George W. Bush and John Kerry were certainly on everyone's mind as the German left held a major conference in this green and prosperous port city on the eve of the United States presidential election. But neither major candidate will exactly be feeling the love from the 300-plus delegates who assembled at the University of Hamburg on a gray and drizzly weekend for the fourth annual meeting of Attac Germany, the largest branch of Attac, a pan-European coalition of antiwar and anti-corporate activists.
It would have been shocking had anyone at this conference, assembled under the slogan "Die Welt ist keine Ware" ("The World Is Not for Sale"), expressed support for Bush or the Iraq war, which is more unpopular than ever in the nations Donald Rumsfeld immortally dubbed "Old Europe." (That phrase became the text of a hot German bumper sticker for much of 2003, one Hamburg host told American visitors.) A recent poll in the online edition of Der Spiegel could only find 4 percent of Germans willing to back the president, and that magazine represents a far more mainstream position than Attac does. Bush's support may actually be a little higher in France -- a whopping 20 percent or so, according to the newspaper Le Figaro -- despite Republicans' unremitting demonization of the Gallic nation.
But the "Anyone but Bush" sentiment so prevalent in the American left this year does not translate well in German, it seems. Kerry is viewed here with tremendous suspicion, largely because of his promise to inject still more troops into the Iraq sinkhole. Differences between the two candidates seem less stark to Europeans, who are understandably not so concerned with U.S. domestic issues (although many have heard about the PATRIOT Act, which to some Germans seems uncomfortably like a law from their grandparents' generation). Furthermore, Kerry's election would pose peculiar problems for both the German activist left and the center-left government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
There were huge antiwar marches in most European cities before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but the war has faded into the background as a political issue, at least in France and Germany, since the end of major combat. (This is less true in Britain and Italy, the only two major European nations with troops remaining in Iraq.) A John Kerry presidency would likely change that.
"John Kerry wants to build an international coalition and bring European troops into Iraq, or so we are told," says Oliver Moldenhauer, a 30ish, ponytailed physicist and leading Attac organizer. Leaders like Schröder and French president Jacques Chirac will have a difficult time saying no to Kerry, he surmises, but they will face enormous opposition at home. "This is going to restart the European antiwar movement and give Schröder and Chirac all sorts of problems they don't have now. You have to wonder what they are thinking -- do they secretly want Bush to win, despite what they say in public?"
Attac had invited activists from various nations, including South Africa, the Dominican Republic and the United States, to participate in discussions, and the American delegate was the subject of considerable attention. (Full disclosure: That American visitor, Leslie Kauffman of United for Peace and Justice, is my wife.) Whether at the official press conference, in a panel discussion or in informal conversation, German journalists and activists repeatedly asked why the American left is not supporting Ralph Nader, whose policies sound so much better than Kerry's.
The answer to this question, especially the part about a non-parliamentary, winner-take-all political system that demands fundamental compromises, was received with polite Teutonic silence. But when the American delegate further explained that the U.S. left's nearly unanimous support for Kerry should not be understood as a glowing endorsement of the Massachusetts senator, but rather as a reflection of the urgent necessity of toppling what Germans call the "Bush Reich," she was interrupted with extended applause.
Even in the avowedly left-wing, internationalist Attac conference, there was almost no angry anti-American dogma on display. When people discuss their sense that the United States has become a danger to world peace, or that America has become less democratic as Europe has become more so, their language is almost apologetic. One conference organizer explains privately that Attac tries to monitor anti-American rhetoric among its members. "We find that the people who are the most anti-American are also the most anti-German, the most anti-state, the angriest and least productive," he says. "It's fundamentally an immature philosophy."
In a late-night conversation at a bar in St. Pauli, the city's agreeably funky and diverse arts ghetto, Moldenhauer speaks movingly about how his father's activist generation, the European rebels of 1968, simultaneously loved America and hated its policies. They fought against the Vietnam War and American imperialism, he says, but felt inspired by American activism, American youth culture, the romance and promise of a young country's broad skies and open horizons. Young Germans today, he thinks, are far more skeptical about the U.S. and far more focused on the internal dramas of the European Union, the new superpower emerging as America's major competitor and (at least potentially) its ideological counterweight.
Most of Attac's conference, in fact, was concerned with internal organizational politics, or focused on organizing efforts to fight against neoliberal economic reforms and social cutbacks within the E.U. But George W. Bush, nonetheless, hung over the proceedings like an unacknowledged specter. Over and over again, people politely approached us with things they had heard or read but did not believe could be true: Was it really possible that sex education and the teaching of evolution were hot political issues? Could gay rights and abortion really divide the electorate? (Gay marriage actually remains a contested question in Germany, but homosexuality per se is widely tolerated.) How could it be that Ohio and Florida will decide the election, and other states don't matter?
What is obvious, but left largely unspoken, is that Germans are bewildered by how close the election is, given the enormous damage the Bush administration has done to America's international standing. Furthermore, as Moldenhauer and others observed, the belligerent American flag-waving of the post-9/11 era is deeply troubling in a nation where patriotic and nationalistic display has been politically unacceptable since 1945.
Americans are justifiably sensitive about Europeans' snootiness and air of cultural superiority. But what came across instead, on this gray weekend in a city the Allies bombed to rubble in 1943 (killing 40,000 people, most of them women and children) was more like sadness and disappointment. It was as if the Germans wanted to tell us that they had always thought we were cooler than them: We were more optimistic, had a more open society, had better music, better haircuts, cooler cars, a better democracy. We had Elvis and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But they're long dead, the Civil Rights movement has become a licensed Coca-Cola product, and the rest of that list doesn't look so clear now either. (We're definitely a distant second when it comes to cars.) As we go to the polls on Tuesday the Germans are watching anxiously, wondering if this is really the best we can do.