According to some articles in the German media, the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, behaves like a "far-right colonial officer", is a "diplomatic total failure" or even the "high commissioner of an occupying power". If you ask the readers of such articles, then he is "a racist" or worse. Most people who call him that have one thing in common: they never even met him. The Trump administration does not exactly make friends with its "America first" policy in Germany, and Grenell is Trump's posterboy in Berlin. Thus, it is now a good style to insult the ambassador disrespectfully.
The firmly established prejudices lead to such absurd excesses that the Women's Equal Opportunity Commissioner of the Berlin district of Spandau told the head of the Berlin Lesbian and Gay Association that he should not be photographed with Richard Grenell because he is a conservative Republican. Also on the picture is German Health Minister Jens Spahn. He is a member of the conservative party CDU. They are cooperating with the right-wing party AfD, which marches on demonstrations with the Neonazi group “Pegida”. But it seems, that the Commissioner has no problem with this part of the story.
Especially the Spiegel, one of Germany’s most important news magazines, attacked Grenell quite often. The same Spiegel, that was cought producing fake news for years. The same Spiegel, that had the headline “Nazis welcome” (“Nazis rein”). The same Spiegel, who said Jews are controlling the German mid-east politics – maybe with the help of Mossad. Of course they had no proof for this antisemitic nonsense.
Not a one-night stand
When one is visited by an ambassador of a friendly nation, he is following the usual protocol. The protocol usually works like this: First, the vanguard of the German police comes and checks the security inside the bunker. They check all the rooms, I explain peculiarities and answer a few questions.
Then you stand outside and wait for the actual convoy to arrive. You are dressed appropriately, approach the ambassador and address him as "Your Excellency". Something that comes from times gone by. Luckily, I learned this from an early age and I'm not surprised by all these customs. In this case, it was different. The ambassador of the United States of America to Germany, Richard Allen General, is tall, athletic and at first glance has the appearance of the bodyguards that surround him. The shirt is untucked, the top button is open and a slight tan shows on his face. The smile could also be from the cat from "Alice in Wonderland", so white and broad it is. Either he has practiced it for a long time or he is just a happy person. "Hi! I'm Ric! " – he reaches out his hand to me. "And that's Matt, my partner!" He looks around for a moment, "Great! I've read so much about your project and just had to come by!". Not what I expected from the stories. On the other hand being the sunshine boy is part of his job. Let’s see if this behavior persists or not when we visit the documentation "Hitler – how could it happen", which I co-designed and built and which I manage.
From the German point of view, Grenell’s CV might be difficult: Breitbart News, the flagship ambassador of Trump, Fox News, a Merkel critic (especially with regard to her dealings with refugees). All these things are delicate subjects here. Breitbart is considered a far right news site, Fox News is considered yellow press at best. And Trump is extremely polarizing. On the other hand, he absolutely wanted to see this documentary. Our mutual friend Elio Adler is chairman of a German-Jewish association and had established the contact. If "Ric" was the racist guy, the German media wants to make him, his friendship with Elio Adler would be rather confused. A German Jew and an American gay man who meet to be racist together? That does not fit into any cliché anymore. So there had to be a different story behind all this.
The following four hours with the small group showed quite clearly where everyone is at, morally and socially. And we are all clearly on the right page when it comes to the crucial questions. And we all support projects that oppose the forgetting of the Nazi era or antisemitism. Grenell is involved in many areas in which I am involved. That surprised me, after reading so much about him being a far-right guy.
Grenell does, what the far-right does not do. He visits "Platform 17" in Berlin, from where the Jews were driven into extermination camps, and participates in commemorative events for the "Night of Broken Glass". He repeatedly takes a clear stand when it comes to these questions. "Well, he is a Yankee. They are always with the Jews" is something that I hear over and over again. But how does it fit in, that he donated to the Roma Institute and supported their work? Roma are among those whom everyone likes to forget. Support for Roma does not bring special public recognition.
Inside the documentation in the Berlin Story Bunker we come to a board about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grenell's knowledge of the Protestant pastor and resistance fighter is far ahead of mine. He knows Bonhoeffers life almost by heart, knows many quotes and the influence of Bonhoeffer on other people. Thus, he would now be a gay racist, with Jewish friends, who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer fan. Holding up this racist theory is becoming increasingly difficult.
