Foreign Dispatch: Guten Tag, Herr President

By FOX News Radio’s Simon Owen in Berlin, Germany:

Berliners have been waiting a while for a visit from President Obama. He made a famous appearance here as a presidential candidate five years ago. But until now, he hadn’t returned to the German capital since taking office.


So there was no shortage of interest when late Tuesday night, Air Force One landed; bringing with it the first family, along with a small army of aides, Secret Service agents and the White House Press Corps.

Germany Obama Visit

A visit from the President means a security operation like pretty much no other for the host nation. As we disembarked our press plane, with AF1 parked next door, dozens of German police cars with their distinctive Polizei signage, were dotted around the airport and its exit.

Germany Obama Visit

Nothing was being left to chance. German SWAT tanks lined up outside the President’s hotel, and every guest, including reporters like me and also others unconnected to the White House, were told they’d have to line up to be screened in a large military-green tent outside the hotel’s front door.

But, this was a brief inconvenience. The President’s visit was slightly whirlwind-like; a 24-hour visit. Come Wednesday morning the President was out, meeting with Germany’s President before holding talks with the woman who really pulls the strings: Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel

This was an interesting one because unlike at the G8 Summit, which President Obama had been attending in Northern Ireland, it was pretty clear that on this occasion the NSA surveillance scandal was going to come up. While Angela Merkel repeatedly referred to President Obama as “Dear Barack” when they appeared together later, she had to challenge him on the programs. It’s awoken some sensitive and painful memories for many Germans: memories of eavesdropping by East Germany’s secret police. In the end, the President issued another defense of the practice, saying the U.S. was not monitoring the e-mails of ordinary citizens or damaging civil liberties.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Klaus Wowereit

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and experienced the Stasi first hand, talked of “long and intensive” talks on the spying issue, and suggested some of her questions went unanswered. Any tensions, though, were put aside when Merkel introduced the President to a crowd of 4,500 invited guests at an iconic German landmark: the giant Brandenburg Gate; an 18th century arch close to the former site of the Berlin Wall which was off limits when the Wall stood.

Ira Schwartz/Associated Press
Ira Schwartz/Associated Press

It’s a site where other U.S. Presidents have made historic speeches. President Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Gate in 1987, challenged the Soviets to “tear down this wall”.

Will McBride-Camera Work/The Kennedy Museum, via Associated Press
Will McBride-Camera Work/The Kennedy Museum, via Associated Press

A short distance away in 1963, with the Cold War in full effect, President John F. Kennedy made a famous pledge of support to democratic West Germany, saying, in German, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”).

Germany US Obama

It would have been hard for President Obama to match those occasions because the tensions of those days are gone. There is no wall to tear down. Berlin has been unified for more than two decades. This was not an edgy afternoon with Germans desperate to hear a U.S. voice supporting their struggles.

Barack Obama,

That left the President free to make a speech in more of a festival-like atmosphere. Bands performed in the build-up and crowds lined up for water and poured on sunscreen as temperatures soared north of 90 degrees. President Obama received a large cheer when midway through his speech, he succumbed to the heat himself and removed his jacket.

APTOPIX Germany US Obama

The address hit on a number of popular topics in Germany, including climate change, but most notably denuclearization, with the President proposing the U.S. and Russia cut their nuclear weapons stockpiles by up to a third. Germany, with its recent war-scarred history, has opted against building its own weapons of mass destruction.


It’s impossible to deny the differences between at President Obama’s 2013 Berlin speech, in front of a relatively small, invited crowd and his electric 2008 appearance at the Victory Column as a presidential candidate, when 200,000 people turned out. However, President Obama is still popular in Germany; 82% of people questioned in a recent opinion poll had a favorable opinion. But, some in the Brandenburg crowd wanted more than a speech. As one attendee told me: “These words have to turn into actions. America needs to be a leader in the world. Europe is waiting for it”.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel

Listen below to some of Simon Owen’s reporting from Berlin:

Follow Simon Owen on Twitter: @Simon504