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Obama's Berlin Visit | The Nation

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Obama's Berlin Visit

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This is the fifth in a series of reports from Nation correspondents analyzing the impact of Barack Obama's international fact-finding tour.

About the Author

Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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The Germans have a term for the vacation period, with its political non-events: Sommerloch--best translated as the Summer Vacuum. With the principal political players out of Berlin, substitutes emerge to perform, with more eagerness than skill, and quickly return to obscurity. Sometimes even the more experienced politicians rouse themselves to say things mercifully forgotten by fall.

Whatever else Senator Barack Obama did for the Germans, he provided a couple of weeks in which the usual vacuum was filled in unusual ways. First, there was an extended internal debate on where he could, or should, speak. Chancellor Angela Merkel was prodigous with objections to his speaking at Brandenburg Gate. She was offended by the thought that an American presidential candidate would speak at Germany's holy place. I spent four months earlier in the year in Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate has been sanctified by serving as an advertising prop for any number of consumer goods. True, American Presidents have spoken there. The Chancellor, herself already campaigning for re-election next year, ignored the fact that our Presidents are always running for re-election, or helping their preferred succesors.

Her press spokesman was eloquent: no German politician would dream of speaking at America's holy place, the Mall in Washington. The Mall isn't holy at all. It has seen papal masses, gay pride gatherings, rock concerts, rallies for sexual abstinence. Of course, no German politician has spoken there: who would notice? The White House, and not the Mall, is more of a national shrine. Merkel, newly installed as head of her party, was warmly welcomed there to criticise the then-Chancellor's refusal to back the invasion of Iraq. Merkel's office, asked about the possibility that Bush had intervened to make Obama's Berlin visit difficult, was shocked, shocked, at the suggestion.

Eventually, Obama's speech was scheduled for the Victory Column, not far from the gate. Some other politicians promptly declared it inappropriate: it was erected to commemorate Germany's last winning war, in 1870-71, against France. Were Obama to speak there, it would rouse the ghosts of the past. Those ghosts, however, have long since fled. The Victory Column has been the site of the Love Parade--Berlin's Woodstock festival--and of periodic gay rights rallies.

In fact, Obama's visit filled a larger vacuum. The German political system is fragile. Party membership shrinks, electoral participation declines. A potential left majority in Parliament (the Greens, the new Left party and the traditional Social Democrats) is blocked by the Social Democrats' refusal to activate it. They are trapped in a coalition with the Christian Democrats in which each of the partners blocks the other's initiatives. The candidate of the Social Democrats for the Chancellorship, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a professorial public official whose admirable solidity is more evident than his magnetism.

Chancellor Merkel's greatest gift is her refined capacity for evading hard decisions. The younger contenders for eventual leadership, by the time they get to the top, will have lost what little originality they now possess. The nation's politicians are unable to maintain the socially responsible prosperity of the post-war welfare state. Much of the electorate has fled politics--or turned to the xenophobic right.

So the Germans were astonished by the exciting US contest between Senator Hillary Clinton (herself admired in Germany and favored by women) and a young man who has defied convention and seniority. The more they saw, the more they thought of the United States as again the land of possibility. Berlin's response was especially emphatic. Half of the citizenry, after all, had lived under two dictatorships for fifty-six years. The older West Berliners remembered JFK, and Caroline Kennedy's appeal for Obama dominated the newspapers and television the day she made it.

When Obama arrived, then, the ground was well tilled. Hundreds milled outside to greet him at the modern Chancellor's office (termed "The Wash Machine" by the Berliners on account of its cubically square forms). The Chancellor's staff, and Obama's, were sparse with anything but aimiable emptiness when discussing the hour-long visit.

On one point, however, the Chancellor and her rival, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were united. Germany will send more troops to the north of Afghanistan for a peacekeeping and reconstruction mission, but will not send combat forces to fight the Taliban in the south.

The Chancellor neglected to instruct her friend George Bush on what Germany has learned from its history about the limits of military power. This time, it appears, she found that she had a brighter pupil. The two enjoyed one another. Merkel has been around the world and knows political talent when she sees it.

Obama's second visit was with Foreign Minister Steinmeier. One of the diplomats told me that when the Senator entered the inner courtyard of the Foreign Ministry, it was crowded with his colleagues. German diplomats are disciplined. Applauding might have been too overt a sign of partisanship; they let their presence speak. Obama and Steinmeier in their conversation, agreed that a new diplomacy was needed for a new world--one in which the old boundaries between domestic and foreign policies, between economic projects and diplomatic measures were erased. The two former law professors share intellectual curiousity and the capacity to deal with complexity. Their collaboration would be productive.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit is himself a media star and already planning his 2013 campaign for the Chancellorship. He overcame his regret at Obama's not calling on him at Town Hall, and came to the Hotel Adlon with the city's Golden Book of visitors for the Senator to sign.

When Obama arrived in the evening at the Victory Column for his speech, 200,000 people were there---according to one German parliamentarian, about one hundred times what a European political figure would draw. The crowd was exceedingly mixed: young and old, lots of former citizens of the Communist state, plenty of African and Asian immigrants to Germany. It is striking to compare testimony from two ends of the age and political spectrum. Writing in the Washington Post, the intelligent retired US Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum (now working in international finance after a diplomatic career not conspicuous for a principled search for a transformed world) said: "Whatever magic Obama has with youths in the United States seems to translate overseas, at least in Berlin. We had a sense of being part of something new without being able to describe what it was."

Benjamin Hofmann a couple of years ago was editing the student newspaper at the bilingual John F. Kennedy School in Berlin and is now a university student. He said that he and his friends, veterans of demonstrations against visits by Bush, felt that now they would be listened to. Criticisms of the speech as too general struck him as missing the point.

That was the view of German political figures I talked with. We know something, one said, about how hard it is to tear down walls: Obama was right to state his intention of doing so. The rest will have to follow day by day, year by year, decade by decade. He had talked with Obama's advisors. He noted they are still not without imperial hubris. Given the views of their candidate, he was optimistic that in the event of an Obama presidency, the Germans and the other Europeans could repay US efforts in postwar Germany by doing some re-education of their own.

More reports on Obama's tour:

Graham Usher: Obama in Afghanistan--Careful What You Wish For

Patrick Cockburn: Obama in Iraq--The Gift of a Timetable

John Nichols: Obama in Afghanistan--A Wrong Turn

Hillel Schenker: Obama in Israel--One Tough Audience

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