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"Freie Bahn dem Marshallplan"?

The West German reaction to the european recovery program 1947-1952

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2004 18 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Westeuropa


Table of Contents

1. Preface

2. The Marshall Plan – An Introduction

3. The German Reaction to the Marshall Plan
3.1 Preliminary Remarks
3.2 German Reactions – The Press
3.3 German Reactions – The Surveys
3.4 German Reactions – The Viewpoints of the Parties

4. The German Reception – Attempting to Explain
4.1 The Situation in Germany before the Marshall Plan
4.2 German Fears and Concerns

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

Other sources

1. Preface

On 5 June 1947, the US-Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, in his later famous speech at Harvard University proposed a reconstruction program for Europe. Ten months later, on 2 April 1948, the Foreign Aid Act was passed by the US Congress. Thus, the European Recovery Program (ERP), more commonly called the “Marshall Plan”, came into effect. It was the biggest ever project of international economic cooperation in times of peace. Between 1948 and 1952, the goods and services provided for Europe by the U.S. amounted to 13 billion dollars[1]. Sixteen European nations took part in the program, and West Germany, after Great Britain, France, and Italy, was the fourth biggest receiver of American support[2]. This money played a crucial role in creating the West German “Wirtschaftswunder” and integrating the country into the West.

Much has been written about the Marshall Plan, also from a German perspective. Its development, the institutions organising it and its consequences have all been described in detail by political scientists and historians alike. This paper sets a different focus and concentrates on the West German reception of the Marshall Plan. How did the West Germans react to the European Recovery Program, only three years after their ultimate defeat, with their economy destroyed, their cities bombed to rubble and their collective conscience having by no means confronted the guilt of Fascism? Was it really all “Freie Bahn dem Marshallplan[3] ”?

Up to now, this very aspect has been nearly unexplored, so there is not much literature about it. In any case, I have tried to base my essay on as many sources as possible to be able to offer a balanced analysis, my main sources for the German perspective being the books and articles by Berghahn, Foschepoth, Pommerin, and Wagner[4]. The essay is structured in such a way that, after a brief introduction to the subject, the German reception of the Marshall Plan will be overviewed in three different areas: The reactions in the press, the reactions in the opinion surveys that were conducted by the American occupation forces from 1946 onwards, and finally the viewpoints of the political parties. Subsequently, an attempt to explain the German reception will be provided by taking a closer look at the situation in Germany before the Marshall Plan and by analysing the different German fears and concerns about American economic policy, before coming to a conclusion. The time frame of the essay spans from 1947 to 1952.

2. The Marshall Plan – An Introduction

There has been a long discussion among historians what the main objective of the Marshall Plan in Europe was. Its most early (and most uncritical) students interpreted the Plan as a symbol and proof of American generosity. However, not before long, critical voices were heard too, the most prominent being that of William Appleman Williams. Williams, an American historian, became famous for his left-wing, some claim even Marxist interpretations. He argued that American politicians had exaggerated the threat of communism because they were fearful of losing the European markets. He also claimed that the Marshall Plan was nothing but American economic imperialism, an attempt to gain control over Western Europe (just as the Soviets controlled Eastern Europe) in the process of block construction. Williams was followed by a group of historians thinking along the same lines, who just like him rejected the old – and in their eyes hopelessly naïve – conviction of American goodwill. They held to the suspicion that the Americans only tried to tie Western Europe closer to them, that way ensuring the dominance of their own economic model and securing Germany as the most exposed region in its sphere of influence right at the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. This school came to be called the Revisionist and was at its peak during the 1960s and 1970s, also under the influences of the Vietnam War, which it rejected[5].

However one may evaluate these different interpretations, for this essay, it is important to note that all these approaches and receptions of American policy existed already in post-war Germany, that is, in the period we are dealing with. Before the different historians had even started to write their analyses, the German press, the published opinions, the radio, and the people on the street had discussed most of these interpretations. Naturally, not everybody agreed on one single position. Nevertheless, there was one point that most contemporaries and writers which were consulted for this essay do agree upon: That the American influence was crucial, “profound”[6] and, in one word, indispensable. It has to be noted though that, just like everything in academic discourse, naturally also this position has an opposite: In the 1980s some historians had indeed started to argue that the Marshall Plan did not necessarily have such a big influence on Europe’s economies as everybody had always believed. The most prominent name in this context is that of the economic historian Alan S. Milward, who has pointed out that the growth in many European countries, including West Germany, actually picked up before the large-scale arrival of American aid, and was fastest among some of the countries that had received less help[7]. Subsequently there was the controversy about Werner Abelshauser’s research, which tended to downplay the significance of outside aid for the increase of the West German economy[8]. Today, however, common consensus acknowledges that the Marshall Plan had an enormous effect on Western Europe’s economies.

