The ugly American embassy

The U.S. wants to build a new mission in Berlin, and cut into the grounds of a tree-filled park and the new Holocaust museum to do it.


Steve KettmannGuy Raz
September 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There may have been no way for the U.S. government to avoid controversy over its plans to squeeze a new embassy -- and jumbo-sized security cordon -- into a lot it owns next to the historic Brandenburg Gate. But the intensity of the embassy flap here can only be explained by the American leadership's tin ear for the complaints of Berliners, who are trained by life in this city never to forget the symbolism or historical associations of buildings and public spaces.

Germans believe that only Americans would be so bold as to ask Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and the city's governing senate to even consider such a drastic accommodation. The American plan calls for cutting into Tiergarten, the Central Park of Berlin, as well as slicing into prestigious Pariser Platz on one side and the grounds of the new Holocaust Museum on the other. It would also require the Germans to move a street in the symmetrical heart of Berlin away from the embassy and its security zone.

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"If the German chancellor wanted to go there, with his office, we would say, 'No chance,'" said Volker Kaehne, a deputy mayor of Berlin.

The tiff stems from worries about the security of American embassies in the wake of the embassy bombings in Africa last August. A State Department panel chaired by Adm. William Crowe, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was charged with drawing up guidelines on better protecting U.S. diplomatic installations abroad. The panel came up with an $11.4 billion plan that will upgrade 90 percent of U.S. embassies over the next 10 years, making the U.S. look like a latter-day Roman empire.

The first priority was to set each embassy back 100 feet from the street or sidewalk. In most cases around the world, this entails rerouting streets, changing traffic patterns, buying up adjacent property and demolishing it, and tearing up massive tracts of land. The second priority was to install blast-proof walls in each facility, bomb detection units, metal detectors, X-ray equipment, closed-circuit cameras and at least one full armored unit outside. Four thousand new local guards were hired, and another 200 State Department security personnel were dispatched, temporarily, to embassies around the world.

The temporary U.S. Embassy in Berlin, just across Under den Linden from the Russian Embassy, shows just how alluring such features can be. The building is surrounded by double-ringed barbed-wire coiling looking as haphazardly placed as if it had just been unwound outside a Beirut airport. Inside the perimeter stand two armored German police units toting submachine guns and firing off stern looks to passersby.

But the proposed new embassy megasite, adjacent to the Brandenberg Gate, is much more unpopular than the existing site. The American argument has hinged on its historical claim to much of the land in question. Americans vacated the site after Adolf Hitler declared war in 1941, leaving behind a huge warning to bombers that this was U.S.-owned land. Thus, the Americans contend, the are only reclaiming land that was theirs before Hitler's campaign began. Many believe, however, that the historical claim has been greatly overstated.

Cultural historian Michael Cullen, an American who has lived in and studied Berlin since the 1960s, has uncovered documents showing that the Americans occupied the controversial site on Pariser Platz for only two years -- and that the U.S. Embassy has relocated frequently since John Quincy Adams came to Berlin as minister to Prussia in 1797.

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"Americans purchased the site on Pariser Platz in September 1931," said Cullen. But "they only moved into the site on April 1, 1939."

A fire gutted the building on Pariser Platz that the Americans were negotiating to buy. The good news was the Germans were forced to shave $90,000 off the price. The bad news was the Depression-era Congress refused to appropriate funds to build a new embassy on the site, leaving the U.S. mission to operate out of several buildings in the Tiergarten.

Few find the American historical claim to the site convincing. And they ask: Would Americans consider shaving 100 feet off the small island on which the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor to make a foreign power feel better about security? Or maybe trimming the Washington Mall? Not likely.

The lack of salesmanship from the U.S. side has been striking, even as the controversy has raged in Berlin, hitting the front pages and TV shows and providing fodder for many a spit-flecked cab-driver tirade. The American ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, is widely considered a true friend of Berlin (he even speaks good German). But his intransigence has angered many allies.

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Kornblum has avoided interviews with print reporters in recent weeks, and his staff turned away repeated requests for an interview with Salon News. But on a morning TV program last week where he tried to do a little damage control, he resisted a suggestion that the United States should compromise and settle for a security zone of 22 meters, not 30, saying it had not been presented to him officially.

"There have been few words from him on this," said Peter Neumann, a reporter who has covered the saga for the Berliner Zeitung. "Ambassador Kornblum does not engage himself in explaining why the Americans need the extra space for the security area. This is a typical cultural clash.

"There are not so many opportunities for compromise," Neumann continued. "Berlin cannot allow the destruction of several hundred trees in Tiergarten, and Berlin cannot allow a change in the grid of the city, just for security reasons. My opinion is the politicians in the United States are not used to selling their proposals abroad. They are used to deciding how things get done. I think it's a long way to go before Americans change their minds on this."

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Just a month ago, the American mission to Germany was basking in the glow of good feeling, having moved the embassy from Bonn, a nerve center of the Cold War during such epic crusades as the Berlin blockade, to Berlin. The Bonn embassy had been something special, its staff numbering 1,400 at one time. The area had its own movie theater, thrift store, nine tennis courts, a swimming pool and a bowling alley. When it was phased out, some emotionally confused U.S. officials went so far as to compare the event to the American exit from Saigon, but Ambassador Kornblum promised it would herald a strong future relationship.

That relationship, however, is evolving. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years ago, the Germans have started to assert themselves more in their relationship with the United States. "For many years, Berlin was the center of German anti-communism," said Thomas Schmid, op-ed editor for the national daily Die Welt. "The United States was seen [by the Germans] as the guarantor of liberty. A shift in our relationship is a reality that began in 1989. Germans are grateful for the American presence, but now there is the sense of 'enough.'"

The Americans hope that when a delegation from the Berlin mayor's office visits Washington later this month to study how the United States handles security, it will be impressed favorably. They may also be hoping that the glare of all that reflected power and glory in Washington will cow the visiting Berliners. Even so, the matter seems destined to drag out for months, unless the United States accepts the inevitability of keeping some of its embassy functions at the office across Pariser Platz where Kornblum now works.

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"We should have met in a working group together to talk about this," said Heinz Fanselau, another member of the Berlin mayor's staff. "At the moment we think it will be possible that we shall find a solution that will be acceptable," he said carefully. "We have the impression it won't be necessary to move the street. We are sure there will be a compromise."

But Americans don't seem inclined to compromise. "We own that piece of land," one high-level embassy source told Salon News. "The location is superb, it's near all the offices we deal with. And, of course, there is the historical element. There is no Plan B. There is no current plan in case we can't reach a compromise. The policy of the United States is to make sure it works. The city of Berlin has a traffic problem in that area anyway. Having cars driving through the Brandenburg Gate is not the best thing for the gate."


Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

MORE FROM Steve Kettmann

Guy Raz

Guy Raz is a writer in Washington, D.C.

MORE FROM Guy Raz

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