Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Cultural Imperialism Sucks: a visit to Berlin

After I exited the plane, it took me several minutes before I realized I was in Germany. After all, the airport was designed with the same basic concepts, the people all looked fairly normal, and all the advertisements were all identical to their counterparts in the US.

Once we left the airport and begun wandering around Berlin, things didn’t get much better. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a T-Mobile store (called T-Punkt in some weird homage to Ashton Kutcher), ads for Coca-Cola and even a The Body Shop. (A major shopping mall was run by Sony; just like in old SF.) The streets looked roughly similar, the cars had the same manufacturers, the buildings had the same basic styles.

The similarity plays tricks on you. It not only took me a while to realize I was in Germany, it was a while before I realized this was the former home of the Nazis. (I was trying to think where I’d heard of the Reichstag before…) When I exclaimed my discovery, apparently the older people on the bus turned to look at me. One wonders how much of their fitting in is an attempt to forget their different past.

There were still differences, of course. In America, if someone knocked you out and took you on a plane to some random city in the country, you probably wouldn’t notice except for the fact that the street signs might have changed color. Aside from that tiny bit of individuality, cities in America are almost literally indistinguishable, down to the streets and landscaping. Germany isn’t that bad.

The most obvious is that they get to keep speaking their quirky little language, although only speaking English here gets you pretty far. On the other hand, their currency—and presumably their government—has been integrated into the EU. But the biggest thing you notice is that the city is simply more elegant. The cars are smaller, the public transit far superior, and the font on the street signs to die for. But if london had EU currency, I’m not sure it’d be all that distinguishable.

There is a blatant taste for modernist architecture. (This is the land of the Bauhaus, I suppose.) Just about every building I’ve been to has been done up in styles that would be considered high culture in America. Including our hotel room, where you can see into the top half of the shower from the bed and a door swings between the shower and the toilet, so that you can only use one with any privacy at once.

Despite the usual guidebook platitudes, Berlin does not feel like a particularly vibrant city. Abandoned construction sites are everywhere, with large quantities of supplies just laying by the street, and graffiti coats most public surfaces, not enough to demand a repainting, but enough to make it everpresent. All the stores have signs announcing that new, shorter hours will begin starting next year. I overhear complaints about 18% unemployment.

With an overseas like this, one wonders why Americans make such a fuss about going overseas. One can apparently visit Europe with about as much culture shock as visiting LA: a few different local chains, a different public transit system, a new accent to learn, and, of course, a new set of street signs. A convenience for the business traveler, perhaps. A vast emptiness for everyone else.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 27, 2006


Well, there are lots of other cities in europe where you can really feel differences. I would say that some main cities are very similar to each other, but just go to smaller places.

Although imperialism is imperialism.

If you ever come to Madrid I’ll be glad to show you the city.

posted by álvaro on December 27, 2006 #

Hey, I’m with ya, but having a T-Mobile store in Berlin is NOT US cultural imperialism — T-Mobile is Deutsche Telekom.

This highlights an interesting aspect of the “imperialism” — it’s not necessarily US imperialism. Rather, it’s fast becoming multinational corporate imperialism, through which the US is just as colonized by German brands as Germany is colonized by US brands (or Japanese brands, like Sony; or Finnish brands, like Nokia, etc).

It’s actually a measure of how successful these multinationals are that an American feels like T-Mobile is an American company that’s slightly out-of-place in Berlin. They manage to make your local franchise ghetto feel genuinely local, even if all the logos on display represent nominally foreign companies.

posted by Cory Doctorow on December 27, 2006 #

With an overseas like this, one wonders why Americans make such a fuss about going overseas.

Aaron, Europe is not the only “overseas” out there. Europe and the United States share a lot of commonalities as most of us Americans are descendants from European immigrants. Even disregarding the American cultural imperialism you see going back to Europe, you’re going to see some of Europe in America, although really watered down. Try going to a radically different place. Kragen and I have been traveling in Latin America and it’s very different here. Yes, there are American influences here as well, but the countries here are on such different levels of economic strength that it boggles the mind and opens the eyes. We have found that large cities are similar, but you can find the unique difference if you pay attention.