In my opinion, the Marshall Plan’s political and economic goals are often so intertwined that they cannot be separated clearly. Nevertheless, it is true that the Marshall Plan was above all an economic program with a political goal, its first and vital significance being political, not economic. The Marshall Plan undoubtedly served the purpose of immunising Western Europe against communism and containing the Soviet Union[9] ; it was an economic way to fight communism. Wagner even argues that it became a vehemently anti-communist program after the Soviet Union had stepped out in July 1947, and that the ideological confrontation escalated[10]. The Americans had started to become very worried because local Communist and left-wing political parties were gaining parliamentary seats, especially in France and Italy. The US interest was therefore to construct a Europe that would hold a united front against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and also one that would support the NATO, which had re-activated the military potential of Western Europe. Thus, the Marshall Plan can also be called a political alternative to the military logic. Although it had been announced as well as initiated quite early in the process of block construction, the Bizone[11] had been already created (on 1 January 1947) and the Truman-Doctrine had already been declared (on 12 March 1947), so the direction of the subsequent events could already be foreseen.

Although, as it was stated above, the Marshall Plan’s fundamental significance was political and not economic, the USA also had clear economic objectives for Europe. In the post-war era, the American administration had come to the conclusion that the economic dimension was the most important in rebuilding a nation. This was quite a new idea, a lesson that had been learned from the past. Economics were now seen as absolutely vital and as the key to everything.

The objectives that the US had for Europe on the economic level were to secure the capitalist system, to obtain productivity, growth, and the liberalisation of commerce and trade. Furthermore, the Marshall Plan pursued the policy of political and economic integration of Europe and of the Western market.

3. The German Reaction to the Marshall Plan

3.1 Preliminary Remarks

It has to be said beforehand that the German reaction to the Marshall Plan was of course not homogenous. The Germans, after all, were a people of many millions, and the opinions about the Plan were accordingly varied. The term “public opinion” is therefore always problematic. However, what can be analysed and made use of are published opinions, which were at the time mainly in newspapers and on the radio[12], and opinions that were uttered in public, as in discussions in the parliament, in meetings, and within the parties.

Another important explanatory note is that when talking about this period in Germany, one must remember that the times were those of the beginning of the Cold War and of the block construction, and that there was heavy propaganda that came with it. Sometimes it is still difficult to separate party-line and truth, attitude and candour. It can be said with certainty, though, that the German reception of the Marshall Plan was not what American propaganda and some American contemporaries (especially those with a military background) would have it: A thankful, passive adjustment to the attitudes of the superior. This may seem a superfluous remark at first, but, even in 1969, one author stated that because “the United States had come to be a dominant power, it was natural for the defeated to look to the victor as a pattern of achievement and success”[13]. And: “The proud Germany harboured a secret admiration for the American Military Government and its personnel and led them to dream of reviving their nation with some of the potential capabilities of their people developing along the lines of the American people.”[14] The implicit slogan of the American propaganda for the Marshall Plan in Europe was “you can be like us!”, and apparently for many Americans, that was meant seriously and was not just empty cant. “The Americans want an integrated Europe looking like the United States – ‘God’s own country’”, as Robert Hall put it[15], but in the end, as Hogan underlines in his conclusion, Europe’s influence was strong enough to make a decisive difference: “In the beginning, the Marshall Plan had aimed to remake Europe in an American mode. In the end, America was made the European way.”[16]


[1] Wagner (1996), p. 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Slogan from an American propaganda poster that could be translated as “clear the way for the Marshall Plan” or “make way for the Marshall Plan”. B. Megele/SZ. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung 276 (2004).

[4] This essay deals exclusively with the West German reaction to the Marshall Plan, so if not explicitly indicated otherwise, “Germany” will always refer to West Germany.

[5] See

[6] “However, it is doubtful that change would have come so quickly after 1945, had it not been for the impact of an outside factor that had a profound influence on the development of the West German industrial system: the United States.” Berghahn (1995), p. 67f.

[7] See Milward, Alan S.: The Marshall Plan and German Foreign Trade. In: Maier (1991), p. 452-487.

[8] See Abelshauser (1983), p. 54-63 and Berghahn (1995), p. 66.

[9] „Eindämmung der Sowjetunion und ‚Immunisierung’ Westeuropas gegen den Kommunismus.“ Lehmann (2000), p. 70.

[10] “Aber nach der Absage der Sowjetunion im Juli 1947 wurde aus dem Europäischen Wiederaufbauprogramm ein vehement antikommunistisches westeuropäisches Programm, die Konfrontation eskalierte.“ Wagner (1996), p. 7.

[11] The British and Americans had unified their activities in creating the Bizonal Economic Council, short Bizone. Interestingly, the director of that organisation was Ludwig Erhard, who would later become Minister for Economic Affairs in the first post-war cabinet of Konrad Adenauer, and in 1963, the second Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.

[12] Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any radio sources, so this aspect cannot be discussed in this paper at all. It is, nevertheless, a promising subject for future research.

[13] Mayer (1969), p. 89.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Robert Hall, quoted in Hogan (1987), p. 427.

[16] Hogan (1987), p. 445.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Institut für Sozialwissenschaften
Freie Bahn Marshallplan Modernisierung Europas



Titel: "Freie Bahn dem Marshallplan"?