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Associated Press
President John F. Kennedy declares “Ich bin ein Berliner” at Schoeneberg City Hall in West Berlin, June 26, 1963.

On This Day: President Kennedy Declares “Ich bin ein Berliner”

June 26, 2011 06:00 AM
by Jordan Termine
On June 26, 1963, in a speech before 200,000 citizens of Berlin, President John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” meaning, “I am a Berliner.”

Kennedy Shows Support for Berliners

Berlin, a divided city in the heart of communist East Germany, was one of the centers of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, the city was divided in two: the Allied-controlled democratic West and the Soviet-controlled communist East.

By 1961, four million East Germans had moved to West Germany, many making their trip through West Berlin. Trying to halt the exodus, the Soviet Union ordered the construction of a guarded wall between East and West Berlin, raising Cold War tensions.

In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Germany to display American support for West Berlin. “Greeted by ecstatic crowds who showered his entourage with flowers, rice and torn paper,” Kennedy spoke before a “rapt audience” in the Rudolph Wilde Platz, writes the John F. Kennedy Library.

“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum,’” he declared, referring to the phrase “I am a Roman citizen.” “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”

Kennedy used a note card that spelled the phrase phonetically as “Ish bin ein Bearleener.” He also used the note card to help pronounce a second German phrase used in the speech: “Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen,” meaning “Let them come to Berlin.”

“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,” he said. “Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.”

The crowd of about 200,000 cheered “every statement with such force that families and friends beyond the wall probably heard without the aid of radio and television, which the Communists were doing their best to jam,” wrote The Guardian.

Kennedy concluded, “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!’”

The “Jelly Donut” Myth

There is an urban legend that Kennedy, by using the indefinite article “ein,” actually said that he was a jelly doughnut or pastry known as a “Berliner.” While it is true that a native Berliner would simply say “Ich bin Berliner,” Kennedy was correct to use “ein” because it indicated that he was expressing solidarity with Berliners, and not literally a Berlin citizen.

Heinz Weber, who interpreted Kennedy’s speech to the crowd, told The Associated Press in 2006 that the crowd knew Kennedy was saying “I am one of you … I want to let you know that I will stand by your side.” He added, “All of that is in ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ but not in ‘ich bin Berliner,’ that's too weak.”

Kennedy did make a significant mistake during the “Let them come to Berlin” part of the speech. “And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin,” he said.

“In his enthusiasm, Kennedy, who had just given a peace speech and was trying to work out a test ban treaty with the Soviets, had gotten carried away and just ad-libbed the opposite, saying there was no way to work with Communists,” wrote Richard Reeves in his book “Kennedy: Profile of Power.”

Despite his gaffe, he would successfully negotiate the test ban treaty in July and sign it later that year.

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