McDonald's and the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago, and among those credited with paving the way for that spellbinding event are Ronald Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet recent media accounts largely overlook the role that another major player had in helping to bring down the Wall and rebuild a ravaged economy.

It was McDonald's: the all-American restaurant chain with its iconic golden arches -- McDonald's, the global food retailer that leftist elites love to hate.

Twenty years ago this week -- days after the Berlin Wall fell on Monday, Nov. 9, 1989 -- a McDonald's in the sleepy West German town of Hof served as a beacon of American-style freedom to thousands of celebrating East Germans -- a fact touched upon in a recent Wall Street Journal article: "As Wall Crumbled, Berliners Rebuilt Their Lives."

To those new customers, the golden arches were what the paper called a "siren of capitalism's long-forbidden fruits." They'd seen television ads from West Germany, the paper noted, so they "were familiar with McDonald's and other images of tantalizing Western products just out of reach."

"We were overrun," recalled Klaus Rader, McDonald's 26-year-old owner at the time. Within hours, he'd sold out of hamburgers and fries.

However, it wasn't just Big Macs and fries that were in big demand, because as the Journal noted: "Once the border was open, eastern Germans' consumption of iconic Western brands went into overdrive."

Rader, for his part, wondered what dizzying profits awaited him if he opened a McDonald's in the former East Germany.

On a certain visceral level, all those wide-eyed East Germans flocking to McDonald's had no doubt learned an important lesson under communism: political and economic freedom are inextricably bound together.

Who were those wide-eyed East Germans heading straight to McDonald's? Not surprisingly, the Journal noted that they were "ordinary" folks. And presumably, there were no smiling communist elites among them, nor any of their cheerleaders and secret admirers in the West.

Today, McDonald's is more popular than ever overseas: sales have been strong over the years in Europe, Asia, and even the Middle East. At home and abroad, McDonald's loyal customers are the same "ordinary" folks who mobbed Klaus Rider's restaurant in Hof.

Yet curiously, a striking perception gap exists in respect to McDonald's and the public. Its loyal and ordinary customers enjoy its fast service, clean facilities, and cheerful employees serving all-American meals. On the other hand, there are those high-minded McDonald's-haters: leftist elites in America and abroad. It's not just the food they dislike, though. To them, McDonald's symbolizes all that's wrong with American-style capitalism.

Leftists haughtily disparage McDonald's as a soulless purveyor of homogenized tastes, bland food, and assembly-line production. It's also an example of America's "economic imperialism," they say. That critique, however, ignores one of McDonald's bragging rights -- more than 75 percent of its overseas restaurants are owned and operated by independent franchises -- local men and women.

Hating McDonald's

Like anti-Americanism, McDonald's hatred among leftist elites appears to have intensified in the years following communism's collapse in Europe. At economic summits in America, Europe, and Canada, anti-globalization protesters can be counted on to trash the first McDonald's they came across.

Nothing like this happened before the Berlin Wall's fall, in the years preceding globalization and America's uncontested hegemony. In those days, America-hating leftists were less frustrated than today. After all, the Soviet Union was still undertaking what they regarded as a great experiment -- one economically and morally superior to American-style democracy.

Underscoring the irrational nature of McDonald's hatred, a professor at a Presbyterian seminary in Austin, Texas wrote a wacky anti-McDonald's diatribe not long ago: "The Big Mac and the Lord's Table: A Theological Interpretation of Globalization." David Hadley Jensen blasted McDonald's as being emblematic of globalization's dark side, and even at odds with Christian values. Yet interestingly, McDonald's was then reporting strong overseas sales in some improbable places -- anti-American France and former Cold War enemies China and Russia.

Was it only a coincidence that all-American McDonald's has seen some of its strongest sales in foreign countries where individual freedoms have traditionally been in short supply? That question appeared in an essay I wrote called "Would Jesus Eat at McDonald's?" A rejoinder to the professor's anti-McDonald's essay, it noted that some at the seminary and parent Presbyterian Church (USA) have in recent years unfairly condemned Israel and rallied behind the Palestinian "cause." It's all part of a peculiar postmodern and post-Soviet worldview that has become increasingly popular over the past twenty years in many colleges and seminaries. It's a hybrid of Christianity, Marxism, and Edward Said.

Obviously, all-American McDonald's is going to get a bum rap from academics embracing such beliefs who even suggest that imperialistic restaurants like McDonald's are stirring up Islamic terrorists.

CIA spooks, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, and many brave men and women living in communist countries all played a role in communism's demise. But so did Levi jeans, women's nylons, jazz, and rock 'n' roll. They were among myriad ornaments of American culture and democracy that subtly carried America's "siren song."

