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JULY 9, 2012 7:41AM

Mitt Romney barred from speaking at Brandenburg Gate

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Berliners have grown tired of seeing their most historic monument misused as an American political prop 


Nobody knows what trouble I've seen: The bronze Quadriga atop Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (source: wiki commons)

OVER THE WEEKEND THE German press reported that likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is planning a stop in Berlin later this month as part of a pre-election visit to Israel and Europe. According to the reports, he wants to schedule a meeting with Angela Merkel and possibly make a campaign speech. While he will be welcome in the capital, Merkel's government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, has made one thing very clear: Romney will not be allowed to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

What is it about this monument that makes American presidents - both real and prospective - think they hold the deed to it? Constructed as a symbol of peace between 1788 and 1791, it once marked the Prussian capital's main entrance and remains its most familiar landmark. The structure has seen a lot of trouble over the centuries. Napoleon stole the bronze Quadriga from its roof in 1806. Rebellious soldiers and sailors raised the red flag from it in November of 1918. Storm troopers marched through it to celebrate Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Nazis planned to dismantle part of it to speed traffic down their vast new East-West-Axis boulevard. Soon after, the Gate was severely damaged during the Second World War and was restored in a rare joint effort by both halves of the city during the 1950s.

The Brandenburg Gate: A presidential obsession 

The American obsession with the Gate began back in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy visited the divided city. The Gate was located along the dividing line between the Soviet and British sectors of the city, but stood firmly - and inaccessibly - on eastern territory. Kennedy inspected the structure from the western side of the new Wall before delivering his memorable "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech to an immense crowd in front of the provisional West Berlin city hall in Schöneberg.

Since then, a visit to the Wall, and the Gate, has been a standard feature of every presidential visit. In 1987, Ronald Reagan visited Berlin in connection with the divided city's 750th anniversary. Mounting a platform placed on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, he gave a rousing speech in which he said: 

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

 Ronald Reagan in Berlin

President Ronald Reagan delivering his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987 (source: Reagan Presidential Library)

While largely ignored at the time, Reagan's address has gone down in history and popular legend as a turning point in the Cold War and a triumph of hardline Republican foreign policy. But the reality is much more interesting than this shallow myth. The venue, timing, and basic content of the speech had been arranged months in advance in discussions between veteran American diplomat John Kornblum* and the Soviet authorities in the East. Twenty years afterward, in a noteworthy article published in The American Interest in 2007, Kornblum told the remarkable diplomatic story surrounding the speech, which, he explains,

was not an isolated event. The speech was part of a calculated strategy, conceived over several years by Administration officials, to counter the damage to Transatlantic unity caused by the massive public opposition to NATO INF developments, and to arrest the steady drift in Germany toward accommodation with the Russians. 

By the way, the famous words were drafted by Kornblum himself, not by Reagan or his speechwriters. 

"What has Obama ever done for German unity?" 

After the Wall's opening and removal in 1989/90, the Brandenburg Gate retained its symbolic value to American presidents. It now became a Cold War trophy, a kind of transcendant bully pulpit for scoring self-congratulatory political points. Bill Clinton spoke there in 1994, bizarrely explaining to the locals that "Berlin is free!" In 2002, George W. Bush visited it before moving on to speak in an even more exalted venue: The historic Reichstag building just a few hundred yards away, where Bundestag members were called back from their bitterly earned spring vacations to hear Bush expound on "the house of freedom."

Finally, in 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel gently but firmly put her foot down: Nein, presidential candidate Barack Obama would not be permitted to give a campaign speech in front of the Gate. It was, her government implied, a German treasure and not an American prop. As conservative politician Erwin Huber explained at the time, the Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of German unity,

and I can't see how Obama has done anything for German unity. That's not a rebuke, but it also isn't a reason to grant him such a privilege. 

Obama instead spoke in front of the Victory Column further up the street. But Mr. Obama finally got his big chance on November 9, 2009, as part of a grand public ceremony marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After a servile introduction by Hillary Clinton, Obama himself appeared in his role of Emperor of the Universe, speaking to the bored, rain-soaked crowd on gigantic television screens from his dry perch in the White House. As one of the thousands of sodden-socked attendees at that misbegotten event, I couldn't help but ponder Huber's words and wonder if there shouldn't be a law against this sort of self-aggrandizement.

