The Magazine

"Death to the Aspen Institute"

But please don't call the Germans anti-American.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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BERLIN'S ARCHBISHOP, Georg Cardinal Sterzinsky, has announced his approval of a boycott of American products. The Protestant Church in Germany has been busy in the name of peace, too. Last December, the pastor of the famous Nikolaikirche, where protesters once gathered in late 1989 to oppose East German Communist rule, publicly announced his own boycott of the U.S. consulate Christmas party in Leipzig. Still, such protest "has nothing to do with anti-Americanism," says Manfred Kock, chairman of the top council of Protestant churches in Germany.

A gentleman who approached me in front of the swank shops on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin echoed similar sentiments. "I'm a friend of America's," he insisted. But he added that he was "so disgusted" by American behavior in the world, he would never visit the States again. Another friend of the United States--a businessman who insists he's really not anti-American--sends me e-mails with photographs of Iraqis injured or killed in the war. One comes with the inscription: "You disgust me." Another: "I'd like to hit you in the head with these photos."

Whatever you call it, these can be tricky days for an American in Berlin. There's the coarser stuff. The signs and chants of demonstrators like: "Baghdad=Dresden," "Bush=Hitler," "USA=Mass Murder Central," "North Korea Needs Nuclear Weapons," and so forth. Then there's the fan mail (I spend a lot of time on German television defending the war against Saddam Hussein) that says I'm a "war criminal," a "coward," an "ideological pornographer," a "son of whore," a "U.S. Goebbels," a "mentally ill asshole," a "Jew f---er," and, incidentally, that I am "not welcome here." One woman named Stephanie (yes, they often sign these) calls for "death to the Aspen Institute."

Stranger than all this, though, is the mainstreaming of, shall we say, those skeptical and ambivalent attitudes toward the United States. A high school teacher arrived at the Aspen Institute with 45 students before the war for a discussion of the issues of the day. The teacher himself asked whether a motive for the war was the need for the Pentagon to test its newest weapons (he was not kidding).

You might even get the feeling some do not want us to win the war. A television anchor asked a military expert about the U.S. technological edge and wondered aloud whether this war was really "a fair fight." A recent letter to the editor of Die Zeit explains the dilemma: "Josef Joffe wants a quick end to the war. I have an internal conflict. Of course, I want an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people . . . but I do not want America rewarded for this illegal policy." Gerhard Schröder himself finally announced that he wanted the coalition to prevail--but only late in the game when U.S. troops stood 15 miles outside Baghdad.

What is this all about? Of course, there are differing views on Iraq, disarmament, international law, and the United Nations. After two world wars and the Holocaust, some Germans still have a strong pacifist streak, too--and thank God some will say. But it's not hard to think that the German-Iraq debate is ultimately not about Iraq at all.

Wir sind wieder Wer! (We're somebody again!) It's a core theme. We Americans surely underestimated how difficult it must have been for our allies to play junior partner during the Cold War. Especially, perhaps, for Germany. At least France was never divided and had nuclear weapons and its independent foreign policy. Germans have talked frequently in recent years about their "emancipation" from the United States. Berlin has been itching to play a leadership role in the new Europe--and for the E.U. to bestride the world stage. Alas. The Germans have a medium-sized country, with no permanent seat on the Security Council, spend meagerly on defense, face daunting economic challenges and a serious demographic crisis. Europe is divided. And those bloody, boasting Yankees keep going strong as ever.

Germany is changing. Schröder's Social Democratic party (SPD) has become the party of "isms": Gaullism, nationalism, pacifism, isolationism, E.U.-firstism, anti-Americanism--anything and everything but good old fashioned Atlanticism. Despite Angela Merkel's pro-U.S. course, her Christian Democrats are divided. Karl Lamers, the recently retired foreign policy spokesman, rejects Germany's role as a "passive appendage" of the United States. Helmut Kohl's former press spokesman Peter Boenisch, who opposes the Iraq war, says preemption is a "crime," even if it's labeled "Made in the USA." Boenisch says Germans will no longer accept it, "when Washington says: Everyone, follow my commands."