I would like to suggest that you stop being so negative in your posts. Life is not that bad, really. Look for the joys and simple pleasures and you will find them. Life is much more enjoyable that way.

posted by Beatrice M on December 27, 2006 #

The Reichstag was the seat of government for many years before the Nazis came around. It burned in 1933 when the Nazis took power, and was more or less unusable until 1964. So I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it the “former home of the Nazis”.

I suppose if I overheard European tourists on a bus in the US gabbing about ugly episodes in American history, I’d turn and look too — it seems kinder to talk about the touchier points of your hosts’ history more privately.

posted by chris on December 27, 2006 #

Hey Aaron,

One thing I’ve noticed in what little travel I’ve done is how inaccurate a first glance can be - especially without a person on the inside as (for lack of a better expression) a guide.

American cities are deceptively similar but after staying a while and talking to people I realize just how different a locality can be from another.

I’d assume even more so with Berlin - a little patience and a little conversation might reveal all kinds of wonders that make you exclaim at how different it is.

posted by David Seruyange on December 27, 2006 #

I’m almost with Cory and Beatrice here… but… David nails it.

Also, smaller towns might turn out to be more vivid than larger cities. They attract the kind of folk who can’t cope with uniform masses, hein?

posted by Tommi on December 27, 2006 #

Comparison USA-Germany http://math-www.uni-paderborn.de/~axel/us-d.html

posted by Dimitar Vesselinov on December 27, 2006 #

Honey, you did NOT visit Berlin. Next time you go, give me a call and I’ll arrange for you to have a proper ‘tour’.

posted by Madge Weinstein on December 27, 2006 #

Hm, methinks you are in town for 23C3? Anyways, calling postwar junk buildings put up in a rush after all the real architects had died “modernist” is cynical at best and deluded at worst.

posted by martin on December 27, 2006 #

Aaron, why don’t you meet your fellow “Wired” writer Momus who’s living in Berlin and always singing praises of how great the city is? I don’t know for sure whether the two of you would have something to talk about but it could be nice.


posted by FrF on December 27, 2006 #

I’m amazed at some of the things you’ve said here and your apparent attitude to travel. Perhaps you’ve come across as more cynical and impolite than you are IRL, but I can’t help feeling that this is verging on a caricature of how we Europeans see American tourists.

Is “they get to keep speaking their quirky little language” really an acceptable sentiment on visiting a foreign country? Was ‘bitte’ and ‘danke’ seriously beyond you? Do you really think that if a German visited New York and noted how many Vietnamese the Americans killed s/he would get a better reception than you did on mentioning the Nazis? And I can’t really believe that you don’t understand how EU integration works, surely even the most moronic guide book would cover these basic issues.

Go take up all these offers to see the ‘real’ Berlin. You’ll be vastly more enlightened for it.

posted by Sarah on December 27, 2006 #

I am sorry to see that you are a soul not sensitive enough to feel the particularities of this fantastic city of millions. As we all know, cultural globalization, and its according cultural homogenization, usually only lies at the surface of things. Did you really get down to talking to some young people? did you visit the art shops, the squat houses, the various cultural scenes? Did you learn about life in Berlin? Of course, as a tourist you may not be able to get to the core of a place I such a short time span. But you gotta open up your mind, and make contact with people. You are allowed to dislike Berlin, that is your very right to have your own taste. But do not do so under the heading “it’s all the same”, because then you are writing more about yourself than about the city. Perhaps you yourself are culturally numbed, no longer able to absorb a place’s particularities and nature? Maybe, from the very start in the airport, you were wearing the wrong glasses? If you are weary of cultural homogenization or so-called “Americanization”, at least make the effort to be an original, individual human being, with his own capabilities to discover a place.

posted by Alissa22 on December 27, 2006 #

Aaron — As some commenters have already noted, this is an unfortunate “first impression” many Americans seem to have when they travel overseas. Americans see familiar signs and then propagate the myth of “Americanization” taking over culture. For the most part, it’s inaccurate. Read “How American Is Globalization” by William Marling to learn more about this myth.

posted by Ben Casnocha on December 27, 2006 #

When you will come to France, please feel free to mail me. I will be more than happy to give you a taste of the differences between one of the european country and the US.

