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