Case study 4: American journeys

During the 1930s Colin Ross and his family journeyed twice in the United States. The first sojourn, bookended by extensive traveling in Canada and in Mexico and Central America, took place between the late summer of 1933 and the late spring of 1935. The second lasted from October 1938 through March 1939. Ross’s focus on the US shows that these journeys were more programmatic than his earlier travels. Amid the economic and political upheavals of the decade the country lent itself, in Ross’s view, to a case study for an ideological paradigm shift.

Ross wrote no less than five books occasioned by the first of these journeys. Two titles, both conventional travel books about Canada and the Arctic, had already appeared before he returned to Germany—like most of his books they collected reports and articles he had written en route as a correpondent for newspapers and magazines.1 After his return he finished three more books, two of which were exclusively about the United States.

First, in 1935, he published Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. The book marked a change in Ross’s travel writing. Commonly his travelogues consisted of geographically and/or chronologically ordered chapters, prologued by a more generally topical, essayistic text. And although his topical comments didn’t stop there, the majority of individual chapters reported travel experiences. Seemingly shaped as an itinerary, Amerikas Schicksalsstunde’s stopping-places, however, are rather occasions to discuss wider political, economic, and/or socio-cultural themes. Argument prevails over travel. And Ross’s argument is, briefly, that the measures taken by the federal government to contend with the Great Depression created a window of opportunity for America to align itself with other ‘modern’ forms of governance, notably Nazi Germany’s. Nevertheless, Ross was realist enough to understand that this would entail a complete overhaul of America’s politics, economy, and mythology.

Ross, never one to shy away from big words and great ambitions, may well have intended his next book, Unser Amerika. Der deutsche Anteil an den Vereinigten Staaten (1936), to lay the groundwork for this overhaul. It is a popular history in which he claims to rectify the standard, or “Anglo-Saxon”, histories of America, histories that, in his view, shortchanged the crucial contributions of German immigrants throughout the country’s history. Going beyond history, at the end of the book Ross also sketches the significance of German Americans in leading America into a new, Nazi-inspired future.

What is clear in these two books2 is that Ross’s comments and arguments had become increasingly indistinguishable from propaganda. And this reflected that America, for him, was not just any country. In the 1930s it represented a world power coming apart at the seams: its entry into World War I, as he argued repeatedly, had already shown that it wasn’t able to weld its population into one people (after America’s declaration of war on Germany, in April 1917, German American citizens immediately became aliens by law). But its ideology of democracy, freedom, and equality had failed more generally, pace Ross, because in its zeal to spread these notions to the rest of the world, ever since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine up to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concepts of Pan-Americanism and the Western Hemisphere, those countries at the receiving end of such blessings were not given much freedom of choice. Besides these international aspects, Ross also looked at the fig leaves of this ideology in the country itself, seeking out its weaknesses, such as its rampant poverty or its racial discrimination. One might venture that Ross’s American books were in a sense self-initiated intelligence reports in preparation for a future threat, if not confrontation. This would become even clearer in the book he published after the second American journey.

This account was published in 1942 as Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ als Programm und Phantom des amerikanischen Imperialismus. A thematically arranged book, it was even more argumentative, with only the merest smattering of travel experiences. But in contrast to Amerikas Schicksalsstunde it strikes a critical, even antagonistic tone and casts the US, personified by its President, in the role of aggressor and contender, its flawed and failed ideology notwithstanding, for global hegemony to save the world from its villain—in Ross’s term: scapegoat—,3 Nazi Germany. Indeed, in the last section of the book Ross reproduced no less than 14 articles written between 1934 and 1940 to prove that he had been right that Roosevelt, ever since his election, wanted to wage war on Germany, using the persecution of its Jewish population and its occupations of Austria, Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia as pretexts to sell this war to the American people. He writes, in fact, that back in 1934 he even interrupted his (first) American journey and briefly returned to Germany, where he managed to get an audience with Hitler to discuss his viewpoint. The latter was unimpressed. Here, as so often, Ross missed his big moment, as the Nazi brass at that time didn’t acknowledge the importance of the US on the world stage nor its increasing preparedness to shed its isolationist stance.

During most of his major journeys Ross had also made films for commercial distribution, while excerpts were cut for non-theatrical screenings to enliven his lecture tours. But of his American trips in the 1930s there is only moving image material of the second journey, although it was never released or used otherwise. This footage has only little overlap with Ross’s written work of the time, but one can safely link it to his preoccupation with the effects of the Depression and the federal government’s countermeasures. After all, the Depression, which by the time he was filming had lasted a decade, continued to keep America in its grip. In fact, after another stock market crash, in mid-1937, the country had relapsed into a recession the repercussions of which were felt throughout 1938 and raised the number of unemployed with millions again. So, Ross could almost cherry-pick the concrete manifestations of the country’s failures. Small wonder, then, that besides the odd accomplishment of the New Deal (e.g. Boulder Dam), a significant portion of the footage shows the deplorable living conditions of Native - and African Americans in particular, as well as impoverished sharecroppers or Caucasian city dwellers selling apples, shining shoes or spending their days on public benches.

Ross’s reflections on 1930s America transformed his travelogues into propaganda and geopolitical argument. Despite their uneven quality, this accomplishment—along with his long-lasting and prominent presence in a number of cultural industries—constitutes one reason why Ross’s work is eligible for renewed evaluation. However, his enthusiastic embracement of Nazism, his reliance on irrational, supernatural ‘evidence’, the self-contradictions, and the lack of full information require a solid cushion of contextualization, annotation, and critical comment.

Nico de Klerk

1 Colin Ross. Zwischen U.S.A. und dem Pol. Durch Kanada, Neufundland, Labrador und die Arktis. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1934; Colin Ross. Mit Kind und Kegel in die Arktis. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1934. For both, see Library.

2 The third book dealt exclusively with Mexico and Central America: Colin Ross. Der Balkan Amerikas. Mit Kind und Kegel durch Mexiko zum Panamakanal. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1937. See Library.

3 Colin Ross. Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ als Programm und Phantom des amerikanischen Imperialismus. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942; 166.

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