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November 2002

Entente Discordiale

American-German relations take a dive-or do they?

It’s 10:45 pm on the evening of October 6, 2002, and I’m standing around up to my ankles in mud after spending hours in a beer tent, trying to have a good time. In the end it was impossible to down that second mug of beer, and now, without the comfort of being as drunk as everyone else, the crowds seem uglier to me than ever. Yet the Americans and Germans, who largely make up this mélange, would appear not to find each other any uglier this year than in previous ones. So how damaging has the recently reported breach of friendship between Americans and Germans actually been, if at all?

The daily press over the past few weeks has reported the following events: Schröder and Fischer showed little interest in the American ambassador’s criticisms of the Schröder administration’s refusal to support US war policy. Ambassador Coats accused the Germans of telling mistruths. A very unsavory accusation was leveled at the American president by the German minister of justice. Bush did not, as is customary, congratulate the German chancellor on his electoral victory. Cheney declined to shake hands with the German defense minister. Schröder did not telephone Bush and try to heal the wounds. These remarks and their possible repercussions dominated the news for days but, without wishing to play down the remarks of Däubler-Gmelin, much of the affair seemed, at least to a Joe Ordinary like myself, to have the makings of a bad soap opera. Did Bush believe that the ruling German coalition in the middle of a tight election battle, with a reputation of being brilliantly wishy-washy, would come out in favor of an invasion of Iraq? And, conversely, did Schröder think he could avoid offending Bush by not supporting the American president’s stance on Iraq? Will they make up again? Will they recast their roles? Politicians and the media have done a masterly job of creating suspense.

Germans and Americans in Munich are not, and I hope never will be, at each other’s throats. However, the media have defined American-German relations as severely damaged and this has one real consequence: it gives the media a story and makes the politicians happy. The Bush folks are media savvy and the man deemed the media chancellor is no hack. Bush and Schröder are the center of the drama. What could be better? This breakdown in relations, whether genuine or not, is a good backdrop for campaigning. It seems to have worked for Schröder. At the appropriate point Bush himself may be able to make some political capital out of this American-German discord and perhaps present himself as the veritable beacon of American-German friendship. He has already begun the reconciliation process with letters praising American-German relations on the occasion of German Unification and German-American Day. However, I for one, and I do not think I am alone in feeling this way, think this whole thing is a put-on and poses questions that simply do not deserve the attention they have been given.

In our media-dominated society, separating fact from fiction would seem to be a dying art. Nobody really believes that Golden Toast has a sunny taste or Becks is the pure pils experience or Nissan is a new form of intelligence or that you are the first to know with CNN? Nobody in their right mind takes these warblings literally; and yet neither does anyone consider them lies even though they are manifestly untrue. All except the most fuzzy minded among us know they are false statements, or at best statements of a dubious nature, made as if they were true, but not intended to be believed. No one is going to offer proof of the claims and no one is going to look for it. They are simple rhetorical devices to get us to buy, or buy into, something. The proof of their “truth” is measured in the products or stories sold.

In a world where presidents and chancellors are marketed, where political statements are bits of advertising copy and campaigns are contrived, the truth is relegated to the backwashes of folkloric authenticity found among the masses at the Oktoberfest. The aisles between the beer tables are the cracks where the vulgar truth shows through the slickness of political quackery. The number of beer-induced fights between Germans and Americans was about the same this year as last. And none of the visitors, of either nationality, standing around in the rain after the last tent closed, juiced up enough to be “willing to bear any burden and pay any price,” wanted their kids coming home from Iraq in a body bag. But as political rhetoric becomes ever-more opaque and pervasive, so it becomes harder to stay true to one’s own beliefs and harder to judge if those beliefs have any truth.

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