At Munich’s Oktoberfest, Helmut would easily pass for a true Bavarian – except that the breast piece between his suspenders says “Gulf Coast Enziana”. Helmut has found his little piece of Germany at the Gulf of Mexico. Originally from Lower Saxony, he has lived in Florida since 1956 and has long been a U.S. citizen. His views on this year’s elections reflect common American sentiments: “I don’t like either candidate,” Helmut says. Don’t even try to ask him about Congress. “Idiots with college degrees!” Of course, in the end, he will vote for President Obama and the Democrats. “Republicans only know how to wage war.”Helmut wears his ‘Bavaria on the Gulf Coast’ Lederhosen to the Saturday night dances at the German American Society of Pinellas County – like most of the similarly-attired men who have arrived to eat Schnitzel and Black Forest cake before a backdrop of painted walls depicting Heidelberg and Neuschwanstein. When the band plays the first waltz, Helmut and the others lead the ladies to the dance floor as they did when they were young in Bavaria or in Sudetenland. The German-American retirees have one unwritten rule for these social evenings: No talk of politics and no religion.
We got them to break that rule – at least for once. “Die Frau vom Radio!”, is what people say when Susanne Nielsen shows up. Many here know the moderator of the “Deutsche Funksendung”, the German language Internet radio show in the Tampa Bay area. And they know what Susanne wants: opinions. This time she has yours truly in tow, who is eager to introduce the German-American retiree community to the readers of Financial Times Deutschland. (Susanne also interviewed me for her show.) This is how Helmut’s friend, whose name is also Helmut and who is really from Bavaria, learns that his buddy is rooting for Obama. “Helmut, I can’t believe you are voting for this guy!” The Bavarian Helmut concedes that he is not a fan of Mitt Romney either. “But if the Republicans nominated a dog, I would vote for the dog.”
The German-American retirees are a microcosm of American society. They are as disillusioned, as angry and as suspicious as the rest of the country. A retired baker by the name of Willy demands to see President Obama’s birth certificate. His friend Martin doesn’t go there but professes to be unhappy that the Democrat in the White House is playing off the rich against the poor and that he wants to lead the U.S. down the path of debt and deficits that cause the current crisis in Europe. “The health care reform is the best example!”
Ilse sees things differently. She is still a German citizen, but if she could vote in the U.S., she would re-elect President Obama because of his health care reform. As a young woman, she saw emigrating to America as an adventure. Now she sometimes regrets her decision. Ilse says that she is sorry for all those Americans who are being told that their social systems were among the world’s best. At 67, she does not want to retire, because the financial crisis has decimated her savings. Having worked for the same company for more than eight years, she still has no more than two weeks of vacation per year. “People here are so naïve,” Ilse says.
According to Martin, the Germans are just as silly. All the nonsense that he had to listen to when he travelled back to Germany for business! He still gets upset when he remembers the visit at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union – when his peace-loving German hosts suggested that the U.S. should disarm unilaterally. “This was really the last thing I needed to hear!”, he says. Willy is nodding vigorously at his side. They could go on to dispute the smaller crowd of German-American Democrats in the room, just as they probably would bash the Social Democrats at a regular’s table in a small town in Bavaria. But in Pinellas Park, their wives step in and pull them back to the dance floor. No more American politics, please!