After visiting “Hitler – how could it happen”, we speak about racism, antisemitism, the strong and the weak state for a long time. “Why should the state be strong? The people should have the power – that includes owning guns,” he tells me. I see it differently, although I have firearms at home. Maybe I'm a bad example for my own opinion. "Hey, everybody has his opinion. But that's just not the point," he concludes this topic again. We have this discussion in Germany too – but on steroids! Usually there are hardliners on both sides and it’s very annoying. In this case, Grenell just wanted to share his view – and nothing more. That surprised me.
These kinds of appointments often end like a one-night-stand: saying “goodbye” to each other in a friendly way, promises to stay in touch, wave to each other – and never hear from the other person again. And that's okay in this "business" – you get used to it. But in this case, it was different. We were both surprised to have met an interesting counterpart.
The next invitation from "Ric" I had to turn down, because I had to deliver a unicorn bouncy castle to orphans at Lake Mosul in Kurdistan-Iraq. His answer to my refusal "You inspire me!". Nevertheless, we ran into each other at various events and kept in touch. According to the media-reports about him, you would expect him at antisemitic-rallies and such. But the opposite is true.
With a bulletproof vest to the Hezbollah fans
Once a year, Hezbollah fans march through Berlin, demanding a full takeover of the Israeli capital, Jerusalem. Anything that does not conform to Hezbollah's narrow worldview is despised. Every year, the Anti-Al Quds event is host to a broad alliance of dedicated people. In addition to Berlin's Interior Senator Andreas Geisel, Israeli Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff and Richard Grenell spoke on stage.
On one side of Berlin’s most expensive shopping street Kurfürstendamm, the “Al Quds”-Rally marched – on the other side we stood. Between the terrorist friends on the other side of the Kurfürstendamm and our stage of the counter-event were not even ten meters. There was no fixed barrier in between. For these Hezbollah fans, Richard Grenell is the incarnation of the devil. He is American, he opposes Hezbollah, he supports a Jewish state and is gay. One can assume that many people on the other side would rather see him dead than alive. When we saw each other at the event, I noticed two distinctive features for a bulletproof vest under his clothes. And he had a lot more bodyguards with him than usual. On the other hand, it goes went though my head: If you are as busy as I am with active and passive security, you see ghosts everywhere – or in this case: concealed worn bulletproof vests and weapons. Maybe I was just wrong. But I should be right after all. The danger to his life right next to these people was so high, that he was urged to put on the vest. Especially in the heat, it is extremely exhausting, because they are as warm as a thick sweater. So it's really an exception. I often wear vests and know the trouble with them. Had he now worn a large, war-torn level 4 vest over his clothes, it could have been dismissed as a show. But here it was clear that his security was in fact massively endangered. When his mother saw the photo, she commented, "I thought you looked a little chubby!"
Richard Grenell was not registered as a speaker. The media barely noticed him. He could just have stayed home. But he clearly wanted to position himself against terrorism, homophobia and antisemitism.
To brave terrorists and to not hesitate and take responsibility is not new to Americans. When Ric's partner Matt visited “Hitler – how could it happen” with his family and their kids, he explained how his grandfather was at the age of 18, when landing in France after D-Day. "They knew that many would die. They knew that the Nazis would do anything to fight back the invasion. They had seen the pictures of the war and the extermination camps and said: It’s our duty to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Our grandfather was barely older than you." You don’t know this, when you’re writing about Ric without ever meeting him or his family.
I did more than a thousand guided tours through the bunker. Rarely have I met children who were so well prepared. The parents obviously had talked to the children about it before. You could tell what the children had read. Read – not seen on TV.
