Obama at the Gate

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has made known her displeasure at the possibility that Barack Obama might use an appearance before the Brandenburg Gate here to present himself to the world as a politician of balance and integrity. Such an event would doubtless be heavy with symbolism as well as heavily attended, and one should always be wary meddling in another nation’s elections.

Yet Chancellor Merkel’s reaction seems quite odd when you consider that in 2003 she herself, as the new and internationally all-but-unknown leader of the German opposition, sought to take her place on the world stage — and scored a public relations coup — by writing an article for The Washington Post in which she assured George W. Bush of her support for the Iraq war.

As a result of that article, she was sharply criticized in Germany, where she was seen to have violated political etiquette. We can only speculate about her reasoning, both in 2003 and now. However, her current position can have nothing to do with a desire to remain neutral in the American presidential campaign. Quite the contrary: Apart from the fact that conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have closer ties with one another than with the liberal forces in their respective countries, the chancellor seems to feel an instinctive sympathy, perhaps rooted in her having grown up in East Germany, for such staunchly right-wing and rather gruff figures of American politics as George W. Bush and John McCain.

Many politicians in former Eastern bloc countries share this sympathy. The Iron Curtain, they feel, was not torn apart by attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement like the ones by Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt in the early 1970s, and most certainly not by the values propagated by the 1968 protest movement, but by the policy and rhetoric of strength with which Ronald Reagan confronted the Soviet Union. The fear of being threatened by the “evil empire” still runs deep in those who lived under Soviet domination, and that fear may well be connected with a longing for the “strong, good” leader who will provide protection.

Without this psychological explanation, Ms. Merkel’s public displeasure at the chance that the very popular Mr. Obama might make an appearance in Berlin is as hard to fathom now as her support for President Bush and his Iraq war was in 2003, when the overwhelming majority of Germans opposed the invasion.

Controversy has also arisen in Germany over the symbolic value of an Obama speech at the Brandenburg Gate. Some compare the prospect to John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s Berlin appearances, by way of making it clear that Senator Obama, who’s not even his party’s officially nominated candidate yet, has no business in such company.

Others, however, point out that the Dalai Lama has spoken there, that countless speakers give speeches there during the daily demonstrations, and that therefore they see no reason not to let Mr. Obama speak there, too. In this way, an event as yet unapplied for and unscheduled has been inflated to proportions it would never have achieved were we not in Germany’s political summer break, when vacations are taken and no really relevant questions debated.

Everyone I know hopes that Barack Obama will win the presidential election. However, when talk turns to his possible appearance at the Brandenburg Gate, most people raise ironic eyebrows, because they find such symbolic and emotionally charged events generally disconcerting.

People of my generation who grew up in West Germany are quick to see demagoguery in grand political gestures attended by mass euphoria; anthem-singing and flag-waving put us in mind of Nazi rallies or Communist Party congresses. For this reason, it would be all right with me if the Brandenburg Gate, now prettily refurbished and almost diminutive amid all the giant new buildings that have sprung up around it, was retired as a symbol of world-historical events and served only as the background for fan gatherings during important soccer tournaments.

But anyone who wants to produce an effect in a mass democracy needs media-ready images more urgently than good arguments, and public relations strategists of all political camps obviously believe that Berlin III can be as successful as Indiana Jones IV. And so, among my friends, the ironic eyebrows are usually followed by resigned shrugs: “Well, if speaking there can help him, let him do it!”

George W. Bush’s contempt for the rules and institutions of international politics, his revival of preventive war, with all its unforeseeable consequences, his abrogation of the rule of law in his own country, and his ignorance of every issue related to environmental conservation have become, for me and for the vast majority of Germans, synonymous with a high-handed, ugly America. This state of affairs has provoked not only rage and horror, but also great sadness, for the United States has always been the symbol of freedom, democracy and law.

Although Barack Obama’s style, when viewed from the comparatively disillusioned perspective of “old Europe,” may sometimes look troublingly messianic, most people of this country nevertheless hope that he’ll be able to bridge the gaps his predecessor will leave behind, and that he’ll do so not just as a self-styled symbol of change, but also as an actual president who promises a different presidency.

I’m certain that most Germans, even if it were a bit unfair to Senator McCain (which it isn’t, as he received immediate assurance from German officials that he could likewise give an address at the Brandenburg Gate), would be happy if emblematic pictures of Barack Obama, speaking before the gate to 100,000 flag-waving Berliners, would help him open a new chapter in the history of America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Cristoph Peters, the author of the novel The Fabric of Night. This article was translated by John Cullen from the German.