Obama in Berlin

I attended the big rally with Obama in Berlin Thursday evening, not as a press representative but as one of the crowd.  And what a giant crowd it was!  The news reports counted “over 200,000,” but, to someone sandwiched in so tight I could hardly lift my hand to scratch my itching nose, much less applaud, it seemed like a million!  The predictions had been for “anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000” and the official start was at 7, so I stupidly arrived at 6.30, too late to find anything but a tiny spot to stand on (when the pushing ceased), so far back from the monument where Obama spoke that I couldn’t even see the big screen.  I saw only the heads and backs of those in front of me.

The crowd, overwhelmingly friendly, was amazingly international, partly, no doubt, because the speech was only in English with no translation.  I saw countless African-Americans and African-Germans as well as Africans carrying or wearing flags and banners from Kenya, Angola, and other countries.  Among those sandwiched in next to me were a very tall French-speaking African fellow (just in front of me), a father and son from Dublin, Ireland, three young women from Italy (one little student too short to see  even the heads in front of her), also a Frenchman, two Californians, and a young man of possibly Arab background.  All the same, I guess the majority were of German background.  I would guess that 90 to 95 percent of the crowd could be classified as “youth” under thirty.  The event resembled a giant pilgrimage.

Most came to cheer and applaud, and cheer they did — and applaud when, unlike me, they could move both hands.   Barack Obama is immensely popular in Germany — especially since about 80 percent detest the present president, and this is even more intensely true of the young people and the international community so well represented at the rally.

Obama spoke freely, without notes or prompter, and as eloquently as ever.  He was constantly interrupted by the cheering, but it gradually became apparent that the cheering varied with his message and with the varied views of the listeners.  In the first large section of his speech, Obama — like so many political orators in Berlin — dealt at length with the Berlin Wall and the western airlift to West Berlin and Berlin’s great victory over tyranny and communism.  Probably because so many in his audience were neither originally West Berliners nor even alive during the airlift of 1948-1949 and either unborn or very young when the Berlin Wall came down, their enthusiasm for such sentiments was nothing like what it had been for Kennedy and Reagan when they spoke in West Berlin years ago.  Only a few old-timers like myself will have noted that when Obama spoke of “the bullet-holes in the buildings” still visible not all too far away, he ignored their meaning, the struggle to free Berlin from the Nazis waged by the Soviets at an incredibly heavy cost; in fact, he carefully — or tactfully — avoided any mention of Germany’s Nazi past, while his words and sentiments about (West) Berlin’s fight for freedom had been repeated so often they may have become clichés to many.

There was even less enthusiasm when Obama said: “My country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO’s first mission beyond Europe’s borders is a success. . . .  For the people of Afghanistan and for our shared security . . . the Afghan people need our troops and your troops. . . .  We have too much at stake to turn back now.”  Despite the positions of all major German parties except the Left, close to 80 percent of the German people oppose sending German troops to that country, and very few clapped at these remarks.  All posters and banners had been banned from the rally at the request of the Obama campaign committee, but near me a young woman handed up a banner she had been hiding to three young men who had climbed to the top of a street lantern.  When they unfurled it we could read its message, “No troops for Afghanistan,” and on a smaller poster, “End the death penalty.”  Not many in the giant crowd saw this, Obama certainly couldn’t, but one TV channel did show it the next day.

And there were more doubtful nods than loud applause when he stated: “In Europe the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world rather than a force to help make it right has become all too common.”

A leading member of the right-wing governing Christian Democratic Union summarized the speech by saying: “Except for personal nuances it could have been made or almost made by John McCain.”  This certainly applied to many of Obama’s words about the past but also those regarding Iran and free trade.

But it did not apply to some statements, and these were the ones which received the loudest applause and cheers.  We must “stop the spread of nuclear weapons,” he said, “This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of the world without nuclear weapons.”

He got cheers for “We must support . . . the Israelis and Palestinians who seek a sure and lasting peace ” and loud approval when he stated: “Let us resolve that all nations — including my own — will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere.”

It was hard to judge, but the cheers seemed loudest to me when he demanded that “we reject torture and stand for the rule of law” and that we “welcome immigrants from different lands and shun discrimination against those who don’t look like us or worship like we do and keep the promise of equality and opportunity for all of our people.”

I heard varying impressions from those who walked off to find their bicycles or find their way through the wooded Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park, to the nearest stations of the el, the subway, bus, or tram.  I heard no one speak against him; a tiny group of US Republicans had waited uselessly in back of his hotel, but represented almost no one but themselves and a few right-wing politicians in leadership positions, possibly including Angela Merkel.

Some of those I heard in the el seemed thoughtful, however, and occasionally disappointed at the many clichés, while others justified their use as required by the campaign for president and his guest status in Berlin. I heard one woman, the American wife of a Berliner, saying that even if Obama wins a lot of pressure will be necessary, not only in policies toward Afghanistan.  She would certainly vote for him, she said, explaining to those nearby, “In the USA they used to talk about ‘a Great White Hope.’  After eight years with Bush and the danger of more years with McCain, we think of Obama as our ‘Great Black Hope.'”   I think that summed up the feelings of most of the quarter of a million people of Berlin, more or less, who jammed into the park that hot evening to hear the man they hoped would visit in coming years as US president.

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).

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