Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Ihr Völker der Welt ..."

Is Barack Obama chanelling the spirit of Ernst Reuter?

Der Spiegel Online headlined their story about Obama's speech in Berlin, Völker der Welt, schaut auf mich, which would literally be, "Peoples of the world, look at me." Which could be read as suggesting Obama was being egocentric. But Berliners are famous for jokes with multiple meanings. (Der Spiegel is headquartered in Hamburg, but still.) And this headline is clearly a reference to one of the most famous speeches in German history, by the Social Democrat Ernst Reuter on September 9, 1948, known as his "Ihr Völker der Welt" speech. Obama's speech quoted Reuter (though oddly not by name) used the phrase "people of the world" more than once in his speech.

In that speech during the Berlin Airlift months, which Reuter,the Mayor of West Berlin, delivered in front of the Reichstag building with a crowd of 350,000 there to hear him, he made a memorable statement of West Berlin's defiance of the Soviet land blockade of the city and called for solidarity from the world. The most famous line of the speech was, "Ihr Völker der Welt ... schaut auf diese Stadt und erkennt, dass ihr diese Stadt und dieses Volk nicht preisgeben dürft, nicht preisgeben könnt" (Peoples of the world, look upon this city and recognize that you should not and cannot surrender this city and this people). My literalist translation doesn't capture the rhetorical appeal of the German. But it's more accurate than whoever did the translation Obama used in quoting that line.

In that connection, the headline implies that Obama represents the forces of democracy and peace trying to change the "rogue state America" policies of the Cheney-Bush administration.


Reuter himself was once the General Secretary of the German Communist Party (KPD). That was in 1921. He had become a Bolshevik during his time as a prisoner of war in Russia. He even worked as a Commissar for a while in the Autonome Sozialistische Sowjetrepublik der Wolgadeutschen (Autonomous Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans)in the Soviet Union. In 1918, he returned to German and was one of the founders of the KPD. But he was kicked out in 1922 for "revisionism" and joined the Social Democratic Party.

He passed away in 1953. He's remembered as one of the greatest heroes of German democracy for his leadership of West Berlin in the early days of the Bundesrepublik (German Federal Republic). His son, Edzard Reuter, served for years as the CEO of Daimler-Benz.

The Mayor of Berlin today is Klaus Wowereit, who's also a Social Democrat and openly gay. He heads what is known as a "red-red coalition", meaning the government is a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Left Party, the latter being the "postcommunist" party that is the direct descendent of the East German Communist Party.

But they're scarcely setting up a Soviet Republic there. As Joschka Fischer writes in Die neuen Regeln Die Zeit 02.03.08:

Zudem hat sich im Bundesland Berlin gezeigt, das seit mehreren Jahren von einem rot−roten Senat regiert wird, dass alle Befürchtungen von einer Rückkehr des Sozialismusschlichter Quatsch sind. Ganz im Gegenteil steht der rot−rote Senat in Berlin für eine Politik der Haushaltssanierung, des Stellenabbaus im öffentlichen Dienst, der Umsetzung der Hartz−IV−Reformen und der Wirtschaftsfreundlichkeit, die man mit einigem Recht zutreffend als rechts von Rot−Grün charakterisieren kann. Von Sozialismus ist da weit und breit keine Spur zu finden.

[It has been shown in the Federal State of Berlin, which has been governed by a red-red senate for several years, that all fears of a return to socialism are sheer nonsense. Very much the opposite; the red-red senate in Berlin stands for a policy of budget streamlining, the reduction of government jobs, the implementation of the Hartz-IV reforms ["pro-business reforms" which reduce some of the powers of unions] and a friendliness to business that one can with full justification characterize as to the right of red-green. Of socialism, there is not a trace to be found.]
Fischer is the former Foreign Minister and former chairman of the Green Party which competes for votes with both the SPD (Social Democrats) and the Left Party, so there's a bit of a partisan perspective dig in that analysis. (For American readers, "socialism" is not universally regarded as a dirty word in European politics.)

In Zurück in die Zeiten des Selbstbetrugs? Die Zeit 18.03.2008, he argues that the pressures for such non-"left" policies even on left-leaning governments come largely from the demands of globalization.

But I'll try to return to that another time.

According to both Der Spiegel Online and Die Zeit Online, 200 thousand people showed up to see the American Senator on Thursday. It sounds like he was well received in Germany.

Listening to clips of Obama's speech in English to the German public (which surely understood a lot of it) reminded me that I was in Germany two or three weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Vladimir Putin spoke to the German Parliament during the time I was there. In fluent German.

This must have been one of the parts of Obama's speech that suggested a Reuter connection:

Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world? Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law? Will we welcome immigrants from different lands, and shun discrimination against those who don't look like us or worship like we do, and keep the promise of equality and opportunity for all of our people?

People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment. This is our time.

I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.

But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived - at great cost and great sacrifice - to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world. Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom - indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. What has always united us -- what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America's shores - is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.

These are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. These aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart. It is because of these aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of these aspirations that all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation - our generation - must make our mark on the world.

People of Berlin - and people of the world - the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.
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