Ich bin ein Berliner: John F. Kennedy
He has never lived in Berlin, but his famous phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ made him a Child of Berlin. On November 22 it’s 50 years ago the president of the United States John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. He has meant a lot to West Berlin by visiting and holding a famous speech.
West Berlin: Enclave in East Germany
The Berlin Wall had just been erected a few years before and the people of West Berlin felt very alone at the time. They were afraid West Berlin would end up like an half-occupied enclave in the middle of East Germany. That might sound weird now, because many tourists visited West Berlin when the Berlin Wall was still there, but in 1961 and 1962 the West European governments felt sorry for West Berlin, but were not prepared to do or say much about the Berlin Wall.
1961 and 1962 had been quite eventful years, at the Berlin Wall. Word War three nearly happened when the Russian guards wouldn’t let American diplomats pass without checking their passports all the time. A standoff with tanks on both sides of the border at Checkpoint Charlie brought both East and West Berlin on the brink of a nervous and bloody breakdown. People were dying to get to the other side as well. Like the first Berlin Wall victim Gunter Litfin, and the teenager Peter Fechter, who died cold and alone at Checkpoint Charlie.
Kennedy came to visit Berlin on June 26, 1963. He visited Brandenburger Tor with mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer, the Chancelor of (West) Germany. They also went to Checkpoint Charlie where they walked along the Berlin Wall for a while. They drove along the Grosser Stern in Tiergarten as well.
Ich Bin ein Berliner
After that he gave his famous speech at Schonebergs Rathaus. To express he perfectly understood how miserable the people in West Berlin felt about being cut off by the Berlin Wall, he said: ‘Ich bin in Berliner’.
“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was: Civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is: Ich bin ein Berliner. There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the Free World and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.
There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere: We can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it’s true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Laß sie nach Berlin kommen. Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
“So let me ask you as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall, to the day of peace with justice; beyond yourselves, and ourselves, to all mankind. Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: Ich bin ein Berliner”. The thousands of people that were at the square applauded for minutes on.
Some people, years later, thought Kennedy made a grammar mistake by stating he was Ein Berliner. They thought he had stated he was a Berliner, a pfannkuchen. A pfannkuchen is a sticky bread, a bit like a donut, but with jelly inside. Berliners like to eat them with Silvester. But that Ein Berliner stuff is just nonsense, it was correct German, but has become some sort of urban myth. But not bigger than the mythical speech of Kennedy himself.
If you want to feel the Kennedy spirit in Berlin, follow the same route Kennedy drove in June. Visit Brandenburger Tor, Checkpoint Charlie and Tiergarten. And of course, the square in front of the Rathaus (where the local government of district Schoneberg is seated). This square is called John F. Kenny Platz.
The square got it’s name soon after Kennedy was killed. There is also a John F. Kennedy School and John F. Kennedy for North American Studies at the Freie University. But if you really want to know more about Kennedy and his family, visit museum the Kennedy’s in Berlin Mitte.