Friday, October 31, 2008

WITNESS: Berliners' love affair with America grows cold

Erik Kirschbaum, a U.S. citizen, has lived in German-speaking Europe for most of the past 26 years, and for 16 of them has worked as a Reuters correspondent in Germany. In the following story, he reports on the changing attitudes of Berliners towards his home country.

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - There may be no better place in the world to witness the shift in sentiment toward the United States than Berlin.

It was hard to imagine a more pro-American city when I first moved here in 1993, yet the wind has changed and the love affair is over.

The infatuation with all things American has all but disappeared.

Perhaps it will change after the November 4 U.S. presidential election -- even though things will never be the same no matter who wins.

As in other countries, America's image has suffered. A June PEW survey found 31 percent of Germans had a favorable view of the United States, down from 78 percent in 2000.

Being an American in Berlin was once special. Not any more.

A city saved and protected by the Americans during the Cold War, Berlin was an island of overwhelming admiration for America, its presidents and above all the American way of life -- at least its altruistic, kind-hearted, justice-seeking side.

Avenues were named after U.S. generals, schools after U.S. leaders and squares named after U.S. cities. American disc jockeys speaking mangled German were radio stars.

The U.S. ambassador's Fourth of July gathering was once the most coveted ticket on the garden party calendar. Not any more.

Berlin mayors spoke American-accented English and everyone from children to the elderly had a twinkle in their eye when recalling the 1940s Berlin airlift, Checkpoint Charlie tank standoffs or John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech in the city proclaiming "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").

THUNDEROUS SEND-OFF

Probably the most moving assignment of my 18 years as a correspondent abroad was in 1994, when a district that hosted 6,000 U.S. soldiers who protected them from 90,000 Soviet forces stationed outside the Berlin Wall held a parade for the departing GIs.

Steglitz is a low-rise district with a small-town feel, and I had expected perhaps a few thousand to interrupt their Saturday shopping for a quick wave goodbye -- or good riddance.

Instead, more than 250,000 packed the streets on that sunny summer morning. As the soldiers marched, the Berliners cheered, and cheered, and cheered. They threw tons of confetti from windows and gave their departing heroes a thunderous send-off.  Continued...

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