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U.S. Standing Has Diminished Among Germans

America's policies fuel the image of a swaggering gunslinger, a far cry from the era when it shielded Europe from the Soviet Union's grasp.

October 13, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Heinz Pieske's love affair with America began decades ago when he was a boy with a rifle in the ranks of a battered German army.

It was 1944, on the sandy fringes of Normandy. A U.S. paratrooper, floating in a gray sky and firing a gun, shot the 17-year-old Pieske in the shoulder. A few months later, Pieske was locked in the hold of a cargo ship on his way across the Atlantic to a prisoner of war camp in Tennessee, where -- he laughs about it even now -- he cut down trees in a big forest.

"I liked it in America," he said. "The work wasn't too bad. The food was good. It was better than life under Hitler."

That stay of blistered hands and healing wounds left its imprint on Pieske, whose admiration of the United States was the hallmark of the generation growing up in Germany after World War II. But over time and against a backdrop of shifting world orders and divergent national interests, that loyalty has frayed as U.S.-German relations have sunk to their lowest point in 60 years.

"I'm not anti-American," said Hildegard Dukes, standing in a brisk wind recently in downtown Berlin. "I'm grateful for what America did for us in the past. But America is acting strangely, and it gives me the creeps."

Attempting to fathom American policies on everything from Iraq to global warming has become an excruciating pastime for this nation of 82 million. A once-stalwart ally that shielded many Germans from the grip of the Soviet Union, the U.S. these days is often viewed as a shrill-twanged gunslinger out to crush its enemies at the expense of its friends.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's refusal this summer to send German troops into a possible war with Iraq helped him win reelection, but it ignited a diplomatic crisis with Washington that is now only beginning to ease.

The rift had been widening before that. The Bush administration's rejection of environmental treaties and its refusal to permit U.S. forces to be tried in an international court for war crimes convinced many Germans that their superpower friend was placing itself above the world community.

Germany has also developed a bit of a swagger since the end of the Cold War.

Stepping away from the horrors of its Nazi past and shedding some of its self-doubt and guilt, Germany in recent years has moved into the limelight on the global stage. Despite setbacks, it remains the world's third-largest economy and the linchpin of the European Union. Recently elected as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Germany has found a voice and is no longer shy about its opinions.

"For too many years, we've been the servants of the U.S.A.," scoffed a white-bearded man who gave his name only as Mr. Dietrich. "I was 16 years old when the army sent me to Berlin and told me to shoot down Allied bombers. I just had a little flak gun, didn't hit a thing.... And now Bush wants to start another war."

Attitudes toward the U.S. shift along generational and geographical lines. Dietrich aside, most older western Germans still revere America. They remember Eisenhower and candy bars and stealing kisses with GIs.

Younger generations, for which the war is only an echo, are more suspicious of the U.S., admiring its capitalist vigor and democratic principles, but critical of its unilateralist tendencies. And those who grew up under communism in the East have the least affinity for Washington and its enormous power.

All agree that the once-cozy German-American relationship has evolved into something more complex. Common bonds and friendship will remain, they say, but the days of the reassuring crackle of Armed Forces Radio and the euphoria over a toppled communist empire have faded against a more fragmented and confusing world of terrorism, regional hostilities and wobbly stock markets.

"There was a real purpose for our relationship with the U.S.: We were scared of the Soviets," said Bernd Kaehne, a bookseller at Berlin's Humboldt University. "We don't glorify the U.S. so much these days. We've become more critical. I don't think we'll ever be as close as we once were. We don't need the protection."

Checking her class schedule in the marble foyer at the university, Katharina Rohts eased into flawless English, referring to President Bush as G.W. and veering into the "philosophical differences" between the U.S. and Germany. Her views reflect the findings of a recent poll that 76% of Germans oppose sending troops to Iraq and 52% dislike Bush.

"These days, people in other countries feel America doesn't care about them," she said. "So why should we care about America? We always knew America had lots of military and economic power.... With President Clinton, you got the feeling Washington was at least listening. Things have changed with Bush.... I hope this is a step of German independence from the U.S."

Johannes Schueler is a tad more diplomatic.

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