I have given a tour to some american collegues more than once. They never made the mistake of thinking that european countries are so similar to USA… ;-)

posted by François Granger on December 27, 2006 #

The metros of the world aren’t very much different, Aaron—a middle-class-or-above life anywhere is pretty much the same. Granite roads. Office complexes. Malls. And so on.

posted by Firas on December 27, 2006 #

“I realized this was the former home of the Nazis.”

That would be Bavaria, not Berlin.

posted by Keith Gaughan on December 28, 2006 #

To my understanding the graffiti in Berlin is more of a feature than it is a bug.

posted by Alper on December 28, 2006 #

Okay, this is like banging my head up against a wall; I’m not quite sure why I continue to read your blog when it just frustrates me.

But as an American who lived in Germany, I have to bluntly note that YOU are coming across as the (rightfully hated) Ugly American. And — once again — I’m perhaps wrongly surprised. You’re a smart guy. But your entry here suggests a cluelessness, a callousness, and (again) an emptiness that is depressing and regrettable.

Why so superficial? Why can’t you look deeper, Aaron? I would ask if you talked to any people… but a better question would be: did you LISTEN? I mean, really listen? Do you ever? Or do you simply find it less troublesome to assume, to block out, to put a fortress around your mind and soul?

Berlin, like any city, is unique and — in many ways — truly compelling. It’s more than its outward appearance, more than the most infamous aspects of its history.

I’m not saying you have to like it. Many of my German friends — even a couple who LIVE in Berlin — hate the city. But to simply blow it off, to remark on superficial similarities and not to exhibit a sense of wonder, of curiosity… that’s bleak and ridiculous.

I’m guessing you don’t really care… don’t care what others think, don’t really care that YOU are not deeply thinking. It’s easier just to blather out words on a page or a screen. And I should stop caring.

But when I see someone who has the mental (if not emotional) capacity to understand, to appreciate… it makes me sad when that potential is not realized.

Make some friends. Smile. Appreciate. Even if you decide to hate humanity, at least open your heart to individuals and individual moments.

Do it not for some random guy you don’t know from Adam. Do it for yourself. And okay, maybe your readers, too, so we don’t just gnash our teeth reading what we know is beneath you and beneath us.

posted by Adam on December 28, 2006 #

I was about to say you are well on your way to becoming Philip Greenspun 2.0. However, as bad as his travel writing is, it is much more thoughtful than yours.

“Aside from that tiny bit of individuality, cities in America are almost literally indistinguishable, down to the streets and landscaping.”

Are you sure you’ve lived in Illinois, Cambridge, and San Francisco?

posted by alex samoyed on December 29, 2006 #

I can only echo some of the other comments. I’ve often heard that American cities are all alike, but it strikes me as an affectation that stresses the superficial. I’m currently in suburban Detroit, and can’t begin to count the ways it’s different from suburban Boston, even though they both have many of the same stores. Is L.A. anything like San Francisco? Is San Antonio much like Houston, for that matter? I’d similarly caution you not to make generalizations about Europe based on Berlin, since you appear to have had only a glancing experience with the latter.

As for the modernist architecture, it’s also apparent here and there in London, but it’s clear the Luftwaffe was as much to blame for that calamity as postwar architects. So I wouldn’t call it a “taste” as a matter of expediency. Try comparing cities that were leveled with comparable cities that weren’t: instead of Berlin, try Prague or Copenhagen. You can even compare it with Munich, where postwar planners tried their best to mimic the city’s earlier look.

Regarding your encounter on the bus, Aaron, I doubt the odd looks you received had much at all to do with Germans trying to forget their Nazi past. And neither is it simply a matter of etiquette. I try to imagine myself on a New York subway encountering a tourist who was not only unaware of some of the most basic aspects of my city’s history, but willing to announce it as some sort of revelation to all the other passengers. “Wow, so all these theaters around Times Square, they staged musicals at one point?” or “Wall Street — world financial capital — never made the connection.” I would judge this person a complete ignoramus and wonder what on earth brought him here. (I’d also kick his ass and rob him, but that’s besides the point.)

posted by Mike Sierra on December 29, 2006 #

Who said anything about Americanization? I never said that the cultural imperialism was America’s.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 29, 2006 #

Is “they get to keep speaking their quirky little language” really an acceptable sentiment on visiting a foreign country?

I was trying to indicate that I hated this sentiment.

Was ‘bitte’ and ‘danke’ seriously beyond you?

