Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama ante portas

Barack Obama's scheduled appearance in Berlin later today got me thinking about the history of Berliners as audiences for and commentators on Americans, American culture and American politics.

Berliners have a special feeling for America and Americans that can be explained only by going back to 1948-1949, the year of the “Luftbrücke” or “air bridge.” After the Soviet Union cut off supplies to West Berlin in an attempt to force the city to become part of the Eastern Bloc, the American government flew in a steady stream of food on airplanes affectionately referred to by locals as “raisin bombers.” The Airlift lives on in the hearts and minds of Berliners. So does John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, held at the Schöneberg district town hall to reiterate America’s support for a democratic West Germany after the construction of the Berlin wall. A few days after September 11, the broad steps leading up to this very building had vanished beneath a sea of flowers—not wreaths deposited symbolically by some government agency, but many thousands of small individual bouquets brought by neighbors who wished to express their sorrow over the tragedy that had befallen their American friends.

The Berliners love us like brothers and sisters: They not only wish for us to prosper and flourish but feel pained by our flaws. Germany has its own problems with racial violence and xenophobia, not to mention the legacy of murderous anti-Semitism that is a source of trauma and grief for most Germans today. But Berliners are simply shocked at the existence of racism in America, particularly given their positive experience of the American military as a multi-racial institution in the years following WWII. African-American soldiers liberated concentration camps and were among the “friendly” occupiers of West Berlin, a far cry from the grim military presence in the city’s Soviet sector.

This sisterly-brotherly love was very much in evidence before the Brandenburg Gate on September 14, 2001, when 200,000 Berliners gathered to express their support for the United States in its hour of need. The Gate itself and the stage mounted before it were draped in banners printed with condolences and reaffirmations of Gerhard Schröder’s initial response to the catastrophe: a promise of “unconditional solidarity.” But now—as the first drumbeats of war were being sounded in Washington three days after 9/11—the message was augmented by a second one, a call for “Besonnenheit” or sober-minded reflection. This word, spoken by German Federal President Johannes Rau, was echoed by hundreds of hand-made signs held aloft by Berliners wishing to convey a more complex message: America, our hearts bleed for you, but please don’t go to war!

The Berliners I know see in Barack Obama’s dramatic success as a presidential candidate a hopeful sign that our country is turning over a new leaf, even at a moment that finds us embroiled in what most Germans are quick to condemn as a tragically misguided military intervention in Iraq. Finally, we seem on the point of choosing something that will make our brothers and sisters in Berlin proud of us: an American presidential candidate who stands for an end to militarism and racial injustice.

By choosing to speak not just to German politicians but to the people of Berlin, Obama is wisely tapping into a deep current of German-American goodwill and fellow-feeling: the same sort of grassroots appeal that has served him so well on American soil.

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