As Obama prepares to give his much-anticipated speech in Germany tomorrow, we asked Berlin-based journalist Cameron Abadi, who writes regularly for Die Zeit and the Financial Times Magazine, to give us some perspective from the ground:
There was a time when to be mayor of Berlin meant to have gained entry to the grand stage of world politics: When John F. Kennedy rode through the streets of Berlin waving at crowds from the back of an open-topped car, Mayor Willy Brandt was riding shotgun; likewise, when Ronald Reagan passed through town the first time, his tour guide would be then-mayor Richard von Weizsaecker. Alas, times have changed: Current mayor Klaus Wowereit hasn't even been guaranteed a meeting with Barack Obama.
The snub is an apt illustration of the fact that the city itself has lost most of its former political luster. As a local newspaper remarked yesterday, Berlin is in some ways an unlikely site for a major transatlantic speech. It is no longer a divided city, the frontline of the Cold War; it is a peaceful, but poor town, the capital of a united and prosperous country. It is a place with many problems--high unemployment, a ballooning budget deficit, a population of third-generation immigrants that has not yet been integrated--for which it doesn't seem in a particular hurry to find answers. People from around the world have long sought an escape in Berlin, but the place has been freed of the existential angst of the Cold War that once granted that gesture poignancy.
Many critics have questioned Obama's choice of the "Victory Column" for the site of his speech, as it was originally built to commemorate German military aggression. But today's Berliners actually associate the column with its post-Wall significance: the gathering point of the "Love Parade," an international techno music extravaganza (see above). The students, artists, freelancers, and expats who will flocking to Obama's speech are the same ones who were attracted to Berlin's cheap rents, thriving art scene, and mid-town water front that has been transformed into hopping beach space. Thus, Berlin is actually quite an appropriate setting for Obama's speech--a town drained of its political drama, in front on a monument largely cleansed of its historical associations. Obama's candidacy aims to inspire a new generation, not dwell on the wounds of the past.
Obama's stop in Berlin will be the perfect high point for his rockstar world tour, which is more about gravitas than political substance. Berliners aren't looking for a sober event, in either sense of the word; they'll come for Obama, but they'll stay for the beer.