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Americans contemplate Berlin Wall's fall, U.S.-German ties at 'Wunderbar Together'

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By Reuters
Americans contemplate Berlin Wall's fall, U.S.-German ties at 'Wunderbar Together'
FILE PHOTO: A woman signs a replica wall, during a week-long event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, at Georgetown University, in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Al Drago   -   Copyright  Alexander Drago(Reuters)

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON – For Michael Mucchetti, the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago marked the start of a deeply personal relationship with Germany, and he is determined to ensure that broader U.S.-German ties survive political disputes currently dividing the allies.

Mucchetti, chief of staff for a Democratic lawmaker from Texas, shared his story with Georgetown University students this week at the end of a $50 million, yearlong German government campaign aimed at reaching a new generation of Americans and moving beyond battles over trade and defence spending.

He talked about meeting his German wife Kirsten in Berlin in late 1989 – on the day that large sections of the Wall were removed, allowing thousands of people to transit through the historic Brandenburg Gate after it had been closed for 28 years.

“It was an incredible experience. There were people singing, some folks were playing music,” he said. “We said, someday we’ll tell our grandchildren about this. Of course we didn’t know at the time that we’d eventually get married.”

He sees the government-funded campaign as a powerful way to counteract U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on Germany and other European allies that he fears may leave deep scars.

“I salute the German government’s effort to advance cultural diplomacy,” he said. “We need more ways to build bridges and not erect walls.”

German industry and government officials say the “Wunderbar Together” campaign drew more than 1.5 million people to over 2,000 events in each of the 50 U.S. states, with 10 million more joining in online.

One highlight was a “WanderbUS” that crisscrossed America, giving over 10,000 students in 60 U.S. cities virtual tours of Hamburg and Frankfurt. Elsewhere, Bauhaus-style trailers brought German beer and Oktoberfest spirit to the American heartland.

There was a break-dance performance at the Lincoln Memorial that fused hip-hop and German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and, this week, the erection of a replica of the Berlin Wall at Georgetown University for students to sign.

“We wanted to do something that transcends the present disputes and all the headlines,” said Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States. She said the initiative had affirmed historic bonds while creating new connections around subjects such as climate change and the future of work.

German automaker BMW hosted one of the last “Wunderbar Together” events this month at the huge plant in Greer, South Carolina, which has made BMW the largest exporter of vehicles from the United States by value for the last five years.

Such “sidewalk diplomacy” connects communities at a very decentralized level, said Roger-Mark De Souza, president of Sister Cities International, which co-hosted the BMW event. “Those relationships allow politicians to have a bridge that they can cross when there’s national disagreements,” he said.

Germany’s overall trade surplus with the United States – $68 billion in 2018 – remains a sore point with the Trump administration, but efforts to showcase the high level of German investment and job creation in the United States may be paying off.

U.S. and EU officials say they expect Trump to delay his threatened 25% tariffs on EU car imports – at least for now.

“If you look at the bilateral relationship, it’s really easy to focus on the negative, but there’s so much positive,” said Amy Kardel, a California attorney who visited Germany to learn about its vocational education system as part of the “Wunderbar Together” programme.

Kardel, 51, credits a student exchange that took her to Stuttgart at age 15 for sparking her interest in German, which in turn launched her into a career in the tech industry.

The “Wunderbar Together” campaign may be ending, but Germany will keep pushing to refocus and rebuild U.S.-German ties, said Andreas Goergen, who heads the German foreign ministry’s culture and communications department.

“We will not stop investing in the German-American relationship. It was not meant to be a one-off experience,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis)