Touching Americans | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.09.2004
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Touching Americans

Trying to counter anti-American sentiments left over from communist rule, US officials are sending Americans to eastern German schools. Experts say current US policy is to blame for bad feelings about the US.


How about some reading material on US elections?

"Everyone here speaks and understands English?" John K. Bauman recently asked a group of students at Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben High School in Potsdam.

"Yes," was the reply and the minister-counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Berlin began to explain the intricacies of the US political system and the upcoming presidential elections.

Steuben-Gesamtschule in Potsdam

Named after a US Revolutionary War hero from Germany, the Steuben High School wouldn't look out of place in southern California's suburbs.

For the past year, embassy officials as well as American students, artists, journalists and business people have been visiting schools in eastern Germany as part of a project called Amis zum Anfassen, or "touchable Americans," as one embassy official put it.

"In a nutshell, the purpose of this program is to get away from stereotypes and clichés," Roy S. Weatherston, the embassy's deputy cultural attaché, who oversees the program, told DW-WORLD.

The embassy had started organizing similar visits shortly after German reunification in 1990. Banking on efforts by Germany's federal government to expose its new citizens to western values, however, US officials decided instead to focus their attention on post-communist eastern European states instead.

Obsolete values

But over the past decade, embassy officials realized that many eastern Germans still held on to old views of the West.

Ausstellung DDR Plakate in Eisenhüttenstadt -Verfassung

"Our yes to the GDR's socialist constitution," reads this East German propaganda poster.

"In fact we are talking about a society where certain values continue to be passed on, even though the values might be regarded as obsolete," Weatherston said, adding that he himself was confronted with the remnants of communist propaganda during one school visit.

"Students have said to me, 'In a country, where poverty reigns, where 90 percent of the population are starving, how can you be pursuing this Middle East agenda or the Iraq agenda,'" Weatherston said.

He added that the statement reminded him of Soviet propaganda films about Washington's beggar-ridden streets he had seen on television as a student in Moscow. (According to official figures, 12.5 percent of the US population lived in poverty in 2003, compared to 13 percent in Germany.)

"It's a complete fantasy kind of view of the United States as a Marxist nightmare -- early 19th century capitalism extended to the year 2000," he said. "But this is how these kids still seem to be thinking."

Iraq not the trigger

To correct such views, embassy officials decided to organize regular visits to eastern German schools. More than 100 events have taken place since the program's official start last year. Weatherston emphasized that the timing had nothing to do with cooling relations between Germany and the US as a result of the differences over Iraq.

US-Streitkräfte in Deutschland ziehen ab

US soldiers have been stationed in western Germany since 1945.

"The purpose of the program is completely apolitical," he said, adding that speakers are not required to agree with official US policy. "The purpose is to expose people simply to the kind of Americans that Germans in the West have known their entire lives."

Some experts agreed that the effects of four decades of anti-American propaganda in East Germany can still be felt today.

"It continues to have a bit of an effect and can only be countered by information and contact" with foreigners, said Matthias Reitzle, a developmental psychologist at the University of Jena who has studied changing values among German adolescents.

US policy to blame?

But Reitzle agreed with several others that current resentment of the US had more to do with the policies of President George W. Bush's administration.

Demonstration in Leipzig gegen Krieg in Irak mit Thumbnail

Just like their countrymen all over Germany, people in Leipzig demonstrated against the Iraq war.

"The present is much more crucial," Sybille Reinhardt, a political scientist at the University of Halle and self-proclaimed fan of the US, told DW-WORLD. "If America wants to appear in a positive light, they've got to change their politics."

Back at Potsdam's Steuben High School, the discussion between Bauman and the students also turned to US foreign policy.

The diplomat listened politely to students' concerns about the US detention camp at Guantanamo, where al Qaeda suspects are being held. He pointed out that Germany remained a "leading country in the war against terrorism" and "really our closest ally in dealing with the part of the world where al Qaeda came from -- with Afghanistan."

He said that no one was more ashamed of the cases of torture at Bagdhad's Abu Ghraib prison than the American people and asked his audience to be patient with his country.

US Botschaftsrat John K. Bauman an der Steuben Gesamtschule in Potsdam

John K. Bauman talking to students in Potsdam.

"Watch us, see what happens," Bauman said. "We're certain to make some more mistakes. We're human, but see if the system of government we have can't correct itself."

"Normal people"

That didn't do the trick for Nicole Greissel, an 18-year-old junior, who made no secret about the fact that she didn't really like the US.

"Americans are pretty arrogant and think they're the best and can do everything they want," she told DW-WORLD. "They think they immediately have to get involved if there's a problem somewhere in the world."

While equally critical of US policy, 19-year-old Josef Weirauch said he had nothing against Americans in general.

"They are normal people who try to survive each day," the senior said. "It's actually the same as in Germany. Except the oil prices are cheaper and the taxes are not so high and everything looks kind of broken. But that depends on where you're living in America."


The morning sky is set ablaze by the rising sun behind Wood Island Lighthouse off Biddeford Pool, Maine.

Weirauch has lived in America: He spent a year at a high school in a Portland, Maine, suburb, where people didn't have to lock their houses, he said.

He's planning to go back as soon as possible to study and work there -- "and to see more about the American way of life, which in my experience is the best thing that I have experienced in my life until now."

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