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Berlin Address Offers Glimpse Into Continent's 'Obamamania'

  • Claire Bigg
  • Brian Whitmore

Obama told Berliners the U.S. "still sacrifices greatly for freedom around the globe"

Obama told Berliners the U.S. "still sacrifices greatly for freedom around the globe"

BERLIN -- After days of breathless anticipation in this normally laid-back capital, Germans finally got their chance to meet "The Superstar," as the "Der Spiegel" weekly termed U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

While final turnout fell far short of the 1 million people Berlin authorities predicted, the 150,000 gathered for Obama's foreign-policy speech at the historic Victory Column in the city's Tiergarten park gave every indication that, for now, Europe's bout of Obamamania continues.

"It was a very beautiful speech," said Alyzee Dabry, a French political science student vacationing in Berlin. "I really regret not being American and not being able to vote. Even if it wasn't a campaign speech, it was a beautiful speech of unification, of fraternity between Europe and the United States. I think we need this right now. To be honest, I don't think there's a single politician in France who speaks so well. I was really impressed."

Martin Berlin, a 25-year-old student who traveled with a group of friends from the German city of Magdeburg to hear the speech, secured a spot just meters away from the stage where Obama was speaking. "I found the speech OK, maybe a bit short," he said. "We had expected it to be a little longer and maybe a little more emotional, but his speech was nonetheless in the true Obama spirit. We were thrilled. It was the first time we saw him."

Many in the crowd confessed to being awed more by the spectacle than the speech, whose finer points may have been lost amid sausage vendors, uneven acoustics, and a noisy, beer-drinking crowd lining up for T-shirts and badges bearing Obama's image and reading "Global Tsunami of Change."

For some of those who had come to Tiergarten looking for long-awaited insight into the Democratic candidate's foreign-policy priorities, the 26-minute address -- which began not with a look forward, but a long look back at the candidate's personal history and the 1948 Berlin airlift -- proved less than satisfying.

"I think he was a great performer, but there was absolutely no substance to the speech," said "Der Spiegel" columnist Henryk Broder. "Mentioning the Luftbrucke and saying how great it was that 60 years ago Berlin was rescued by the Americans -- well, that's free of charge. Even the Russians would agree with that. Unfortunately, I was really disappointed."

Apart from general calls for global unity in fighting climate change and nuclear-arms proliferation -- and a direct bid to Europe for more troops and funding for Afghanistan -- Obama's speech, may not have been enough to satisfy the curiosity that so many Europeans harbor about the charismatic American candidate they appear so eager to support.

As in the rest of Europe, Obama's approval ratings are off the charts in Germany, with nearly two-thirds of Germans saying they would support an Obama presidency.

'Hollywood Stuff'

Part of the appeal, analysts say, is simply a matter of who he is not: current U.S. President George W. Bush, whose policies and persona have steadily deteriorated in the estimation of many on the continent.

But analysts also say the Democratic presidential hopeful, who would be the first African-American elected to the White House, reminds Europeans of what they have always admired in America and Americans -- and are yearning to embrace again.

Josef Braml, an expert in trans-Atlantic relations and U.S. politics at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says Obama's origins, reiterated at the Victory Column -- the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman of modest means from Kansas -- resonate strongly in Germany and throughout Europe.

"America is a democracy where things can happen. You don't have to be born into the elite, you don't have to be a senator's son, you don't have to be born into a family where there is a lot of money around," Braml says. "The Obama story is the American dream, you can make it all the way up to the top. It's the Hollywood stuff we like to see in the movies."

Europeans tend to see two opposing archetypes of the United States -- a land of ruthless, bullying competition on the one hand, and boundless freedom and can-do dynamism on the other. Braml says that for many, the energetic, youthful Obama appears to embody the latter, in a spirit reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, another American leader still revered by many Europeans.

"He has even more going for him than Kennedy has," Braml says. "He has a life story to tell that even outshines Kennedy. Kennedy was born into a rich family. That's OK for Europeans, too. But Obama can tell a different story."

Berlin Abuzz

Berliners, who often strive to seem removed from the tedium of day-to-day politics, underwent a notable transformation in the days ahead of Obama's visit, which comes in the middle of a whirlwind world tour that began with Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel, and goes on to include France and Great Britain. Newspapers and television commentators brimmed over with news about the trip, and city residents admitted to entertaining notions of change under an Obama presidency.

"I think he has to be a person who can bring nations together and who doesn't put the United States above everything else," said Suzanna Schwarzer, a 40-year-old medical trainer, who was planning to spend her evening at the Tiergarten.

"I don't know whether Americans see it that way, but I believe this is how Europeans perceive the situation," Schwarzer said as she walked with her toddler along a leafy Berlin street. "If he is able to unite people -- which is what I hope, and which is what I think he radiates -- then this would really be something very, very new."

"If I were an American, I would vote for him, definitely," said Hartmut Mertin, 56, who added that a long shift at the health-care equipment supplier where he works was the only thing preventing him from attending the speech.

"I have a lot of sympathy for him," Mertin added. "He is young, and would be good for the United States. I hope that he achieves more peace than his predecessor, and that he puts an end to the war [in Iraq]. It costs everyone money, not just the United States. And the worst is that scores of people have died, including U.S. citizens."

'He Will Have His Agenda'

According to a Gallup poll this week, 64 percent of adults in France, 62 percent in Germany, and 60 percent in the United Kingdom said the Illinois senator would be their choice if they could vote in the U.S. election in November.

But some Germans -- even those who admit to harboring their own Obama fascination -- say they are somewhat mystified by their country's outpouring of enthusiasm for the American politician.

"This kind of Obamamania is highly suspicious to me," said Broder. "So far the Germans haven't realized that he's not going to ask less from them, but more from them, than Bush ever did. They think he's a kind of black European, and they don't realize that he is actually very American. He will have his agenda, and he will not take into consideration the needs of the Germans. He's simply now using them in a very smart way as a kind of background thing for his PR campaign."

Broder's concerns underscore what -- even after Obama's speech -- may remain an essential question for many Europeans. They like Obama and want him to win. But what, exactly, comes next?

"I've been following the election race in the United States as closely as possible in the media, and I find there isn't much content," said architect and Berlin resident Matthias Steltz, 40. "But what one can say with certainty is that he is a change from what we've seen over the past eight years. So in that sense I am, of course, excited."

Braml admits that there are many unknowns when it comes to the Democratic "superstar" candidate. But he said Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war is, for many Europeans, a positive sign.

"Not many people know much about what he stands for. They know a few things: that he is against the war in Iraq and that he has been against it from the start. And this war was obviously not popular over here," Braml says. "That's what people know about Bush and Obama, and he is obviously the one that is the farthest away from Bush's war policy."
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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