The first thing you have to know is that Germans love America. They love the country and they call it Amerika in conversation even though they know one is supposed to say Vereinigte Staaten, United States. During my Berlin childhood, the word Amerika cast a powerful force field; it rang with possibility and promise.
Germans have felt the tug of the American Dream, for a long time. Since the eighteenth century, seven million Germans have immigrated to North America. They left their homeland looking for economic opportunities and religious and political freedom.
But the love for Amerika got its strongest boost at the least likely moment: after the Americans (with British, French and Russian allies) defeated Germany in World War Two.
I learned as a child that Germans were grateful to the Americans because of the role they played in liberating Germany from the nightmare of National Socialism. My relatives admired the GIs who occupied the country after 1945 - the young men embodied what Germans then lacked: Lässigkeit - a mix of cool, easy, casual. American music soothed wounded hearts and Hollywood movies sprouted fantasies of peacetime prosperity in Deutschland.
But it was more than that. Amerika was the mightiest country in the world and instead of punishing Germany, the US government rebuilt and protected the country they’d just defeated.
The American Marshal Plan jump-started West German reconstruction. American troops saved the city of West Berlin when the Soviets imposed a blockade, by airlifting basic supplies to the besieged population for an entire year. Most West Germans were grateful for NATO, with the US at its helm. Perhaps most importantly – and lastingly - the values of the US Constitution shaped the West German Verfassung which is one of the most democratic constitutions in the world.
Of course, Germans know that it wasn’t altruism – it was political strategy. The Cold War was very hot back then and it played out most immediately in Germany when the country was divided by the infamous Wall. West Germany’s economy would be capitalist, its growth would create a reliable market for American goods. Its geographic location made West Germany a perfect base for the US military, allowing for quick retaliation against the Soviet enemy.
Germans have always known they played an important role for the United States and for the most part, they didn’t mind. They were Amerika’s loyal and steadfast partner. But since they have strong opinions and believe in open political discourse, Germans spoke out against the Atom bomb, against McCarthyism, against the Vietnam War. Today, they speak out against racism and mass incarceration. They do not support US military involvement in Iraq and other countries. They wonder about homelessness and mass shootings and America’s anti immigration policies.
Most of all, they wonder about the President.
“What’s going on over there?” my friends in Germany ask me. “How can this be happening?”
Young Germans are dismayed and angry at being called ‘bad, very bad’ by the US head of state. Older Germans are disappointed. Weren’t they the favorite friend, the Musterschüler - star pupil- of the country they admired?
Bad? Just because they are really good at making and selling cars? That’s what they were taught to do.
Bad? Because they take in hundreds of thousands of refugees and try to work out the ensuing challenges? That’s what they were taught to do.
Bad? Inevitably that adjective conjures up a time when Germans were known throughout the world as evil, trampling on rights and democratic values, unleashing a world war that devastated Europe, and organizing a Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews and forever transformed our thinking about civilization.
That, however, is not contemporary Germany. Today, Deutschland is a democratic, prosperous, conscientious country. Its politicians are aware that they have global responsibilities.
Germans know this is a different Amerika from the one they grew to love in the fifties. They understand that their love was always based partially on a fantasy, a myth. The current reality has not eclipsed the ideas of liberty and equality, not yet.
Even if every German knows today that the real United States are no longer the promised land, the word Amerika still vibrates with the possibility of there being a promised land – if not now, perhaps in the future?
It is possible to love someone and still hate what they do and the choices they make - I have experienced this with my parents, my spouse, even my children. When this happens, you have to make boundaries, limit contact, go your separate way for a while - maybe a long while.
It looks like that’s what Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is proposing to do with Amerika.