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Falling Out of Love: Obama and the View from Berlin

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Things are rough these days between Germany and the USA. But I wonder whether Germans were ever really in love with Barack Obama? It’s a good story, but partly a work of fiction.

As a stringer for a national newspaper in Canada, I covered the landmark 24 July 2008 Obama Berlin speech. When my story––destined for the front page––went in to the Foreign Editor, I was told I had messed up the lede. It was the most important piece of my career, and, of course, I’d made a hash of it.

I wrote too tepidly about the crowd’s reaction to the Presidential candidate and was advised what the story should be: Obama-mania has hit Europe, discord is harmonised, Germans have fallen in love.  “Now is the time to build new bridges”, Obama told the crowd, and the media message was: he’d succeeded.

I quickly conceded to my editor’s changes and agreed I’d missed the big picture. After all, you can’t argue with polls: 9/10 Germans thought ‘favourably’ of Obama [Pew 2008]. I could hardly reproach my paper––all the major media outlets reported along the same lines as we did.

Yet, something still bothers me. Anyone who was at that historic event in Berlin, observing the 200 000 assembled, knew that the crowd’s reaction wasn’t so simple. The audience was one bred to be suspicious of political rhetoric––a certain demagogue had cured Germans of that. They were also not nearly as uncomplicatedly anti-Communist or grateful to the American version of freedom as Obama assumed––then again, his primary audience was back home. When Obama flourished, ‘People of the world-––look at Berlin!’, you simply needed to look at the young crowd to realise they were neither hypnotised nor flattered. They were there simply because they were curious, and maybe too blasé to admit much enthusiasm. A dose of Berlin cool? Or enough history under their belts to know better? 

I remember interviewing a young woman after the speech. Standing with the Brandenburg gate just in view––as journalists like to frame it––she summed up the public sentiment: “I think that he was at the verge of losing the crowd when he went on too long about the [Berlin] airlift and anti-Communism. But he managed to pull the crowd back in when he talked about equal opportunity and the environment. It was then he understood better the European mood.” Her comments got jettisoned to the end of the article, when really they should have been at the very top.

It’s easier now, of course––with the remarkably rapid disintegration of American-German relations over the intelligence scandal––to doubt the rhetorical flourishes and the media-fed enthusiasm of Obama-mania. But now is also a good opportunity to be better historians of that presumed moment of transatlantic healing back in 2008. We talk about Europe falling out of love with Obama over the NSA revelations. But we should ask whether the German public, at least, was ever that infatuated to begin with.