200,000 . . . or 20,000? Obama's Crowd in Berlin

By John Rosenthal, on , Trend Lines

"Obama Addresses 200,000 in Berlin" -- thus ran the AP headline the day after Barack Obama's much-hyped speech in front of Berlin's Siegessäule or "Victory Column." This 200,000 figure has quickly become the standard estimate of the crowd for Obama's speech in both the American and the German media: so standard indeed that it is for the most part not even treated as an estimate.

The estimates given by German public television ZDF actually during the event, however, were as little as one-tenth of that number. ZDF began its special "Obama in Berlin" coverage [German video] at 6:45 p.m. Central European Time: only 15 minutes before the candidate's speech was scheduled to start. At the time, ZDF reporter Susanne Gelhard was out and about on the so-called "Fan Mile" between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate. "The expectations were highly varied," she said in her live report, "from a few thousand up to a million. Those were the estimates. But, now, several tens of thousands have turned out." Barely five minutes before the speech was supposed to start, ZDF Berlin studio chief Peter Frey added, "We do estimate that 20,000 [literally, "a couple of ten thousand"] people have turned out." Frey's tone, like that of Gelhard, reflected the gap between the relatively modest number cited and the lofty predictions that had preceded the event. Moreover, while the ZDF live images showed that the "Fan Mile" was indeed populated from one end to the other, they also appeared to reveal patches of thinness and pedestrian traffic flowing easily on the half of the boulevard closer to the Brandenburg Gate (i.e. furthest from the "Victory Column").

And then: the candidate did not appear at the appointed time. Could his handlers have been disappointed by the turnout? Did they hope to buy time for more spectators to arrive? At this point, ZDF interrupted its special coverage and broke for the nightly news. When the coverage resumed some fifteen minutes later, ZDF host Claus Kleber promptly declared that there were "one hundred thousand" people on the Fan Mile. He then repeated the claim twice more in rapid succession -- now, more precisely, "over one hundred thousand people" -- as if repetition could somehow cover up the glaring discrepancy between this number and the number cited by his colleague Frey only 20 minutes earlier.

ZDF live image of the "Fan Mile" only minutes before the start of Barack Obama's speech. Note the distinct thinness of the crowd toward the bottom of the image.

Minutes later, Obama was on stage. And a half hour after that, he was gone again. By 8 p.m. -- as the crowd filed out, obediently following the order to disperse given over the loud-speaker system -- the number being cited had grown to fully 200,000. As this German timeline indicates, the original source for the rapidly growing estimates was in fact the rally organizers: i.e. the Obama team. The 200,000 figure would also be attributed to the Berlin police -- which might represent the first time in modern history that the police and the organizers of a political rally agreed on their estimates of crowd size.

As the Berlin-based writer Christian J. Heinrich notes: "During the big anti-Bush demonstration after the fall of Baghdad, there were 250,000 people. And it looked totally different from yesterday. Then, you couldn't move all the way from the Brandenburg Gate to the Technical University [on the western side of Tiergarten park, another kilometer beyond the Siegessäule]."

(For more on the subject, see the follow-up post "More on Obama's Crowd Numbers: A Conversation with the Berlin Police" here.)