America through the eyes of an American in Berlin


Ten days ago, when I departed America for Berlin, I feared that I would fall behind the American news cycle. Instead of the New York Times, I would be struggling to read Der Spiegel; my classmates and I were bound by a ‘Language Pledge’ to speak only in German, and the Facebook statuses of my friends hardly constitutes an adequate substitute for my RealClearPolitics iPhone app. In many ways, my fears were confirmed. I didn’t learn until today that Eliot Spitzer is throwing his hat in the race for New York’s City Comptroller. Egypt’s return to instability and political protest has largely escaped me. And I have no idea how the gubernatorial race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli is shaping up, despite having spent my first month of the summer working as a policy intern for McAuliffe.

Yet after speaking to a few friends who are in the States and glancing Politico and the Times, it seems that the German media have covered the Edward Snowden drama with a zeal that few American outlets have matched. It’s hard to overstate how big a story Snowden is in Germany. His name seems a permanent fixture on the front pages and the evening news reports begin with the latest developments.

German fascination with this story is natural on two levels. Firstly, governmental overreach is always an area of paranoia and suspicion for the one country where both fascist and communist regimes flourished in the 20th century. And secondly, Snowden, according to an interview with Der Spiegel, said that the American National Security Agency works on a close basis with the German government and other Western nations. In the same interview, Snowden claimed that other nations held programs similar to the NSA’s PRISM, an assertion that directly undermined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s indignant denials.

But I would speculate that the Snowden case is drawing attention in Germany because it’s also another example for the German public of America’s global overreach. I have only spoken to a handful of Germans about this issue, but they sketch the same caricature of America again and again. The Germans I’ve spoken to see America, in the words of one girl I spoke with on the subway system, “as a decaying empire…kind of like Rome or Great Britain.” Yet Germans don’t just see decay but also delusion in American foreign policy. “America is dictatorial without realizing that it is reaching its death knell,” said a family friend of my guest family over dinner once. When asked to point out said failings in American foreign policy, the Iraq War is consistently brought up. The more obstreperous activists who frequent Berlin’s train-stations and lurk outside its shopping centers will voice specious and vague critiques of global capitalism and America, her devoted proselytizer.

As the chief beneficiaries of both global capitalism (Germany is arguably the only country which has benefited from the great European integration and still has a robust trade surplus) and the American military (which has protected Germany from first the specter of Eastern invasion and now safeguards global travel and leads the fight against global terrorism, crime, and nuclear proliferation), it’s unclear to me why Germans have such a strident problem with American global leadership.

Yet perhaps, German distaste for America is an expression of their reluctance to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy. To give a brief example, my host father recounted how German workers won the right in the 1970s to not work on weekends with the brilliant and sweet campaign motto, “On Saturdays my father belongs to me.” This right will almost inevitably be lost in the coming years as global competition heats up and companies look for ways to trim Germany’s high labor costs. “Perhaps we see hating America as a way to vent our frustrations at who we are becoming,” he conceded at the end of our heated debate.

Rishabh Bhandari ’16 is in Timothy Dwight College. This summer he is blogging from Berlin and then from Beijing. Contact him at