Defined by the Times

International | German press liberals fan an anti-Bush spark from The New York Times into an anti-American inferno

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

The German language is full of aphorisms rooted in the nation's troubled history. Here is one: "Angst ist ein schlechter Ratgeber" (Fear is a bad counselor). As I traveled by rail through my homeland last week-for the first time since Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, banking on his fellow countrymen's dread of war, had chucked out a 50-year friendship with the United States-the faces of the other passengers in my compartment were gray, grim, unsmiling.

One could have thought an airplane commandeered by terrorists had hit a skyscraper in Berlin-or that Germany had ceased to be one of the most prosperous countries in Europe, affording its citizens more leisure time than any other. I felt reminded of an eerie phenomenon I had experienced in my childhood during the Nazi era and then in Communist East Germany: that you simply must not discuss certain things even among your closest friends.

The topic to be avoided this time was anti-Americanism. In France, anti-Americanism is a given, just like the habit of eating your cheese following the salad, which in turn is preceded by the main course. The meal will always end on a sweet note. But in Germany, anti-Americanism is different. It isn't an expression of presumed cultural superiority, as in France. It is shrill, as so often when people say something false with a guilty conscience.

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The hatred of George W. Bush in Germany (and in France and Spain, which I had also just visited) is immense. Who gave these people, who never met Mr. Bush and do not master English well enough to understand him, the idea that he is an intellectually underpowered Texas cowboy shooting from his hips? They have largely been indoctrinated by the unreconstructed leftists who dominate the German press.

Some German publications, such as the venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, are trying to report and comment fairly on Mr. Bush, America, and what may happen in Iraq soon. But the other side is more vociferous and has on its side the self-appointed Bible of the international press, The New York Times. For who taught the world during the 2000 election campaign that George W. Bush was not very bright and thus dangerous? It was the Times with its extraordinarily partisan full-page report on Mr. Bush's unimpressive performance as a Yale undergraduate. As far as I have been able to make out, some of the most influential foreign correspondents in Washington are still basing their opinion of the president on that report and similar ones.

With this in mind, it is easy for Chancellor Schroeder and other demagogues to play on German angst, for we are all marked by our or our parents' experiences in World War II: the air raids, the starvation, the shame that followed the discovery of the crimes that had been committed in our name. But Mr. Schroeder has gone beyond that to display an astounding negative skill-the skill to destroy the German-American friendship that has grown over half a century and is still reflected in opinion polls, which confirm that some 70 percent of all Germans rate the United States as their country's best friend.

Driving through Bonn, West Germany's lovely little former capital on the Rhine, I thought about Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who in this town brilliantly squared a circle by building up a friendship with America and with France. I thought about his Social Democrat successors, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, who faithfully followed at least this part of Adenauer's policies. I also thought of Helmut Kohl, who presided over Germany's reunification only to be voted out of office-a tragic event reminding one of Winston Churchill's dismissal by an ungrateful electorate after he had won World War II.

I recalled glorious moments in Bonn in my youth: for example, the nationally televised duel between Franz Josef Strauss and Carlo Schmid, two of our political giants, one a Christian Democrat, the other a Socialist. In a parliamentary debate, they suddenly switched to Latin, berating each other with such elegance that the entire House rose to give them a standing ovation. That's the kind of politicians we used to have.

And now we have Mr. Schroeder.

But on Feb. 2, in regional elections, his Social Democratic party suffered a devastating defeat in Lower Saxony, Mr. Schroeder's home state, and Hesse, once a bastion of left-wing nuttiness. Maybe, just maybe, it is too early to parrot Heinrich Heine: "Denk' ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, so bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht" (thinking of Germany at night, I am deprived of my sleep).


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