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Obama in Berlin: Still an American Abroad

ELECTION 2008

Barack Obama in Berlin.

U.S. Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama speaking from the podium during his July 24 speech in Berlin. Image: EPA

Before Barack Obama's whistlestops in Europe and the Middle East, some Americans fretted he would come home looking too "elite" and foreign. At least the 200,000-strong crowd at Berlin's Siegessaule, or Victory Column, suggested he had a lot of new friends in Old Europe. "An American could be forgiven for thinking Germany was the 51st state in the Union," wrote Time magazine, the day before his speech.

But that was just how the scene played out from a distance on July 24. In the crowd, Germans were far from uncritical fans. A lot of them, in fact, thought the speech was all too American.

"I think this whole event is a little exaggerated," said Rieke Ehlers, a 21-year-old activist from the World Wildlife Fund, who was dressed as a polar bear to hand out fliers and merchandise about climate change. "German politicians exaggerated it by arguing so much about the location."

"I think this whole event is a little exaggerated," said Rieke Ehlers, a 21-year-old activist from the World Wildlife Fund. "German politicians exaggerated it by arguing so much about the location."

Ehlers was referring to the squabble with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who rebuffed the idea of an Obama speech farther down the road at the Brandenburg Gate. Ronald Reagan spoke there memorably in 1987, as did Bill Clinton less memorably in 1994. (John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech in West Berlin's Rudolph Wilde Platz.)

But there is nothing holy about the Brandenburg Gate, where rock concerts and street festivals are regularly held. Simply put, the grand boulevard between the gate and the Victory Column is a good place to put a lot of people.

That's exactly what bothered Ehlers.

"A German politician would never put on an event so big," she said.

A student from Belgium named Frederic Druart said he liked Obama but doubted he would get far in Europe with his high-flown speeches. "Because Europe is more practical," he said.

Ingeborg Kuessner, a 62-year-old teacher from Berlin, waited in front of the Victory Column and said, "It's not the size of the crowd but the quality of the politician." She wasn't sure about Obama yet. "He has nice ideas. The only question is whether he can push them through. He has something fresh, something lively. But I would have voted for Hillary Clinton, too."

Man holding

Obama fan, Dirk Mirow, carries a sign showing his support. The message reads "Obama for Chancellor."

Germans, of course, are not voting in this election, but that didn't stop Dirk Mirow from walking around with a big sign reading, "Obama for Kanzler" (Obama for Chancellor).

"Obama stands for a new kind of politics," said Mirow. "This is just what Germany needs right now."

But would Obama really stand a chance -- as a black man -- in a German election?

"I think Germans are more open than people think," countered Mirow. "Remember, we just voted for a female chancellor. You Americans still haven't voted for a female president."

Mirow was upset that some media outlets had predicted "a million people" on the Strasse des 17. Juni. The boulevard between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column has filled with a million people for previous events, like the Love Parade, an annual techno-music festival, but not for a political rally. "That just doesn't happen in Germany," said Mirow. "And now if 50,000 show up, which would already be quite good, people will ask what happened to the million people."

The young senator flattered the crowd with ideas he knew they would like. He gave them an all-American political show, full of world-saving optimism.

The atmosphere on the evening of Obama's speech was relaxed and peaceful; the event felt like a big county fair. People who lacked the patience to file through metal detectors and stand on the roundabout circling the Victory Column stayed on the main boulevard and watched Obama on public screens overhead.

The young senator flattered the crowd with ideas he knew they would like. From a small podium under the Victory Column he gave them an all-American political show, full of world-saving optimism. "This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons," he said to the anti-nuclear Germans, and the Germans cheered.

"Let us resolve that all nations, including my own, will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere," he said to the climate-minded Germans, and the Germans again cheered.

Crowd in front of Victory Column, Berlin.

Approximately 200,000 people gathered in Berlin to hear Obama speak.

The Germans weren't slavish, though -- they were irreverent as well as warm. They openly laughed at Obama's pronunciation when he flubbed the name of Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit. But when Obama challenged them on the problem of troops in Afghanistan, they were polite.

"This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan," he said, "and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets...I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO's first mission beyond Europe's borders is a success."

People cheered, despite the fact that the majority of Germans, 85 percent in some polls this year, oppose sending soldiers to dangerous regions of Afghanistan. The postwar German distaste for battle is still strong. Most people I talked to worried about the Afghanistan issue. Another activist, canvassing the crowd with a petition, said the military demand made him skeptical. It underlined the fact that Obama was, after all, the candidate of an established political party -- "just like Bill Clinton."

People cheered, despite the fact that the majority of Germans, 85 percent in some polls this year, oppose sending soldiers to dangerous regions of Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the audience in Berlin was just a welcoming committee. It was large but full of skeptical Germans. They cheered for a man who was "Not George Bush," and they cheered for the first viable black candidate for president of the United States. They cheered because Europeans rarely see political spectacles on an American scale, unless an American comes to town.

Michael Scott Moore is an editor at Spiegel Online in Berlin and the author of a novel, Too Much of Nothing. He's written about Europe in various capacities for The Atlantic Monthly and The Los Angeles Times, and he keeps a blog at radiofreemike.com.

More Election 2008 Dispatches

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Reporter Nguyen Qui Duc meets the man who says he rescued John McCain from a Hanoi lake more than 40 years ago. What does he feel about the incident now? And how do other Vietnamese view the war hero who could be the next president?

Obama: The Kenyan Connection
Kenyan journalist and commentator Edwin Okong'o writes about his country's claims to the Illinois senator and the sometimes fraught relationship between African immigrants and African-Americans in the U.S.

The View From London: "Anyone But Bush!"
"U.S. presidential races are something of a mystery to most British voters," writes Pete May from London. "Here a primary is a school for kids under 11 and McCain is a type of oven chip..."

REACTIONS

LaBrittany Trone - Birmingham, Alabama
I feel as if we finally have a president that will represent this country the way it should be, and I'm not saying that Bush was not a good president. I am a bi-racial female (17 years of age) and I currently speak for the kids of my generation that are not allowed to vote and I won't turn 18 until November 24, but I am grateful for those who did get to vote and/or voice their opinions.