I’ve said both.

Do you really think that if a German visited New York and noted how many Vietnamese the Americans killed s/he would get a better reception than you did on mentioning the Nazis?

Depends on which New Yorkers you asked. Not sure what your point is.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 29, 2006 #

I wasn’t complaining that people were looking at me; I certainly was being stupid.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 29, 2006 #

I was saying Germany was the former home of the Nazis, not Berlin, Bavaria, or the Reichstag.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 29, 2006 #

Then what.

SF was former home of Ohlones or ‘new’ people who expelled and marginalized them in such a short while.

Much of the USA can be mapped as ‘not very tolerant, segregating European origin’ people’s home.’ - and is that ‘former’ or still - is?

Who taught you not to look forward and think of something, but just carelessly write down those lines about past - which - wasn’t, say easy for everyone.

Come back to SF and look at Ohlone’s territorial map in Wikipedia. And look outside of your windows from Wired office and your apts.

It’s been less than 200 years or so.

And please look forward. If you are not doing that why quote past? Who told you it’s meaningful to quote past in such way?

posted by Former Former on December 30, 2006 #

I was saying Germany was the former home of the Nazis, not Berlin, Bavaria, or the Reichstag.

It actually took you awhile to realize that, as you claim in the essay?

posted by staunch buddy on December 31, 2006 #

I can only agree with Adams post. It’s sad that you have such a shallow view on things. Do you really expect to understand the city just by going though a street? Its not the streetsings that make Berlin different - it’s its culture and history (which are quite different from an average US city I suppose). And that one you learn when you talk to people. If you go out one night in Berlin in the “not touristy” places, you’ll notice.

posted by Thomas on January 2, 2007 #

Your comments about Berlin are totally irrelevant. And let me tell you that you don’t give a positive image of the American open-mindedness, and in addition you totally fit to the image that we Europeans have about Americans, i.e total ignorants. I’m back from this city just yesterday, and this was my second trip there. This place is just great for someone who has a little interest for culture and/or intelligence. Before making such a description of a city you don’t know, you’d better get some more information about it. It basically seems that you visited only Tegel airport and Potsdamer Platz, which is not a real broad view of such a big town that Berlin is, is it? I’ve been there during the World Cup and for Xmas and New Year’s Eve and let me tell you that the Berliners rock. They’ve got warm hearts. And as far as the culture and architecture, you’ve not been to far, have you? Have you seen the Wall Memorial? The Holocaust Memorial? Have you seen Hackescher Markt? Have you seen any of the thousand parks this city has? Any Berliner would just call you names if one comes to see your post - which is the case by now, btw. This city is in perpetual movement and evolution, which you don’t seem to have grasped so far…if you’d like to find Imperialism, be it cultural, military, or economic, have a look at your side of the Atlantic.

posted by Totof on January 2, 2007 #

I cannot help but suspect that it’s not so much the lack of being “different” than perhaps a somewhat underdeveloped perception and appreciation of differences that might be the issue here. Granted, in a Western metropolis, an American traveler will not be able to ooh-ahh at odd ways of writing, weird dress or modes of transportation, or any other signs of non-Western living that MacTourists seem to expect to find on their travels. But vast emptiness?

Berlin is not only the former capital of Nazi Germany [*], and as such full of historical sites from those days, it is also (at least in part) the capital of a former COMECON country, and the place where the cold war not so long ended, live and in color, in front of the world and its cameras, and it is not difficult to find all sorts of left-overs from those times, either. Berlin is, in many ways, one of the focal points of modern history, and there aren’t too many of those around. Running around a place like that and complaining about the Dunkin Donuts and T-Mobile shops (which, of course, originated in Germany, so at least for them it should not come as a surprise to find them there), and the “vast emptiness” they presumably signal, seems weirdly incongruous.

Maybe it’s the same effect that you run into when learning a different language—-until you have trained your ear to perceive the different sounds, you won’t be able to hear them, much less speak them. Until you have educated your cultural perception to see the differences, all you see is that the Dunkin Donuts is the same as where you come from.

The real “cultural imperialism” is not the fact that Dunkin Donus opens shops in Europe, or that the Telekom opens shops in the U.S. Today’s cultural imperialism is exemplified by people who travel around the globe only to assess the culture of a place by the brands on the store fronts outside the hotel and airport, and from their tour bus.

