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Obama Visits Germany 50 Years After Kennedy's Famous Speech


President Obama has arrived in Berlin after wrapping up the G-8 summit. The visit comes a half century after President Kennedy delivered his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech after the Berlin Wall went up. For Obama, this is his first visit to Berlin since he was a presidential candidate in 2008, but this time, there's a lot less fanfare. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the president can expect tough questions from his hosts, especially about cyberspying.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Five years ago, Germans treated then-Senator Barack Obama like a rock star as he spoke to tens of thousands of them at the Victory Column here.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before, although tonight I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world.

NELSON: Many Germans were thrilled when Mr. Obama was subsequently elected to the White House. They believed his international background uniquely qualified him to be the leader of the free world. The influential Spiegel magazine referred to Mr. Obama as World President.

Since then, German enthusiasm has largely given way to indifference. Many here say they still support Mr. Obama, but are disappointed that he failed to deliver a quick end to the war in Afghanistan or close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The latest issue of Spiegel magazine refers to Mr. Obama as The Lost Friend. Constanze Stelzenmueller is senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

DR. CONSTANZE STELZENMUELLER: He has become not just demystified, but more of a normal person. We've seen his weaknesses. We've seen his flaws. We've seen him recovering from mishaps. We've seen him having to fight in the election. All of that makes him more normal.

NELSON: Other analysts say the president is trying to regain German good will with his visit. He'll finally get to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, although to a small invited crowd. The gate is a favorite stop on any tour of Berlin and is one of Germany's most important symbols.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the first wall (unintelligible).

NELSON: President Ronald Reagan stood not far from here 26 years ago and called on then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Mr. Obama was not allowed to speak at the gate in 2008 because he wasn't a head of state at the time. That he's in the German capital a week before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's famous speech in Berlin is fortuitous, says Andreas Daum, a history professor at the University at Buffalo.

ANDREAS DAUM: He might not even try to imitate John F. Kennedy, but it would be surprising if he were to miss the opportunity to at least refer to his Democratic predecessor.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words...

NELSON: Kennedy had just returned from a visit to the Berlin Wall when he spoke to a massive crowd in front of West Berlin's city hall. He declared solidarity with the city's residents in a message that was clearly aimed at the Soviets.


KENNEDY: ...Ich bin ein Berliner.

NELSON: But some analysts say Mr. Obama's visit is likely to evoke another Cold War legacy: espionage. In Germany, both the government and the public are upset over recent revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency secretly gathers foreign-generated emails and other online communications. Germany was reported to be one of the more frequent targets of the American surveillance. Peter Schaar is Germany's data protection commissioner.

PETER SCHAAR: We understand that Germany is the biggest European country, but this does not justify a very intense surveillance, as it was reported, from my perspective.

NELSON: He adds it's an especially sensitive subject in Germany, where the Nazis - and, later, East Germany's communist government - intruded heavily into people's lives. Officials here say Chancellor Angela Merkel will question Mr. Obama about the surveillance when she meets with him. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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