(By Ray D.)
For those of you who don't know him, Karsten Voigt has been the German government's Coordinator for German-American Cooperation since 1999. He is also a member of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social-Democratic party, which currently controls the German foreign ministry. In a post election interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Mr. Voigt expressed his hope that German prejudices against the United States would decrease now that the Democrats are in power. He also noted that these prejudices had hardened during the Bush years, the same years that he was tasked with improving German-American relations. The headline accompanying his comments reads: "Interview with Karsten Voigt: I Hope for Reduction of Stereotypes Against America."
Mr. Voigt's comments reflect a telling yet predictable logic pervasive in wide swaths of German media, politics and society. While the Republicans held power in the legislative and executive branch, people like Mr. Voigt were not as keenly interested in reducing the ugly anti-American prejudices rapidly metastasizing in German society (though they would protest that they certainly were). As we reported earlier, high-ranking German diplomats have repeatedly shrugged off shocking manifestations of anti-Americanism. When shown the outrageous May 2005 cover of IG Metall magazine, which depicted Americans as greedy, blood-sucking parasites feeding on German factories, both Dr. Guenter Pleuger, Germany's current Ambassador to the UN in New York, and former German Ambassador to the United States Juergen Chrobog dismissed the caricature as "not a problem." Other German diplomats have been even more open with their sentiments, comparing civil rights in the United States with those in North Korea.
Here's the point: Mr. Voigt and his colleagues in the German government, diplomatic corps and media should not have waited years until the "right people" (i.e. the "left people") were in power to call for greater German-American understanding. They should have been working all along in a very public manner to reduce the growing cancer of German prejudices against Americans instead of allowing them to fester and explode into the enormous national disease that we see today. Here is one very specific example: Mr. Voigt and his Social-Democrat colleagues should have never allowed Guido Westerwelle of the Free-Democrat Party to remain the solitary voice of German political leadership to condemn the outrageous IG Metall "American bloodsuckers" cover. Mr. Voigt should have loudly and publicly condemned this and other specific examples of anti-American prejudice in Germany through his many years on the job.
The sad truth is that Mr. Voigt's party, the Social-Democratic party, has long been the political beneficiary of anti-American sentiment. And let's be honest, Mr. Voigt did not speak out more vehemently or publicly until now about anti-American sentiments because they have helped his party win elections for decades. Anyone who doubts that should read the following passages from President Jimmy Carter's memoir:
"In Europe and elsewhere there were sharp debates about how much the United States should be supported on the crises in Iran and Afghanistan. Germany was being difficult. An election was approaching, and the leftists were opposed to any further criticism of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. When Helmut Schmidt came to Washington for a visit, I was sharply critical because he had yielded to this pressure." (Page 500, "Keeping Faith")
"Helmut Schmidt seemed to be torn between the conflicting political forces in his country. In private conversations he was very tough in dealing with the Soviet threat, often the leader among Europeans in proposing strong action. But in German political debates, he emphasized the opposite facet of the same question and seemed reluctant to do anything which might be interpreted as anti-Soviet. At times this conflict made it difficult for Americans to understand him and was the reason for some of our problems. There were many reports from news reporters and others in Europe and in the United States concerning his critical comments about me, Secretaries Vance and Muskie, Dr. Brzezinski, and other officials in our government. These persistent criticisms, often highly publicized, helped to legitimize anti-American sentiments in Germany. Perhaps to compensate for these reports, Schmidt would publicly deplore any negative comments from others in Germany about the United States or its leaders." (Pages 537-538, "Keeping Faith")
The same can be said of certain members of the American left, who have looked the other way or discounted the most strident manifestations of anti-Americanism as anti-Bush sentiments. The rude awakening for America's Democrats will come when they realize that the "Hate America" cancer that has spread through Europe and beyond (while many of them looked the other way because after all it was hurting Bush) is a plague that they will have to contend with directly. The chickens will slowly come home to roost as Democrats assume power in Congress and potentially take the Presidency in 2008 (although that is still a long way off and far from certain.) Democrat leaders, and those seeking to work with them abroad, will soon realize that the anti-American prejudices they have allowed to fester, grow and boil over are far wider and deeper than they could have ever imagined. It is all far more complicated than Hate Bush. They themselves will undoubtedly suffer at the hands of a monster they allowed to grow and thrive (and, to a degree, helped create).
The bottom line is this: We all continue to have a common interest in ending German prejudices against the United States. The plague of "Hate America" that has infected German media, politics and society is something that we should have been working against for years now, not something to be addressed only when a certain political constellation happens to shine upon us. For our part, Davids Medienkritik has worked tirelessly to expose the obvious and many signs of this plague. For years, German media have ignored the diversity of opinion within the United States. For years, German media have spread ugly, stupid stereotypes about the United States for cheap and easy profit. For years, German media have chosen to report shoddy cliches and pet issues instead of explaining the complex fabric of American life. For years, German media have denigrated and dehumanized the American soldier. For years, German media have relied on scare tactics and innuendo to report on social and economic conditions (i.e. amerikanische Verhaeltnisse) in the United States.
Oh by the way, where was Mr. Voigt with his deep and public concern about prejudice as wave after wave of anti-Americanism splashed through German media, politics and society for years on end? Where was he when SPIEGEL was publishing these covers?
Clearly, Mr. Voigt was too afraid of his party's powerful allies in the media and unions to speak out more concretely against the outrageous magazine covers and newspaper articles that we have documented on this site over the past several years. It would seem that fighting anti-American prejudice is a highly selective and somewhat vague act for Mr. Voigt and his Social Democratic friends. It would certainly help if Mr. Voigt were willing to clearly define the prejudices of which he speaks with specific examples. Unfortunately he doesn't, and readers are left to speculate. In that respect, his interview comments are more of the same empty, weak-kneed, feel-good rhetoric going in one ear and coming out the other.
We would also like to address the following: American conservatives have clearly been most interested in this site, there can be no denying that. But this site is and should be for everyone and anyone interested in stronger transatlantic ties, because everyone, regardless of party or political leaning, should be concerned about the problem of anti-American prejudice in Germany and around the world. The opportunity to fight for an end to anti-American prejudice in Germany has long been at hand and did not suddenly materialize with the election of Democrat majorities to Congress as Mr. Voigt implies it has. The fight against anti-American prejudices must be constant and unwavering, and it is in this regard that Mr. Voigt and his Social-Democratic party, along with their friends in the German media and diplomatic corps, have failed us profoundly.
Let us repeat this important point: The fact that some Democrats and members of the American left have chosen to discount or ignore this problem because it was politically convenient to do so in the short-term will undoubtedly come back to haunt them as they assume power. This much we can say: Because "Hate America" has been allowed to fester in German media and politics for so many years without open condemnation or opposition of any significant note on either side of the Atlantic, it will continue to negatively affect German-American cooperation for years to come. We must continue to work against harmful anti-American stereotypes whatever our common political future may hold and whatever political party or parties happen to be in power. There are and can be no politically inconvenient times to stand up against irrational hatred and prejudice.