Just Another ‘Barack’ in the Wall: Obama’s False Promises in Berlin

Brandenberg Gate

By Will Giles.

There were a number of differences between President Barack Obama’s visits to Berlin on July 24, 2008 and June 19, 2013.  The crowd had shrunk from 200,000 to 5,000 people, and the location was changed from the Victory column of the Siegessäule to the Brandenburg Gate.  Most importantly, I was studying abroad as part of the Duke Summer in Berlin program in 2013 and had the opportunity to attend his speech at the Brandenburg Gate.  While the optics of this speech were less dramatic this time around, the content would be just as notable.

President Obama was welcomed on June 19 by unusually hot weather.  The usual drab, overcast skies had been replaced with ample amounts of blue and waves of heat.  Though clear skies brought good omens for a beautiful backdrop at the Brandenburg Gate, the sun was probably not welcomed by the 8,000 polizei (police officers) stationed throughout the general area, and the many workers who waited up to 3 hours to get to work inside the restricted area.

John McGinty, Sanford ’13, Leighanne Oh, Pratt ’15, and I set out seven hours early in order to get the best spots possible, almost beating the throng of elementary students from the John F. Kennedy International School of Berlin, who ended up being the largest contingent in the crowd.  We decided to stand in front of the stage, rather than sit in the seats on the side, in order to get better pictures.  What a fateful decision that would prove to be, as it would send me to the emergency room with a mild heatstroke and dehydration later than same day.

Having settled in, we were entertained intermittedly by watching the Secret Service personnel upon the rooftops of the Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson had dangled his baby, and then a procession of different musical acts.  We were so early that each of the many acts played two sets, including the violinist who butchered Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” by calling it “Born in America” on two separate occasions.  Was this payback for Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaffe?

The Brandenburg Gate towered over our seats as we waited for the President to arrive.  The Gate was originally built during the reign of King Friedrich Wilhelm between 1788 and 1791, serving as one of the main entrances to the city.  To Americans, the Brandenburg Gate served most famously as the backdrop for President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Berlin in 1986.  He forcefully pronounced, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  President Reagan’s speech was actually given at the opposite side of the Gate, and this was the first time a president was to give a speech on the eastern side of the Gate.

The jumbotron filled with images of a large motorcade, announcing the arrival of the President, who soon appeared on stage with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bürgermeister (Mayor) Klaus Wowereit.  As someone who does not speak German, their introduction speeches were very hard to follow.  The President must have been in a similar situation.  At one point, Chancellor Merkel said, “President Barack Obama,” and the President rose to shake her hand and take the podium.  However, she was not finished with her introduction, and the President had to return to his chair.  A chuckle arose from the crowd.

When it was his proper time to speak, President Obama was in his element, having recovered from his miscue.  Noticing the weather, he began by saying, “Thank you for this extraordinarily warm welcome.  In fact, it’s so warm and I feel so good that I’m actually going to take off my jacket,” which the crowd greeted with applause.  Having stood in that weather for almost six hours, I thought “warm” was an understatement.

He then began on a wide-ranging discourse.  Speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a site where the Berlin Wall once stood, he extolled the persistence of Berliners to fight for freedom.  “[For] it is citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall, or whether to tear it down.”  This fight for freedom culminated with tearing down the Wall and the end of the Cold War.  This, however, does not mean that there are not threats to freedom today.  “Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity — that struggle goes on.”

The children of the JFK school greeted these lines with their utmost approval.  President Obama spoke in the midst of the city’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.  Though that speech was given at the Rathaus Schöneberg, the prominence of schoolchildren in the rafters strongly symbolized the shared theme of freedom between the two speeches.  President Obama was obviously trying to invoke the imagery of President Kennedy’s speech given 50 years earlier.

The threats to freedom the President mentioned in his speech are far-ranging, including governments themselves, who oppress their own citizens “based on race, or religion, gender or sexual orientation.” This line was particularly poignant because Wowereit is the first openly gay mayor of Berlin.  The government should not deny the freedom of economic choices either. “We are more free when all people can pursue their own happiness.  And as long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do, then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.”

The President then announced the key point of his speech.  Freedom of choice is necessary for peace.  “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons — no matter how distant that dream may be…So today, I’m announcing additional steps forward.  After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.  And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”

This received a huge positive response from the crowd, as Germany has a noted history of antinuclear demonstrations.  Germany was prohibited from having nuclear weapons by NATO as a condition to its membership in the organization.  However, the United States contemplated placing ICBMs in the country on numerous occasions, and the West German government did build a number of nuclear power plants.  Each consideration was met with vehement opposition, culminating in an organized protest of construction of the Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant in 1981, which attracted 100,000 people.

Ensuring freedom does not come without its costs, which are necessary to bear.  The National Security Administration’s data-mining program, PRISM, is one of these costs.  “Our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they’re focused on threats to our security — not the communications of ordinary persons.  They help confront real dangers, and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe.”

As if the blistering heat was not enough, I could feel the tension rise in the air; the German people had been subject to the oppression of both the Gestapo and the Stasi, two of the most feared secret police organizations in history.  Any mention of surveillance was not going to go over well with this audience.

Recalling this event months later has brought several things into focus.  The irony of defending the NSA’s PRISM program in Berlin was not lost on me.  The Gestapo of Nazi Germany perpetrated mass murder and terror upon millions of Germans.  The Stasi, East Germany’s secret police organization, kept dossiers on over 15 million people out of a total population of 18 million.  The parallels between these organizations and PRISM are not hard to realize.  A German citizen gave me her response to Obama’s defense of PRISM: “How is this program compatible with the freedom that President Obama mentioned?  It seems like a slippery slope to me.”

The revelation of the PRISM program by Edward Snowden also presents other policy implications contained in this speech.  President Obama’s goal of nuclear-reduction talks, the key proposal of his speech, has been derailed by the Snowden controversy.  Relations between Russia and the United States of cooled considerably, and this proposal has not been mentioned by the Obama Administration recently.

Thus, I am left with mixed feelings about the event.  I will always treasure my first experience at a presidential speech, especially the historic backdrop of the occasion.  The speech itself, not comparable to Kennedy’s, drew upon the historic symbolism of the great city of Berlin and was used to great effect.  Esoteric platitudes, though effective to elicit cheers from a crowd, are not always practical.  Again, as we saw in the 2008 election, President Obama’s speech-making skills brought him many admirers, but the ‘change’ in foreign affairs that he promised has not come.  Guantanamo Bay is still open; drone strikes have increased under his Administration.  President Obama is apt at delivering speeches, but when will he be able to deliver results?




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  1. The Mysterious Stranger

    A very interesting read, PRISM is something that can be a big invasion if used in the wrong manner by the Government. Which is likely to happen sadly.


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