Obama in Berlin: A Serious German Press Review

It’s all a bit bizarre: Here at EuroSavant we consider the Economist’s on-site blog Certain Ideas of Europe to be something of a watered-down competitor, in that its (anonymous) writers evidently command a few European languages themselves and take advantage of that often to remark upon noteworthy articles in the European press (really only the French and the German). Yet in its own day-after Obama-Berlin coverage, what else does Certain Ideas of Europe choose to highlight out of reaction to Obama’s Berlin speech from the German Fourth Estate than a breathless piece from the Bild Zeitung (Britons: think The Sun; Americans: maybe The New York Post but – as we’ll see – with a bit greater tolerance for female nudity.) The blog entry is entitled Obama and the ‘BILD girl’. Wow – 27-year-old Bild reporter Judith Bonesky (stifle the puns!) finds herself together in the gym of the Ritz Carlton hotel with HIM! Oh, he’s much taller than she had expected! They exchange some “How are you?”s! Then he goes and starts hefting some impressively-big weights, in such a manly fashion, without breaking a sweat! Naturally, when it’s time for him to go (he’s got a speech to deliver), she grabs her chance for a smugshot with the candidate.

In all, it’s an enormous ball of fluff, the groupie-tone of which you can appreciate by just taking a look at the accompanying video: maybe you won’t be able to understand the German, but that doesn’t matter so much, as you can rest assured that what is being expressed is the usual stuff of “He was an amazing man to meet!” and “I still think it was only a dream!” It’s obvious that the Economist’s linguistic and analytical talents would better have been employed addressing reaction to Obama’s Berlin visit and his speech coming from an actual representative of the serious German press – could it be that the Bild story was irresistible because it allowed a follow-on mention (check it out, it’s also right there in the Certain Ideas of Europe piece) of Obama’s picture right there on the Bild’s front cover above the topless-girl-of-the-day? Obama smiling and waving just above the fold; topless Claudia on her knees and looking towards the camera seductively just below the fold; the New Republic’s weblog The Plank thoughtfully reproduces that front page shot here. (To be fair, this is of course hardly the only piece the Bild Zeitung delivers about Obama’s visit. Then again: it’s only the Bild Zeitung, whose very name means “Picture Newspaper,” thereby making clear where its editorial priorities lie.)

Obama groupie-love, topless model: how very . . . remarkable! (*Sniff*) But never mind, beloved EuroSavant audience, let’s go make that ramble through (some of) the serious German press that, for whatever reason, our MSM colleagues at the Economist eschewed.

Stuck in Berlin’s “Front-Line Myth”

At the Siegessäule

At the Siegessäule

At the peak of the serious German press – actually a weekly newspaper with a higher degree of commentary in its pieces than sheer reporting, along the lines of the Economist itself – is Die Zeit, so let’s start with Yes, we can hope! (title in English), by Christoph Seils. “The party is over, the Superstar has left,” he begins. Now it is the time for a level-headed assessment of what this was really all about. Yes, he is an impressive speaker, who calmly delivered a quite capable speech in front of more than 200,000 cheering onlookers. Then again, in that speech he clung to what Seils calls “the front-line myth” that Americans seem to continue to hold about Berlin, but which is not true anymore at all. Berlin is not anymore any focal-point of ideological confrontation and by no means recognizes itself as such; rather, it’s the city of the Love Parade, for Heaven’s sake, which used to wind its crazy, techno-dancing way past the very Siegessäule before which Obama spoke! (Granted, the Love Parade now has started to be held elsewhere, after Berlin started to tire of dealing with the yearly hordes of people and their trash: for 2008 it just occurred last Saturday, 19 July, in the western German city of Dortmund.)

