FRANKFURT — Frankfurt is often seen as this country’s version of New York City since it is the financial center of Germany. Munich would be the arts capital, while Berlin is the government center.
Frankfurt also was an anchor city in the former West Germany, and I’m here today getting some thoughts of people about the fall of the Berlin Wall plus 20 years.
That anniversary is only a few days away, coming on Monday. So I was pleased to see the lead story and photo on most German dailies today, including the Frankfurter Algemeine, Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Welt, and Suddeutsche Zeitung, was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic address Tuesday to a joint session of the United States Congress.
This is a first, and it shows the mutual need both Germany and America feel for an ongoing partnership between the two countries.
Chancellor Merkel, who came from the ruins of Communist East Germany to lead the largest and most powerful country in Europe, used the occasion to thank the United States for the role it played in the reunification of Germany which began with the fall of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. That unification was officially proclaimed 11 months later.
As the first German leader to ever address a joint session of Congress, Merkel told the lawmakers that this appearance was beyond her “wildest dreams,” given her unlikely beginning as a child behind the Iron Curtain.
Speaking for the European Union, she also used the occasion to proclaim her view that, “I am deeply convinced that we (Europe) will not find a better partner than America, nor will America find a better partner than Europe.”
I’m sitting in the Frankfurt Airport right now, and I’ve overheard three or four conversations where Merkel’s U.S. address was the subject. I’m not suprised because, for all the disagreements that Germans have over the U.S. presence in Iraq — and even Afghanistan — most Germans still consider America to be one of its best allies in the world.
Many Germans I’ve talked to are pleased — and certainly proud — of the prestigious pulpit their chancellor was given Tuesday in Washington, D.C. They seem to feel that Germany’s voice now has a better chance to be heard in America than in many, many years and they are grateful for that.
In my last post I talked about changes in Germany over the past 15 years since I’ve been coming to this country. If you scroll back to the end of WWII, however, you find probably the biggest change here, outside of the fall of the Wall itself.
That change has been the metamorphosis of this once-warlike country to one of the most pacifistic countries on the planet. For some 50 years following the war, Germany refused to put its troops on any foreign soil, finally bowing to U.S. and NATO pressuer to do so in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
Germany wants absolutely nothing to do with wars, and most of the population here hate the fact that the U.S. has been leading the charge in the war with Iraq. It’s one of the reasons President Obama was the overwhelming choice of most Germans to become president in 2008.
Americans don’t often realize why Europeans get so upset when the U.S. goes into military action with countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. One big reason is that Americans feel relatively safe from these countries’ terrorists right now because the countries lie on the other side of an ocean and European continent. But to countries like Germany, the proximity is much closer. And helping the U.S. war efforts there makes Germans a closer target for retaliation from those terrorists.
Here’s a rough transnational analogy: If Berlin were Los Angeles, Baghdad would be St. Louis. And, as in that example, you can get there all the way by land.
But, even more deeply, most Germans have a built-in hatred for war and the humiliation and shame — not to mention the devastation — that wars have caused them. Postwar Germany has chosen to make its mark as a European power through economics acumen and not through military might. It’s really not a bad model for the rest of the world to follow.
So Chancellor Merkel talked to Congress Tuesday, pledging her country’s continued support to its U.S. friendship and also taking something of a risk in supporting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Even Germany sees the threat of international terrorism is still alive, and Agrhanistan is seen as its breeding.
She did , however, ask for America to take more of a leadership role in world climate change and urged the U.S. to attend a UN conference in December and sign a legally binding international agreement to reduce industrial emissions of heat-trapping gasses. That call was met with mixed reaction from members of Congress.
About the world economy, she said a global framework of rules is needed to guard against another financial meltdown. She said the current regional rules represent “a second wall that needs to fall — a wall made up of regional, exclusively national thinking.” Specifically she referred to trade policies and the concept of protectionsim tempting countries like the U.S.
One Frankfurt businessman told me something today that seems to sum up a lot of what I’ve been hearing over here. He noted, “We’ve been waiting in Germany for a chance to influence some of the thinking in Washington about wars and climate change. I’m not sure what kind of influence this country will actually have in the U.S. on these issues, but at least it’s nice to know we’re being heard.”
I’m headed back to the former GDR tomorrow and a conversation with some former East Germans in the city of Magdeburg. I’ll talk with you then and let you know their impressions about the anniversary of the fall of the Wall.