Opinion Germany's Miracle Man

German feelings for American presidents have oscillated from love to hate down the years. But is Obamamania just as dangerous as animosity towards Bush? It's time for Germany to step off its collective and primal emotions and engage in a sober friendship with Washington.
Von Claus Christian Malzahn

The feelings of the German people toward American presidents -- at least for the last 70 years or so -- have not been ones of friendship in the strictest sense of the word. Very often they have been feelings of love or of hate.

The Germans hated Roosevelt, and when he died in April 1945, only a couple of days before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, Josef Goebbels was sure that he was witnessing a deeply meaningful twist of fate, which would surely lead to a German-American alliance against Stalin. We all know that Germany could not turn on the dime quite that fast, or quite that easily, and as for Goebbels, he and his wife killed themselves along with their six children a few days later.

Fifteen years after the war, the Germans had a love affair with John F. Kennedy. He was good looking and well-spoken, and he made a great contribution to the young Federal Republic of Germany and its post-war citizens -- especially to the inhabitants of Berlin. It was in no small part Kennedy's speeches that rescued them from being residents of the former capital of the Third Reich and made them not just proud members of the free world, but also its avant-garde.

The Germans didn't like Nixon very much, even if the Vietnam War hadn't been his idea in the first place, and they were highly critical of Ronald Reagan. When he stood in front of the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1987 and proclaimed, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" most Germans, myself included, thought of him as one hell of a crazy cowboy. "Tearing down the wall" had nothing whatsoever to do with realpolitik and, after World War II, that was all we knew.

Today, We Believe in Obama

Of course the Germans loved Clinton. His was a fresh face after the long and gray Cold War. We found his strange affair with the intern pretty embarassing, but there was no way we would have had a special prosecutor follow him around.

Yet the German public disliked George W. Bush like they disliked no other post-war American president that had come before him. Every second German considered Bush to be more evil than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and 85 percent of Germans rejected his foreign policy after 9/11. It's hardly worth counting the number of Germans who were sad to see Bush finally leave the White House, or felt that he had accomplished anything of value there.

Today, we believe in Obama. We don't actually know what that means yet. What's interesting in this context is not so much the nature of Obama and his administration but the nature of German political beliefs, and how they have developed over time. All this love and hate of American presidents -- where does it come from and is it a good thing for democracy?

After all, Germans have believed a very great number of things in their history. They have believed in colonies in Africa and in the German Kaiser. They even believed the Kaiser when he told them that there would be no more political allegiances or parties, once his soldiers reached the front in World War I -- but of course, that was the Kaiser's last war.

Not too long afterwards, they believed that Jews should be placed in ghettos and concentration camps because they were enemies of the people -- specifically the German people. Then they believed in the autobahn and that the Third Reich would ultimately be victorious. A few years later, they believed in the deutsche mark. They believed in recycling as fervently as they believed in cheap air travel. They believed that the Berlin Wall would be there for ever and ever and that their pensions would be safe for just as long. They even believed Germany would win the 2006 World Cup in Berlin.

And after Bush started the war in Iraq, they believed that the United States presented a greater threat to world peace than Iran.

For many Germans, the Americans have always been simply too extreme. They are either too fat or too obsessed with excercise, too prudish or too pornographic, too religious or too nihilistic. In terms of history and foreign policy, the Americans have either been too isolationist or too imperialistic. They simply go ahead and invade foreign countries to only, in the end, abandon those countries the way they did in Vietnam and will soon do in Iraq.

Anti-Americanism, the Wonder Drug of German Politics

Some Germans truly believed that President Bush was "worse than Hitler," giving them a chance to kill two birds with one stone: If Bush was the new Hitler, the logic went, the Germans could finally unload the legacy of that particular dictator onto someone else.

In recent years, anti-Americanism was the wonder drug of German politics. Today, Obama is the panacea that can possibly heal the entire world. It sounds like a contradiction: Anti-Americanism may have been hypocrisy at its finest, but Obamamania is also not without its related dangers.

Indeed, all this love and hate of American presidents is not simple heartfelt interest or true partisanship. Rather it would seem to reveal the basic traits of the authoritarian personality which seeks to project its own aggressions and deficiencies onto others, while preserving its own preternatural innocence and rightness. Can that instinct on the part of Germans serve Obama well in the long run?

When Bush was in the White House, not a day passed in Germany when someone wasn't making the wildest claims, hurling the vilest insults or spreading the most outlandish conspiracy theories about the United States and his admistration. But there was little risk involved in these statements which helped boost the German feelings of superiority and innate self-righteousness.

Now, we have come full circle. Germans have gone totally crazy for Obama, something that was already evident during his campaign. Yet this enthusiasm is not really about politics. It's about Obama as a charismatic person, about Obama as a pop star, and above all as a screen onto which we can project our wishes and desires.

