Opinion: Germans See Themselves in Obama

Already, the U.S. media are awash with breathless accounts of Democratic candidate Barack Obama's speech today in Berlin. Images of the operatic piece of political theater are saturating the nightly news, Obama's face broadcast to a reported 200,000-strong crowd on a Jumbotron monitor, retransmitted onto the flat-screen TVs of millions of Americans, before they settle in to watch this week's rerun of "Ugly Betty." As a speech, it was reassuring and resonant, though it didn't reach for the revival-tent feeling that marks many of Obama's stateside events. Standing in front of the Victory Column, Obama exhorted the crowd: "People of Berlin—people of the world—this is our moment. This is our time." The image seems destined for the history books. In politics, a picture like that is worth a thousand words or, in this case, tens of millions of dollars worth of free campaign advertising. But the value is only legible in the context of an American audience. What's in it for the Germans, beyond an offer of friendship?

How does one explain the level of fervor that surrounds this foreign (to them) political candidate? Is it his easy grin? (Unlikely—Germans aren't known as the warmest people.) His well-toned physique? (They are very into physical fitness here.) Or maybe the answer has something to do with the way the man and his message fit into the country's psychodynamics, tapping into a meta-narrative that encompasses Germany's tragic yet enlightened history. In a country with a well-founded distrust of larger-than-life politicians, Obama is a safe vessel for Germany's desire to lose themselves in a leader, and he's seen as the best hope for America's salvation from the perceived catastrophic policies of its current president.

The desire to transcend the horror of the Holocaust has deeply shaped the post-World War II German political psyche, resulting in what, to Americans, would seem like an extremely liberal government agenda, with extensive protection of civil liberties and widespread government support for social welfare, along with progressive environmental policies and legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. Dennis Pachernegg, a German copywriter, frames the Obama phenomenon in context of Germans' internalized guilt about the atrocities their nation perpetrated on Jews, gays, Roma, the disabled and various other groups. "Never forget Germans' deep insecurity about how they are perceived in the world because of their past," he says. "By showing that they support someone who is black, they can show the world they have changed. This is how they prove themselves to be 'good people'." Pachernegg also sees a separate but related issue at play concerning the appeal of a magnetic political figure. "There are so few really charismatic politicians in Germany, so every opportunity is taken to see someone like him. People's rationale tells them it is all show, and that they should abhor it—everyone with a cheering mass at his feet is suspicious—but when the candidate is from somewhere else, it's more acceptable."

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, an American writer and critic based in Berlin, offered an insider's outsider perspective on the German strain of Obamamania that echoes Pachernegg's viewpoint. "Germans are particularly vigilant about anything that might resemble demagoguery," he says. At the same time "they still seem keen to find leaders they can relate to in this way. They'll say, 'Well, we're a little skeptical of anyone who presents themselves in a messianic spirit, but we'll admit we've been kind of won over by this American guy.' It allows them to exercise some of those authoritarian fantasies. And especially in light of the racial issue, they can be even more self-congratulatory in their putatively reluctant sense of obedience."

Not everyone sees a messianic motivation behind the country's enthusiasm for the Democratic presidential candidate. Dr. Michael Kreile, professor of international politics at Humboldt University in Berlin, discerns a more immediate cause: "It mainly comes from an aversion toward George Bush, his presidency and the Iraq War. [There is] the hope that American foreign policy will become more oriented towards multilateralism and more respectful of human rights and domestic rights. Everyone feels and hopes that these things will change with Obama." Kreile also sees an element of media exaggeration at play, which will shift if Obama is elected. "You have Obama on the cover of Der Spiegel and huge coverage of his primary election campaign in the newspapers and on TV, but that's [an] echo of the American media. I think enthusiasm about Obama will decline if he's elected. Nobody expects miracles from politicians here. He's not going to be the savior. Once Obama would be president he'd make demands on European countries."

You might thing that the possibility of Obama continuing current U.S. policy or failing to accommodate Europe's concerns would put a damper on the enthusiasm Germans have shown for his candidacy. But no one seems to be paying much attention: an opinion poll published last week in the Bild newspaper found 72 percent of Germans would vote for him over Republican John McCain in the Nov. 4 election if they could.

Perhaps they're too busy buying campaign paraphernalia. "One of my workmates had the Obama logo as his iChat icon and my flatmate bought an Obama shirt when he was in the U.S.," says Pachernegg. "But no one really knows what he stands for, except that he is one of the 'good guys.' People hope that he will change the politics Bush pursued for so long, but concrete policies? No one really knows." Which doesn't sound that different, actually, from some of the complaints that dodge the senator's candidacy back on his home turf.

Policy details aside, Obama's appearance here had the mark of history upon it long before he ever arrived. His speech was electrifying, as usual, but even if he had fumbled his lines, it wouldn't have mattered much. They came, like so many Americans do, because of how his words make them feel, because of the promise that every once in a while politics can bypass the mundane world of the pragmatic into the realm of the transcendent. Despite their Teutonic reservoir of icy cool, the Germans have a soft spot for sweeping oratory—one of their own philosophers, Martin Heidegger, expressed this predisposition, writing that "the nature of poetry is the founding of truth." If Obama wins the election in November, this moment will be remembered as prophetic, a 21st-century Sermon on the Mount moving enough to sway even the most dedicated political agnostics. If he loses, it will be a blow to the heart of not just his supporters in the United States, but to his European flock, as well. And no one will be more happy or hurt than his German congregation. Because in America, despite its own private reservoir of shame rooted in centuries of racism, despite its character marked by eternal optimism and a tendency toward evangelical zeal, Obama '08 remains change that not everyone can believe in. For Germans, however, it's an article of faith.