Bush in Stralsund: “Not Welcome, Mr. President!”

How welcomes can vary in content within one week in Germany!

In the past four weeks, Germany was seized by a soccer fever which sometimes seemed almost alarming.  The outdoor temperature was steadily hot and dry, but it was the hot fever of flag-waving patriotism — or was it nationalism — which affected so many.  Black, red and gold flags, worn, waved, and planted on countless cars, grew in number with every victory, while the snap of fireworks and honking of horns became louder and lasted longer into the night.  It had again become fashionable to show the flag.  While many found this to be harmless cheering “for our side,” some people saw another spirit lurking beneath the joy: “We Germans will show the world.  We are the best!  Deutschland über alles!”

But then Germany lost to Italy in the last two minutes of the semi-final, thus losing its chance to become world champion.  There were rivers of disappointed tears — and an almost eerie silence settled over a Berlin, which had been readying itself for another giant celebration.

Happily, most of the German public refused to turn sullen or bitter, but cheered its team in the successful battle for third place (against Portugal) and turned out in immense numbers to watch the final France-Italy game.  The spirit seemed friendlier, more joyful and relaxed, without the “We Are the Best” posturing, shouting, and honking.  In the end, most of the swarms of football tourists from all the world decided that the Germans were really more hospitable and peaceable than expected, far less strict and unbending in the Prussian manner.  Many Germans were themselves surprised at their own friendliness.  The future will show which element develops more strongly.

But only days after Germany’s welcome mats for the soccer fans were being stowed away, another big red welcome mat was being dusted off, a far more controversial one.  Chancellor Angela Merkel had invited George W. Bush to visit her electoral constituency on the Baltic coast, in the north of the former (East) German Democratic Republic where she grew up.

This invitation immediately caused problems.  Her district is in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (briefly Meck-Pom), which faces a key state election in September.  Is she fishing for votes for her Christian Democratic Union, which was left out of the present coalition government of Meck-Pom, but would just love to turn the tables?  The ruling coalition, Social Democrats and the Left Party (the former PDS), is telling Frau Merkel that Bush is her guest.  Why should Meck-Pom, Germany’s poorest state, be saddled financially with a visit it never wanted?

The bill is expected to exceed 12 million Euros.  12,000 police from all over Germany will be responsible for the president’s safety.  All shipping to and from this port city will be halted for two days, and the historic center of Stralsund, the main city he plans to visit, will be off limits to all but a chosen few.  Sewers and manholes will be checked and sealed off, businesses will have to close, all cars must be removed from the area, local residents will not be allowed to leave their apartments between 9:30 a.m. and 60 minutes after the end of the visit.  In fact, they will be required to keep their windows shut.

Such measures become standard wherever Bush visits, at home or abroad.  But it is common knowledge that he is very unpopular in Germany, especially East Germany; and there is increased anxiety about areas where he is not wanted – which includes much of the world.

In fact, last-minute plans are being made by people who hope for a hot welcome.  Stralsund is off the beaten track for most parts of Germany, so it will be hard to organize anything like the 100,000 who protested Bush’s visit to Berlin in 2002.  But protesters will be there, by bus, car, and train, and will demonstrate against the visit in those parts of Stralsund which will not be closed off.  For all those who can’t make it to Stralsund, demonstrations are planned all over Germany for July 12th and 14th, including the simultaneous beating of drums.

Not Welcome, Mr. President!

The protests should be loud but peaceful.  The only scheduled blood-letting will be in a small town of 1,000 inhabitants near Stralsund, which Bush will visit because it is considered safe.  Most citizens of Trinwillershagen (bets are being taken on how Bush will master that name in his speech), proud in GDR days of its model collective farm, have evidently decided to make the best of the visit in an area with an extremely high jobless rate.  So the owner of the main restaurant in town, an enthusiastic hunter, plans to shoot a wild boar to treat Bush and his staff.  The animal will probably be the only victim of the visit, while there have been suggestions to invite Cheney over to do the shooting.

Verbal shots have already been fired in the state legislature.  The junior partners in the government, the Left, have announced that they will take part in the anti-Bush demonstrations.  The Christian Democrats have expressed their outrage at this snubbing of a “friendly president.”  The Social Democrats are split.  Some say, “We don’t like Bush, but we shouldn’t demonstrate in the streets against him!”  Possible overseas investors might be insulted, they warn.

But many organizations continue with their plans.  “Not welcome, Mr. Bush” is the main slogan.  The demands include ending the war in Iraq, abandoning war plans against other countries, closing down US military bases in Germany where planes refuel on their way to their military goals, and denying the use of German air space to war planes.

Aside from hungry little Trinwillershagen with its boar, perhaps, the welcome accorded George W. Bush will be very different from that for the soccer fans, as sharp a difference as that between peace and war!

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).