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WITNESS: Berliners' love affair with America grows cold

Erik Kirschbaum, a U.S. citizen, has lived in German-speaking Europe for most of the past 26 years, and for 16 of them has worked as a Reuters correspondent in Germany. In the following story, he reports on the changing attitudes of Berliners towards his home country.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama waves to the crowd after making a speech in front of the Victory Column (Siegessaeule) in Berlin in this July 24, 2008 file photo. There may be no better place in the world to witness the shift in sentiment towards the United States than Berlin. As in other countries, America's image has suffered. A June PEW survey found 31 percent of Germans had a favourable view of the United States, down from 78 percent in 2000. To match WITNESS-GERMANY/AMERICANS REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz/Files

BERLIN (Reuters) - There may be no better place in the world to witness the shift in sentiment toward the United States than Berlin.

It was hard to imagine a more pro-American city when I first moved here in 1993, yet the wind has changed and the love affair is over.

The infatuation with all things American has all but disappeared.

Perhaps it will change after the November 4 U.S. presidential election -- even though things will never be the same no matter who wins.

As in other countries, America’s image has suffered. A June PEW survey found 31 percent of Germans had a favorable view of the United States, down from 78 percent in 2000.

Being an American in Berlin was once special. Not any more.

A city saved and protected by the Americans during the Cold War, Berlin was an island of overwhelming admiration for America, its presidents and above all the American way of life -- at least its altruistic, kind-hearted, justice-seeking side.

Avenues were named after U.S. generals, schools after U.S. leaders and squares named after U.S. cities. American disc jockeys speaking mangled German were radio stars.

The U.S. ambassador’s Fourth of July gathering was once the most coveted ticket on the garden party calendar. Not any more.

Berlin mayors spoke American-accented English and everyone from children to the elderly had a twinkle in their eye when recalling the 1940s Berlin airlift, Checkpoint Charlie tank standoffs or John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech in the city proclaiming “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”).


Probably the most moving assignment of my 18 years as a correspondent abroad was in 1994, when a district that hosted 6,000 U.S. soldiers who protected them from 90,000 Soviet forces stationed outside the Berlin Wall held a parade for the departing GIs.

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Steglitz is a low-rise district with a small-town feel, and I had expected perhaps a few thousand to interrupt their Saturday shopping for a quick wave goodbye -- or good riddance.

Instead, more than 250,000 packed the streets on that sunny summer morning. As the soldiers marched, the Berliners cheered, and cheered, and cheered. They threw tons of confetti from windows and gave their departing heroes a thunderous send-off.

It looked like New York’s Times Square on V-E Day.

These Berlin Brigade GIs had a reputation as some of the toughest soldiers in the U.S. army, yet I saw tears streaming down their cheeks as they marched past, struggling to maintain their stony-faced expressions.

I went to parades for departing British, French and Russian soldiers. They were pleasant enough and a few thousand Berliners did show up, but they were nothing like the parade near the GI training grounds that Berliners affectionately called “Doughboy Village.”

I was born 11 years after the airlift ended in 1949, was toddler in 1963 when Kennedy came, never served in the army and, frankly, never learned in school about the U.S. role in Berlin.

Yet as an American I somehow reaped the benefit of all that.

Even in a big city with its stressed and grumpy residents, Berliners always seemed eager to help when I opened my mouth and American-accented German came out.

At first, I wondered why I kept running into so many retired GIs in Berlin who stayed. There are thousands of teachers, mechanics, cooks, DJs, bakers, and many in other professions.

It did not take long to figure out why. And I stayed too, one of almost 13,000 Americans who live permanently in the city.

When I first arrived in 1982 as a student, I had the naive goal of losing my American accent. I feared a “foreign accent” would bring disadvantages -- as it might in the United States.

Fortunately, my language abilities are limited and the bad accent actually opened many doors. Years after I married a Berliner, my wife admitted the only thing she remembered about our first meeting was my accent.


I used to hitch-hike across Germany when I was a student and often felt a surprising warmth toward the United States. Strangers wanted to buy me lunch; for many it was a personal recompense for a piece of chocolate a GI had given them decades earlier.

During the 1990s pro-American sentiment was still high.

They appreciated George Bush’s support for reunification in 1990 that overcame British and French reticence. And Bill Clinton got rock star treatment every time he came here.

Even in the wake of September 11 attacks, Berlin’s support for the United States was special. More than 200,000 attended a pro-America rally in Berlin on September 14, 2001 to hear German President Johannes Rau say:

“No one knows better than the people here in Berlin what America has done for freedom and democracy in Germany. So, we say to all Americans from Berlin: America does not stand alone.”

Germans even dropped their taboo on taking part in foreign military operations and sent forces to help the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

So what went wrong?

It was, of course, the dispute over the invasion of Iraq.

Before that, U.S. presidents had always been welcomed in Berlin. However, in May 2002 George W. Bush needed 10,000 German police to shield him from 10,000 anti-war protesters.

In June, Bush spent only a few minutes at Berlin airport on his way in and out of Germany for meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel in an isolated village 100 km to the north.

It was difficult to believe that a U.S. president seemed to be avoiding the city that owed its very survival to America. There was a brief ray of hope a month later when Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in Berlin -- and 200,000 people showed up.

In case things don’t change after November 4, perhaps it’s time to try finally to get rid of the American accent.

editing by Andrew Dobbie