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First Person

An expatriot's-eye-view of the German elections

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BERLIN--It's an interesting time for an American expatriate to be living in Berlin. U.S. relations with the European Union, and with Germany in particular, are becoming increasingly sour. While the EU as a whole is finding itself constantly at odds with the Bush administration's unilateralist approach to economic, political and environmental issues, perhaps nowhere has opposition to U.S. policy been as great as in Germany.

The victory of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder serves to illustrate the present rift between Berlin and Washington in a dramatic way. Continuing its coalition partnership with the German Green party, Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) narrowly avoided defeat because Germans reacted to the coalition's stance on two key issues: the environment and Bush's fervent push to depose Saddam Hussein with a new war. While the second issue directly involves U.S. policy, the environmental concerns raised by this year's disastrous floods in the East also have an American policy component. (Actually, it seems that every international issue raised in conversation here concerns the United States in some way.)

Many people attribute the flooding to global climate change, and it is on this point that many Germans take issue with the United States. Germans are furious about Bush's decision to pull out of the Kyoto accord on climate change, and it's not uncommon for me to receive a short lecture about how grossly out of proportion the United States' consumption of resources is to the size of its population. I often agree--it's important to dispel the myth that all Americans are arrogant chauvinists, ignorant of their country's failings. Not all Americans are like that.

The German Green Party is growing in strength and number. In this year's election the Greens received 8.6 percent of the vote, up from the 1998 election's showing of 6.7 percent. The Greens will occupy 55 seats in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, and its members will occupy governmental posts in the coalition government with the SPD. Speculation is that the floods helped fuel the Greens' success because the electorate was forced to consider the impact of global warming in a visceral way. The debate on whether global warming exists has been over for years in this country. It's taken for granted that this is an issue of great concern. Germans find it difficult to believe me when I tell them that in the United States, many politicians and business leaders can dismiss global warming as an unproven theory and still retain credibility. I enjoy telling Germans outrageous facts about the American political system and watching their expressions of incredulity.

While Germans often entertain the stereotypical vision of America as some sort of dark unreality of wealth and violence, disconnected with the rest of world, many Germans embrace American culture. When I asked Doris Hansen, an artist critical of U.S. foreign policy, what she thought about America's influence on German culture, she dismissed the question as irrelevant. "There are good ideas and there are bad ideas and it doesn't matter where they come from." Doris thinks Americanization is OK because Germans are choosing it.

But while Doris isn't concerned about her country's absorption of American culture, she is staunchly against the push that the business community is making to follow the American model of deregulation and decreased social-welfare spending. She decided to vote for the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), a party affiliated with the Communist Party of the former East Germany), after polls showed the SPD had rebounded after trailing the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU is widely perceived to favor a more accelerated approach to privatization and less social welfare spending. Before--though she found it distasteful--Hansen had been willing to vote for the more moderate SPD to keep the "right wing" CDU out of power (though right wing by German standards, the CDU is probably somewhere left of Clinton's version of the Democratic Party).

Doris is uncompromisingly against German participation in a war on Iraq. She concedes that many Germans have been willing to allow America to decide global matters, but she believes that attitude is changing. Doris expressed the growing sentiment among Germans that the country cannot follow Bush: "Not THIS man ... not for what he stands for!"

There is a strong pacifistic streak in Germany that I believe comes from the loss of two world wars and the discovery of the extent of the Nazi atrocities. Neven Dolos, a theoretical physicist and Green Party activist agrees with me. Neven believes that Americans have never lost a war in the real sense (he considers the Vietnam War a "zero-zero" war--no winners). It's true that for generations, Americans have enjoyed a geographic isolation from the wars that shaped the current world. But I believe the more important point is that Americans have never had to honestly face the atrocities of their imperialism. American history is one of unparalleled success. If, say, in 1850 the United States had been invaded and occupied by some foreign power that was opposed to slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans, I believe American culture would have a more honest view of the moralistic ramifications of imperialism. Of course, our country never was derailed during its brutal manifest destiny, but Germany was foiled in such a way that even 50 years later, the population is reluctant to send troops abroad--for any reason.

Coming from America (and especially post-Sept. 11 America) I'm astonished by the lack of nationalism in this country. I've seen more American flags than German ones. The American flag here is purely a fashion novelty, divorced from any deep understanding of the United States. It's also possible to see an occasional Confederate battle flag in Berlin, as most motorcyclists view it as an innocuous symbol synonymous with American-made motorcycles.

There's an overwhelming view in this country that it's necessary to be constantly vigilant against fascism. I think this was expressed in the comments attributed to SPD Attorney General Herta Däubler-Gmelin, likening Bush's foreign policy strategy to that of Hitler's. Though the CDU pushed this controversy late in the election, it didn't have much effect on how people voted.

While most guidebooks advise visiting Americans against discussing World War II or Nazism, I've found that most Germans--especially those of the younger generations--are willing to talk openly and frankly about the Third Reich. Not only that, they seem ready to draw comparisons to anyone they see beating a nationalistic drum, be it George Bush or CDU leader Edmund Stoiber.

Neven Dolos expressed a novel point of view on America's recent unilateralism. While Neven doesn't approve of Bush administration policies, he thinks that the way they've been presented to the EU may be good in the long run. "The EU may find its own way ... independent of the U.S.," mused Neven. It's his hope that Bush's "with us or against us" stance may help to solidify the EU into a pacifistic economic power that chooses its own course, rather than its present state of subservience to American militarism. He is skeptical but hopeful that Schroeder will not support a military invasion of Iraq. In fact, every German I've talked with on the subject has expressed skepticism about Schroeder's vow to keep Germany out of a new Gulf conflict. Aside from the real possibility that Schroeder has no real desire to oppose Bush's war plans and was just vocalizing what the majority wanted to hear, there's a belief among the Germans that political pressure from Washington could force a change in the SPD's commitment to their pacifistic promises.

So here is the state of global "democracy": the President of the United States, a man who lost the popular vote, is in a position to possibly override the will of the German electorate who overwhelmingly condemn their government's participation in another Gulf War. I would suggest that anyone who uses the word "democracy" should be required to specify a definition of the term, as the word has long ago lost any real subjective meaning. EndBlock

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