Special Report

Barack in Berlin

A report from inside the throng in Tiergarten Park.

By 7.28.08

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BERLIN -- When Barack Obama's campaign finally selected the Victory Column in Berlin as the site for his speech on global cooperation, no doubt they considered its history and aura of gravitas. Located in Berlin's central Tiergarten Park, the Victory Column was built in 1873 to commemorate German military victories and stands just a short distance from the former site of the Berlin Wall. It also stands right next to Berlin's most popular gay naked sunbathing spot.

Obama fans making their way to the security entrance stared and laughed nervously as they passed by a field of 30-40 men soaking up the sun in the buff. One girl tucked her copy of Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father into her bag and pulled out her camera to snap a picture, giggling, "This is so going on my Facebook."

After that distraction, Obama fans faced a veritable obstacle course to get to the security entrance. Campaign volunteers were hunting through the crowd looking for Americans to register to vote. Anyone who opened their mouth to utter something resembling English was immediately pounced upon. One poor German girl, mistakenly identified as American, lamented to the volunteers, "I want to register, but I can't."

No large political gathering is complete without some of Lyndon LaRouche's followers. They were out in force distributing flyers with the headline "P.U.M.A.: Party Unity My Ass," accusing Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean of subverting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Obama fans waited in long lines as every single person underwent a rigorous security check. All the contents of every bag had to be emptied onto a table and then examined. Security guards clicked every pen to make sure they were in fact pens. People had to take a test photo with their cameras to show that their cameras were in fact cameras. They were also required to take a test sip from their water bottles to show that the contents were not poisonous.

Once they were through security, Obama fans faced an even longer wait for the man himself to appear. Gates opened at 4 p.m. for a speech that began at 7. They read German romance novels and rolled cigarettes to pass the time. A stand dispensing Berliner Kindl beer was doing brisk business.

Music was played loudly over the main speakers. Selections included Estelle and Kanye West's hit song "American Boy," which features lyrics very appropriate to Obama's current world tour, "Who the hottest in the world right now/Just touched down in London town." Later a live band called Raymond took the stage. Simon Gierke, 27, a native of Hamburg, commented, "They are the worst band ever to come out of Germany."

The crowd, which eventually swelled to around 200,000, seethed with anticipation as it waited for Obama. A young German named Bastian Honig had driven six hours from his home in southern Germany to attend the speech. He has been following Obama's career for four years and proudly wore the Obama '08 shirt that an American friend had procured for him. "I cannot believe that Obama chose Berlin to make his big speech," Honig gushed.

Kimani, an American man with long dreadlocks, took a more relaxed view. "Every politician talks about 50 percent truth and 50 percent bulls--t. Though with Obama I think it's more like 60-40."

BANNERS AND SIGNS were forbidden at the speech, but there was certainly no lack of political statements. The World Wildlife Fund handed out thousands of free t-shirts emblazoned with the words "Yes You Can" at the top and a polar bear with human hands pointing a finger outward and the words "I want YOU to stop climate change" underneath.

American political memorabilia company Brown and Young was selling commemorative buttons. Some were fairly traditional, featuring Obama's official logo. Others were a little more offbeat. One depicted Obama in front of the German flag and the words "Deutschland fuer Obama" and another depicted Obama in lederhosen surrounded by beer steins and the word "Obamafest."

Ulf Dagner, a Swede staying in Berlin for a psychology conference, found the Obamafest button to be disrespectful yet could not resist buying it. He put it on his messenger bag and fixed a more traditional "Obama '08" button prominently on the front of his shirt.

As it got closer to 7 p.m., the area around the stage became densely crowded. The media covering the event did not have it much better. They were packed like sardines into their high rise across from the podium where Obama would speak. CNN star reporter Christiane Amanpour managed to stick an arm out to wave to a fan.

WHEN OBAMA finally took to the stage -- a full 15 minutes behind schedule -- the crowd went wild. The 27-minute speech was interrupted by applause 30 times. They applauded when he had the audacity to declare that he did not speak to them "as a candidate for president, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world." They kept applauding from beginning to end, though early on, when he was extensively reviewing the history of the Berlin airlift, one German girl whispered to her friend, "But I already know all this."

When the speech ended, many Obama fans tried to make their way to the front to shake the candidate's hand. Most of the crowd, however, started to head home. John McCain has recently been criticizing Obama for changing positions on an exit strategy for Iraq. Obama's campaign certainly failed to arrange a good exit strategy for the crowd at the rally. A large wire fence kept the surging masses locked in without explanation for about 15 minutes. Some enterprising teenagers had started climbing over the portable toilets to escape.

Germans by and large were very happy with the speech. They felt Obama hit all the right notes. Some were a little disappointed that he did not emulate Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" and try to speak a few German phrases.

Over 700 German police wearing green berets with edelweiss emblems were deployed for the visit. They were only required to spring into action once during the speech. A group of six drunken, shirtless young men had gotten a little rowdy and needed to be frog marched out.

The total cost of Obama's stop in Berlin came to about half a million Euros ($786,000), half of which was being picked up by the German taxpayer. "No problem," says Simon Gierke. "Even if it cost millions. Still no problem. This is not about Obama or McCain. This is about living together as humans."

Jens Wieland, another German taxpayer, is equally unbothered by the cost. He says, "More money is spent on much more stupid things. Here at least you get something for it."

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About the Author

Emma Elliott is a writer in Berlin.