The policy on US presidential candidates, Mr. Seibert firmly told the press this weekend, has not changed since 2008. As it's not clear right now whether Romney even tried to reserve the Gate, the government's preemptive nixing of the idea demonstrates just how sensitive the issue is in the city.

So Romney will have to find a different venue. If worst comes to worse, the man will actually have to walk through it, just like the rest of us mortals.

Who really "opened this gate"? 

And while we're on the topic: While Ronald Reagan was always good for a chirpy speech, did he really open the Berlin Wall and liberate Eastern Europe through the sheer force of his personality? And if he did, why don't all Berliners love him? When former conservative defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (who would soon leave office in disgrace after a plagiarism scandal) suggested naming a street after the former president in 2010, he found the city administration to be distinctly unenthusiastic about the idea (I wrote about it HERE).

The story of the Wall's peaceful opening, and the bloodless downfall of the regime that erected it in 1961, is vast and intricate. Today, let me just quote from Stefan Liebich, a Bundestag member for the Left Party, who voted against a conservative-sponsored parliamentary measure in June formally honoring Ronald Reagan personally for his speech and his policies.

In a statement published on his blog, Liebich agreed that the disappearance of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain was a good thing,

but it is hardly thanks to Ronald Reagan, the Cold Warrior from Bel Air, a luxurious Los Angeles suburb, but rather to Frau Krause and Herr Lehmann from Leipzig and East Berlin. The people in the GDR were sick and tired of a state that prevented them from developing a point of view from seeing the world through their own eyes. We owe this equally to Herr Kowalski from Poznan and Frau Kovács from Budapest, who experienced the same thing. These are the people we should honor when we talk about the end of Europe's division. {...} The Wall didn't fall, it was torn down. Not by Reagan, not by Pope John Paul II, and not by the (conservative) CDU/CSU and the {business-oriented} FDP parties in the Bonn Bundestag. In reality, on November 9, 1989 they were all surprised by the determination of the East Berliners, who took matters into their own hands when a confused {East German} government failed to take action.

I don't know if the fortieth President of the United States is suitable for the role that {the Bundestag} wants to grant him posthumously. Ultimately I suspect that the point is to pave the way for further honors. However, he is already an honorary citizen, and there are memorial plaques for him. Do we need more? 

I think there are good reasons to oppose this. Alongside his confrontational foreign policy, with its failed economic policy, Reagonomics, he left a mountain of debt behind, he drastically dismantled the American welfare state, and he didn't utter the word AIDS until almost 10,000 Americans had already been killed by the epidemic. In short: He promoted policies that made even decent conservatives blush.

That is why we reject this proposal. It glorifies Reagan's speech and diminishes the role of the Lehmanns and Krauses, of Kowalski and Kovács, who, two years later, claimed their rights and hit the streets with their children, ringing the curtain down on systems whose time had long since passed.

Yes, the Lehmanns, Krauses, Kowalskis and Kovács all reclaimed their own freedom without any prompting from Ronald Reagan. As you may recall, before Kornblum and other professionals persuaded him to seek negotiations, Reagan's solution to the problem of Europe's division had been to nuke everyone east of "Fulda Gap." Don't imagine for a moment that the people over there didn't know it. I lived for several months in East Berlin during 1988, and I was always struck at how vigorously the people I met there - all of them critics of their degenerate communist leaders - hated the saber-rattling old man's guts. "Worse than Hitler," was how one acquaintance put it.

King Canute

King Canute understood that neither the tides nor history respond to the commands of a mere man, whether he is king or president 

The notion of Ronald Reagan majestically tearing down walls transforms him into a fantastical figure, rather like old King Canute commanding the tides. At least Canute was a modest man, which is more than one can say for Reagan's self-serving hagiographers. Believing that a second-rate figure like Reagan somehow brought freedom to Eastern Europe without savvy diplomats doing the heavy lifting peace requires means engaging in magical thinking. Recognizing that eastern Europeans claimed their freedom - their "inalienable right," as Thomas Jefferson once called it - against horrific odds means recognizing historical reality. There's still a difference, you know. Those who ignore it tend to get washed away by the tides.