From Reagan and Kurdistan
Our next meeting should be in the sun on the terrace of the US embassy in Berlin. Just around the corner from the Chancellery we stood under the "secret" NSA offices and looked across the square of March 18 (date of the revolution 1848 of the German people against the king) on the Tiergarten. The terrace was baptized and is now called "Ronald Reagan Terrace″. And this meeting, that name, that circumstance showed me again how small the world is and how weird paths of life intersect: When Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, he was treated at George Washington University Hospital. The head of the emergency room that afternoon was Dr. Najmaldin Karim, an Iraqi Kurd who fled Saddam. Dr. Karim later returned to Kurdistan (Iraq) and became governor of Kirkuk. I, as a war correspondent, met him before I went to the Islamic State frontlines. My gift for Grenell war a picture of this meeting. Since we had talked only little about ISIS and my time in Kurdistan, we caught up here. And there are a lot to unpack here: the US as a “world police”, US intelligence services around the world, terrorism, Islam vs. Islamism, why normal people become refugees. I guessed that these issues could be difficult. I do not believe in the claim of the USA to interfere anywhere in the world. On the other hand, hardly anyone has helped the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. The German government helped late, very hesitantly and timidly. The US spared no expense and effort and built their "Q-West Airbase" directly south of Mosul. The images of the US occupiers, such as from the Iraq war, stayed out. The Kurds love them for their help.
On the Ronald Reagan Terrace of the US Embassy
"Helping them help themselves! If they kill the terrorists on site, there will be no refugees and everyone can stay at home", Grenell tells me shortly. And I agree. Nobody wants to be a refugee. No one wants to leave his home, his belongings and his family. But if it has to be, then we have to help. That's where our opinions split into details. I found AngelaMerkel's decision to help those abandoned by the world totally correct. Nothing bad happened to us. We only got better baklava. "Ric" sees it differently in details and refers to isolated problems – the usual things. But in my view, we have a much bigger problem with right-wing terrorists like the NSU. And we have a problem with the Neonazis spreading.
But even in this controversial discussion, he always lets me finish, listen to me, goes into my arguments and explains his view of things. I could not have such a productive discussion with a racist. In the end I ask him if he supports my commitment against racism and antisemitism in the bunker. "Of course!" Is the concise and definite answer.
4th of July – Common Values
On Independence Day we celebrated together with three thousand other guests at Tempelhof Airport. Celebrated in the thirties as a milestone in architecture, filled with slave labor by the Nazis, used by the Americans for the Berlin Airlift, then the West Berlin Airport and now a major leisure facility. Here you can feel good how broken the history of this city is. And here and with these people, one can reflect on the common values. We all want to live in a free, democratic and open world. Even though we do not all understand the same in details. Here I met ambassadors, entrepreneurs and dedicated people from social projects. One is selling industrial goods, others collecting donations for minorities, others just want to party. Social position, fortune and the exact job does not matter to people this evening. It is remembered how the Americans shot Nazis, how they gave the criminal German people a new chance and how they saved half the country from the Soviets. While US troops fought Nazis, the majority of Germans didn’t. If Grenell is the racist he is portrayed as in the German media, why is he here on the side of the liberators and not on the side of Hitler?
In his speech, he recalls the airlift, the fight for democracy, equal rights and the rule of law. Common values that nobody would deny.
For the Berlin Story Museum in the bunker Gail Halvorsen, the first “candybomber” has built small parachutes, like the ones he threw during the Airlift 1948/1949. Everyone knows the photos of happy kids waiting for "Uncle Wiggle Wings", as the German kids called him. The Soviets had shut down the access roads to West Berlin to drain the city. Americans and the British have kept us alive. Through the three air corridors, the planes came in five levels to land every three minutes in Tempelhof. More than 50 soldiers were killed in action. In the museums audioguide we switch from the narrative role to addressing the visitors directly and thank the rescuers on behalf of the Berliners. Berlin is where the war started. More than 60 million people were killed, more than 400,000 American soldiers were murdered by the National Socialists in the liberation of Europe. Then the Americans did not let us down, but brought food. They landed right here at Tempelhof Airport, where the United States Fourth of July party took place. "My runway into freedom," says my father, who escaped from East-Germany when he was a kid.
In addition to ambassadors from other nations, a few German politicians and a few journalists and other people were invited: whether Rabbi, Yazidi journalist, openly gay politician or Roma researcher. They talked about their projects and the help they received from "Ric," as everyone calls him.
He came up to me and picked up the starting point of our very first encounter in the Berlin Story Bunker: "Every visitor from the US should see the bunker. There one sees that people have to take responsibility for their behavior and make their own decisions."- The Americans took responsibility at that time and decided to fight the Nazis. Whether we would have democracy in Germany today without your commitment is questionable.
NSA in da house!
