When I moved to Berlin eight years ago—in the wake of a rash of neo-Nazi attacks against foreigners of color—I wondered if people stared at me because they didn't want me in their country. I suspected men who came on too fast were merely toying with a fetish. I thought the cold, standoffish manner from strangers was fueled by bigotry, and not simply the way Berliners are when they don't know a person.
Since then, Berlin has visibly grown more racially diverse, people either stare less or I've stopped noticing, and Germany is euphorically rallying behind a black American presidential candidate. A poll conducted earlier this month by Emnid Institute for Germany's largest circulated newspaper, Bild, found that 72 percent of Germans favored Barack Obama, compared to only 11 percent for John McCain. Support for Obama jumped to 86 percent among Germans with an Abitur, a university-track high school diploma.
But what surprised me most were the results in eastern Germany—where neo-Nazi activity is a fact of life and far-right political parties are represented in three eastern state parliaments— 77 percent said they would vote for Obama. As a grand welcome awaits Obama's visit to Berlin this week, I can't help but acknowledge the paradox. Why, in a country with a notorious racial history, persistent xenophobia and unsuccessful attempts at integrating its immigrants, is Obama's race seemingly not a factor in his popularity here?
On the one hand, Germans are resistant to change in their own country and are still very inexperienced and even stubborn about integrating other nationalities. Until citizenship laws were amended in 2000, even being born and raised in Germany wasn't enough to claim citizenship if neither of the parents was an ethnic German (this is still true, if certain requirements are not met).
On the other hand, several polls suggest that Germans are thrilled by the prospect of change that could come to the rest of the world with Obama as president. In the aforementioned poll, 22 percent said the next U.S. president's first priority should be averting the environmental catastrophe facing the planet. On several occasions last year, when Germany hosted the G-8 summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized George W. Bush for not seriously committing to climate change.
Reflecting the anti-Iraq war sentiment that has spread across Europe, only 14 percent of Germans thought the president's first duty was to wage a war on terrorism. Another poll conducted by the British Daily Telegraph in May showed that Obama was a strong favorite in other European countries as well: Italy (70 percent), France (65 percent), Britain (49 percent compared to 14 percent for McCain) and even in Russia, which generally favors Republican presidents, 31 percent said they would vote for Obama compared to 24 percent for McCain. The British poll attributes Obama's appeal in Europe to the fact that he has been "the only consistent opponent of the Iraq war."
But what may very likely have won Germans' hearts are Obama's conspicuously socialist platforms. The German poll found that one in every three Germans (34 percent) believed fighting global poverty and hunger was the next American president's most important task. Germans, with a strong tradition of social democracy, (or Marxism if they were raised in the east) are historically sympathetic toward the underdog. Obama's rise as a black man through America's social classes make him an inspiring success story for Germans.
I remember the first time I traveled to a small eastern town outside of Jena to attend my mother-in-law's 70th birthday party. Jena has its share of neo-Nazis and far-right political strongholds. By the time we had our second beers, my hosts and their neighbors wanted to talk about Paul Robeson and why so many African Americans from another era found comfort in communism. Was it because capitalism kept so many blacks impoverished and repressed? I disappointed them when we all realized they knew much more about the topic than I did. So they moved onto discussing police profiling of black men, poor people, particularly blacks, being forced for economic reasons to join the army. They drew parallels to America and the former GDR. Hadn't the Black Panthers been spied on, just as dissidents in the former GDR had? I'd later be bombarded with similar questions about race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "If the German government left poor Germans to drown," a German friend of mine said, "The world would immediately bring up our Nazi history."
Here, it appears that divisions of class polarize society more than those along color lines. But this is complicated by the fact that for many Germans, there are no color lines. If you're not white, you're just not German. This is hard to compare to the melting pot of the United States, where no matter how racist you are, you can't say someone of a different color is "not American."
While immigrants make up only 8 percent or 6.7 million of the entire German population of 82 million, according to the German Federal Statistics Office, some 15 million or 18% of the population has an "immigrant background". A little over a quarter of all immigrants in Germany come from Turkey. The remaining bulk of immigrants are eastern and southern European (Italian, Polish, former Serbian and Montenegrin and Greek). Fewer than half a million come from Africa, according to the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. But Germany is reliant on immigration as a result of decades-long low birth rates, a swelling aging population and German migration abroad.
German sociologists and political scientists tell us that the steep rise in poverty, staggering unemployment and the new, frustrated class of working poor are the main causes of neo-Nazi violence and growing support for far right political parties, not mere bigotry toward immigrants and people of color.
Nevertheless, there is still a dearth of immigrant leadership here in Germany. Out of 612 seats in the Bundestag (the federal parliament), only 5 are held by members of Turkish descent. So while Germans appear to be "colorblind" in their support of Obama, they certainly don't show the same enthusiasm for diverse leadership in their own country.
But that doesn't mean Germans, despite their open criticism of many things American, don't look to America for trends and unique ideals. "Obama's story is what Germans understand as the American dream," my neighbor tells me, eager to discuss the upcoming U.S. election with an American, as many Berliners are. "That kind of rags to riches story isn't really possible in Germany."
And unlike Americans, Germans' memories are long. The Berlin Airlift— in which Americans flew in food to starving West Berliners shortly after the Second World War— is a significantly and fondly remembered monument. America's co-occupation of West Berlin during the Cold War fostered a diplomatic closeness between Germany and the United States, while American, including African-American, GIs cultivated a cultural connection with West Berliners. Black American culture has enamored Berliners since as far back as the 1920s when African Americans performed in jazz clubs and cabarets around the city.
Obama represents to Germans a familiar visionary with charisma and social integrity that hasn't been seen, pundits here say, since Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy. Even when Hillary Clinton was still in the game, polls showed that Obama was the preferred candidate in Germany, despite Germans' love for Bill when he was president.
So while Germany might not see a Turkish Chancellor for many years to come, they'll be rooting for Obama. His planned trip has not been without controversy. He was initially reported to be speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which symbolizes the former border between East and West Berlin. Naysayers said the spot was too sacred to the city's history for a campaigning photo-op. Now, Obama is scheduled to speak in front of the Victory Column, an over 200-foot tower with a clear view of the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 19th century to commemorate the Prussian victories against the Danish, Austrian and French. With its central location and guarantee of having to block off considerable parts of the city for a speech there, it is still a prime location.
With the city buzzing about Obama's visit, it's safe to say he'll receive nothing less than a hero's welcome. He won't have to say, "Ich bin ein Berliner" to stir the crowd, as John F. Kennedy famously once did. Berliners already consider Obama to be one of their own.
Rose-Anne Clermont is a Haitian-American journalist based in Berlin, where she first lived as a Fulbright Fellow after attending Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has written about integration, globalization and race for "Spiegel Online, International Herald Tribune, The Womenʼs International Perspective, Die Zeit" (in German) and "Berlin Stories", a literary series airing this November on NPR Worldwide.