BERLIN – Last July, a German friend who had studied at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — but whose admiration for America had fallen drastically over the last eight years — stood in the sweltering heat for six hours, in the midst of 200,000 people, waiting for a glimpse of the future.
At the Siegesaüler, or Victory Monument, in Berlin, a marble column raised to celebrate Prussian military strength in the mid-19th century, she listened to a skinny American presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, lay out his vision for a new, “interconnected” global order in the 21st Century.
“He was so young, and such a good speaker,” the friend told me, when we met at a New Year’s Eve party last week in Kreuzberg, a gentrifying corner of Berlin that once abutted the Wall, and talked about Obama’s imminent inauguration. “I listened to him speak—I hung on every word- and all I was thinking was, ‘God, after Bush, there’s hope for America again.”
The intense optimism, this renewed faith, that Obama inspired in my German friend harkened back to other American leaders, in other generations, who had visited Berlin and shared their vision of America’s role in a dangerous world.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd in front of the Rathaus Steiglitz and delivered his “ich bin ein Berliner speech”, a soaring celebration of democracy- and a ringing condemnation of Communism - at a time when the newly erected Berlin Wall sliced through the city and the “free world” seemed menaced by an expansionist Soviet Union.
“There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin,” Kennedy declared. “And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.”
Twenty-four years later, Ronald Reagan, the archetypal Cold Warrior, stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Wall, delivered his memorable challenge to the Soviet Union’s new Premier.
“Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar,” Reagan declared. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Obama himself, in a deliberate evocation of those who had come before him, aimed for similar rhetorical crescendos.
“People of the world, look at Berlin!” he artfully proclaimed, conjuring up a city, “where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”
He then spoke of “new walls. . . The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”
Nearly six months after the Berlin speech, and two months after his victory in the U.S. Presidential election, Obama doesn’t dominate conversations here as much as he once did. Germans are plugging back into their own domestic concerns: There is great fear that the recession, now nowhere near as painful as that in the United States, will deepen as Germany’s export-driven economy confronts a sharp drop-off in demand.
The country will hold elections for the Bundestag, the German parliament, this year; Chancellor Angela Merkel, who presides over a shaky “grand coalition”, faces a challenge from the Social Democratic Party leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and one of Germany’s most popular politicians.
“When Obama won in November, it was all anybody talked about,” I was told by the host of the New Year’s party, a journalist who recently moved to Berlin from the southwestern German town of Kastel. She remembered the menu chalk boards in Kreuzberg restaurants that, the day after the U.S. Presidential election, replaced the Tageskarte (daily menu) with “Congratulations America” and other exuberant messages. “But people are now directed inward- we simply don’t know how bad our own economic pain is going to be.”
Moreover, there is also a sense that the ability of any U.S. President –even as magnetic a figure as Obama-to shape events has diminished sharply over the decades.
At the time of Kennedy’s and Reagan’s visits, the American presidency was an unparalleled symbol of democracy and freedom in a world filled with danger. Many West Germans- living directly in the shadow of the “evil empire”- felt that threat in tangible terms, in the ugly concrete and barbed wire barrier that slashed through the heart of their capital. Today, that bipolar reality is gone, replaced by a fractious world in which the U.S. has far less influence and whose threats- Islamic terror, global warming, high-risk financial instruments - are more insidious. The cri de coeur that Obama sounded in July, despite its reach for gravitas, bore a diminished potency compared to the speeches of his predecessors.
Even so, the excitement and sense of possibility that Obama stirred in people like my friend remain strong. Obama’s inauguration - if my random sampling of opinion in the cafés of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, where I live, and in Kreuzberg, are any indication- will be a cause for celebration in Germany. Fatigue with and, indeed, loathing for George W. Bush are so intense that most Germans simply cannot wait to see the last of him. Bush is widely viewed here as an un-amiable dunce, a swaggering caricature of the worst of America- arrogance, provincialism, self-absorption, and a simplistic world view. Obama, by contrast, is seen as figure with the rhetorical skill, the youth, and the charisma, of Kennedy, wrapped up in the contemporary guise of a man who transcends both race and national borders.
“At last, we have somebody with a more European sensibility, somebody to whom we Germans can relate,” said my JFK-graduate friend who, like many other Germans I spoke to, plans to watch Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on television.
“You cannot imagine the sense of relief.” Obama is hardly seen as a savior –the way Kennedy was nearly fifty years ago. But the vision of global interconnectedness he offered on that July afternoon was a nuanced expression of both America’s limitations and its possibilities - and one reason that Germans find him so appealing.