America and German Independence

Stud country. Karl-Marx-Straße, April 2015.

Following the Cold War, America’s military and intelligence apparatus in Germany remained in place. To this day, there are thousands of US troops stationed in the country. When Gerhard Schröder, in another attempt to win an election, made a lot of noise about not supporting the war in Iraq, he nonetheless was happy to allow the US to use German bases. America’s largest foreign base still is located in Ramstein, now the central information node of the drone war.

In no area, however, did cooperation grow as close after 9/11 than between the American and German intelligence services. Since many of the terrorists, the “Hamburg cell”, had peacefully lived in Germany before 9/11, it is probably safe to assume that after the attack, Germany became one of the most heavily spied on countries in the world. And the BND was happy to cooperate, hoping to profit from superior U.S. technology and shared information. As Spiegel writes:

“The result was hundreds of US agents in Germany, monitoring terror suspects in places ranging from Hamburg to Wiesbaden. Very few of those agents had been registered by name with the German government in accordance with established rules. A former Chancellery staffer describes the German foreign intelligence service as the “CIA’s and NSA’s best branch office.”

It is important to remember, though, that German-American friendship is not based solely on a security partnership. Like most European countries, Germany experienced the post-war modernization of its society primarily as an Americanization – but unlike the more proud French, most Germans never had a problem with that. On an elite level, there are many institutions supporting German-American friendship and cooperation, ranging from great academic exchange programs, programs of cultural reconciliation, to transatlantic think tanks like the German Marshall Fund, and the Atlantik Brücke, propably the most powerful German ‘atlanticist’ organisation.

The Brücke, or Atlantic Bridge, is a networking organisation with members from business, politics, and the media – a who is who of German, but also of American, elites, ranging from Kai Diekmann, to Henry Kissinger. Traditionally, it was aligned with the conservative CDU, as was the ideology of ‘atlanticism’ more generally. But in recent times, the Brücke, has opened considerably, welcoming, for example, many members of the Green Party – one signal, if you want to read it that way, that the Greens have become part of the respectable establishment and won’t rock the transatlantic boat too much. Every year it awards a price named after the former head of the CIA, Vernon A. Walters.

Make of it what you will – it is always difficult to gauge the influence of this type of semi-private networking groups – but if you do worry about these things, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Atlantic Bridge is the strong involvement of journalists – most notably the already mentioned Kai Diekmann, editor of Axel Springer’s reactionary tabloid BILD, who sits on its board of directors. Nobody, however, exemplifies the integration of the media into transatlantic networks better than Josef Joffe, chief editor of Germany’s largest weekly newspaper, DIE ZEIT.

Shop window montage. Neukölln, May 2015.
Shop window montage. Neukölln, May 2015.

By all accounts, Joffe is a respected journalist and even was a lecturer at Princeton and Harvard before now settling at Stanford. If you read his regular columns, however, he seems more like a German Thomas Friedman in the way he breaks down complex problems into a string of insultingly stupid clichés  – except that the anecdotal insights he so gleefully shares with the world are not based on conservations with cab drivers, but with important and serious people in America.

You can tell how much he relishes including the bylines Stanford and Washington in his column – and how much he enjoys pretending to give his German audience the inside dope from American elite discourse – support for the Iraq War and climate change ‘scepticism’ included. Part of American  discourse he certainly is: from the (neo-)conservative think tank Hoover Institution, to the Aspen Institute, and to the American Interest, which he co-founded, Joffee is part of a number of transatlantic institutions.

So much for DIE ZEIT, the voice of Germany’s liberal (in the American sense) mainstream. On its right you can find the Axel Springer Group, which publishes a large collection of newspapers and magazines – in its huge political influence, shameless partisanship, and general lack of journalistic standards, it is similar to News Corp. It is also, it wants everybody to know, the only publishing house with “its own constitution”. Never subtle, they waited only a couple of days after 9/11 to update it, making the third of only five articles a declaration of “support for the transatlantic alliance and solidarity with the United States of America in the common values of free nations.”

So you can imagine that the question of resistance to White House policies – be it in regards to the NSA, or its aggressive military support for the Ukranian government – is not raised that often and that forcefully in Germany’s respectable media. Which is unfortunate, because both these developments are hugely unpopular in the German public, and have not only led to a loss of trust in the American ally, but also opened a rift between large parts of the people and and their own government – and increasingly, their dominant media as well.

