A cold wind blew through Andreas Luedecke’s beard as he acknowledged that, although he had plenty of complaints about Washington, the outrage against President Bush had softened from the days when Germany tried to stop the Iraq war.
“Bush is an aggressor, and we must push him back or we’re all doomed,” said Luedecke, standing in a light snow in Alexanderplatz, not far from where the Berlin Wall once stood. “But people forget fast. Images that once stuck in our minds fade away. Bush doesn’t stir up intense passion in most people anymore.”
Bush’s visit Wednesday to the city of Mainz in southern Germany provoked a range of emotions across the country. But the one most evident was a sense of resignation. Germans turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. They stewed in anger as the war was fought and were bewildered at Bush’s reelection in November.
Now, they say, bitterness must give way to pragmatism, much as one navigates around an overbearing in-law.
“U.S. and the European businesses are intertwined,” said Luedecke, an economist. “International concerns are forcing us to work together. Relations will improve because ultimately Germany and Washington have shared interests.”
Talk of Bush is often imbued with suspicion. But compared with two years ago, German critics are less inclined to liken him to Hitler.
“I hope Bush has recognized that he needs to cooperate with this ‘Old’ Europe,” said Ralf Skutnik, a tram supervisor. “But I don’t believe him. What can we do? People have contemplated that maybe Bush has learned something so, OK, he should get a chance to repair things.”
Tight security around the president’s stop in Mainz, a medieval city on the Rhine River where he held talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, did little to endear Bush to residents. Kindergartens were shut down and river traffic was halted, local authorities said by telephone. Garbage bins were hauled away, and 1,300 manhole covers were welded shut against potential bombers. The city was under what one newspaper called “house arrest,” and people were advised not to peek out their windows at Bush’s motorcade.
Police estimated that 6,000 protesters stood in the snow in Mainz, chanting slogans and waving signs that read, “Bush: Number 1 Terrorist” and “You can bomb the world into pieces but not into peace.”
A leftist newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, caricatured Bush as a popular television gnome and ran the headline: “Bush Comes, Kentucky Fried Chicken Closes.” One prankster stuck tiny American flags in dog droppings around the city.
One businessman, delayed at the Frankfurt airport after more than 200 flights were interrupted and 86 were canceled because of Bush’s arrival, asked the German media why the president and Schroeder couldn’t “pick up the phone or meet in Iceland.”
Since Bush’s reelection, he remains unpopular in Germany, judging from public surveys. A recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund in Washington found that 3% of respondents very much approved of the president’s policies and 59% very much disapproved.
Many Germans on Wednesday recalled a gentler, almost euphoric atmosphere in 1989 when Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, came to Mainz at the end of the Cold War and called for a special bond between the two nations. That relationship has been tested over the last 16 years, and Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has emerged as a more confident diplomatic player. The country is lobbying for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and wields influence in major capitals, including Moscow and Beijing.
“The visit shows that Bush cannot force everything he wants through,” said Carl Ordnung, a Methodist preacher. “Now both sides must really approach each other, and the U.S. needs to fit in with Europe instead of the other way around.”
The evening before Bush arrived in Germany, a protest was held in the Alexanderplatz square in Berlin. A handful of people showed up, including a gang of punkers. Some said they worried that Washington would instigate a war over Iran’s nuclear program.
Stefan Zwingel, a law student, stood in the cold. He said he was still angry about Iraq, but time had moved on. Other matters, he said, such as a disturbing rise in the popularity of right-wing political parties in his country, had galvanized protesters more than U.S.-German relations.
“Five hundred thousand of us protested against Bush in February 2003,” he said, “but that’s not the case today.”
Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff of The Times’ Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.