As you would expect, Seils does get past the hype to treat the unavoidable fact that, for all the greater cooperation and listening that an Obama administration will offer Europe, it also will demand more of its European allies and will be, with its wide smile, its seeming reasonableness, and thus its marked contrast to the widely-detested Bush regime, much harder to refuse. From the very structure of and statements eminating from this overseas trip, it is crystal-clear that at the top of that list of demands from our NATO allies will be a greater devotion of men and resources to Afghanistan to match what President Obama will be ready to commit. Seils’ article excels in that it depicts the problem that will cause rather starkly: involvement in Afghanistan – any involvement in all, much less the troops and money that are already going there – is widely unpopular in Germany. The meme of “why are we there in the first place?” is ever-present in public discussion. Still, again, that smiling President Obama will want even more. If only those predominantly youngsters clapping and cheering in front of the Senator’s speaker’s podium yesterday evening could realize that – they might change their tune!

He also reminds them – reminds all his readers – that, for all their rapture, it is not they or any Germans who will decide whether Barack Obama becomes the next US president, but rather American voters. And that race still seems very close.

Not to Gerhard Spörl of Der Spiegel, it seems, whose contribution to the post-Berlin analysis is No. 44 Has Spoken. Yeah, this one is pretty hagiographic – somewhat better than the “I met him in the gym!” Bild Zeitung piece, but not by much. Anyway, you can read it for yourself since Der Spiegelput it on their English-language website (which, you’ll see there, has it’s own version of the George W. Bush’s-remaining-time-in-office countdown!).

Here, Have Some Bitter Truth

Columnist Thomas Hanke of the business newspaper Handelsblatt seemingly witnessed nothing but hard reality in Obama’s words, as he makes clear in his piece Cold Fervor. The references to the Berlin blockader were not just there to make everyone feel good; the decades-long confrontation in the city with the Soviets was brought up as an analogy to the severe tests which the West again faces today, especially in Afghanistan. In Hanke’s eyes, Obama in his speech was simply serving up the “bitter truth” that hard work and sacrifice lie ahead of America and its allies, and the replacement of Bush in the White House with another president is not going to change any of that. There can be no more illusions; Europeans will have to join the US in stepping up and taking responsibility for addressing the world’s problems as well.

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Yes He Can), Reymer Klüver both marvels at and dismisses Obama’s Berlin speech and his conduct on this overseas trip in general. On the one hand, the tour has been tremendously valuable to him in that it has demonstrated that he is definitely presidential material. The increasing influence of policy steps he has long advocated – both diplomatic discussions with Iran and a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq – has showcased his judgment.

Then again, the appearance in Berlin might have come at considerable ultimate cost to Germany – “Obama will be expensive for Germany,” Klüver writes. This is naturally because of the “shared sacrifices” that he made clear in his speech that he will be demanding of America’s allies. Still, one can still doubt how much of this will actually translate into concrete action when/if he becomes president. One must remember that 1) The real audience for the speech was American voters, not those who gathered in the Tiergarten to actually hear it, and 2) Obama has already displayed a capacity for abandoning positions he once held in the past (e.g. opposition to free trade/NAFTA), so that should be kept in mind.

Obama to Shove More Burdens Onto Allies?

Also on the Süddeutsche Zeitung site there is currently an interview, conducted by Thomas Denkler, with an “America-expert” from the German Society for External Politics, one Josef Braml (“Obama will not walk on water”). He makes some good points, such as linking Obama’s call for shared sacrifice with the orientation of his speech to the American electorate: what with the economic troubles in which the US now finds itself, interest has grown (especially among Democratic Party constituents) in cutting back on some of the money the country spends for its overseas engagements, by transferring some of that burden onto the allies, in order to have more financial resources to devote to problems at home. Also, even if he is elected president with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama can still not expect easy going because of the ideological divisions that persist even within his own party – over free trade, for example, and questions of Homeland Security.