* John Kornblum later served as US Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001, and still resides in the capital. I used to know him in a roundabout way back when his son and my twins were classmates at Berlin's John F. Kennedy School and we chatted a couple of times during parent-teacher evenings.



UPDATE, JULY 23, 2012

Today the Romney campaign announced that the candidate would soon leave for a campaign tour of Israel, Poland, and Britain. Germany is no longer on the list. It is not clear whether the Merkel government's refusal to allow Mr. Romney to speak at the Brandenburg Gate played any role in his decision to give Berlin a miss this time.



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This was a good history lesson to start off the day. Well done.
Thanks, JL! After experiencing the city's division and reunification at first hand, I get very thin-skinned when this dramatic experience is reduced to a political talking point.
"Ich bin ein Berliner" Correct me if I'm wrong but doesn't that translate as a colloquial phrase, "I am a jelly doughnut?" Thanks for clearing the air with this post.
The handling of Reagan's visit to this wall may be typical of his entire presidency; a lot of hype to take credit for things that were done by others while diverting the blame.

Thirty years of his policies and the escalation of the worst of them have left much more damage yet they still try to cover it up with hype. In fact the things they're trying to do now to advance these policies were too extreme even for Reagan.
That is a persistent legend. Let me try to put it to rest:

1. Yes indeed, in some parts of Germany a "berliner" is a jelly donut, comparable to what we call a "bismarck" in the Midwest. (Back home we call another variety of pastry "a danish," which must confuse visitors from Copenhagen.)

2. In Berlin, however, a jelly donut has always been called a "Pfannkuchen" (literally, a "pancake"), never a "Berliner." So I am quite certain that none of the locals in that crowd back in 1963 caught the joke - if indeed it is a joke.

3. Similarly, the Germans have a custom of setting up giant open-air TV screens for soccer matches and other events, which for some reason they call "Public Viewing." Back during the 2006 World Cup, someone remarked that this term means a funeral parlor visitation in English. While this may be technically true, I doubt many people in the US or Britain would have otherwise picked up on it.

4. Now, getting into the nitty gritty of German usage, Kennedy couldn't have said anything else. A native German would say "Ich bin Berliner," but this would have been incorrect for a symbolic citizen like Kennedy, who could (and did) only say "Ich bin ein Berliner."

5. Here's something to show you how silly the story really is: When, right after 9/11, German politicians and newspaper editors announced "Heute sind wir alle Amerikaner" ("today we are all Americans"), one could have made the argument that they were actually saying: "We are all fried, pancake-like pastries with vanilla icing on one side." I don't think that's how they meant it, though.

By the way, Herbert Hoover said "I am a Berliner" first - on a visit to the city in 1954.
What would Mitt say, anyhow? Please, give me your money and stop with the solar energy? Please, let's put up new walls between the rich and the poor? I am a German? I tore down this wall? I am not a jelly donut?

I have a little chip from the wall, my mother and sister visited some years ago. I have (sigh) still only been in Berlin train station, on the way too and from Copenhagen. We had hoped to visit the city this summer, but another time.
What would Mitt say at the Brandenburg Gate? Gosh, there's some real satirical potential in that. Does anyone want to have a go at it?


I'm talking to you here, John Blumenthal...
Of course, Germans could have learned to speak Russian and see how they liked Stalin if we didn't extend nuclear deterrence to the Federal Republic, and thereby risk a Russian strike on American territory. Maybe that was a mistake, and we should cancel NATO, and see how Germany does with Israel and Russia?
Excellent, historical piece. Thanks for writing and posting here.
I'm intrigued about the "learning Russian part," since several of my interpreter colleagues learned very good Russian in those days and have excellent careers today, but I'm not sure what the rest of your comment has to do with my article. People frequently describe learning another language as the worst part of a political outcome, although I've always found knowledge of other languages to be enriching.

