Obama in Berlin

By William Urban

Having spent much time in Germany over the past forty-four years, I am not surprised at Berliners’ enthusiasm for Barack Obama. He used the right buzz-words (multi-lateral proposals, no torture, a fellow citizen of the world, more alternative energy, a world free of atomic weapons, and Save the Planet). The crowd, warmed up by rock bands and food, enjoying a beautiful sunny day, responded loudly; it was quieter when he called for action in Afghanistan and warned that something had to be done about Iran, Iraq, Burma and Darfur, but the shouting revived during his preacher-like cadences about tearing down the walls that separate rich and poor, etc. There is much history that lies behind these responses.

In the years following the Berlin Airlift, Berliners were very pro-American. Over time, however, because there was no military conscription in West Berlin, the migration of West German draft evaders reinforced the city’s traditional leftist political orientation. Germans as a whole see Obama as a European in programs and outlook, but especially Berliners.

This not the first time Berliners have responded well to charismatic speakers. There was, of course, that Austrian chap, but he was never a local favorite. More to the point John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who, awkwardly, had short-term goals connected to combating aggressive Communism. In contrast, Barack Obama promises a world as it should be: "This is the moment to give our children back their future…This is the moment to stand as one." "This is our time." "Let us remember this history, and answer our destiny."

This was a more ringing declaration than Jackie and I heard in 1990 when President H. W. Bush spoke at the ceremony officially opening Checkpoint Charlie. Germans didn’t mind. They were in a good mood. Communism was dead, the wall was being collected for souvenirs (I had gotten a few pieces myself a few weeks earlier), and East Germans were enjoying the first bananas since 1939 and the luxuries goods (like tasty toothpaste and stylish clothing) that they had seen principally on television ads and worn by the occasional visitor (most of whom, like us in our trips across the wall, were confined to East Berlin). It was a celebration, not a moment for new challenges.

The enthusiasm we found in East Germans for America was a pleasant contrast to the changing situation in West Germany. A few years before, when we were living in Marburg/Lahn for half a year, the local university was closed by a student strike protesting American aggression against Nicaragua. Though radicals could not win elections, they were becoming a powerful force, advocating policies that were increasingly anti-capitalist and anti-American.

Obama’s visit was an opportunity for the radicals to relive those years. Just as today the Democratic Party about to select the most leftist candidate it has ever nominated, the German people have made a course correction to the right. Therefore, the American influence that is so frequently denounced as hegemonic and evil might actually become the means of reasserting left-wing politics at home.

It is unlikely that Obama will be particularly interested in German problems. Since they already have national health care and subsidize everything in sight, he shares with them most importantly a desire to stay as far away from problems as possible. That is, send someone to talk, and talk. As far as talking goes, Senator Obama wants all Americans to learn Spanish, not German. His interests, like his experience, are American. As soon as Obama descended from the platform, he answered questions only from forty selected journalists, all Americans traveling with him. As the leading German news magazine, Der Spiegel, commented, "Sorry Berlin."

This is hardly a surprise. While the trip was largely informational — to meet world leaders and to have them meet the little-traveled junior senator from Illinois — his Democratic party handlers were very aware that Germans do not vote. Americans do. So much for Obama the European. To the extent that is true, we will only know after the inauguration. First there is an election.

Review Atlas (July 31, 2008)