— jwj (jwj at acm dot org)

[*]Is it really a big surprise that people might object to having foreigners yack about it in public? What about foreigners talking about slavery in the U.S., or shooting the crap about American foreign policy in public in this country? Would Americans delight in being identified with these things by foreign visitors? It’s like running around Rome whining about Mussolini, or, as an American, speaking about Hiroshima in a Tokyo subway.

posted by jwj on January 9, 2007 #

Because wherever you go, ‘you’ are still there.

posted by punklicht on January 10, 2007 #

Aaron, as someone who has spent a significant amount of time in Berlin, it appears that that you went to Times Square and missed the East Village, Harlem, Chinatown, Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and everything in between. Clearly one can only see limited parts of a city in a limited amount of time (and my impression is that you wrote this post after only having spent one day there), but to merely go to Times Square and purport to make judgments about New York City as a whole is just wrong.

Berlin is one of the most vibrant cities that I have ever been to, and I’ve traveled quite a bit. The cultural vibrancy of Berlin is truly striking, due largely to the cheap rents in the East after German reunification and the artsy, Bohemian crowd that quickly flocked there as a result. During the late 90s, Berlin was like one big construction site. Cranes were everywhere, and everything was under transition. While the cranes are now for the most part gone, Berlin has not lost its quality as a city that moves extremely rapidly, sometimes even too much so. For example, when I traveled there from one year to the next, entire areas of the city had completely changed in appearance, many new spaces had opened up and others closed, and some of my favorite places were gone.

One of the things that always struck me about Berlin, though, was how easy it was to completely miss the “real” Berlin, to visit the city yet not permeate its seemingly rough exterior. Luckily, my experience was somewhat different, due in large part to my penchant for delving deeply into cities, the length of time I spent there (almost a year in total), my German language abilities, and my love for going out and meeting new people. I lived in the East, and barely, if ever made it to the West (with the one major exception of Kreuzberg, particularly the area known as “Little Istanbul” around Kotbusser Tor and the famed punk area called SO 36.) One of the great qualities about many parts of the former East, though, is the lack of commercialization—something that you obviously did not perceive, probably because you did not venture there. While admittedly, things have gotten more commercialized/globalized within the last 10 or so years, including such things as a mall in Prenzlauer Berg and the opening of the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin is still very low on the scale of “Cultural Imperialism” in my mind.

My guess is that you did not make it to many of the places that I did, and while I know you didn’t have nearly as much time, it’s really a shame. Maybe instead of basing your impressions on the Dunkin Donuts and the (yes, German) T-Mobile stores in the touristy areas of the city, you could have explored its vibrant art scene, its notorious underground music scene, its serene parks, its warehouse-rich post-industrial areas, or its “kietz”-oriented squares. If you had, you would have seen a completely different city, what I consider the real Berlin.

If you do ever decide to go back, please do talk to me first.

posted by Elizabeth Stark on January 12, 2007 #

I have given a tour to some american collegues more than once. They never made the mistake of thinking that european countries are so similar to USA… ;-)

posted by skype on January 26, 2007 #

dear Aaron,

I can only express my sympthies for how you’ve been berated based on your Blog. I have spent 11 years in Berlin and have never encountered so much ignorance, defensiveness, and deniability and utter intollerance to other peoples truth as in that city. I dont know how long or how short your stay was but guess would be it isnt for you and thats fine.

I didt even see anything attacking in your blog and cant see what the other people got ther panties up in a bunch for.

And I have lived in every neigborhood and hung out in every scene. Berlin has always been to me sub-mediocre AT BEST!

posted by massimo on February 6, 2007 #

One thing that was left out by all the other (justified) critics who posted comments: the areas which Aaron describes are in the most commercial and touristed part of the city, i.e. Tiergarten and the Mitte, which comprise some 45 out of the 891 sq. km which the city of Berlin covers. Can you really evaluate a city after seeing less than 1/20th of it?

Another thing - T-Punkt has nothing to do with Ashton Kucher. Lol. Punkt means point in German as in, ‘service point’. It’s this sort of Anglocentric interpretation which makes continental Europeans throw their hands in the air…

posted by Alice on June 15, 2011 #

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