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Speech appears to resonate with Germans

They express optimism as Obama addresses issues important to Europeans, including Iraq and terrorism.

July 25, 2008|Christian Retzlaff | Special to The Times

BERLIN — He didn't break into German, but he spoke of tearing down walls of division, and the crowd loved it.

Tens of thousands of Germans, along with some resident Americans, filled Berlin's Tiergarten park to hear Barack Obama talk about the U.S., Europe and their shared visions and challenges. It was a remarkable turnout for the lazy days of late July, when most Germans are more focused on summer vacations than foreign politics.

The audience repeatedly interrupted his speech with applause and cheers, and erupted in chants of "Yes, we can!"

A lot of Europeans are hoping Obama will give them a reason to love America again.

"I expect Obama to be a president who makes it possible to be proud of being a fan of the USA," said Gerda Schulz, a 72-year-old retiree. Schulz has watched historic speeches here by a string of American presidents -- John F. Kennedy in 1963, Ronald Reagan in 1987 and Bill Clinton in 1994 -- and on Thursday added the Democratic presidential contender to the list.

"In the last seven years, it was rather embarrassing here to say, 'I like the Americans and I am thankful for what they did for us,' " she said.

With the sun setting behind him, Obama spoke of issues that are burned into the European consciousness but that have been points of contention with the George W. Bush White House. These included the war in Iraq, troops in Afghanistan, immigration, terrorism and torture.

"I doubt that Obama is the messiah, but I hope that, if he gets elected, there will be some essential change in foreign and security policy," said Martin Wegner, a 38-year-old software engineer who joined the Obama fans -- some of whom had to wait hours to clear security checks.

"I hope Obama brings freedom back to the U.S. -- freedom that has been given up so quickly with the security measures after 9/11," Wegner said.

Vendors hawked Obama T-shirts and Berlin's iconic street food, the currywurst, a pork sausage with curry and cayenne pepper. Banners were banned, but a few intrepid demonstrators managed to pull out signs protesting the death penalty and calling for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Obama's appearance here, launching the European leg of his overseas campaign tour, was focused on repairing transatlantic relations after the deterioration during the Bush years. Germany's standing as the continent's largest economy and its position as a crossroads between East and West made it a logical place to start.

"The message behind the fact that Obama picked Berlin is . . . he is going to maintain and strengthen the existing alliances," said Jan Techau, an expert on European-American relations at Berlin's German Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview last week. "If he wants Europe, then he needs Germany."

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