Published: April 26, 2016
President John F. Kennedy electrified the world on this day with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, delivered from a platform overlooking the notorious wall dividing east and west Berlin.
The concrete and barbed wire wall, stretching across the heart of Berlin, had been erected in 1961 by the communist East German government, with Russian support, to keep out West Berliners and restrict free movement in the divided city.
Thomas Putnam, former director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Washington, said later that when Kennedy arrived for his state visit he was overwhelmed and deeply moved by the crowds that welcomed him. And when he viewed the wall itself, and the barrenness of East Berlin on the other side, his expression turned grim.
He was disappointed by the address prepared by his speechwriters, threw it away and quickly fashioned a new speech of his own. Kennedy knew that in Roman times, no claim was grander than “I am a citizen of Rome.” For his Berlin speech, he decided to use the German equivalent: “I am a Berliner.”
“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum,’” he proclaimed. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’”
The words rang true not only for the hundreds of thousands of people who were there, Putnam said, but also for the millions around the world who saw the speech captured on film.
Kennedy’s point-by-point dismissal of support for communism with a repeated mantra, “Let them come to Berlin,” accompanied by his fist beating the rostrum, electrified the crowd.
His conclusion linked him eternally to his listeners and to their cause: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Afterwards, according to Putnam, it would be suggested that Kennedy had got the translation wrong—that by using the article ein before the word Berliner, he had mistakenly called himself a doughnut!
In fact, Kennedy was correct. To state Ich bin Berliner would have suggested being born in Berlin, whereas adding the word ein implied being a Berliner in spirit. His audience understood that he meant to show his solidarity and rapturously cheered and applauded.