Limes. Irmensul.

Americans are, indeed, a young and often impatient people. But not all that young, for they are descendents primarily of Europeans. And the Americans of German descent are the largest ethnic group in the U.S., when separating out the British, Scottish and Irish.

In other words, an American, especially an American of German descent, who plays the piano well, including the most difficult works of German composers such as Beethoven (the child of Dutch immigrants to Germany), is just as much, if not more, an heir and descendent of that famous citizen of Bonn as those living in Bonn today who aren’t interested in classical music, who have never visited the house Beethoven’s was born and raised in, who prefer listening to heavy metal music on the MP3-players while sitting on the #61 tram from Dottendorf into the center of town. Americans and Germans are cousins, to a large part sharing the same history.

Here’s a story I heard a while back from a German woman I knew during my graduate studies in Berlin. She was on a flight to North Africa. Morocco or Tunesia. Sitting next to an American: jeans, sweatshirt, baseball cap on his head. One of those seemingly naive, carefree, smiling, overly-friendly Americans who Germans identify immediately.

She wondered what a guy like that – provincial, unsophisticated – was doing on an airplane to North Africa. Did he get on the wrong plane in Frankfurt? After a few minutes of small talk she realized that the “country bumpkin” was a tenured professor at an elite university on the East Coast of the U.S., spoke fluent Arabic, had high-level contacts in Egyptian politics, academics and culture. “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Another story. Similar. November 1995. In Washington, D.C. Watergate Hotel. Evening. We’re sitting in the lounge drinking a beer, after more than a handful of meetings in the American capital. The Majority Leader, his wife, his Chief of Staff, the Head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington. I had been asked by the Majority Leader to accompany him to the U.S. To advise him, and to play “fly on the wall,” to observe, then provide him with my analysis afterwards, on what my Americans eyes see, and American ears hear.

No Cologne Cathedral, but not country hicks.

Before the trip I rewrote his speeches. They had been translated from German into English by the language experts in the Bundestag. A bit wooden, overly structured, not how he speaks. I was also able to arrange for him to give a major foreign policy speech at Georgetown University, my alma mater. Pure coincidence. My uncle was, and is still, a Jesuit and professor of Theology at Georgetown. The university president – a close friend of my uncle – had done his Ph.D. in Theology in the late 1960s in Münster. His “docter father” was the great German theologian, Karl Rahner.

He spoke fluent German and had had several conversations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Catholic from Rhineland Palatinate. Kohl was known to be in close contact with Rome. The CDU (Christian Democratic Union – Kohl’s party) connection to Georgetown goes back to the days of Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship, 1949-63. One of Adenauer’s sons had studied at Georgetown during the Second World War.

In any case, I felt very comfortable in Washington, having studied at Georgetown just around the corner from the Watergate. That evening a member of the CDU in the German Bundestag walks in, their spokesperson on economic issues, also in Washington for meetings. He pulls a chair up next to the Majority Leader and says: “Wolfgang, it’s astonishing. The Americans are totally informed about our fiscal and economic plans, ours in Germany and in the EU!” Months after the trip it occurred to me: “Hey, wait a minute. Why is this guy so astonished?”

It’s true. Americans don’t have a Cologne Cathedral. They don’t have a Limes. No Teutoburger Forest. No Bavarian Purity Laws for brewing beer, no Irmensul. But are they, therefore, country hicks? Maybe it’s a tactical advantage to be considered such.

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