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The Cold War fought out in German lecture rooms

American and Soviet cultural imperialism failed
18 May 2011

German lecture rooms were an ideological battleground during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers attempted to thrust their ideology on the German intelligentsia between 1945 and 1990 via the West and East German universities respectively. The attempt was only partially successful, as German professors on both sides of the Iron Curtain – the East Germans too – managed to maintain a certain degree of independence. The students also refused to swallow Western and communist doctrine. Natalia Tsvetkova, who studied the influence of Russia and the United States on German universities using material from recently opened archives, arrived at this conclusion. She will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 19 May 2011.

Directly after the Second World War ended, the US and the USSR, who both occupied parts of Germany, began to institute reforms at the universities in their respective occupied zones. This was much more far-reaching than simply purging national-socialist elements. Rectors were replaced, statutes rewritten, curricula for every degree programme modified by introducing new disciplines such as political sciences, new academic institutes were established and university library collections thoroughly adapted. The aim was to instil the German population with the respective doctrines, in other words it was cultural imperialism. Germany was thus to become focal point of the ideological struggle between East and West.

Educational traditions

The American meddling continued unabated after the Federal Republic of Germany became independent in 1955. During the student unrest in West Berlin in 1969, Washington forced the West German government to introduce a new reform package at its universities, which had been designed by American experts.
Nevertheless, the cultural imperialism failed to make a mark on the German academic world, according to Tsvetkova, as the German professorate tended to sabotage the intended changes out of love for German educational traditions. Of course this was done somewhat less ostensively in East Germany than in West Germany, but it was every bit as effective. The same held for the students who openly opposed the ideology they were being force-fed.

Cultural offensive

Both superpowers also peered across the Iron Curtain. The United States attempted to recruit followers with a cultural offensive at the East German universities. Surprisingly, the professors were much less sympathetic to their cause than the intellectual dissidents to be found in the East Bloc country. The academic staff was highly enamoured of the values of the traditional German universities, such as academic freedom, being at a great remove from politics, rejection of imposed ideologies and tenured staff wielding a lot of influence.
This ultimately would mean that when the Cold War ended, the German universities were not so much Western or communist in outlook, but had managed to retain German academic tradition. Cultural imperialism on both sides of the divide had fruitlessly battered the conservative shores of German educational traditions.


Her research raises the question whether there’s any point in attempting to introduce a certain ideology in a country via cultural pressure, Tsvetkova says. ‘This case casts doubt on the efficiency of cultural pressure, dominance, imperialism and ‘soft power’ as a form of cultural interference.’ She refers, for example, to attempts by the West to influence the Arab world culturally, China and Russia’s international propaganda and the way that Europe endeavours to ‘educate’ African countries. ‘Localism, traditionalism, and conservatism are hardly revised by means of cultural interference.’

Curriculum Vitae

Natalia Tsvetkova (Russia, 1973) studied history in St Petersburg and conducted her PhD research as participant in the University PhD Fellowship programme at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. She is Associate Professor at the School of International Relations of the State University of Saint-Petersburg in Russia. She was supervised by Prof. J.J.H. Dekker, and her thesis is entitled ‘Transforming German universities during the Cold War: the failure of American and Soviet cultural imperialism’.

Note for the press

For more information about this research, Natalia Tsvetkova, e-mail: tnatalia


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.54 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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