By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
THE SCREAMS COULD BE HEARD A block away. George Clooney was walking the red carpet, signing autographs and shaking hands while a massive throng reverberated with high-pitched squeals and an escalating chant of "Georgie, Georgie, Georgie!" This was a gala screening at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival for a beloved American star; days later, the giddy moment is recast in an ironic light when some 500,000 Germans from all over the country converge upon their relatively new capital to protest a U.S. war against Iraq with a stroll of their own, from the heart of what was once East Berlin to the West.
Reminders of the country's contempt for the American president are everywhere in Berlin, from the oversize newspaper caption blasting "Amerikan Arroganz" to the enormous faux movie poster for Peace Killer, starring George W. Bush, stretched over a scaffold at the top of Potsdamer Platz, once the dead zone between east and west, now the modern new home of the film festival. Plasma screens on the U-Bahn subway cars project NATO updates and anti-war slogans, and on German TV, dubbed versions of Friends, Matlock and The King of Queens run simultaneously to nonstop reports on the crisis and live broadcasts from political meetings. On German MTV, hipster pleas for peace share airtime with Kid Rock and the new Nena video.
Still, perhaps because Germans know all too well how a bad man can run away with a country, I sense they understand the difference between a nation's people and its government. Several times, Berliners tell me they were quite content with the Clinton administration, and that, aside from a clear-cut opposition to the war, they hardly know what to think about the dramatic shifts since Bush took office. More and more, I feel as though I'm expected to explain what's going on with everything American, down to why the public transportation in L.A. sucks, and why Laura Bush is so low-profile (I answer that she's probably sitting in the dark somewhere, drinking schnapps and crying).
And so it's with a heightened sense of symbolic responsibility that I abandon plans for shopping and head to the Alexanderplatz, the square where, in 1989, 700,000 East Germans gathered to protest (successfully) against the German Democratic Republic. I emerge from the subway into a swift human current. It's an all-inclusive affair -- families with small children, seniors, young couples with dogs, hippies and punk rockers. Some banners I can read — "Kein Blut fur Oil," the more satiric "Hooray for War!" — but most others escape me. One man holds a cardboard sign picturing a U.S. flag, and letters dripping blood; the only word I can make out is "Amerikaner." I ask him what it means. It's the only time I'm treated with anything approaching hostility. He eyes me suspiciously, then scolds me for not speaking to him in German and tells me that it says something along the lines of regime change begins at home. I ask him if he thinks most Americans are in favor of war, and he asks contemptuously how Bush could wage it without the support of his country. I decide that it's best not to bring up the Holocaust in response, and, smarting, take my leave and join the procession.
The avenue is packed, shoulder to shoulder, but this is the most orderly demonstration I've ever witnessed. Kids climb up onto buildings, trees and fountains to see and be seen, and beer and wurst tents dot the sidelines. The crowd moves past the magnificent classical buildings on the Unter der Linden in a sober, dignified fashion, with a minimum of noise and rabble-rousing aside from a drum core here, a high-spirited gang of friends there. Chants are rare. At the end, there are speeches met with cheers, but since they're in German, I don't know who's speaking or what they say. Hours later, when I return to the avenue after everyone's gone, no sign of the march is visible — not a scrap of litter, barely a bent blade of grass. I am less inspired than thoroughly depressed; after an afternoon spent feeling like a lone American in a wave of condemnation, I feel like there was no sign of me here either.