I’ll be honest. As a travel writer I have an agenda. I want to help Americans better understand our world by communicating with it through travel. So I’ve got to share something that’s been troubling me lately. All over Europe I hear how the US ambassadors to various countries are buffoons when it comes to understanding the intricacies of the countries in which they serve. When being interviewed on TV, it’s American ambassadors who require a translator to speak for them. Of course, Democratic and Republican presidents alike give posts as favors to big supporters. But President Bush seems to take the cake in choosing ill-suited ambassadors. To non-Americans, this symbolizes our country’s current contempt for the notion of talking with the rest of the world.
Here in Berlin, Clinton’s ambassador, John Kornblum, is well remembered. He spoke German, went to festivals, and enjoyed mixing with the locals. Now retired in Berlin, Kornblum is still active in the community and a household name among Berliners. He invited average Americans living in Berlin to famously fun Fourth of July parties each summer. These expats no longer hear from the current ambassador.
President Bush’s first ambassador, Dan Coats, famously said that he had no idea why he was in Germany, since he had no experience, spoke no German, and had roughly no concept of what made the country tick. Locals tell me America’s current ambassador, William Timken, speaks no German, and his favorite Berlin restaurant is Tony Roma’s. Timken caused a buzz when he had guests at his Fourth of July party repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.
All stand: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
With their ugly recent history, Berliners aren’t big into pledges of allegiance. Their current oath is relatively mild: “I give my vow that I will serve the Federal Republic of Germany truly, and will bravely defend the laws and freedoms of the German people.”
Berliners who were children in the 1930s recall the Hitler Youth Pledge of Allegiance: “We carry the flag forward into the battle of the youth. It stands and is raised and blazes to the heavens like fire in the sky. We are sworn to be true to the flag for all eternity. Whosoever shall desecrate the flag will be cursed for all eternity. The flag is our belief in God, People, and Country. Whoever seeks to destroy it must first take our lives and prosperity. We care for the flag as a mother cares for her child. The flag is our future, our honor, and the source of our courage.”
Their fathers, most certainly in the military (and very likely killed defending this pledge), held out their arms and said: “I swear to God, this holy oath that I will devote my absolute obedience to the Leader of the German Empire and people, the supreme commander of the German Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler, and I, as a courageous soldier, am prepared to lay down my life to fulfill this oath.”
Today, Germans fly their flag rarely outside of soccer games, and are most comfortable pledging their allegiance to a good frothy beer.
In the last few days, seeing 1945 photos of cold and hungry locals wandering through piles of bricks that were once grand cities, I’ve wondered what would cause a people to fight literally to the bitter end. Perhaps a good strong holy oath of allegiance.