The Audacity of Angst Why Germany Has No Obama

If Barack Obama accomplished one thing in Berlin, it was to make it painfully obvious just how uninspiring German politicians are.

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American Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's speech had ended an hour before and the skies over Berlin were taking on an ethereal reddish hue as the sun set. But Julian Metz was still glowing with enthusiasm. He spoke with nervous excitement, his words tumbling happily out of his mouth as if he had just lost his virginity. As indeed he had: his political virginity.

Germans were infatuated by Barack Obama -- partly because politicians here tend to be uninspiring.
DPA

Germans were infatuated by Barack Obama -- partly because politicians here tend to be uninspiring.

Julian Metz, a 27-year-old architecture student, had never before attended a speech by a politician, but he was determined to experience Obama. He arrived at Berlin's Victory Column three hours before the speech was scheduled to begin just so he could find a place at the front. He saw, heard and felt Obama, and in the end he even managed to shake the presidential candidate's hand. Metz was one of the few that got that close. Two-hundred thousand people turned out on the Strasse des 17. Juni to see Obama speak -- a crowd the likes of which one normally only sees if football is involved.

He had just become a part of history, or at least that is what Metz believed. "I felt that if he is voted into office, the world will change," he said, a tote bag from a local grocery store dangling from his wrist. He was electrified, infected with a new political bug, and he said that he now intends to become politically involved for the first time in his life. But there is only one problem. "Unfortunately," said Metz, "we have nothing comparable on the horizon in Germany."

For now, this is the one sobering message Barack Obama has left behind in Germany. His visit has raised a question, one that masks a deep longing: Why doesn't Germany have similarly inspiring politicians? Why can't Germany have its own Obama?

Germans may take some comfort in the fact that there is no Greek Obama, nor a Finnish or a South Korean Obama. The senator from Illinois appears to be the kind of rare political talent that even the United States sees only once in a great while. If John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in the 2004 presidential election, had given a speech in front of the Victory Column, his listeners would have been well-advised to bring along pillows -- just in case they happened to nod off during his remarks.

Nevertheless, the discrepancy between Obama and the political class in Germany couldn't be greater. The divide between the two is like the difference between night and day, between German folk singer Heino and the rock band Coldplay.

All it takes to recognize that difference is to compare their language. Obama's speech in downtown Berlin was a festival of big metaphors. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a keynote speech, her words are usually about as alluring as a ring binder. Her speeches are about mundane topics like commuter tax relief and pensions, and if she uses metaphors at all, they are more than likely references to holes that require plugging. And about the only image Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chairman Kurt Beck seems able to conjure up is of the butter everyone is scraping from his toast.

There is much to criticize about Obama, including his support of the death penalty and the fact that his speeches tend to be short on content. But what remains is an ability to generate public enthusiasm for politics that offsets many of his shortcomings.

This is how French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once described the key to instilling passion into people: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, ... teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." Obama has made this sentiment his mantra.

Obama, notwithstanding his unique abilities, is a typical product of American culture, the outcome of an approach to developing a child's personality that begins in kindergarten. In the United States, even three-year-olds are encouraged to bring their favorite things to school and explain them to other children. In high school, the art of giving presentations is a fixed part of the curriculum. The goal is to teach young Americans early on how to talk about one thing above all else: themselves. This too explains the audacious nonchalance with which someone like Obama presents himself -- an attitude that Germans find nothing short of astonishing.

But this is only one reason why Germany, despite exceptions like former Chancellor and SPD Chairman Willy Brandt, has produced mainly sober and often uninspiring politicians throughout the last 60 years. The passion and love of the stage that has helped make Obama an icon could have quickly destroyed political careers in Germany. Those with visions were advised to see their doctors.

A number of Germans would like to see an Obama-like politician in Germany.
AP

A number of Germans would like to see an Obama-like politician in Germany.

Germans have had their fair share of experiences with charismatic speakers. After an entire people allowed itself to be seduced by Adolf Hitler, the architects of the postwar republic were more than justified in doing their utmost to protect the Germans from the seductive powers of an individual and, as a result, from themselves.

They devised a political system that emphasizes the party while placing little emphasis on the individual. They opted for an internal party selection process instead of the candidacy of individual politicians, a process that requires neither passion nor charisma, but does require a well padded behind. A political career in Germany depends far less on the people than on the party and its many manifestations, on entities like local party organizations, sub-districts, primary districts and intermediate districts.

But the party organizations value different characteristics than citizens do. Politicians can earn bonus points for a good attendance record and a pronounced ability to be patient. They can improve their prospects by spending the appropriate amount of time preparing the minutes of meetings, arranging for soft drinks at children's events or grilling bratwursts at summer barbecues. As praiseworthy as these activities are, they are easily performed without charisma.

The German system is designed to exclude demagogues, but it also cultivates mediocrity. It prevents the ascent of demons and geniuses alike, while paving the way for the political success of experts at the grill.

Unfortunately, the prospect of spending so many years grilling bratwursts and the like discourages many from becoming politically involved. Others eventually give up and move on to other fields. There were good reasons for Germany to place its trust in this system after the disgrace of the Nazi era. But now it seems that Germany is ready for change of its own.

It is no coincidence that there were so many young people in Obama's audience of 200,000 in Berlin. While not unaware of their own history, the generation of 25-year-olds feels far less inhibited by it than its predecessors. The younger generation is no longer susceptible to older Germans' instinctive aversion to passionate politicians. On the contrary, young Germans yearn for someone to inspire them instead of simply telling them what to do. They want to have the same rights as their generational counterparts in the United States.

For these reasons, it would make sense for Germany to open itself up to new forms when it comes to choosing its political leaders. Primary campaigns, in which candidates would have to present their cases to a broader public, would also increase interest in politics in general. And the political system in Germany would be instilled with new life if it could finally offer political outsiders real prospects.

Structures that were once conceived to protect democracy from its enemies are no longer necessarily current, now that 60 years have passed since they were created. The political parties should have the courage to change these structures, and thus to protect democracy from its new foes: lethargy and boredom.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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