No Free Lunch: Obama and Nietzsche in Berlin

News at Home

Andreas Daum is professor of history, SUNY Buffalo, and the author of Kennedy in Berlin (Cambridge University Press, 2008). For his comments on NPR’s “All Things Considered” prior to the Obama visit click here. See also his interview with newswise.com.

Would a President Obama offer a free lunch for the Europeans? Hardly so, at least not if one carefully reads Barack Obama’s Berlin speech of July 24, delivered — after much hassle about the appropriate location — in front of Berlin’s Victory Column.  “Your troops” are needed in Afghanistan, said Obama, and he meant German and European troops.  The Democratic presidential candidate did not hesitate to remind the audience of an estimated 200,000 that shouldering the “burdens of global citizenship” required doing "more, not less.”  These statements did not come unexpectedly at an event that millions of Germans had been eagerly awaiting. It was choreographed like the celebration of a pop star.

Obama’s Berlin visit was a festival of historical references and offers a lesson in the politics of history.  Friedrich Nietzsche was present, too. Monumental notions of history, a topic Nietzsche expanded on in his essay dealing with the"Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," clearly dominated the event. Not without surprises, though.  The protagonist turned out to be more imaginative than most of the commentators.  This speaks for the skillfulness of his speech-writers, but his speech also demonstrated that many questions about the role Europe would play in an Obama administration remain open.

The choice of Berlin as one of the few stops on Obama’s European trip invited historical analogies.  Obama chose the Cold War’s central symbolic site — an arena of strategic contest and a stage on which politics was performed in often spectacular forms — over less glamorous, but also less historically loaded locations, such as Brussels.  But the frequent comparisons to Kennedy’s Berlin visit (“Ich bin ein Berliner,” 1963) made in anticipation of Obama’s arrival all too often remained glued to well known tropes — depicting Obama as the “black Kennedy,” according to the tabloid BILD: young, charismatic and visionary.  Even Ronald Reagan experienced a revival (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” 1987). A bit of critical history, to mention Nietzsche again, would have been appropriate here.  In fact, Reagan’s two Berlin visits as presidents were deeply divisive performances.  In both instances, fierce street battles between protesters and the police revealed the discrepancy between the official celebration of trans-Atlantic friendship and the realities of the city and of West German society.  Would a president Obama close this gap?

Though presenting himself in Berlin only as a “proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world,” Obama did what US presidents have done since Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963.  He reiterated the heroic saga of Berlin as the West’s outpost during the Cold War.  At the latest with the beginning of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, a monumental story evolved that turned the city of Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker and the Wannsee Conference into a symbol of universal longing for freedom.  Speaking of communism's “march across Europe,” evoking the imagery of the airlift that rescued the “last flame of freedom,” and portraying the Cold War as a “battle of ideas” might have sounded a bit too Reaganesque in the ears of many in the audience.  References to Kennedy (“all free people … became citizens of Berlin”) and FDR (“freedom from fear”) did not miss in the senator’s speech.

Yet, Obama distanced himself elegantly from the triumphalist interpretation of the Cold War that, in Hegelian fashion, sees US foreign policy and in particular Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president as the key to explaining the end of the Cold War order and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  In Obama’s speech, Timothy Garton Ash’s take on that story won over John Lewis Gaddis's: “You, the German people, tore down that wall.”

Obama himself provided the actual surprise.  He pulled out of oblivion Ernst Reuter, West Berlin’s pro-American, governing mayor during the early Cold War era.  Three months after the beginning of the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, Reuter had called upon the people of the world to “look upon this city.”  Obama varied the sentence and used it repeatedly, as the reference to the airlift itself, to make his points: about the world becoming more intertwined than ever in history, about the “shared destiny” of people on both sides of the Atlantic, about addressing the challenges of nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, and global warming, and about securing human rights around the world.

In terms of political rhetoric, Obama’s historical references offered a masterpiece of blending the past into the present and connecting the dots.  But does a monumental, heroic saga really provide the credible motivation needed to tackle today’s global challenges and reinvigorate European-American relations?  Did the politics of history not dodge the question of how to create multi-lateral security structures and mobilize the Europeans to accept America’s interests in the world, as if the latter were not on Obama’s agenda?

The German newspaper Die Welt, not known for outbursts of anti-Americanism, called Obama’s device of presenting today’s needs for action as a logical continuation of the West’s Cold War policies “sleight of hand.”  Yet, one can also argue that it would be an enormous step forward if a future president could arouse popular enthusiasm in Europe and begin with the advantage of being trusted (time for sobering will be coming rather sooner than later anyway).  Symbolic politics needs substance to be credible; only then will the Reagan gap be closed, and credibility — even it comes with a dose of wishful thinking – can impact positively the conduct of trans-Atlantic relations.  This, too, is a lesson to be learned from the Cold War.

Obama exploited the rich fund of historical references in what he emphatically called “this city of all cities.”  No matter who will be moving into the White House next, it remains to be seen whether the next president will truly understand both the complexities and the distinctiveness of Europe.  We will see whether he will take into account the Europeans’ overwhelming support for approaches to contested issues such as Iraq, the Kyoto Protocol, and the International Criminal Court, to name only a few, that the current US administration has dismissed with grandiose defiance.

To “look upon this city,” Berlin, once more — as Ernst Reuter called for sixty years ago — is an honorable idea.  After all, Berlin’s new role in Europe and in trans-Atlantic relations — which includes attracting Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, offering a platform for new artistic experiments, dealing with ethnic minorities, and hosting institutions such as the American Academy that continue to bring Americans to Europe – provides ample opportunities for embarking on a serious trans-Atlantic dialogue.

However, the attempt to perpetuate a “long-ago moment” into the future always runs the risk of becoming “antiquarian,” as Nietzsche wrote.  This is certainly not an effect the senator from Illinois would like to have.  If he becomes president, his lunch conversations with the Europeans might be more stimulating, tough and controversial than the 200,000 gathered in Berlin last week might have thought.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/31/2008

As fallout from the European trip by Obama, John McCain has closed up in the polls for Pennsylvania and Ohio, while extending his lead in Florida. How many electoral votes are there in Western Europe? Those Berliners might like a citizen of the world in the White House, but heartland Americans prefer to have a citizen of the United States--as evidenced by the failure of "world test" John Kerry.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 7/28/2008

I find it fascinating that the history lesson misses the fact Obama chose to deliver his platitudes at the victory column Hitler so triumphally PLACED (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3492785,00.html) and later used it to celebrate (http://media.nationalreview.com/post/?q=ZWFkOTAzNDY5ZTc2OTBkZmNhYmVlZGVlZjZhYzJiZDk=) his takeover of Austria so poignantly depicted in the Sound of Music.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/28/2008

Obama was just showing his true colors and the flowery rhetoric about 'change' was certainly cynical at best. And yet people ate it up without reservation. Truly ugly to me how desperation fuels such support. Another face but the same kind of mind set of GWOT all of the time any where the American Empire wants it.

Elliott Aron Green - 7/28/2008

Prof. Daum, an interesting treatment of Obama's Berlin speech. Yet you miss what the speech revealed about Obama himself. During the primaries he was "anti-war" and seemingly "anti-military." Now he is in fact pro-war. He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan, and you quoted him urging Europeans to send "your troops" there. So Anti-War Obama has transformed into National Security Obama, Intervention Is Good Obama. In other words, we are dealing with a cynic, an opportunist who used the "anti-war" sentiments of many college youth in order to win the Dem primary and now shifts back to the standard, old Washington Cold War line, although he had earlier portrayed himself as "new," young, fresh, untainted by the corruption of Washington.