"Wunderbar Together"? Ahead of the upcoming Year of German-American Friendship, observers with a deep experience of both countries discussed how Germany can reach out to Trump's America. It could all start with a beer.
Are Germany and the United States really "Wunderbar Together"?
That's a least the slogan of the upcoming Year of German-American Friendship ("Deutschlandjahr USA"), a year-long series of events initiated by the German Federal Foreign Office to promote transatlantic relations in all fields of society.
Even though the Deutschlandjahr USA campaign aims to go beyond being a direct reaction to the developments in the country since Trump's election, the current situation shows that German-US relations can't be taken for granted.
Introducing the program ahead of its official launch on October 3, a discussion was held in Berlin on Saturday under the title "Germany and the USA — foreign friends? What politics, economy and culture have to do now."
The discussion's participants, from left to right: Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, author Cornelia Funke, Tagesspiegel journalist Christoph von Marschall, entertainer Gayle Tufts, President of the Federation of German Industries Dieter Kempf, New York Times correspondent Melissa Eddy and re:publica founder Markus Beckedahl
Reaching out, beyond New York and Los Angeles
The moderator of the discussion, Christoph von Marschall, long-time White House correspondent for the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, asked the panel's participants how they believed the initiative could manage to go beyond preaching to the choir of Americans who are already interested in the Germany's culture.
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, explained that while his institution has already established privileged links at its locations in six major US cities — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington —, the projects of the Deutschlandjahr USA will also specifically target areas where people aren't regularly exposed to international culture.
For example, the German-American Partnership Program (GAPP) is a student exchange program focusing on schools located in cities of less than 50,000 inhabitants. "The approach is particularly successful there, because that's where knowledge about Germany is at its lowest," said Lehmann.
Best-selling German author Cornelia Funke, who has been living in California for many years, reacted enthusiastically to the idea: "Particularly in small towns, that's where the people feel forgotten — it was noticeable with Brexit as well."
The novelist best known for the Inkheart trilogy feels strongly about acting against the nationalism that's reappearing worldwide and taking everyone by surprise, "almost like a sea monster."
Embracing the clichés of German culture
Even if nationalism is growing in the US, a large part of the population there has a natural connection with Germany. Nearly one fourth of the American people — 58 million — consider themselves to be of German or part German ancestry.
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Many of these people live in America's Heartland. Minnesota native Melissa Eddy, Berlin correspondent for the New York Times, often hears people say: "I'm German!" when she returns to the US. She realized these people are proud of their German roots, even if their actual knowledge of the country is superficial.
"They want to talk about German beer or football. These might be embarrassing clichés for Germans, but that's how it begins," said Eddy, pointing out that if at home Germans don't have a problem saying, "let's meet for a beer," they should also be open-minded when an American gets excited about German beer. Rather than being embarrassed, she said, the attitude should be, "exactly, that's where we can meet — for a beer."
That's another strategy adopted by the Goethe-Institut for the Deutschlandjahr, said Lehmann. The project "Wiesn in a Box" (in reference to the name given to the Oktoberfest's location in Munich) will share the culture of German beer in the US by staging mini-Oktoberfests throughout the country.
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Cultural ambassadors: Heidi Klum and Rammstein
American entertainer Gayle Tufts, who's been living in Berlin for over 25 years and whose comedy act is based on observing the cultural differences between her adopted and home countries, has noticed that the entire image of Germany has improved through the soft power of cultural ambassadors — including some that might appear stereotypical in Germany.
Her mother's generation would perceive the Germans as "the bad guys in the James Bond films," but now her nieces are huge Germany fans thanks to the country's women's soccer team. "And sorry, I have to say it: Rammstein. They've done so much to promote the German language in America. People know their lyrics by heart." She also cited supermodel and TV host Heidi Klum as another role model in the country. "She speaks in complete sentences, which is also nice," quipped the comedian.
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Gayle Tufts: Transatlantic ties can improve "through falling in love and making wonderful multinational babies"
Pop culture as a meeting ground
More than a few Germans might start rolling their eyes hearing those names, knowing that Germany has so much more "sophisticated" culture to offer.
The concept of distinguishing between high and popular culture is very German, noted author Cornelia Funke. The novelist pointed out that many of the Germans visiting her in the US are quick to disparage "the Americans" and their culture; she simply reminds them that it's also the country producing the top-quality TV series and films the entire world wants to watch. "Often after a week they ask about getting their own Green Card."
Another thing to remember is that mass culture can open doors to other interests. "We have to find what brings us together," said Gayle Tufts. The US is a huge country, and just like in Germany, each part of the land has its cultural differences, she added. "But we can find each other through pop culture." Stories conveyed through films show that there are other options to voting for Trump or the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany, the comedian believes.
Along with film, music, art and literature, Tufts feels the basics of Germany's culture, whether soccer, beer or food, shouldn't be snubbed as ways of opening dialogue with America and the rest of the world: "They say 'Loves goes through the stomach' — and friendships too."