Autumn 2017 edition - page 8-9

Four words alone drew the world’s attention
to what Kennedy considered to be the hottest spot
in the ColdWar. Delivered on June 26 1963 against
the backdrop of the BerlinWall, these words were a
defence and promotion of John F. Kennedy’s de-
mocracy, self-government and political regime.
AfterWorldWar II, Germany was divided between
the communist, Soviet controlled East and the
democraticWest. Berlin, the capital and the main
source of economic wealth, was also divided in this
way. This led to increased tensions between the two
superpowers to the point where Kennedy feared
a European conflict, with the potential for nuclear
At their summit meeting inVienna in the
spring of 1961, Khrushchev warned Kennedy that
he would sign a treaty with East Germany restrict-
ingWestern access to East Berlin. In response,
Kennedy announced a major military build-up and
declared that any attack onWest Berlin would
be viewed as an attack on the United States. In a
television address to the nation on July 25, 1961,
he described Berlin as “the great testing place of
Western courage and will.”
The speech had its desired effect. Khrush-
chev abandoned signing the treaty, even as thou-
sands of East Germans continued crossing into
West Berlin in search of freedom. The East German
government, with Soviet support, sought to put
an end to this problem by building a wall of barbed
wire across the heart of Berlin during the summer
of 1961.
Kennedy arrived for a state visit almost
two years later. But the wall, now made mainly of
concrete, remained. During his visit, Kennedy’s
reputation was demonstrated by the thousands of
West Berliners showering him with flowers, rice and
shredded paper, and chanting his name. Although
deeply moved by the crowds that had welcomed
him in Bonn and Frankfurt, Kennedy was over-
whelmed by the throngs ofWest Berliners. They put
a human face on an issue he had previously seen
only in strategic terms. When he viewed the wall
itself, and the desolateness of East Berlin on the
other side, his expression turned grim.
Kennedy’s speechwriters had worked hard
preparing a text for his speech that was to be deliv-
ered in front of the city hall. They sought to express
solidarity with Berlin’s plight without offending
the Soviets; however, striking that balance proved
So, he fashioned a new speech on his own.
Previously, Kennedy had said that in Roman times
no claim was grander than “I am a citizen of Rome.”
For his speech, he had considered using the Ger-
man equivalent ‘I am a Berliner’: ich bin ein Berliner.
It is widely thought that Kennedy had got
the translation wrong—that by using the article ‘ein’
before the word ‘Berliner’, he had mistakenly called
himself a doughnut! However, Kennedy’s transla-
tion was in fact correct. To state ‘Ich bin Berliner’
would have suggested being born in Berlin, where-
as adding the word ‘ein’ implied being a Berliner in
spirit. His audience understood that he meant to
show his solidarity.
Kennedy praisedWest Berlin as an outpost
of freedom and the BerlinWall as a communist
mark of evil. “Freedom has many difficulties, and
democracy is not perfect,” he stated, “but we have
never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.”
He confidently predicted that, in time, the wall
would fall, Germany would reunite, and democracy
would spread throughout Eastern Europe.
His words influenced hundreds of thou-
sands. Kennedy successfully praised the freedom
of theWest Berliners and criticised communism,
whilst simultaneously avoiding any significant in-
crease tension.
His conclusion clearly expressed his desire for lib-
erty and self-government and 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.”
Saumiya Paheerathan 10LT
I Am A Citizen Of Berlin:
The Real Meaning
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