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One Foot Out of the Plastic Cage: The Un-Americanization of West German Consumer Society

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 42, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 132-139 | 10.1353/rah.2014.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

One Foot Out of the Plastic Cage:
The Un-Americanization of West German Consumer Society
Jan L. Logemann. Trams or Tailfins? Public and Private Prosperity in Postwar West Germany and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. vii + 300 pp. Figures, tables, abbreviations, notes, and index. $45.00.

For about a week in Summer 2011, my favorite restaurant became the Lidenbrau at Potsdamer Platz. Partly, this was because I did not know Berlin well, and the prominent location is easy to find. Though I had never been there, the place looked familiar. Helmut Jahn’s SONY building famously lords over the site, Mt. Fuji–like; but given contemporary architects’ apparent conviction that no amount of glass is too much, one could be forgiven for thinking of Jahn’s buildings in Philadelphia or Chicago. The clearest proof that we weren’t in Kansas City was the waiter’s response when my companion asked for tap water: He shook his head in stern disapproval and delivered an emphatic “NO!”

Today’s Potsdamer Platz is an international architectural showcase. After the Wall came down, the junction became the world’s largest single construction site and gave work to an array of world-renowned architects, including Jahn, Renzo Piano, Arata Isozaki, and Richard Rogers. They brought with them the latest in building fashion, if not a rich knowledge of, or respect for, the city’s past. For many Berliners, the plaza’s pell-mell reconstruction symbolized not so much German redemption as the post–Cold War triumph of global capitalism at virtually the precise geographical flash point of three-quarters of a century of profound human conflict. Destroyed in the war, left desolate in No Man’s Land after 1961, Potsdamer Platz was mostly a weed-strewn wasteland in the early 1990s. Then the city invited multinationals like SONY to scoop up huge tracts of prime real estate for their vanity buildings, and the architects imposed their visions without much reference to Berlin’s notable architectural past. City officials and locals alike bemoaned the “Manhattanization” of a space that has played a key role in their city since Frederick the Great turned it into the main point of royal entry into the capital from Sanssouci. Surely this was a better resolution than bombs and guard posts, but it was bound to leave anyone who cared about the German-ness of the city ambivalent at best. [End Page 132]

It is tricky business negotiating between the homogenizing pressures of global capital and particular social and cultural forms, and the most important contribution that Jan L. Logemann makes in Trams or Tailfins? is his largely convincing explanation for how a distinct value system can shape and control consumer capitalism in ways that honor, rather than obliterate, that distinctiveness. In arguing that West Germany was not “Americanized” after the war, Logemann joins a long debate about American consumer capitalism’s power, sweep, and depth of influence in the developed world through the second half of the twentieth century. In pointed contrast to Reinhold Wagnleitner’s Coca-colonization and the Cold War (1994) and Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire (2005), Logemann argues that, for all the noisy commentary, pro and con, about postwar Americanization, West Germans shaped their version of the affluent society according to deeply held and distinctly un-American values. Rather than a sweeping homogenization of the developed world, postwar affluence ran along “different paths to consumer modernity” (p. 2).

Logemann’s book is a closely reasoned “structural comparison” (p. 2) of the competing manners by which the United States and West Germany moved through the postwar Age of Affluence. He argues that, during the postwar “miracle years,” West Germans molded a regime of consumption based on the ideal of “social citizenship” and insisted on a privileged place for public goods over merely private ones. Instead of the “consumer-as-citizen” (whom Lizabeth Cohen, in The Consumer’s Republic [2003], defined as the main social type in postwar America), West Germans promoted the social consumer who practiced “public consumption,” which Logemann defines as “the provision of publicly funded alternatives to private consumer goods and services in areas ranging from housing...