military and economic/technological terms, […] what Americans had produced in the way of culture was in their view at best derived from European high culture and at worst trashy, vulgar, and primitive.”[4]

The new sweep of American culture into West German society was bound to create a battle of the generations. While the older generations feared a loss of their national identity, “during the 1950s, the ‘Americanisation of German culture and way of life’ was a prime topic on all levels of communication and […] youths were seen as its protagonists.”[5]

But even right after the end of World War II the seed of American culture was planted in Germany society when US troops liberated the first German cities and “candies, American blend cigarettes, and CARE packages, as well as the overwhelming material and technical potential of the US Army demonstrated the superiority of the American way.”[6] This seed eventually came to blossom fully in the 1950s when Germany had economically and psychologically adjusted to the new historic surroundings and when the restoration of the country had enabled many to pursue their leisure time. Another data of this “seed” was the fact that “in October 1949, nearly 19 million people, about 38% of the population of the Federal Republic and West Berlin, lived in the US zone”[7].

The most evident reason for the fact that it took another decade for American culture to widespread in German society was of course an economic one. The early stage of the so called “Wirtschaftswunder” in Germany did not bear fruit until the Mid-50s and it was in those years that magazines were being published and money was being spend on other things than on those which were essential for the daily survival. Purchasing power, notably for teenagers, rose considerably.

This attitude towards American (popular) culture was nothing new to German society. Let it be swing, ragtime, jazz – every cultural movement stirred strong opposition in parts of German society. Uta G. Poiger and Heide Fehrenbach for instance comment on the situation of jazz in Germany between World War I and II:

German opponents of jazz in the interwar years, for example, associated the music with black musicians, Jewish promoters, and sexual lasciviousness, and combined anti-black and antisemitic sentiments to reject jazz as ‘un-German’.[8]

Another persistent stereotype in Germany about America that conservative Germans saw again perpetuated in the outburst of American popular culture was strongly connected with the assumed lack of history and lack of profound cultural achievements: The absence of moral standards and indifference towards authorities. And even though the immediate connection of the term “rock’n’roll” with independent sexuality faded throughout the years, “ ‘rock’ and ‘roll’ are clearly associated […] with sexual implications”[9] in the beginning of the rock’n’roll era.

But since everything that is controversial bears an equal amount of fascination, these cultural music styles found their ways into German culture. The attitude of West German society continued to be an ambivalent one though. After World War II “opinion polls and sociological surveys show that West Germans believed they could learn a lot from US technology and economy, but stable majorities rejected American patterns for social and cultural development.”[10] But until the broad rock’n’roll movement swept from the USA to Germany in 1956, “youths adopting American taste in dance and popular music and trying to follow American styles in fashion and behaviour were only small minorities.”[11]

This dilemma would coin the era after 1956, with the older generation clinging on to German ideals and rejecting American popular culture, and the younger generation that would not only see the realisation of their independence in pursuing American culture but that would find a way to dissociate themselves from their parents and perhaps from the history of their parents that they did not want to be held responsible for. In other words: Younger Germans were trying to establish a borderline between them and the older generation. The older generation on the other side was supported in their rejection of American popular culture from where one might least expects it: influential authorities in the United States:

Immediately after the end of the war, there was obviously great interest and even enthusiasm for jazz, boogie-woogie, chewing-gum, and Hollywood movies among the Germans. But politicians and officials in Washington reacted with indecision; in fact, most of them opposed the idea of mobilizing the potentials of American popular culture in order to influence the attitude of Europeans. The belief that only ‘serious culture’ was suitable to present an attractive image of the United States even survived the Fifties.[12]

This attitude shows the mess and indecision that prevailed about culture on both continents but American cultural presentation programs which were launched to portray The United States as a country of sophisticated culture showed no mass effect and might have been initiated too late. Popular American culture took Europe in no time.

It is interesting and worthwhile noticing that it did not take a decade for American rock’n’roll music and the merchandising entailed to enter the every day life in Germany. Even though it took some time to be established in Germany’s younger society the rise of rock’n’roll in the United States and in Europe was almost a parallel one. This of course established a feeling among the young that they were actually taking part in all cultural innovations.

