BERLIN—They poured in from Prague and Budapest, from the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, and across Germany to hear him, amassing like no crowd has ever done for a political speech in front of the capital's historic Victory Column. But when Sen. Barack Obama finally strode across the stage and addressed his European fans, "not as a candidate for president but as a fellow citizen of the world," the high expectations were hard, if not impossible, to meet.
As Vladislav Morduhovich of St. Petersburg, Russia, who was wearing a mock-Uncle Sam "I Want You to Tackle Climate Change" T-shirt, said, "I hoped it would be longer and more serious, something more concrete—this was more rhetoric."
Perhaps overly ambitious in scope, Obama's speech to nearly a quarter of a million in Berlin on Thursday touched on what felt like all the big foreign policy issues: getting out of Iraq, forging peace in the Middle East, tackling climate change, strengthening the European Union, redistributing wealth through global trade, fighting harder against the Taliban, rescuing the innocent in Darfur, and standing up for "the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, the voter in Zimbabwe."
In some ways, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominees' declaration was so sprawling it felt like a hopelessly brief, 25-minute lesson in German history and world affairs—which, in fact, seemed to be the point. In discussing the inspiration and the lessons learned in the 1948-49 Berlin airlift and the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Obama was not speaking to Germany alone but using its capital, the epicenter of Cold War superpower tensions, to deliver a new global message.
Germans, and Europeans generally, have made no secret of their affections and burgeoning hopes for Obama, who is commonly referred to here as "the next Kennedy." From his appearance with the headline "Superstar" on Germany's most important weekly, Der Spiegel, to the sale of Obama dolls, the mushrooming of Obama fan groups, and the broadly international crowd that traveled here to cheer him on against the forested backdrop of the Tiergarten, it's fair to say the Continent is gaga about the Illinois senator.
Whether Obama can deliver on Europe's inflated hopes—and what an Obama presidency might mean, in practical terms, for Europeans—is a more uncertain matter than many here care to admit. Naturally, supporters on Thursday were taking in the phenomenon (helicopters had begun to patrol the sky on Wednesday in a security operation that employed some 700 police and cost nearly $800,000). The speech was held at the base of the 226-foot-tall pillar built to commemorate Prussia's victories over France, Austria, and Denmark in a series of wars in the 1860s and 1870s. Hitler moved the structure from its original place beside the Reichstag as part of his imperial restructuring of "Germania," lending further historic weight to the event.
In a recent poll in Germany's bestselling daily, Bild, Germans favor Obama by 72 percent to 11 percent over presumed Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. Yet despite Obama's overwhelming popularity, doubts hovered in the air Thursday.
"My last participation in a demonstration like today was in 1989," said Klaus-Dieter Affeldt, 64, an East Berliner who was here when the Wall come down. George W. Bush ignored Europe, Affeldt said, which is why he hopes Obama "will really change [Bush's] policies, especially on Iraq, and will work together with European states. For starters, putting American missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic is the wrong way."
While many Europeans know little about the actual policies Obama stands for on issues ranging from energy reform and climate security to global trade, some were concerned about statements they heard during Obama's struggle in the primaries against Hillary Clinton.
"I think he is dangerously protectionist and dangerously populist," said Frederik Druard, 22, a student from Antwerp, Belgium. "He should be more pro-free trade, pro-NAFTA and all the rest. Good business is good for everyone."
In terms of military cooperation, the Dutch have shown eagerness (some 50 percent to 60 percent in recent polls) to withdraw their more than 1,600 troops from Afghanistan. While Obama has asked NATO allies to beef up the American-led fight against the Taliban, other European countries, like the Netherlands, are wary. "I hope Obama will be president and not that man who is 72 and looks like a grandfather that should be at home telling stories," said B. J. Vollaard, 38, of the Netherlands, referring to McCain.