by Jonathan F. Keiler · March 20, 2017
The latest example of the mainstream media rewriting history to damage President Trump is falsely and adversely comparing his first meetings with German chancellor Angela Merkel to former President Obama’s. Per the Washington Post, there was a “visible lack of warmth” between Trump and the chancellor during their recent White House meeting, “in sharp contrast to Merkel’s warm relationship with Obama[.]” This is a laughable distortion of history. Merkel’s relationships with both of Trump’s predecessors were problematic, especially at the start, which implies that Merkel’s coolness toward Trump is less his fault than Merkel’s and the nature of U.S.-Germany relations on both national and personal levels.
Let’s start with George W. Bush. Merkel and Bush clashed temperamentally, in background and in policy. Like her countrymen, Merkel saw Bush as a typical American politician, his policies representing the worst sort of muscular and clumsy Americanism, in the German view. Personally, Bush, the scion of a wealthy Yankee family who moved to Texas and adopted that state’s idea of a gregarious hardy cowboy, could not have been more different from the cool former East German scientist. Bush literally rubbed Merkel the wrong way, awkwardly embracing her at one point and giving her an impromptu backrub at another, to the chancellor’s barely restrained horror.
Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, it seemed the two had come to an understanding, and relations between them were actually quite good, and certainly much better than with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.
If Merkel’s relationship with Bush was straightforwardly awkward, with Obama it was more complex and fraught and could hardly be described as warm, especially for the first years. Though few would admit it on either side of the Atlantic, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that Obama is black, and that flummoxed Merkel, who likely spent her life in former East Germany and into adulthood without any kind of normal relationship with a black person.
That is not unusual in Germany, but it’s never stopped Germans from declaiming to Americans about the stain of slavery on our history or the legacy of Jim Crow. Like Israel-bashing, it makes Germans feel better about themselves, even if it also reveals latent prejudices.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in Germany over the past thirty years as a soldier, tourist, Goethe Institute fellow, and student group leader. In the first role, I served with many black troops, and in the last led mostly black students. German attitudes toward blacks interest me, and while I cannot prove that Merkel shares all or most of them, I suspect she does. Those attitudes mostly embody old stereotypes that focus on black sexuality, criminality, and intellectual inferiority, lacquered over with attempts at awkward and inauthentic sympathy and familiarity.
One aspect of this is the many German women who threw themselves at black American G.I.s with peculiar ardor. The result was a lot of divorces, abandoned German Frauen, Milli Vanilli, and a good portion of the U.S. national soccer team. For the most part, this was not the fault of the soldiers, who were young men, serving their country far from home. Yet it certainly left a bad taste in many a German household.
Another was that Germans were always quick to blame criminality in their neighborhoods on black G.I.s, whether justified or not. In my personal experience as a JAG, although this accusation was leveled many times, only once did it pan out. On that occasion, a black soldier robbed a local business and fled. A German employee gave chase and eventually caught the guy. To hear the German tell it, he’d accomplished a remarkable athletic feat in running down a black guy, as if every black man were Jesse Owens.
As an example of presumed intellectual inferiority, take the story of a guy I’ll call Jim Smith. A black senior NCO, he married a German woman and retired in Germany. For years, he was the toast of the mid-sized German city where I was stationed because he was a fun guy and allowed a certain relatively young hip German group to actually have personal contact with a black person, which to their minds inoculated them from any charge of prejudice. Jim took advantage of this, but his luck ran out when he was charged with drunk driving. Arriving for trial, he brought a German translator who was a mutual friend. The judge balked. How, the judge asked, could Jim require a translator when (by then) he’d lived in Germany for over twenty years? The answer was that his German “friends” never required or expected it of him – a classic example of the soft prejudice of low expectations.
Finally, on many student trips, young black teens have encountered the same attitudes, along with odd and uncomfortable attempts at familiarity, like the trip to Berlin in 2009 when Germans spontaneously broke into chants of “Obama! Obama!” whenever we walked by.
Although these accounts are anecdotal, they likely reflect, at least in part, the way Merkel assessed Obama. She supposedly disliked the “Obama phenomenon,” which was almost entirely about his blackness. An article from a pro-German/American organization also from 2009 described them as “frenemies.” Merkel refused to allow candidate Obama a speech at the Brandenburg Gate and declined an early invitation to the White House. As late as 2016, the prominent German media site Deutsche Welle described the Obama-Merkel relationship as “comfortable but not close.” Even according to very pro-Obama CNN, Merkel “expressed doubts about the young president.”
Part of that doubt related to the fact that the Obama NSA was surveiling Merkel’s personal communications, a fact Trump raised at their joint appearance a few days ago, to Merkel’s obvious discomfort. At the time Merkel learned of the monitoring, her response was furious and directed against Obama personally.
So it is pretty ridiculous to claim that Obama had great relations with Merkel and to make hay of Trump’s rough start. Should the Trump and Merkel governments overlap for several years – a big if – there is a fair bet that at the end of it, they will get along fine, or at least as frenemies. Trump can’t do much worse than Obama.