For the record, most people in East Germany didn't like Stalin, so I think that's been settled.
Learned much here. Thanks! r.
My point is that we could have withdrawn from Germany at the end of the war, and let Ivan finish payng you back like he did in the GDR, and then we had to risk nuclear war with the Rusians for forty years, and still do, because, what do you think Israel and Russia will think if Germany was detached from NATO, and wanted nuclear weapons?
Auf Wiedersehen
Dear Alan, I agree...great history lesson. What would Romney say? Guess that all depends on which way the breeze is a-blowin' that particular day...
A prop like the Gate wouldn't turn Romney into Reagan or Kennedy. He would just be a robot saying whatever he has been programmed to say, and history wouldn't be made. But on the other hand, would we stop any candidate from another country from standing in front of the Statue of Liberty and making a speech? I think not.
Maybe, but somehow I can't imagine a presidential candidate from another country being so presumptuous.

Bear in mind that delivering a speech there represents a massive and vastly expensive logistical effort. The Gate is located in the center of town, unlike the Statue of Liberty, which is on an island. Imagine a foreign candidate asking to be handed Times Square to deliver a campaign speech, with all the nuisance that would entail, and I think New Yorkers would grumble.

Speaking of American presidents acting like "Emperor of the Universe" when they pass through these parts, George W. Bush's desire to take his morning jog through the giant central Tiergarten park during his visit here required the ENTIRE PARK to be sealed off from other joggers, bikers, dog walkers, and sunbathers for hours on end. The locals were correspondingly unimpressed with this imposition.
Fine post. Thank you. I am sure that most of the world is sick of American Presidents who reside in the White Castle on Penn Ave. Sick of their faces, their failed policies and their Democratically elected regal status. I can't imagine what Romney might say at the Gate. Maybe something about his German ancestry:

"The family can trace their lineage to modern England, Scotland and Germany. Miles Park Romney, Mitt’s great-great grandfather (paternal), hails from Lancashire, England, while on the maternal side, Archibald Newell Hill was a resident of Renfrew, Scotland. His great-great grandfather, the legendary Prussian soldier, Carl Heinrich, was a native of Holstein, Germany."

Thanks. There's something about Berlin that brings out the Kaiser in these guys. We ought to keep an eye on it.
Interesting story, Mr. Nothnagle. Some history of which I was unaware. However, it's pretty likely that Romney would say something completely stupid if he were to speak at the Gate. Something like, "You Germans sure make your gates all the right height." Or maybe he'll strap his dog to the top of it. Or he might show off his knowledge of Europe by calling it the Arc de Triomphe. (As I showed off my knowledge by misspelling that.)
No, you got the spelling all right!!
Thanks for taking time to write this. Very informative for me.

Regarding your open call topic I suspect Romney would begin by blaming Obama for it taking so long to “tear down that wall.” Next he’d probably suggest rebuilding it as soon as the U.S. – Mexico Great Wall is completed.

And he’d be sure to suggest that Angela Merkel let the euro collapse under “free market principles.” Now there’s an oxymoron. I think “free market” means “stop trying to make us rich folks pay our fair share.” Can’t wait ‘til Romney stops in Berlin.
"What is it about this monument that makes American presidents - both real and prospective - think they hold the deed to it?"

If I may indulge in a rare moment of flag-waving, Americans may not hold the deed, but they may be justified in believing they have a lien on the property. Why?

That belief may have something to do with the fact Americans played a huge role in saving Germany -- and the civilized world -- from ... well there's no nice way to put it -- from Germany. And after WWII, the American airlift saved Germany from the Russians. So, forgive me, but I think America has earned a certain degree of latitude when it comes to Germany.

That is NOT to say Reagan needs any further deification. Like Obama, Reagan gave a good speech, but unlike Obama, he was a misguided ideologue who reigned long past his sell-date. America still suffers from the effects of his Voodoo Economics and his belligerent foreign policy.

And he and his speech most assuredly did not bring down The Wall. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history knows the grand plan fall for the Soviet Union began under Harry Truman, and was continued by EVERY President who followed.

All that said, I'm all for Germany declining to give Romney a prop for his Presidential aspirations. Given my negative assessment of Reagan, it speaks volumes when I say Romney is certainly no Reagan. Come November, we may witness just how low America can go.
Sounds about right. Or maybe he'll say: "Chancellor Merkel, tear down this gate!"

