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David W. Ellwood. The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century.

Hans Krabbendam
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Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp 592 ISBN 978-0-19-822879-0.

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1In this grand overview of transatlantic relations, associate professor of International History at Bologna University David Ellwood explains how European nations aspiring to modernity had sooner or later to confront the United States. This was best visible in the periods following the two world wars and the end of the Cold War. Contrary to the first impression that it was America’s military power that changed Europe, Ellwood asserts that it were US cultural examples that captivated European audiences. World War II grounded American cultural dominance in Europe and allowed it to spread its message of political salvation by means of mass propaganda throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. The key witness for this process is American film. The main target group was youth. The final goal was to create and spread prosperity.

2Ellwood brilliantly shows how various European elites turned against American hegemony fearing that the masses would believe that the future was theirs, that they were entitled to more money in their purses. And film fanned these aspirations greatly. Especially, America’s explicit (but never complete) withdrawal from the international political arena in the 1920s and early 1930s created even more room for culture to spread these expectations of achievable prosperity. European countries, esp. the UK and France experimented with rational change and inspired American thinkers and President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR began to emphasize the world’s interdependence. He underscored a contrast of American free enterprise with the economic determinism of dictatorships and consolidated the political ties with the UK to advance economic liberalism in the future. Expanding free trade was the key instrument and he supported international institutions for this goal. These ideas took shape during World War II. American bureaucrats and businessmen envisioned the postwar period as the greatest opportunity to solve global problems by applying American solutions.

3Ellwood emphasizes the fact that American policy makers pushed international/multilateral institutions as the best strategy for improving the world. They did that with missionary zeal, but failed to inform their allies about these plans. The European nations were not keen on stripping their empires to increase economic liberalism and the growing tension between East and West caused the Americans to moderate their ambitions. The Europeans engaged in a postwar debate about renovating their societies and showed mixed feelings about the American assistance. They greatly desired a higher standard of living, but pursued different productivity levels and consumer goals and formulated appealing social-democratic alternatives.

4The processes of incorporation of American ideas differed per country as the different role of the US army in Europe showed. In Italy it had to provide food and got entangled in politics. France quickly resumed political control to resist American culture. The enormous number of soldiers overwhelmed the opportunities for autonomous responses in Austria. Collectively, these experiences convinced Americans that both sides had to adapt. The result of the innovations of the 1950s and 1960s increased the production levels and committed European leaders to consumer capitalism, which undermined traditional hierarchies.

5After the Cold War it seemed that Europe had gained so much economic weight that it could take over the American leadership role, however, it lacked sufficient political unity. In fact the post Wall era resembled the end of World War I in its cultural innovation (Internet, McDonalds). Ironically the US cut back in cultural diplomacy and put its efforts on deregulation to make the labor market more flexible. But private voices of business executives and opinion-makers continued to carry the message. These triggered strong defensive mechanisms all over the continent. This showed that the European nations did not just surrender to America’s mission, but debated what they could use from America and what not, while simultaneously hanging on to expressing their dependence on the US.

6In an epilogue the author assesses the “end of the American Century,” which he underwrites since the crisis revealed the fundamental flaws in the American economic model. He tunes down the high expectations of transnational research to better understand the American position in the world, by resolutely rejecting the argument of equal exchange between Europe and the United States. In the twentieth century the US used its cultural products to project its power on Europe and did it much better than any other nation. In defense of transnational perspectives one may emphasize that in the Progressive Era the American intelligentsia derived many ideas and models from Europe, as Daniel Rodgers, Axel Schäfer and others showed, and that Europeans shopped around in Europe for useful models as well. So even if the United States tipped the transatlantic balance, this was not necessarily true for internal European relations.

7In sum, this is a rich, relevant, and highly readable book that contributes significantly to American studies. Particularly helpful are the links between mass propaganda, bringing a general message of salvation, mixed with rationalization, and leading to the emergence of a youth culture. Initially, my only regret was that the author does not explicitly connect these developments with religion: since all these factors are voiced in religious terms and find parallels in protestant missions. The religious aspect of Americanization helps to strengthen Ellwood’s argument, and introduces a number of nuances by showing internal opposition in the US and the fate of alternative scenarios, by following the effects of these actions in Europe, and the balance of transatlantic exchanges.

8Although religion is no separate category in his predominantly cultural book, it fits seamlessly in this narrative. For example, the YMCA, the Moral Rearmament Movement, Billy Graham, and the World Council of Churches--to name a few transatlantic religious connections--were all part of the process of creating international institutions that the Americans believed in. Even church leaders who resisted these constructions had to shape competing models mimicking them. These international constructions involved Europeans in the struggle to accept or alter modernization as exemplified by America and broke many national monopolies.

9The book concludes with an important critical insight in the dark side of the triumph of consumerism. The west missed a moral code necessary to deal with the inevitable disappointments of unfulfilled desires and/or decline. This observation is an extra reason to encourage the inclusion of religion in this analysis. American missionaries actively spread religious messages along with consumerism. The key example was evangelist Billy Graham, who helped to connect traditional Protestantism with the anxieties of modernity. His mass events captured the imagination, but he was not the only one. Thousands of American missionaries in Europe in all guises and variations, including new religious movements, televangelists, and self-help gurus, confronted Europeans with examples of American cultural power. The story of this growing exposure to American religiosity (often placed vis-à-vis European secularity) engages the reader in balancing consumerist aspirations and moral codes. This is not so much a verdict about missing elements in Ellwood’s book, as evidence for the fruitful application of the insights of his important book to other fields of inquiry.

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Electronic reference

Hans Krabbendam, « David W. Ellwood. The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century. », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2013-2, document 11, Online since 27 September 2013, connection on 23 July 2018. URL :

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Creative Commons License

This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Generic

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