Berlin has had a deep and enduring love affair with American presidents. Berliners have never forgotten the U.S. leaders who helped keep West Berlin free during the Cold War with the Airlift and many can still recite the words of John F. Kennedy’s legendary “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at City Hall in 1963.
So it is all the more glaring that George W. Bush has once again avoided the German capital on his fifth and final visit to the country , spending just minutes at Berlin airport on his way in and out of Germany.
It was also odd that Bush failed to mention the Airlift, one of the brightest moments of post-war U.S. foreign policy, at his news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the rural village of Meseberg (pop. 150) about 100 km (60 miles) north of the capital. The Airlift’s 60th anniversary is being marked this month and was supposed to be the reason for Bush’s visit.
Perhaps it was the memories of 10,000 anti-war protesters who disrupted Bush’s first and only stay in Berlin in May 2002. Or maybe it was the recollections of the 10,000 German police needed to guard him in the centre of Berlin, which he turned into a veritable ghost town. Bush lamented about “living in a bubble” when he was here for 20 hours in 2002. His next trip was to Mainz, a provincial city in the far west — there were anti-war protests there too. After that he went to small northeastern villages in 2006 and 2007 — but stayed clear of Berlin.
The reason is clear — Iraq. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won re-election against long odds in 2002 by standing up to Bush on Iraq, a hugely popular position in war-scarred Germany that nevertheless got him ostracised by Bush.
Differences were later patched up, but even Bush acknowledged in Meseberg on Wednesday: “It’s obviously been a contentious issue between our countries in the past.”
Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper columnist Kurt Kister wrote: “Bush is spending his entire visit hidden away in the provincial town of Meseberg. Meseberg has the advantage that it’s easy to seal it off from the rest of the world with fences
and police. It’s not surprising because for the overwhelming majority of Germans Bush is the most unpopular U.S. president in the last two generations.”
As an American who’s lived in Berlin for much of the past 15 years, I have felt at first hand the city’s affinity for all things American. In 1994, I saw tears running down the cheeks of American GIs, overwhelmed by 250,000 cheering Berliners giving them a
thunderous farewell, as the city’s Cold War defence force marched in a farewell parade .
And I have seen the tens of thousands that lined the streets to cheer Bill Clinton in 1993, when he became the first U.S. president to walk through the Brandenburg Gate, and in 1998 when he came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Airlift. Clinton even went for jogs in the city’s Tiergarten park and dropped into trendy restaurants with only minimal protection.
So, after watching Bush avoid Berlin for the fourth time and knowing how fond Berliners are of America, I’m wondering what’s next. Will the next U.S. president be able to or want to walk the streets of Berlin again? Will that perhaps be a useful barometer? What does it say about the state of international affairs if the world’s most powerful leader doesn’t feel welcome and safe in a city that, in many ways, owes its very survival to U.S. presidents?