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Belinda Cooper: Obama in Berlin

Belinda CooperBERLIN, GERMANY—Barack Obama has come and gone, but excitement remains, along with sober analysis. Obama was again on the front of every newspaper the day after his appearance, and most of the coverage and photos were flattering. (In a recent New York Times op-ed, Susan Neiman refers to Spiegel Magazine’s sardonic cover, but Spiegel is always sardonic and condescending, about everyone; it’s hardly representative.)German newspapers in Berlin. The day of the speech, people were already making their way to the Siegessäule hours before Obama was scheduled to take the stage. The crowd was international and ethnically mixed, and largely young. The mood was not so much passionate as curious. One longtime American resident of Berlin called it an anti-Bush demonstration of a sort (though with many people waving American flags) I asked an Eritrean friend I met on the way, who’s lived in Berlin for years and is now a German citizen, what people were saying about Obama. He told me everyone likes him, but they don’t believe Americans will actually elect him. That is, indeed, a concern; many people have asked me whether I really think he has a chance. Obama’s speech touched on many of the points Germans, especially younger people, are most interested in, but he also alluded to some issues they are not excited about. Back where I was standing, there was little applause for his call for more German troops in Afghanistan or his praise for NATO. To me, his rhetoric about the Cold War and the airlift came across as clichéd and somewhat condescending, but not everyone saw it that way; the airlift still means something to Berliners, particularly older ones. He received a great deal of applause when he spoke of Darfur, several times, and Zimbabwe; of ending the Iraq war and eliminating nuclear weapons; of climate and the environment; and of breaking down barriers between races and religions. Still, Obama’s rhetoric is American, for example in its tendency towards what one commentator called “light and darkness metaphors,” and sounds strange to German ears. One young woman I spoke to afterwards found the speech superficial (“bullshit” was one of her adjectives). And others have made the same arguments as Roger Cohen in the New York Times—that it was abstract and feel-good. The staging of an American campaign is equally alien. In a poll by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the day of his appearance, a majority of respondents nationally felt either that too much fuss was being made, that Obama was using Berlin for his campaign, or that European expectations of him were too high. Most people seemed quite aware that the speech was, in fact, aimed more at the U.S. then at Germany. But many commentators, as well as listeners, found substance in the speech nevertheless. Obama’s admission that the U.S. has made mistakes, for example, and his acknowledgment that many Europeans see the U.S. as a cause of the world’s problems, meant a great deal.

Belinda Cooper: Letter from Berlin

Belinda CooperBarack Obama will speak to an anticipated crowd of 100,000 people in Berlin tonight, and the city is brimming with anticipation. Pretty much every newspaper and magazine has featured him on its cover or front page. A few weeks ago, the story was where he would speak. At the Brandenburg Gate? Angela Merkel (Christian Democrat) opposed a foreign politician making a campaign speech at such a historic site; her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social Democrat) didn’t see the problem; and Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit (Social Democrat), seemed to be looking forward from the start to a photo op with Obama anywhere in the city. But the Obama campaign, loath to create friction, decided on a different location: the Siegessäule or Victory Column. Not that the Siegessäule doesn’t have its own issues: as many have pointed out, it’s a monument to Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France, and the Nazis liked it too; they even made it taller. Berlin’s like that, though—there’s hardly a spot in the city without some problematic history, be it Prussian, Nazi or Communist. It’s sometimes hard to remember, with surveys showing a majority of Germans opposing Bundeswehr participation in Afghanistan, but Germans weren’t always pacifists...

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