Madison Avenue played a role in communism's demise, too. Marlboro's famous ads of cowboys enjoying a smoke evoked images of freedom and individualism -- things that resonated in countries, communist and non-communist alike, where such concepts were in short supply.

Europe's leftists and anti-American elites savaged George Bush as a "cowboy" during this presidency. But don't be deceived: American cowboys are popular figures to ordinary people in foreign lands. Indeed, one Solidarity campaign banner in communist Poland featured a gun-toting Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane from "High Noon."

As for McDonald's' foreign operations, its restaurants stand out (even more prominently than U.S. Embassies) on thoroughfares and side streets in cities and towns all over the world. Each is an oasis of Americana, providing customers with McDonald's trademarks: spotless facilities, cheerful employees, and wholesome food served in minutes. Nothing like it existed in the old Soviet Union and East Germany.

In all, Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's says it now has 31,000 locally-owned restaurants in 118 countries that serve 58 million people every day.

What accounts for McDonald's-hatred among leftist elites? Much is surely due to the psychological damage they suffered over the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union two years later.

After all, leftist elites in America and abroad were once certain that the Soviet Union was undertaking a noble experiment in an alternative to heartless capitalism. Then the cruel experiment suddenly failed, leaving a void inside them. Since then, they've filled that void with ever higher levels of anti-Americanism, and they hoped to balance America's hegemony with an empowered United Nations and a politically viable European Union (as opposed to one reflecting only shared economic interests).

Bottom line: People who harbor an irrational hatred of McDonald's probably don't like America much, either. By the same token, you're unlikely to find many McDonald's-haters standing outside U.S. Embassies around the world, waiting in long lines holding visa applications. 

The anti-Americanism of leftist elites reached a fever pitch during eight years of "cowboy Bush," whom they vilified for allegedly waging an unjust and unilateral "war for oil" and for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which predecessor Bill Clinton surely had no intention of signing either.

"McDonald's taught me well"

Besides rabid anti-Americanism and McDonald's-hatred, something else filled the void felt by leftist elites at communism's collapse: the nearly religious belief that manmade global warming is destroying the planet. But Czech President Vaclav Klaus quickly saw through the global warning fanatics. They talked and acted, he noted, just like the communists who used to rule his country.

In former East Germany today, the Journal noted that a handful of people are nostalgic for the bad old days of communism, noting that job opportunities and wages have lagged significantly behind those in former West Germany. (Of course, that's what you might expect after years of communism.)

Other complaints are bizarre. Some say that Germany's free-market democracy offers too many choices -- as opposed to a only a few choices (or no choices) under communism. No matter that East Germans faced chronic food shortages and a lack of basic consumer items such as soap.

Not surprisingly, some East Germans, who lost elite jobs under communism and never regained them in a reunified Germany, have remained bitter. One of them is Bruni de la Motte, a middle-aged former university teacher who published an essay last Sunday in Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper called "East Germans lost much in 1989."

Focusing on the good points of communism, de la Motte noted that East Germany -- or the Democratic Republic of Germany, as it was officially called -- was where she grew up, got her Ph.D., and had two kids. "I enjoyed a fulfilling job as a lecturer in English literature at Potsdam University," she recalled.

Then the Berlin Wall collapsed, and thousands of cheering wild-eyed East Berliners flooded into the West. Bruni de la Motte, however, is full of nostalgia over what she calls East Berlin's many "social achievements" -- including "social and gender equality, full employment, and lack of existential fears." She makes no mention of secret police, food shortages, or the fact that ordinary people in the West were living so much better that their counterparts on the other side of the Wall. She also fails to explain why so many East Germans risked their lives and sometimes died trying to get to the West.

Instead, de la Motte complains of the "political" purges that later occurred in state industries, academia, and other institutions. "This process was in stark contrast to what happened in West Germany after the war, when few ex-Nazis were treated in this manner," she writes.

"Unfortunately, the collapse of the GDR and 'state socialism' came shortly before the collapse of the 'free market' system in the West." 

Recently, a group of leftists in Germany were spouting similar rhetoric during a political campaign, noted a Wall Street Journal reporter.

"How quickly they forget," Rosemarie Wunnenburger, a former biochemist, was quoted as saying as she watched from a distance. She'd participated in Germany's pro-Democracy protests in 1989.

As for Klaus Rader, the young McDonald's owner, he struck it rich. He built six more McDonald's restaurants, notes the Journal, and after fifteen years with McDonald's, he sold out to pursue his dream -- starting an Italian-themed restaurant named "Vapiano."

Now a popular chain, Vapiano caters "to a young, urbane generation in both West and East," the Journal noted.

And like McDonald's, Vapiano provides jobs, pays taxes, and provides a pleasant and upscale restaurant -- unlike anything that existed in the East Germany's state-run economy.

"McDonald's taught me well," Rader says.