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Obama in Berlin

Kyle JamesJuly 21, 2008

After much debate, presumptive US presidential candidate Barack Obama will speak in front of Berlin’s Victory Column on Thursday. "Obamania" in Germany is now in full swing as the country awaits a political rock star.

Barack Obama giving a speech in front of US flags
Barack Obama will speak at Berlin's Victory Column on Thursday -- Berlin can't waitImage: AP

For Monika Staffel, wearing an "Obama for President" button is nothing unusual, even though she's a German citizen and won't be voting in the US presidential election this November. This election is too important to stay on the sidelines, she said.

"We are waiting urgently for change because Bush has caused a lot of damage in the world,“ the 46-year-old from western Germany said after visiting a stand two American Obama supporters had set up in Berlin's central Gendarmenmarkt square.

"Now we want to know more about Obama's positions and we're very sad that we can't be here in Berlin on the 24th to listen to his speech," she added. "But we'll be following it very closely in the media."

Staffel reflects the views of many Germans who are enthusiastic supporters of the presumptive Democratic candidate, and are eagerly awaiting his appearance this Thursday in Berlin, when he will make a speech in front of Berlin's Victory Column.

If the US presidential election were decided by German voters, Obama could probably cut back on his breakneck campaign schedule. A survey released by the Pew Research Center showed that Germans prefer the senator from Illinois over the Republican candidate, John McCain, by a 49 percent margin.

Building excitement

"There is a great passion for a new America in Europe and Barack Obama is the object of that adulation," said Robin Hemingway, the founder of Americans in Berlin-Brandenburg for Obama, a group whose aim is to register as many Americans as possible before the November elections.

Event sponsored by Democrats Abroad
Democrats Abroad has been working to get Americans in Germany registered to voteImage: Lara Brekenfeld

While the excitement about Obama has been bubbling for months, "Obamania" has moved into high gear especially after the presumptive candidate announced his overseas trip with a stop in Berlin.

Hemingway, 67, said he has been contacted by people who are coming to Berlin this week from German cities like Frankfurt and Rostock and places further afield such as Prague and Budapest. They are not just American expats, he said, many Germans are making the trip, too.

"Germans accept him like a rock-star," he said. "It's like he made their favorite album and they want to come and see him. I've never seen that here before."

The group Democrats Abroad reports record high interest levels among Americans. Over the last six months, its membership rolls have doubled, the organization said. The Berlin chapter said Americans from the Netherland and Switzerland were coming to the speech, and to volunteer. The chapter has been calling for members to help out with its voter registration drive at the event.

Location, location

For weeks, Germany has been consumed with the question of where Obama will speak. When the campaign requested having him talk in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed reservations, fearing perhaps such a location would look like an endorsement of the Democratic nominee.

Victory Column during the Love Parade
The Victory Column is now more often associated with fun of some sort -- like the Love ParadeImage: dpa

Other locations were floated and members of Obama's team were reported to be in Berlin last week scouting out alternatives. The decision to choose the Victory Column, a 226-foot pillar topped by a gold angel, has itself opened up a small controversy, with some politicians complaining that the site recalls Germany's Nazi past and Prussia's militaristic tradition.

The monument was built in 1864 to commemorate Prussia's victory over Denmark. It was later moved by Adolf Hitler from its site near to Reichstag to its current position about one mile west in the middle of the Tiergarten park.

But many Berliners today probably associate it more with having a good time, since for years it was the destination of the Love Parade techno party. It is also where Berlin's gay and lesbian pride event, Christopher Street Day, is held.

It's the party link that is more likely going through German minds for the event this Thursday. Huge crowds are expected, especially since the speech is being likened by many to John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" performance in 1963.

Several hundred city police officers will be on duty for the event, but estimates on the number of people expected to come listen to Obama are hard to come by. The Tagesspiegel daily quotes an official as saying the city expects between "10,000 and one million."

Euphoria now, disappointment later?

Even though a recent series of interviews with Germans in central Berlin failed to find one single McCain backer, the support for Obama in Germany does not come without some reservations. The current euphoria could be short-lived when Germans see that all of Obama's foreign policies are not to their liking.

Obama in Afghanistan
Obama stopped in Afghanistan during this overseas trip, hoping to burnish his foreign policy credentialsImage: AP

"He is young, dynamic, and has a lot of good ideas," said Marion Violett, 55, who was visiting Berlin from Duesseldorf. "But this decision about Afghanistan and putting more troops in there, that I can't understand and I don't like at all."

Still, if she could, she would vote for Obama over McCain. Besides, she says, she doesn't know much about the Republican candidate.

"In Germany, every twist and turn Obama makes is followed closely," she said. "But McCain isn't present in the media here at all."