There's a lot of historical truth in what you say, and I have no objections to Reagan speaking there in 1987, but I'm wondering if this deed has an expiration date. Does American predominance at the site last for 99 years, as in Hong Kong, or in perpetuity, as in Guantanamo Bay? At the Wall commemoration event in 2009 I had the distinct feeling that Hillary Clinton and President Obama thought they owned the place.
Some debts can never be repaid in full, but it's the rudest of guests who reminds his host of that fact. To put it another way, as a guest in my home, you are welcome to my hospitality -- my cordiality, my food and a place to sleep if required -- but you are not welcome to sleep with my wife and abuse my children.
"a German treasure and not an American prop" - good on Merkel.
I am still processing the Republicans actually think they can win with this guy?
I don't know what Romney might say but the opening would be "Ladies, gentlemen and corporations". And thanks for setting the record straight on that "I am a donut" urban legend.
Good for Berlin!

Whatever Romney might say at that location, I'm sure he'd refute it the minute it became a political liability.

And there's seldom been a presidential candidate closer to being a jelly donut than Mitt Romney.

Thank you for the history lesson--very informative.

"Wasn't the American Embassy relocated to a place right near the Gate, so as to cash-in on the historical gravitas from Kennedy's and Reagan's speech?"
That's certainly an added selling point, but the US actually did acquire an embassy building located directly next to the Brandenburg Gate shortly before the outbreak of World War II. It thus made sense to construct a new embassy at that prominent site. The new building caused controversy for years, since it was feared the necessary security measures would essentially paralyze that busy section of central Berlin. Fortunately, the design the Americans finally came up with is very restrained and the security measures are nearly invisible.

The French embassy is located right across the square, and the British embassy is right around the corner, next to the Hotel Adlon. By the way, post-9/11 British security requires the sealing off of an entire block of the historic Wilhelmstraße, which really slows down traffic. But you can walk or ride your bike past the embassy, waving at the security cameras as you go.
"there's seldom been a presidential candidate closer to being a jelly donut than Mitt Romney."
Ouch! But I guess that's the idea. He was counting on a photo op with Merkel and the Brandenburg Gate to give him that extra bit of "gravitas."

@Kate and Mary
What I said to Shiral. Romney needs the backdrop.

It's the presumptuousness of the thing that gets to me. Can we conceive of a foreign political candidate staging a giant speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and at American taxpayers' expense? The very notion is absurd - and rather embarrassing.

Now, if Romney gets elected President, his wish will be Merkel's command. That's how it works over here.
You should write for The New Republic.

"Believing that a second-rate figure like Reagan somehow brought freedom to Eastern Europe without savvy diplomats doing the heavy lifting peace requires means engaging in magical thinking." I agree. Whenever I hear Reagan supporters talk of his taking down the wall, smoke comes out of my ears! Once you've lived in Berlin, its spirit gets inside you, and you have to defend the truth.
I was in Berlin a few weeks after his wall speech. I asked my German friends what they thought of him. They called him an idiot! They also didn't believe that he could have actually called Communism the "Evil Empire". They said, "it is simply different, but definitely not evil".
I would think the Marshall Plan should afford US Pesidents some flexibility in speaking venues.
You're right, it does, although the arrangement doesn't apply to applicants for the job.
I definitely agree with Merkel. A delightful thread of info, Alan, thank you. R
Good history lesson but, Reagan's speech was memorable and did have an impact. He would have been the last person to say he was anything but a bit player in the whole drama. Russia was suffocating from within and East Germany had an expiration date-Reagan move the chains so enough of the BS. If Romney is the next President, this will not be forgoten.
Reagan made people love their country just as Kenndy did twenty five years earlier.
Great moments dismissed by the angry left.
Romney Schmomney is an idiot.
Alan, you are quite right , Reagan had really no influence. Naturally, the US press thought that he was the Communicator of our time. Don't you love irony? He was a B actor who learned the moves of a president more than he had George Gipp tucking the pig skin under his arm ... ah, the Gipper .... American romanticism in its least sublime sentiment.
Pope John Paul actually held back resistence late in WW II, when the underground could have confronted the Nazi's, realizing that they would not be a problem for long. Had he jumped the gun, the Russians would have squashed resistence when they 'd come in their occupation. In the end, a man of great patience, lead from -- above, I 'd guess -- nurturing the trade unionist, the labor movement, most notably the Ship workers, in Gdansk. It was a beautiful moment. This was a great post. You always give us your best.
Highly appreciated. R>>>>>>