Almost 50 years ago, as many as a million Berliners crammed into the town hall square of Schöneburg, a suburb in West Berlin. The crowds – framed by grey post-war apartment blocks – cried out elatedly as President John F. Kennedy stepped up to his podium.
This was JFK’s headland speech, one that would define perceptions of the United States for most Germans and many Europeans for decades; one that would also render JFK a German hero.
“When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and [so will]this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe,” Kennedy said, amidst the June sunshine.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama stepped into JFK's shoes. Not long after the 45th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, Obama stood in front of the Siegesäule, built to mark a nineteenth century German military victory. Like Kennedy, for Obama, Berlin symbolised liberty.
“This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom,” Obama said. “People of the world – look to Berlin!”
This was a triumphant address. That day, Berlin residents again turned up to listen; thousands crammed into the Tiergarten, the city’s most prominent park.
That afternoon was less a campaign speech than a rock concert. Venders sold German-American memorabilia and bratwursts.
The day provided Obama’s campaign with a poll bounce, just months before he surged into the White House. And the trip looked like providing a turnaround in US/European relations, too. The Bush era, during which Europe’s biggest powers rowed with Washington, seemed over. The old NATO partnership appeared back on track.
Since then, Obama has not returned to Berlin. But in March, he announced another cross-Atlantic trip.
The tour, which will kick off with a G8 summit in Northern Ireland, was back then expected to be dominated by talks concerning European politics’ never-ending debt cliffhanger.
But now, with the trip just days away, Obama is mired in crisis over the US government’s surveillance program.
Leaks by former CIA employee Edward Snowden have revealed the US secret services are privy to big communications companies’ data. The NSA’s intelligence gathering is on a massive scale, and – Snowden insists – US spies are subject to little oversight when requesting that data.
British media reports about the program have provoked outrage in Germany. The country has the strictest data protection laws in Europe. Simultaneously, the NSA is reportedly doing more snooping on American ally Germany than on any other European nation.
That has caused concern here; with its history of Nazi and Stasi spying, Germany has been quick to restrict data collection by big internet corporations. German authorities have allowed German citizens to opt out of having photos of their houses taken for Google Street View. And Germany’s leading credit rating service had to halt a project to rate individuals creditworthiness partly based on Facebook data, following protests.
But now the NSA scandal has revealed that US security services are collecting wads of data on Germans. Indeed, the US programs “threaten Germans with spy attacks”, comments the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
“Anyone who has a Facebook account, uses Google, checks out videos on YouTube or phones people using Skype is possibly being screened,” the conservative German daily says. “Big data – those mounds of data online, the mapping of anyone and everyone – has a flipside: His name is Big Brother.”
It’s not just Germans that are worried by “Datagate”. Dailies elsewhere in Europe have also been condemning the US programs.
The National Security Agency spooks are the heirs of the “military-industrial” complex, of which former US president Dwight Eisenhower warned in the 1950s, argues a blogger in liberal Italian daily La Repubblica.
“[Eisenhower], in a pre-retirement speech, set his sights on the American hyper-power, the military-industrial complex,” a columnist writes. “He meant the Pentagon. But the phrase applies just as well to the National Security Administration and the surveillance machine created to fight terrorism.”
The leaking of the massive spying program shows that Obama has not come up with an anti-terrorist plan of his own, comments the social democratic El País from Spain. Indeed, Obama has not deviated from George Bush’s post-911 strategy.
“Obama inherited the entire War on Terror strategy devised by George W. Bush’s administration, including the surveillance programs,” the daily’s Washington correspondent says. “As he innocently let slip on Friday, he was originally skeptical over the value of these programs. But his advisors recommended he keep them.”
Others disagree with that assessment. For France’s Le Figaro, Obama has now gone much further than his Republican predecessor, under which the CIA surrendered terror suspects to US allies, where they were tortured.
“The scandal comes at a bad time for the Obama administration, which is already embroiled in a large number of scandals over his ‘governance’,” the centre-right Parisian paper opines.
“The balance of powers has been put in question by the power that the White House has arbitrarily seized. And so has the intensive use of drones against Islamist enemies.”
Yet many internet users have reacted with alacrity to the potential surveillance of their communications by US intelligence services, a blogger at fellow French paper Le Monde writes.
“From a European perspective, and for Monde.fr readers, the problems [posed by the programs]for individual freedoms appear remote,” the centre-left paper’s social media editor says. “We also found [many]readers resigned [to surveillance]. For them, this potential spying on their private conversations isn’t anything new, or even disturbing.”
All the same, many European governments are not quite so relaxed about possible American tapping of citizens’ conversations. Angela Merkel has promised to raise the matter when she holds talks with Barack Obama in the coming days.
Unlike in 2008, on this visit to Berlin, Obama will reportedly give an address to invitees — the public will be shut out. The president’s visit to Europe comes at a time of recriminations, not celebrations, comments German weekly Der Spiegel.
“Just as Kennedy couldn’t accomplish the transformation of his country, so too has Obama disappointed,” the centrist magazine says. “The fact that he sometimes appears even more rabid on national security than his predecessor is most egregious for his supporters.”
Amongst the most aggrieved Obama fans are European liberals and progressives. Next week’s visit here may, like his 2008 visit, attract large crowds — of protestors.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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