Barack Obama will speak to an anticipated crowd of 100,000 people in Berlin tonight, and the city is brimming with anticipation. Pretty much every newspaper and magazine has featured him on its cover or front page. A few weeks ago, the story was where he would speak. At the Brandenburg Gate? Angela Merkel (Christian Democrat) opposed a foreign politician making a campaign speech at such a historic site; her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social Democrat) didn’t see the problem; and Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit (Social Democrat), seemed to be looking forward from the start to a photo op with Obama anywhere in the city. But the Obama campaign, loath to create friction, decided on a different location: the Siegessäule or Victory Column. Not that the Siegessäule doesn’t have its own issues: as many have pointed out, it’s a monument to Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France, and the Nazis liked it too; they even made it taller. Berlin’s like that, though—there’s hardly a spot in the city without some problematic history, be it Prussian, Nazi or Communist. It’s sometimes hard to remember, with surveys showing a majority of Germans opposing Bundeswehr participation in Afghanistan, but Germans weren’t always pacifists…
But the Victory Column also has some less somber symbolism. It was a focus of the Love Parade, a thoroughly outrageous, very Berlin techno music event involving hundreds of thousands of ravers that was held in the city for fifteen years, until the organizers could no longer afford the cleanup costs. And it’s also the name of the city’s premiere gay magazine.
With location decided, the media found other issues to hash out. One of the main questions seems to be what influence Obama’s visit will have on American voters. Do Americans resent their politicians being too popular abroad, or are we happy to see a popular leader restore our credibility among Europeans? Will Obama be seen as an elitist Europe-lover, like losing candidates John Kerry and Michael Dukakis, or as a strong American statesman unafraid to criticize Europeans for not pulling their weight—in Afghanistan, for instance? (NYU professor Marcia Pally, a longtime Germany-watcher, pointed out in a recent article for the Frankfurter Rundschau that Obama’s trip is unlikely to have any influence on the U.S. elections at all, but that it’s rather nice to see Germans being as self-centered as Americans, for a change, in their belief in their own influence.)
A huge turnout is expected for tonight’s speech. The palpable excitement about a black American presidential candidate is an interesting phenomenon in a country that, like much of Europe, hasn’t always figured out how to deal with its own racism. A few weeks ago, Berlin’s provocative left-wing daily, the Tageszeitung, published a front page picture of the White House under the title “Uncle Barack’s Cabin.” The editors couldn’t understand the resulting storm of criticism, particularly from Afro-Germans and Americans in Germany; they thought they were just encouraging discussion (while they never did back down, the cover admittedly did trigger a lively debate on racism, partially played out in the paper’s own pages). And while Germany finally has an anti-discrimination law—passed only as a result of European Union pressure—it’s unpopular, not particularly strong, and little used. As one commentator pointed out, Germans who worry that U.S. racism could lose Obama the election might do well to recall that his career would hardly have been possible at all in Europe.
As in the United States, Germans’ excitement about Obama involves a degree of projection. Older people connect him with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., younger people with the popular stereotypes of black American culture that have heavily influenced youth culture worldwide. He is also, of course, seen as a representative of the “other America,” the antithesis of George W. Bush. Obama thus carries expectations that he is bound to disappoint. But for now, if the election were to be held here, the outcome is pretty clear; a recent survey showed 72% of Germans want Obama to be the next U.S. president.
Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and co-founder of its Citizenship and Security Program, is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. Cooper, the editor of War Crimes: The Legacy of Nuremberg, teaches and lectures on human rights, international law, and the “war on terror.”