Obama is, of course, all these things to many Americans, too. And he is highly aware of it; this is simply a professional risk in his line of work. But as a German, something makes me worry about these kinds of romantic projections when they happen in my country, because I think they have little to do with the sober, pragmatic spirit of democracy.

Polls show that 74 percent of all Germans would like to have Obama as the new boss in the Chancellery -- neatly shoving Angela Merkel aside. Meanwhile, 75 percent -- and especially supporters of the Greens and the Social Democrats -- would like to see a "German Obama" emerge, meaning they want German politicians to be smarter, more charismatic, better looking and in general more appealing. But then again, almost 60 percent think, that it is altogether "too early" to have a German chancellor from an immigrant family.

The Germans expected nothing but bad things from Bush, now they expect nothing but miracles from Obama. A full 82 percent believe that his impact on world affairs will be overwhelmingly positive. They expect him to first of all solve the problems of the economic crisis we face, then halt climate change and, last but not least, to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet Germans do not actually know much about Obama's political beliefs. Sixty percent assume he opposes the death penalty and Germans don't know much about what he thinks about health care, abortion or other issues.

Obama wants more European, ergo German, help in Afghanistan, with more troops on the ground. But almost 60 percent of Germans want their soldiers to pull out of Kabul -- a clear contradiction to Obama's current surge strategy. But that doesn't matter. After all, 20 percent of German women would like to have an affair with him, and 88 percent of German managers think he might make a brilliant political leader in Germany itself.

Should we just be amused by this, or should we be uncomfortable that the German public sees Obama more as a political Messiah on a global tour rather than the 44th president of the United States of America?

Obama Must Talk Louder to Europe

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt was a bit like Obama. He was a charismatic political leader and his kneeling down before the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto is one of the most truly dignifed moments in European history. Brandt, of course, wasn't a great manager of power. A charismatic leader has to offer more -- something that he really stands for, and he has to know how to push his agenda. The US president and his so-called Team Obama seem to have no problem when it comes to managing power, but at least in regard to Europe, they have not begun to push an agenda yet.

When Obama says that the US is about to change but that the US cannot be the only one to change, he should not overestimate the innate feelings of personal responsibility in the German populace or assume that they will fill in the unspoken subtext: If the US is about to change -- in ways the Germans will like -- then Europeans will also have to change -- in ways they might like less.

In America, too, Obama came up with a lot of utopian gusto. However, even before he took office, he began to give moral responsiblity back to the people -- but to a people that deeply understands notions of personal responsibility and the dignity this provides. When it comes to Europe, though, one could argue that Obama really has to start talking a little louder.

When Obama gave his speech at Berlin's Victory Column last summer, he talked about the post-war airlift during the blockade of Berlin and about the care packages the Candy Bombers distributed. And then he asked, buried in a subordinate and somewhat cloudy clause of one of his sentences, that Germans start thinking about how to pay back this moral debt. However, if I know my countrymen, then this type of "nudging" just isn't going to work.

The Trans-Atlantic Honeymoon May Soon Be Over

The difference being: Americans live in a society which of course celebrates commerce and selfishness -- but behind the bluster, a mere inch beneath the surface, there are often huge reservoirs of idealism and selflessness in individual Americans. We Germans, however, live in a world which in ways is much fairer and more organized for the public good. Yet, so many of our experiences from the Thirty Years War onwards have contributed to a hard egotistical core which lurks just beneath the dutiful surface of the national psyche.

So the new trans-Atlantic honeymoon might be over very soon, possibly due to disappointments on either side. The German government expects Obama to be more diplomatic and more cooperative than his predecessor. Then Berlin might be willing to follow him -- cautiously and not in every regard. But this change of diplomatic atmosphere is the easy part. The hard part goes back to those questions of love and hate.

Like American democracy after the collapse of the Third Reich, Obama is going to have to be immensely victorious and hugely successful in order to be loved in Germany. Or Germany might turn away. He is facing huge challenges: AfPak, the financial and economic crisis, the Middle East, competition with China. But the US cannot face these problems alone. Europe is affected by and called upon on virtually every point. We just haven't understood that yet. We detested the phrase obnoxiously pronounced by Washington during the Bush era: "What part of that did you not understand?" But now that really is the question -- what part do we understand? Too many Germans still think that all these things are solely American problems, caused by America, made in America, charged to America.

So even though Obama just returned the bust of Winston Churchill to England, after it had been on loan to Bush, the next time he comes to Germany he may in fact have to bring a "blood, sweat and tears" speech with him. People will listen to him, though they may not like what they hear. German-American relations have been dominated for too long now by collective and primal emotions. Let us leave that behind us. In the long run, it's just far too dangerous.

Claus Christian Malzahn is SPIEGEL ONLINE's Berlin bureau chief. He is currently participating in the American Council on Germany's Kellen Fellowship.

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