3. Hidden and open Anti-Americanism

The German tabloid paper “Bild” reported on March 31st 1958 about riots that took place at the Berlin Sportpalast at a concert of rock’n’roll musician Johnnie Ray:

So hatte der Sportpalast-Krawall begonnen: In hellen Scharen waren die Krieger und jungen Squaws der Niethosen-, Schwarzstrumpf- und Lederjacken-Stämme in den Sportpalast gezogen. Sie wollten den großen Medizinmann Johnnie erleben und seiner Jammerstimme lauschen.[13]

The attached picture of the article showed a smiling Johnnie Ray with the following caption: “Johnnie faßt sich an den Kopf. Dachte gerade: ’Menschenskind, und dafür kassiere ich hier an einem Abend 3000 Dollar!’“[14]

This „Bild“ article is one perfect example of the coverage done by the German press concerning American cultural events in Germany. Even though there is no directly uttered anti-Americanism in this article, the pejorative tone is more than obvious. The editor uses cliché expressions derived from prejudiced stereotypes of an uneducated picture of America. What is implied by the article is: Under the influence of American rock’n’roll music, young Germans mutate into Indians of a martial tribe while medicine man Johnnie Ray entices them to go wild and ecstatic. Warriors and squaws are used as synonyms for Americans or in this case americanised Germans. Of course, the Anti-Americanism is probably only obvious to some readers, but the immediate association of warriors and squaws with the (native) America is striking.

Another interesting notion is revealed by the allusion in the caption. The artist’s performance is ridiculed and belittled for it is insinuated that he cannot believe that he is making so much money with his performance. In a more concrete way one could say that this article implies the following statement: American rock’n’roll artists present trash, earn a lot of money with it and deform German youth.

Other media sources were not quite as “subtle” with their display of anti-Americanism. The “Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” commented on juvenile violence during rock’n’roll concerts. It is striking that the vocabulary used is martial and reminds the reader more of a war scenario than of impartial news coverage of a riot after a concert:

Letzter Lagebericht von der ‘Rock’n’Roll-Front […] Eine regelrechte Schlacht zwischen Polizei und ‚Rock-and-Rollern’ wurde am Samstagabend geschlagen: mit einem Wasserwerfer und Gummiknüppeln ging eine Hundertschaft Tschako-Polizei gegen die ‚außer Rand und Verstand’ tobenden Jahrgänge 1938 bis 1944 vor und schlug sie in die Flucht. [...] Für einen halbwegs vernünftigen Menschen ist der Krawall um diesen gehaltlosen amerikanischen Musik-Rabatz ebenso unverständlich wie den entfesselten Halbwüchsigen selbst das Motiv ihrer blinden Zerstörungswut und kindischen Provokation unklar sein dürfte.[15]

Even though there is one direct mentioning of American “music din” there are also other, more hidden evidences of the fact that the editor holds the USA responsible for the juvenile riots taking part in Germany. The pun ‘außer Rand und Verstand’ is clearly an allusion to the movie title “außer Rand und Band”, the German translation of Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock” which for many marked the “evil” influence of American popular culture, which was consumed by German youth.

The editor of this article puts forward dichotomies, which reveal the battle of cultures taking place. While on the one hand we find stereotype Germany virtues such as “Vernunft” and “Verstand”, the opposite low or no-culture of the United States is marked with attributes such as “kindisch”, “gehaltlos” and “blind”.

Does the editor note at all the sad irony that he holds that generation responsible for the riots that was born during 1938 and 1944, so almost exactly during World War II?

The liberal weekly paper “Die Zeit” came to a different judgement even though the argumen-tation is also outraging.



[3] Udo Lindenberg, Rock’n’Roll und Rebellion. Ein panisches Panorama (München, 1981) 10.

[4] Volker R. Berghahn, „European Elitism, American money, and Popular Culture“, In: The American century in Europe. Ed. R. Laurence Moore and Maurizio Vaudagna (Ithaca, 2003) 117.

[5] Kaspar Maase, Roll over, Beethoven ! (Hamburg, 1992) 4.

[6] Ebd. 6.

[7] Data according to Jürgen. Weber (ed.), Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Analyse und Dokumentation in Text, Bild und Ton, Bd. 2. (Paderborn 1980) 135.

[8] Heide Fehrenbach, Uta G. Poiger (eds.), Transactions, transgressions, transformations: American culture in Western Europe and Japan (New York, 2000) xvi.

[9] Larry Starr, Christopher Waterman (eds.), American popular music (Oxford 2003) 193.

[10] Maase, Roll over, Beethoven. 7.

[11] Ebd.

[12] Ebd. 4.

[13] Bild, 31.3.1958, p. 3.

[14] Ebd.

[15] Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 3.12.1956, 7.

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Riots, rowdies and rock'n'roll: The reception of American popular culture in West Germany between 1956-1959
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
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Riots, American, West, Germany
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Henrik John Hohl (Autor:in), 2004, Riots, rowdies and rock'n'roll: The reception of American popular culture in West Germany between 1956-1959, München, GRIN Verlag,


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