[Ed Flattau is a Washington journalist who was in Berlin on business and joined the estimated crowd of 200,000 to hear Barack Obama deliver his historic July 24th speech on the grounds of the city’s Tiergarten Park. Here is Flattau’s account]
By Edward Flattau
As I entered Berlin’s Tiergarten Park amid a seemingly endless wave of Germans eager to hear Barack Obama speak, it was obvious that being a senior citizen, I was in a distinct minority among the estimated 200,000 in attendance. The overwhelming majority of the crowd were clearly members of the under 40 set.
It didn’t take long to figure out why relatively few “grey beards” were in evidence. The German police had used barricades to devise a lengthy circuitous route for spectators to gain entry to the promenade leading up to the Victory Column where the senator was to deliver his address. It was an arduous trek through the vast wooded enclave, despite being softened by the strains of two jazz bands—one American and one local. It did help that the weather was clear and mild and that the Germans lived up to
their national reputation for orderliness.
Still, when the audience staging area was reached, it was essentially standing room only for an hour or more except for the latest arrivals at the edge of the crowd that stretched nearly three quarters of a mile from the speaker’s podium to the shadow of the famed Brandenburg Gate. Only the hardiest seniors could be expected to have chosen an on-the-scene presence over television coverage in the comfort of their home.
While the multitude pouring into the Tiergarten was brimming with exuberance, adulation for Obama was not universal. One man was brandishing a placard reading :
“No you can’t”.
Another chap held a sign declaring: “Obama, go home, we need peace.”
The dissenters were not hassled, but they were quickly swallowed up in a sea of humanity unsympathetic to their protests.
The journey through the Tiergarten brought me and my wife to a narrow opening in a security fence erected along the edge of the open spectator area. Usually efficient German planning had broken down by creating an entrance that was the mother of all bottlenecks. People were backed up to the extent that it took a full 20 minutes just to gain access to the assemblage, and in our case, there was still an hour before the senator was scheduled to speak. Although the fence was installed for security purposes, true security was virtually non-existent by American standards. Spectators were able to enter the viewing area with no one in sight to inspect their belongings.
I and my wife mercifully found a tiny patch of ground in which to sit amidst the mass of standees while waiting for Obama to arrive. Also seated next to me to preserve some stamina was a middle-aged American woman intently reading the issue of the New Yorker that featured the controversial unflattering sketch of Obama and his wife on the cover.
There was a festive air which helped dampen any restiveness in the crowd as Obama fell 20 minutes behind schedule . Finally, some impatience took hold and a rhythmic clap rose from the multitude. As if on cue, a broadly smiling Obama suddenly burst forth from the wings and strode alone down the runway to the microphone where he returned the applause and repeated “thank you” a dozen times. Spectator applause was replaced by repetitive chants of his name and then loud cheers. Whether or not you were for Obama, the excitement spreading through the crowd was palpable, and it felt good to be an American.
I was only some 300 yards from the podium but Obama was not in my line of vision. I and those around me had to depend on one of the giant television screens located strategically along the packed thoroughfare leading from the Victory Column to the Brandenburg Gate. It seemed as though every nationality and language under the sun were represented in the gathering, sprinkled with American flags. There were supposed to be thousands of Americans in attendance, and I certainly heard snatches of that unmistakable accent throughout the evening. Obama’s references to Africa elicited patriotic cheers from a group of Africans standing nearby.
The senator’s soaring oratory was received with rapt attention. Most Germans appeared to understand English since they erupted with ovations at strategic points in his presentation. Approval was loudest when Obama called for unity between the European Union and the United States, and when he conceded that our nation had made mistakes that needed to be corrected.
The assemblage was most muted when Obama called for the pacifist-minded Germans to provide more troops for Afghanistan. And he actually provoked a smattering of boos when he mentioned Chancellor Angela Merkel, who evidently was not a favorite
of this predominantly liberal crowd.
Obama finished to thundering applause that rivaled the response at any of his most enthusiastic rallies in the United States. Whatever Obama’s fate this November, my wife and I were convinced we had witnessed a special moment in history. But in order to avoid any stampede at the exit, we chose not to tarry and made a beeline towards the narrow opening in the gate where we had entered. This time, however, people were not so well behaved. There was some pushing and shoving to squeeze through the aperture. To the delight of the crowd (and ourselves), a few enterprising Germans were able to punch another hole in the fence and relieve the congestion at the main exit.
As we made our physically weary, mentally exhilerated way out of the Tiergarten, a German youth passed by and evidently heard us speaking English. He stopped for a moment, smiled, and asked if we were Americans.
I nodded in the affirmative.
“Obama, ist gut, Ja?” he queried.
Ja, ist gut”, I replied.