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July 25, 2008

Berlin's Obamafest

The Germans want him too.
Photo: Miguel Villagrano/AP

by Guy Martin

German dailies don't often Photoshop pictures of their nation's very, very white and overwhelmingly male politicians. In fact, it's safe to say that they never publish pictures of their politicians in . . . well, in a sort of blackface. Period. It's Germany, okay? Joint's lilly-white! Everybody's scared of the whole skin-tone thing, even as satire.

Or . . . not.

Yesterday morning, 12 hours before Barack Obama's groundbreaking political rally in Berlin--attended by 215,000, the highest-ever turnout for a political purpose in the country since the reunification demonstrations and rallies in 1989--the Bild Zeitung, Germany's largest daily, published a banner gallery of five heavily Photoshopped German politicians. The editors gave them all the trademark Obama crew cut and café-au-lait complexion. 

The notion was: We need more dudes like him. The headline was: "Bring us a little more fun in politics!"

The makeover didn't help Chancellor Merkel's hausfrau thing much, but the four boys, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were very much improved. You could say that they looked kinda sharp. The editors' point was, even if you took the most popular eight or ten European politicians and put them on a stage, they wouldn't draw a fraction of the interest that Obama does here.

And he proved it a few hours later, as nearly a quarter million Europeans packed in tight as a Times Square New Year's Eve for a couple of miles down the main artery leading to the Brandenburg Gate, the Street of the 17th of June. Then waited happily, American flags in hand, for three hours to hear the man speak.

So, how'd it happen? Man hasn't even won the election yet.

First, Germany's not the Germany we think it was. It's not just that, for an American presidential contest, the heritage and complexion of the candidate is new; it's that this man excites and inspires Europeans with recent immigrant backgrounds with possibility. In short, immigrant Germany was out in force along this boulevard. As were many of their now-German kids.

The bratwurst stands and beer trailers were festooned with American flags. Dozens of Obama campaign volunteers--a mix of American and German university students along with a sprinkling of expats--had tables set up to register American absentee voters. There were lines at the tables.

For Americans who have spent any time working or living in Europe over the last eight years, it was flat-out surreal. In Berlin, a crowd of this size was, formerly, far more likely to be protesting American policy and/or desecrating the Stars and Stripes than waving it or waiting for an American presidential candidate to give a speech.

This was perhaps best explained by Aklikokukou Gaba, originally from Togo, a 15-year resident of Hamburg, and the father of two daughters. Gaba, resplendent in an extra-long BARACK OBAMA IS MY HOMEBOY tee, said simply: "Obama is a gift from God, he has a chance to bring some peace, to help us look to the future, to give hope. I think that is the thought in most people's hearts here."

That, and more. In fact, Obama's crazy, comet-like burn across the political firmament has made Europeans more than a little envious of America again, another extreme rarity these days, both for the Europeans and for Americans living here.

When Obama finally strode out in all his athletic glory across the 75-yard-long stage below the Victory Column (movie lovers will remember this monument from Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire), and launched into this paean to the Berlin Airlift 60 years ago this summer, the crowd went nuts. It was a kind of apotheosis for the Germans, too: Obama was allowing them to be patriotic about themselves. Also a rarity in Germany. 

It was a truly radical, global moment. Obama's reason for making this unprecedented campaign move was to demonstrate his ability and/or sophistication in world affairs--arguably, it's the thing he needs to show the most. And so he took his message to Berlin, a nexus of European and, in fact, global thought since reunification. The weird thing was that the Germans so happily digested it.

"What the hell is going on?" muttered one bewildered expat, turning around and around in a sea of flags and fondness. "They're supposed to hate us here."   

Truth is, the Germans want Obama for their own, so bad that they can taste it. Hot items on the souvenir mile were Obama buttons. Made in Germany, for Germans.

One of them was a Photoshopped picture of the candidate in Bavarian costume (red suspenders, lederhosen) serving mugs of beer.    

OBAMAFEST, it read.


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