President Obama in Berlin

This is an article in the German magazine DER SPIEGEL , Wednesday, 19th June 2013:


Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s legendary Berlin visit, Barack Obama wowed the city with a rousing speech at the Brandenburg Gate, saying all oppressed people are “citizens of Berlin” — and urging the world to help free them.

Not even the unseasonably hot summer haze could damper the enthusiasm as crowd members clutching fluttering German and American flags filed into Berlin’s Pariser Platz on Wednesday. It’s here, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, where President Barack Obama was to make his first public speech in the German capital city as the leader of the United States.


“The flag-lined square was flanked with secret service and police, who perched on the roofs of buildings and weaved in and out of the some 4,000 invited audience members braving the glaring sunlight. In the crowd, there was an almost American vibe, with copious brimmed hats, women lithely fanning themselves and men in short-sleeved button-ups and suspenders. One bleacher, holding some 600 high school-age students of the local John F. Kennedy international school, showed particular ardor by chanting “Obama” in unison and doing the wave as the 3 p.m. start time neared.

A violinist warmed up the crowd, beginning with a vaguely celtic version of the American national anthem and then segueing into Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” over a backing track. He announced that his next song was at the president’s request. “It’s Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in America,'” he said before breaking into a rendition of “Born in the USA.”

Finally Obama took the stage, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit.

After brief comments by the mayor and the chancellor, Obama approached the microphone. It’s been pointed out that Merkel and Obama have very different public personas, and this couldn’t have been clearer than in the contrast between the chancellor’s somewhat subdued introduction and the president’s booming “Hello, Berlin!,” which was met with thunderous applause.

Yet Obama was quick to point out a similarity between the two leaders: “Angela and I don’t exactly look like previous German and American leaders,” he said after thanking the first female chancellor for her friendship. He then removed his jacket, citing the weather. “We can be a little more informal among friends,” he quipped to cheers from the crowd.

‘Ich Bin ein Berliner’

As expected, President Obama, who gave his speech behind dramatic panes of bulletproof glass as sweat dripped down his forehead, made heavy reference to Kennedy’s iconic 1963 Berlin speech. He recalled the former US president’s historic sound bite before asking the audience to look past it.

“That’s not all that he said that day,” he said. “Less remembered is the challenge that he issued to the crowd before him: ‘Let me ask you,’ he said to those Berliners, ‘let me ask you to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today’ and ‘beyond the freedom of merely this city.’ Look, he said, ‘to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.'”

Obama went on to apply Kennedy’s notion of “peace with justice” to the contemporary world. He referenced poverty and the mass unemployment that has followed the global debt crisis, and touched on race, religion and gender discrimination, specifically mentioning equality of sexual orientation less than two weeks after a German court ordered that same-sex partnerships be given the same tax benefits as married couples.

“And if we lift our eyes, as President Kennedy called us to do, then we’ll recognize that our work is not yet done,” Obama continued. “For we are not only citizens of America or Germany — we are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.”

Obama then discussed — albeit vaguely — on the NSA spying scandal, the closing of Guantanamo Bay and the American drone program. He was more concrete on the subject of nuclear disarmament, which he pledged to tackle in the coming years in cooperation with Russia. But the parallels between the issues of today and the history of Berlin, in particular, seemed to go over well with the crowd, which remained in good spirits despite the unrelenting heat.

‘It Felt Like They Were Standoffish’

I really liked how he tied in the history of Berlin with current issues,” said Esther Stern, a 16-year-old from Braunschweig who had come to Berlin with a group from her high school. “In spite of the heat, it was great! He’s a very good speaker — different than when you see him on TV,” she continued.

Some were slightly more critical, however, like Will Giles, a 20-year-old political science student in Berlin on a semester abroad from Duke University in the US. “It was interesting to observe the Merkel-Obama dynamic,” said Giles. “You can tell by body language what people really think of each other, and it felt like they were kind of standoffish.”

At the bleacher of local international students, however, the take-away was undoubtedly positive.


“It was definitely worth the six hours of waiting and boiling,” said 14-year-old Emma Defty, standing in a rare shady spot as her fellow students filed out behind her. “It was also great that he talked about Kennedy, because he and Kennedy are a lot alike I think. They’re on the younger side and they really speak to the public. They seem somehow… human.””I think he really earned sympathy points when he took off his jacket,” added her friend Elisabeth Evans, 13. “It’s like we’re all friends!”

“And I liked that he talked about global warming,” Defty said. “Yeah,” Evans rejoined, “because it never gets this hot!”



9 thoughts on “President Obama in Berlin

  1. Hi Uta. Thanks for posting this article from Der Spiegel. I find it very interesting to learn how other countries respond to our president. I happen to like him very much. He’s like a breath of fresh air after our last president. I watched most of today’s speech on television. I thought it was quite good. Cable news, though, didn’t give him very high marks. Fortunately I can disagree with them, and I do.

    I hope you and Peter are well.

    1. Thanks for asking, Pat. I’m well. We were lucky last night as our ABC 24 brought us the speech life from Berlin. We don’t hear much about Berlin here in Australia. It almost seems a tabu subject. They showed the speech without any comment. It wasn’t necessary as we can make up our own mind. Our heart beat faster as the camera panned the Brandenburg Gate and the scene beyond. Only last year we were there hugging the columns of the gate.

      I don’t know why cable news would not give him high marks. It was one of the occasions when the President could speak in more general terms, underlining the good relations they have with Germany. The only think political was the intent that he wants, together with Russia, reduce the number of atomic warheads. Perhaps he is a bit too optimistic. But there is nothing wrong with his intent.

      The other global problem came up too, and it so happened that it was the hottest day of the year in Berlin. Just to remind us all of what is happening and we should all do something about it.

  2. Yes, thank you Pat, Peter and I are well. We stayed up last night to watch the speech life on television. Only a few months ago while on a visit to Berlin Peter and I were roaming about near the Brandenburg Gate where Barack was speaking on Wednesday. His family in the meantime had the chance to look around the city for a bit. We saw in the internet some pictures of places they visited which looked familiar to us.

  3. An interesting article Auntyuta, I wondered what the relationship between these two leaders would feel like when finally meeting in public, seems like Obamas presence was a positive move.

    1. Oh yes, I think the Berliners like Obama very much. The security precautions inconvenienced quite a few people because a lot of places had been cordoned off for a long time before the president arrived. People had problems in the morning getting to work on time even when they had left home an hour earlier than usual. None the less I think everyone was happy that the president and his family had honoured the city with their visit.
      Thanks for commenting, Emu/Ian!

  4. I think it is a tribute to the Berliners who did not complain and whine about how disruptive this event was to their lives, particularly as I heard from my German cousin who lives very near Brandenburg Tor, that those 4,000 people in the audience were hand picked. I wish Americans could be as enthusiastic about Obama as Germans are.

    1. Hi, Linda, I think you are right, Germans tend to be enthusiastic about Obama, His speech was inspiring. The political reality however presents many hurdles. I believe about 20,000 Americans do live in Berlin at the moment. Probably some of them were in the hand picked audience. There were also children from the John F. Kennedy School which is an international school in Berlin. I have a niece, who’s in her forties now, who went to this school some thirty years ago.

  5. What a great read – THANK you. It just so happens, one of my passtimes when I have spare cash is to buy newspapers from other countries. I really appreciate having read this perspective: thanks 🙂

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