‘Obamamania’ hits Berlin

25th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of thousands turn out to see the American Democratic presidential candidate who declared himself "a world citizen" at an event resembling a rock concert

Barack Obama might not have said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" as an American leader visiting a forlorn and divided Berlin once did. He didn’t issue a command either like another American, the imperative to "tear down this wall" which echoes more than two decades later. But in another Berlin, in another time, he received the same enthusiastic response when he spoke of "unity" and building "new bridges" between the two continents while challenging the view of America as "part of what has gone wrong in our world." 

"People of the world – look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one," the Illinois senator told the audience in front of the Victory Monument at Berlin’s Tiergarten Thursday.

"People of Berlin – and people of the world – the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. Let us build on our common history and seize our common destiny, and once again engage in that noble struggle to bring justice and peace to our world."

Warm welcome

In the days leading up to the senator’s visit, a frenzy seem to take hold of the German capital, a phenomenon the German media dubbed, "Obamamania." His visit dominated headlines, blogs and even everyday conversation in cafes and pubs.

So it was no surprise that Obama was warmly welcomed by a crowd of about 200,000 consisting of Germans and Americans living in Berlin as well as curious tourists. After strolling confidently to the podium to rapturous applause, chanting and a sea of American flags, he enthusiastically thanked those attending at the event as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and flamboyant Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit all of whom he met with earlier in the day. 

In reference to his multicultural heritage, he joked, "I know that I don't look like the Americans who have previously spoken in this great city." Obama had earlier emphasised the diversity of his background, stressing his Kenyan roots and the humble beginnings of his family.

For many such as German-American, Timothy Cooper, 19, of Berlin, 46-year-old Obama embodies the American dream. He was born in Kansas to a Kenyan father and white American mother and was educated for a time in Indonesia, where he has become hugely popular. 

"I'm for Obama because he grew up with difficult circumstances but still made it to the top and if he is able to do it, he can inspire us to achieve the same," he said. "Also, he has a very international background, which gives him the ability to unite people and understand a lot of views that McCain cannot." 

Security tight but low-key
As the first black American presidential candidate, Obama has been subject to far higher security measures than his Republican rival Senator John McCain, receiving secret service protection on a daily basis following threats against him. It has been reported that hundreds of American secret service agents were present in Berlin for the speech and 700 Berlin police officers were assigned to the event.

Security was low-key but strict. One German man standing amongst the crowd was ejected for holding an umbrella adorned with placards reading, "McCain." When asked about his political intentions, he replied, "I am pro-America," before being removed by security officials.

The event, however, was marked by a number of security lapses. One group of Obama supporters succeeded in overwhelming the police after one member acted as a decoy by leaping over a barrier to the dismay of the two officers. As the officers ran after him, about 50 fans managed to rush closer to the stage.

And earlier that afternoon, the Hotel Adlon, where Obama was staying, was closed off due to a suspicious package being found. It turned out to be a book.

Gaining credibility
A novice senator, Obama came to Germany to emphasise his foreign policy credentials in the run up to November's presidential election. In contrast to incumbent President George W. Bush, who had never left the US prior to taking office, Obama was keen to stress that America must be seen to be aware of and open to the rest of the world. 

Back in the US, McCain is struggling to counter Obama's international crusade. While Obama dazzled Berlin, the Republican presidential candidate visited a German restaurant in Ohio and told reporters that while he would love to give a speech in Germany, he would prefer to do so as the president.

Regardless, the Berlin speech is the high point of a tour which has seen Obama visit the American conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and drop by Jerusalem and the West Bank to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In anticipation of the speech, Obama told reporters: "Hopefully [the speech] will be viewed as a substantive articulation of the relationship I'd like to see between the United States and Europe."

Walking a tricky path 
Originally, the Democratic campaign team had requested that Obama be allowed to speak in front of Berlin's monumental Brandenburg Gate but this was vetoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel on the grounds that he was not a head of state. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made his famous foreign policy speech at the same location, in which he encouraged the Soviet Union to dismantle the Berlin Wall. 

Similarly, Obama used his platform to call for the tearing down of divisions between international powers and a spirit of dialogue on the global stage, claiming that past experience had shown negotiation and tolerance to be more effective than unilateral action on world issues. 

During the course of the speech, he touched upon almost every aspect of foreign policy, particularly catering to his European audience when talking about nuclear proliferation and climate change. Citing trouble spots past and present from Somalia to Belfast, the Illinois senator vowed to tackle injustice of all kinds but refrained from speaking about the presidency itself, countering claims that he had been presumptious in his visit, and adopting a modest tone when speaking: "I am here as a citizen," he stressed. 

Unusually for a presidential candidate, he admitted that America had made "mistakes" in the recent past but insisted that this had not diminished his love for his country. 

"I know my country has not perfected itself," he said. "At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived – at great cost and great sacrifice – to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world."

No harm done
After the speech, the general consensus was that Obama had done no harm to his ambition to reach the White House. 

Phillip Hammack, a 32-year-old professor of psychology from the US, was in Berlin for a conference and praised the speech. "Obama is the first presidential candidate in our lifetime to be this inspiring and to unite people so well," he said. "He spreads a message of unity and because of him, people who would never have voted before are motivated to do so. I think he did a good job in his speech -- he addressed a lot of issues." 

Despite the positive impression, however, some may still accuse the senator of lacking substance. The importance of image and perception in his campaign was illustrated by one onlooker's reason for supporting him. German Clara Fecka, 16, of Berlin sported an Obama t-shirt and explained why she attended the event: "He is so nice."


Following his address in Berlin, Obama is also set for talks in Paris and London before returning to the US for the election campaign itself. It is unlikely he will get the welcome he received in Berlin, one that even impressed undecided voters such as Dave Stewart of New York, coincidentally in town on vacation.

"I came (to see Obama) because I was interested," he said, adding that he was unaware of the event until today. "I find this amazing. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it myself."


-- Dave Baxter and Dominic Hinde 

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