Of course the Trump administration and the "world police"-policy of the United States can be criticized. I do that regularly, also as part of “Pixelhelper”. I have projected critical demands to various embassies and ministries. The US Embassy, on whose terrace I recently stood, was one of them. Photos of our projection "NSA in da House" went around the world.
I wonder how the "High Commissioner of an Occupying Power", that Grenell is supposed to be, would have responded. Apparently, as an American raised in a democracy, he can clearly differentiate between freedom of opinion on the one hand and fundamental common values on the other.
I also know one of the US Marines, who have their field-proven equipment within reach of the US Embassy guard. The arsenal of assault rifles, pistols and shotguns there is pretty impressive. But even these barely raise the eyebrow when the Pixelhelper vehicle drives in front of and lights up the projector. No one in the embassy reacted, no one was tense. Only the German police expressed (calmly and politely) the concern that it could burden the relationship. Criticism is no problem for normal people. It always depends on how you phrase it and how you deal with each other personally.
So how is it, that I publicly criticize the US, the Trump administration and the NSA, and can still be friendly with Grenell? Because we meet with respect and discuss the points. That’s called diplomacy. And that is what many of the journalists who report undifferentiated about him have never done.
German economy threatened?
One of the big topics in the German media was the "threatening letters" which he allegedly sent to the German economy. Grenell warned German companies that trade with Iran. The United States would not accept such a thing and consider whether they want to let the representatives of these companies into their country or do business with them. Immediately a fair share of Germans was against Grenell on principle. But why should one pay attention to these letters at all? How to run your business, you still decide yourself. And if you prefer to trade with Iran rather than the US then you can do that. That's just a trade-off. Every businessman has to do that again and again.
Even if you find the US-policy wrong, not everything they do must be wrong. Whether or not to trade with Iran is completely independent of what the US thinks about it. Either it is right or wrong. Unfortunately for the federal government in this case, "first comes a full stomach and then comes ethics”. Iran is killing homosexuals, journalists, regime opponents and rebels. A large part of the population is oppressed and a fundamentalist council has a decisive say in the country. They want to obliterate Israel and bombed the neighboring country (Kurdistan-Iraq) several times last year. Should one trade with them? Do we not have our own rules and laws that protect us from immoral and illegal actions? In the 1980s, the German industrialist Karl-Heinz Kolb helped then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the production of poison gas. This gas was used in the Anfal-Genocide against the Kurds. According to UNESCOas part of this genocide, up to 180,000 Kurds were systematically murdered from February to September 1988.
And of course, the German government has taken care of this poison gas supplier without the US having to intervene! Karl-Heinz Kolb received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany – and still has it today. It was not withdrawn from him. "German economy first", however, also applied earlier. More famous than Kolb is likely to be the case of Krupp Grenadier patent, which were used simultaneously by both the Nazis and the British.
While the US ambassador is in a public crossfire, the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Syria sit tight and laugh in the evenings. They have not written any "threatening letters" to the German economy. They represent only the worst terrorist regimes of our time. Why should you criticize them? The customer is king after all!
Especially the history of Germany and the USA are interwoven like no other. After the Second World War, it was the US that was merciful. Instead of making a huge parkinglot out of Nazi Germany, the reconstruction was helped. Billions of dollars were made available in no time. When West Berlin was sealed off, it was General Lucius Clay who made the airlift possible. This is the largest humanitarian operation in history to date. The Berlin Senate never received an invoice for this.
When Germany wanted to establish special forces after the terrorist attack on the Olympic Village in 1972, it was the US that mediated between Germany and Israel. So instructors like Dr. David Schiller came back to Germany and trained the special police units. All knowledge about these tactics was lost after the Second World War. The death of the Israeli athletes painfully showed how overwhelmed the police at that time was situations like this.
And as much as I have a problem with the "World Police" agenda, I benefited so much from it myself. Several times, we received intelligence from the CIA in Kurdistan-Iraq whenever the question came up, whether to use a certain road, or not. My security team from the kurdish intelligence service Asayîş has been trained by American and Israeli instructors and has always brought me back alive. Was this help good or bad?
At heart, we share the same values: freedom, democracy and economic growth – even if the interpretation of them in both nations can vary. Conversely, we are less united with Iran or with Russia. So why do you like to shoot at the US goal? It is a mystery to me.