This has become most obvious in the case of the crisis in Ukraine, where it even gave birth to a neologism, “Putinversteher” – meaning “people who understand / show understanding for Putin.” It is most often used as a slur against the type of people who supposedly fall for Russian propaganda, but everybody knows there can only be a few of those out there. What the prevalence of this phrase really points to, though, is the fact that there is a large segment of the population which is frankly disturbed by the way neoconservative grandstanding and demonization of Russia has become the new consensus.

Die Linke-Syriza booth. May Day 2015, Brussels.
Solidarity against neoliberalism. May Day 2015, Brussels.

But it did not start with Snowden or the war in Ukraine – nobody represented America’s ugly side to Europeans better than George Bush. Already, the war in Iraq was hugely unpopular – but what followed made everything only worse. I still remember the day after 9/11, when everybody in my school lined up to sign a declaration of solidarity which was later to be solemnly handed to the U.S. consul. But increasingly, for people of my generation, America would come to stand for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not the Berlin Airlift. During the Bush era, Michael Moore was basically a celebrity in Germany. And just like the American people, Germans welcomed Obama with great hopes, only to be similarly disappointed.

There is a generational divide in play as well. To take a mundane example: Still in the early ’70s, my mother was not allowed to wear pants to school – and when she finally did, she of course wore blue jeans. For people of her generation, American culture was a liberating force, freeing them from the stupid, reactionary German way of life. It is probably the defining myth of German post-war culture: How grim, humorless, sexually repressed Germanness was overcome by rock’n’roll and bad beat poetry.

But all that is over. Not that people nowadays are not as immersed in American culture and media as they used to be – they are, more than ever. It just does not mean anything anymore, and it certainly does not engender a natural political sympathy – the reverse may even be true, if American “cultural influence” keeps being more and more reduced to loathsome business and marketing jargon.

The same is true for political modernization: For people of my generation, who have no experience of either real or Cold War, the idea that parliamentary democracy is this fragile, foreign thing that can only be protected by a bulwark of stout and principled pro-Americanism is just laughable. Not to speak of the idea that the US is supposed to be some great example in this respect.

And so, while the political elites remain as staunchly “atlanticist” as ever, most people grow more and more sceptical of the US, and have been for years. Being pro-American remains the responsible, establishment position – and just as during the Cold War, the charge of “anti-Americanism” is a way to control the discourse and to marginalize critical voices, like red-baiting.

To call somebody “anti-American” is not just to declare him an enemy of democracy, or of liberal values – it is a way of calling him weird: obscurantist, irrational, probably anti-semitic. You place them in a corner with Russia Today, conspiracy theories – anything outside of responsible atlanticist convention. It is a way of limiting the space of the politically possible. One of the central reasons, for example, why the Social Democrats will never agree to form a government with the Left Party is the latter’s stated goal to dissolve NATO. The Atlantic Bridge did not welcome its first, token member from Die Linke, Stefan Liebich, until 2013.

Anti-German sticker. Hermannstraße, April 2015.
Anti-German sticker. Hermannstraße, April 2015.

Of course, there are real problems with anti-American resentments, which are so perfectly suited to express German chauvinism and distrust of modernity. It is little consolation to remember that the anti-Americanism of the New Left was in some sense the most American thing about it, that the Red Army Faction, for example, was following a script laid down by the Weather Underground when it was bombing US army bases – that it even mimicked American radical slang, like calling the police “pigs”.

But a faction as strange as the radical-left Anti-Germans could not exist if it was not based on a relevant criticism of German leftist anti-Americanism (and its emnity towards Israel). If, like August Bebel’s famously said, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, then anti-Americanism is the anti-imperialism of fools. It is also, where the stupid left and the stupid right often meet.

The answer, then, can only be an atlanticism of the left. It has always been that way. Political identities don’t align with geographical and national borders – they cut through them. When the 1848 revolution in Germany failed, many radicals fled to the US, where they contributed to the anti-slavery movement. When Karl Marx wrote his admiring letters to Lincoln, he took a radical position in an internal American conflict.

During the 1960s student rebellion, Germans did not have posters of Nixon and Kissinger on their wall, they admired cool people, like Malcolm X or, I don’t know, Janis Joplin. And even though the American political scene may be pretty disheartening at the moment, there are people and forces in America who are on our side, and who – as they try to challenge policies like TTIP, which is favored by elites on both sides of the Atlantic – need us to be on their side, too.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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