The Frankfurther Rundschau is also a serious German paper, from the country’s fifth-largest city and financial capital. In his analysis The World Becomes Young), FR columnist Harry Nutt has a curious take on Obama’s Berlin visit. He estimates that half of the 200,000 who gathered to hear the Senator live were under the age of 20. What is more, whether the Obama campaign cottoned on to this or not when they were persuaded to accept the Siegessäule as an alternate venue for the speech they wanted to schedule, that monument and the enormous circular square in which it is located (the Großer Stern) does not really anymore symbolize to Germans anything out of their history, presumably because anything it might have once symbolized was entirely discredited in the wake of the Second World War. Rather, (and as above), if you hit a German with Siegessäule! in a word-association test his response will probably be “Love Parade!”, and/or the “fan-miles” that were set up there on the boulevards between that monument and the Reichstag/Brandenburg Gate for swarms of football fans from all over the world during the World Cup in 2006, which Germany hosted, as well as the recent European Championship.

So the audience and the venue itself was all about young people, young culture; Nutt chides Obama that the numerous references he made to the Berlin Airlift were entirely without effect – that is just something out of some history book the members of the audience have been required to study. Still, quite an impressive mass of them showed up to hear the speech, and they proved loud and enthusiastic during it; what were they doing there, then? Firstly, they were looking for something as unlike as they could get to George W. Bush, something that could make them believe in politics again. But they were therefore also looking for an effective new politics, that can get results: “It is the hope for a Realpolitik, that nonetheless can be paired with Passion,” as Nutt puts it.


On the other hand, FR contributor Marcia Pally didn’t know about young-vs.-old, but all that she saw filling the square in front of Obama – presumably being present there herself – was Americans (Ich bin eine BerlinerinBerlinerin merely meaning “female Berliner”). But that was somehow appropriate, anyway: after all, the speech was really meant for the American electorate back home, one big laundry-list of what Obama’s “change” is supposed to mean: putting in order the Iraq problem, as well as Afghanistan, Iran, Israel/Palestine, AIDS, climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons, the gulf between rich and poor, and the democratic deficit.

That’s quite a list. And Obama has also come to Europe to let the Europeans know that, if he is president, they will be listened to again. But why does Europe need the US for that? Most people, if they find that absolutely no one is listening to them, simply hire a psychiatrist. And why can’t Europe develop its own approaches to all those problems Obama is promising to bring “change” to? Those are good points, but especially surprising given their source, for Pally’s article itself had to be translated for publication in the FR, from English, for she is a professor who regularly teaches at NYU and a permanent Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities, who has just been recently in Berlin as an academic fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Finally to the Financial Times Deutschland, and to a non-bylined editorial (thus representing the views of the editorial board collectively) that also looks ahead to the cold reality that is sure to come after the smiles, cheers and handshakes are long in the past: Hangover After the Intoxication. For what a President Obama has in mind for the world can be seen by the very itinerary of this overseas trip: first to Afghanistan and the Middle East, to take stock of the problems, and then to Europe, to seek help in their solutions. But it didn’t take this trip to enlighten German politicians about what President Obama would ask of them: it has been clear for some time that he would be after both a greater troop and financial commitment to Afghanistan (including changing their rules of engagement so that they are allowed to venture where things are actually dangerous, namely the South of the country), even as they seem to want to treat the American as some “cuddly stuffed animal,” that “says conciliatory phrases when you shake his hand.” But its the German voters, who don’t find it in their job-description to keep track of such things so closely, who could find themselves disappointed in the end, when “Obama’s new America strives after the old objectives” but turns out to be that much harder to say “no” to, precisely because of his great contrast with George W. Bush.

One interesting point the editors bring up: just as a notional Obama administration will be getting up and running in 2009, so will Germany enter its own campaign ahead of national elections in that year. Especially when Germans are running for re-election, they become very reluctant to being depicted as mere American “poodles,” so to say. (The word belongs to the British, not the Germans: it’s the idea I’m after here.) Those so eager to partake of the Obama-aura yeterday could well find themselves in the end rooting for John McCain – a figure much easier to say “no” to.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.