Change Germans Can’t Believe In

With gestures that ranged from a wink to a sneer, most anyone you met here this week volunteered the view that Barack Obama’s visit to Europe caused unprecedented frenzy. But it’s been hard for me to find a European, aside from two Harvard-educated friends in Paris, who confessed to excitement — not just about the visit, but the prospect of an Obama presidency.

It is true that Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, featured Mr. Obama on its cover, topped by the words “Germany Meets the Superstar” — but the cover was satire, and nasty satire at that. The editors managed to find the ugliest photograph of Mr. Obama ever taken. It caught the senator at a moment that might be exhaustion but looks like conceited smirking. When Der Spiegel featured Mr. Obama on its cover in March, the cover line was “The Messiah Factor.” Must one add that this, too, was not meant to be taken at face value?

Europeans will be as relieved as 72 percent of Americans to see the end of the Bush administration, but their attitudes toward the Democratic candidate are far from being the same as the ones he arouses at home. Mr. Obama makes Europeans uncomfortable.

In Germany, politicians in front of large, shouting crowds evoke images that nobody wants to see repeated. But genuine worries about demagoguery are not all that’s at issue. The mocking undertone that accompanies most descriptions of Mr. Obama in the European news media signifies a trans-Atlantic divide. George W. Bush made matters far worse than they ever were, but the neoconservatives who advised him were right about one thing: Europe is gripped by a world-weariness that resists American dreams.

Not every European shows scorn for Mr. Obama. Karsten Voigt, the astute coordinator of the German Foreign Ministry’s America policies, thinks the United States is attempting a “complete renewal of its own political culture.”

But then, Mr. Voigt told me last week, he considers himself a Kantian. Very few Germans do. Robert Kagan, the conservative foreign-policy expert, once claimed that Americans are hard-headed Hobbesian realists, while Europeans are Kantian idealists, but he got it backwards. European institutions may be closer to those imagined by Enlightenment thinkers, but the Enlightenment’s spirit crossed the Atlantic long ago. The whole-hearted enthusiasm of audiences back home is an American thing. Europeans wouldn’t understand.

Berlin, in particular, is in the middle of a very post-heroic moment. Its former bravado about its history now approaches indifference. Take the awkward turquoise building where visitors from the West used to part from loved ones at the Friedrichstrasse border. Dubbed the “Palace of Tears” by East Berliners, it later symbolized the local talent for black humor and raw energy when it was turned into a disco after reunification. Surrounded by cranes at work on yet another office building, the Palace of Tears no longer has any function, nor anyone to complain about it.

So when Mr. Obama reminded Berliners of their greater moments — the airlift, the destruction of the wall — he risked more scoffing. There was plenty of speculation about which German sentence he would memorize to one-up John F. Kennedy’s famous speech.

In fact, what Mr. Obama did was far more interesting. He studied a speech given by Ernst Reuter, West Berlin’s beleaguered mayor during the 1948 airlift. When Reuter said, “People of the world, look at Berlin!” he was calling for help. When Mr. Obama echoed him, he was using the city as a model — for all the other possibilities that Berliners, and the rest of us, are slow to acknowledge.

This was no feel-good speech about working together. Mr. Obama’s riff on the Berlin airlift was a reminder that you need not drop a bomb to be a hero, and that American influence lasts when we don’t. Nor was he merely flattering his hosts about their achievements or calling to mind happier days of trans-Atlantic partnerships. He was using the past to remind us all that we need not resign ourselves to the way things are now. What better place to remember than in the heart of Berlin?

“No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions,” said Ronald Reagan in his speech calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I remember that day in 1987: the eyeballs rolled upward amid jaded sighs.

Mr. Reagan’s hosts heard his remarks with not quite concealed contempt, for most saw his speech as a tiresome bit of American naïveté. They had made their peace with a structure they thought would last forever — like the barrier between rich and poor nations whose existence, Mr. Obama concluded Thursday, is the greatest challenge of this century.

In other speeches, Mr. Obama has emphasized “the extraordinary nature of America,” where loyalty is less about particular places or tribes than particular ideas: above all the idea that we are not constrained by accidents of birth. We can make of our lives what we will.

Nothing quite like this is open to Europeans. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas proposed that Germans cultivate what he calls constitutional patriotism, but neither the estimable Mr. Habermas nor his countrymen have found the language to inspire it. Americans are lucky that our national thinkers could write words that continue to ring.

Mr. Obama’s speech gave Europeans a chance to hear the difference between optimism and idealism. Optimists refuse to acknowledge reality. Idealists remind us that it isn’t fixed.

Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum and the author of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists.