BERLIN -- The new U.S. Embassy is finally taking its place on the Berlin skyline. An enormous crane cuts across the view of the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz, triumphantly testifying to the Phoenix rising from the ashes of World War II, not far from the spot where the Nazis seized Germany.
Like everything else in Berlin, the new embassy bears witness to history. Along with other buildings on the square, it occupies space in what was "no man's land" between East and West Berlin. A block away, the bunker where Hitler died lies permanently sealed underground, the tomb of the Third Reich, and only a block away in another direction stands the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. When it's finished, the American Embassy will again be part of Berlin's diplomatic quarter, a short walk to the British, French and Russian embassies, the three nations that exerted such influence on postwar Germany.
Work on the embassy had been delayed when the war on terror required a wider security buffer than originally planned. The design now includes the latest anti-terrorist security barriers. Washington and Berlin hassled over every architectural change for years, reflecting the recent troubled relationship between the two countries.
The optimists believe American-German relations will improve under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supported the war in Iraq before coming to power, but it's been a bumpy ride since her election. She complains about CIA "ghost flights" transporting terror suspects to prisons in Europe, and the American imprisonment of a Lebanese-born German citizen who was arrested, "mistakenly," as a suspect in the 9/11 attacks.
Last week it was our turn for anger. Germany released a Lebanese prisoner who was one of the hijackers of the TWA jet seized in Athens 1985. He was convicted of beating an American sailor to death. He was released several years short of serving his full term, and the release looks suspicious, coming as it does days before the release of Susanne Osthoff, a German archaeologist, by thugs who took her hostage in Iraq. Germany says there was no deal, but almost nobody believes that. The family of the murdered American is outraged, and we should be, too. The incident will no doubt be in the discussion when the new chancellor meets President Bush in Washington early in January.
Berliners are warm and friendly to Americans these days, constantly telling visitors how much they like us, hate him. "Him" is of course George W. Bush. It's a strange double-think. In spite of their overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq, Germans can't get enough of the American culture -- our blue jeans, pop music and avant-garde art. It's not clear how they'll react to "beer, burgers and boobs" when Hooters opens the chain's first restaurant in Germany.
Most Germans are not old enough to remember the Berlin airlift, but every schoolchild learns how the Americans dropped food and fuel to their starving grandparents in West Berlin when Stalin sealed the city from the outside world in 1948. Germans mock American cheeriness and the "can do" spirit, but nearly all of them are sick of the gloom and doom that embraces their nation like the cold and rain of winter. You can't watch television or see a movie without being challenged by a commercial message calling on every German to lighten up a little.
It was produced free of charge by one of the country's most creative advertising agencies. The ad men are responding to a survey that shows that 60 percent of Americans believe they can change their lives by trying harder. Only 30 percent of the Germans believe that. The spots are easily satirized, but they're on point. With one of every 10 Germans without a job, "German self-confidence" is an oxymoron. The work ethic in Hamburg, Germany, is more endangered than the snail darter in Hamburg, Ark.
But the welfare state and the tax code are difficult to change, and working harder requires having something to work harder at. The sour mood builds on resentment. After the euphoria of unification, many Germans in the East feel cheated of their security. "Ostalgie" is a common word, building on Ost (East) and the German word for the nostalgia many East Germans feel for the way of life they lost. They look back at the "good old days" and forget what that "security" cost.
A change of mood requires more than a smiley face. Angela Merkel wears one these days when she says she anticipates a better relationship with the United States and wants to mend the damage done by her predecessor. Both sides can hope that the wait won't be as long as the wait for those building cranes to arrive at Pariser Platz.