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Seymour Gris: Friends with no benefits

What are the Germans getting out of their one-sided "friendship" with America? Not a whole lot.

There’s a lot of talk about German-American friendship these days. But what friendship? As we’ve been reminded recently, it’s more of a lord-vassal relationship. Guess which country’s the vassal.

Thanks to Mr. Snowden, we know our American friends (and their submissive British sidekicks) have been spying on the Germans. The Brits, with their MI6 get-up on top of their embassy here in Berlin; the US with their “listening post” on their embassy (conveniently located next to the Brandenburg Gate, a few hundred metres from the German parliament), the chancellery and government ministries. Tapping into Mutti Merkel’s private phone calls. Not cool. But not surprising.

As a German who was born in the UK and later came of age in the US, I’ve experienced the “friendship” between the “Anglo-Americans” and the Germans first hand for most of my life – and you know what, it’s never been much of a friendship.

At least in the case of the UK and Germany – beyond centuries of cross-channel inbreeding among the nobility – there’s never been any illusion of a friendship. I spent much of my childhood in rural England. As the “Germans of the village” in 1980s Surrey, none of the island natives ever really wanted to befriend my parents. They were viewed with suspicion. Conversation was limited to football and the War. I mean what else is there to talk about with a German? Cars and washing machines, perhaps. As a Teuton-tyke I was only semi-aware of the cultural tensions on the adult level, and contented myself playing “War” with my English friends. I was always asked to play the evil Nazi – regardless of whether we were playing World War I or World War II. It felt kind of cool being the enemy. We never played Holocaust – somehow I didn’t hear about that until later.

When I was 12, we moved to America – to the remote desert in the Southwest to live out some strange dream of my father’s. It was there, in a school with many Jewish kids, that I quickly learnt about the Holocaust and learnt to celebrate Hanukah and even spin the dreidel. After news got out that I was a Kraut, though, a certain Jewish pupil would spit “Hey you fucking Nazi” in my face as he passed me in the hall. During basketball, I would get the occasional “Sieg Heil” if I stole the ball or fouled someone. Back then, in America, Germany was a blank spot on the map – somewhere that had produced the Nazis, classical music and Mercs. What’s really changed? Among hip young people, Berlin is a draw – but the rest of the country is seen as a cold industrial place with a few beer festivals and castles sprinkled in, populated by humourless, hard-working engineers or stein-toting lederhosen types. On an official level, Germany is just a larger piece in the annoyingly fragmented European puzzle. And like the rest of the world, it’s a market for American stuff.

Meanwhile, here in Germany, the combination of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift and Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was probably the most successful marketing campaign of all time. For decades – well into the 1990s – young Germans saw the US as the source of cool. My relatives from West Germany would come over and buy suitcases full of Levis to bring home and sell at double the price. Thousands of literature students immersed themselves in Kerouac and the Beat Generation. For some reason millions of Germans felt compelled to drive the entire length of Route 66, soaking up nostalgic Americana along the way. From the Civil Rights movement to Bob Dylan to Christopher Street Day, the US inspired generations of Germans politically, too.

But then it all went sour. The Vietnam War, US nukes on German soil in the 1980s, 9-11, Iraq I+II and now the NSA have slowly but surely killed off German admiration for the United States. For the most part, America is just evil and stupid now: a gun-ridden dysfunctional place half-filled with irrational rabid conservatives. Even the once inspiring cyber-libertarians of Silicon Valley are in bed with Big Brother. And Barack Obama, the great liberal hope who seduced Berlin with a campaign speech in Tiergarten, turned out to be just another imperialist. Today, that massive Coca Cola sign overlooking Leipziger Straße (installed just weeks after German reunification) feels like the propaganda of a clumsy overweight empire.

So where are we now? Germans on the left propose that we grant Snowden asylum as a potential reaction to the NSA revelations. You and I know that Merkel, or any other leader, would never risk such a step. At the end of the day, Germany is America’s vassal. It has never been a relationship of equals and never will be one. Germany has no military worth speaking of and must rely on NATO – basically the US military – to ensure its safety in the long term. The German export-based economy benefits hugely from the American world order supported by hundreds of US military bases around the world. Pax Americana, if you can call it that, allows German trade with China to flourish.

We Germans are basically powerless. Even though we’ve been cyber-attacked by our lord and protector. We are free to kick and scream a little and politely beg Obama to stop, with no guarantee that he or the next president will stop. The best we can do it build up our digital defences – to protect ourselves from our ‘friends’ and at least figure out how to encrypt Merkel’s phone calls.

As for me, when I go back to America today, I no longer get Nazi salutes. Homeland security officers are extremely polite as they scan my retina, people I meet on the plane proudly tell me how a relative in the military was “stationed over there”, and a lot of people hold a notion that Germany. is the strongest nation in Europe. But they have no idea how powerless we really are.