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Germany

Kennedy Still a 'Berliner' After All These Years

Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. His words still resound today in Berlin, even 12 years after reunification.

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John F. Kennedy: "Ich bin ein 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."

When United States President John F. Kennedy made the famous statement "Ich bin ein Berliner" – (I am a Berliner) - in front of the city Hall of West Berlin on June 26, 1963, he uttered words that went straight to the hearts of the citizens of Berlin. He insinuated that they were - just like the citizens of Rome in earlier times - free people, with an unalienable right to freedom and the right to be protected by the rest of the free world. It was a rousing speech that quite possibly turned the tide in favor of holding on to Berlin as an isolated outpost in communist East Germany at a time when it was in very real danger of falling to the communist German Democratic Republic.

"This was a very intense feeling of closeness," recalls Alexander Longolius, a member of West Germany's city council in 1963 and later director of the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation. "If the Americans had turned away from us, if that speech had told us we were leaving the city, then it would have been dramatic. I remember that I went home and told my wife (...) that our worries are over and everything would be good."

A divided city

From the end of World War II in 1945 until the beginning of German reunification in 1989, Germany as a whole, and Berlin as a city, was divided by the Cold War a state of open confrontation between the Communist bloc and the NATO alliance. In August 1961, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall to stop the mass exodus of people fleeing Soviet East Berlin for West Berlin and the non-communist world, thus sealing West Berlin behind a 12-foot wall for some 28 years. Two years after this, Kennedy gave his historic speech, which still finds incredible resonance here 40 years later.

In 1963, West Berlin was militarily protected by and partly governed by American, French and British forces. The largest military contingent was American, and faced off a sizeable Soviet contingent on the other side of the wall. Many people - and companies - had left the divided city for greener and safer pastures. In his speech, Kennedy expressed admiration for those who stayed on despite the city's isolation.

"I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin."

These words, uttered by the American president, had a soothing effect not only on the souls of beleaguered West Berliners, but on the German post-war psyche as a whole. Many Germans still felt a deep sense of guilt for the crimes they or their parents had committed - or at least had not prevented - during World War II and the Holocaust. Berliners were particularly receptive of the support Kennedy expressed. After all, when the wall went up in 1961, many West Germans were convinced the city was entirely lost to the communists.

"I was on vacation in West Germany in the Bavarian forest to the south of Berlin," Longolius says. "We were on a farm, and didn't have a radio. So I didn't hear about the wall on that Sunday. I heard about it on Tuesday, two days later, when our landlady - a farmer's woman - asked me where I would go when my vacation was over. And I said I would go home. And she said to me: you can't do that any more because they've cut West Berlin off."

When he toured West Berlin, Kennedy was accompanied by the then-mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Many Berliners felt the chancellor and other West Germans did not fully understand the importance of their city as a bulwark against communism, protecting the entire country against a Soviet invasion.

"I said to myself: once the Russians are Berlin, they will be sitting on the Rhine four weeks later," says a woman, who has been a longtime resident of Berlin. "And I think that would have been the case. The Russians would simply have marched through. Once they had reached West Berlin, they would have bulldozed the country - maybe not in four weeks, maybe a little later. And they would not only have gone as far as the Rhine, but even further. That was the opinion of many people at the time."

In the early 1960s, the Cold War was at it's peak. Not only was James Bond fighting fictitious communist villains in the cinemas of the West. The delivery of Soviet nuclear medium-range missiles to Cuba in 1962 had only just brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. Communism as an ideology seemed like a viable and attractive alternative to capitalism for many intellectuals, even in the West. John F. Kennedy therefore used his speech in West Berlin not only to boost the morale of the inhabitants there, but also to condemn communism as a politically, economically and morally inferior system everywhere in the world, with the Berlin wall the most obvious and vivid demonstration of communism's failures.

"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."

An American legend

According to Alexander Longolius, John F. Kennedy became a mythical figure in Germany and elsewhere because he was highly credible.

"He was not only an American president. He was the leader of the West," he says. "The man who gave all of us hope, a perspective and a dream. The United States at that time combined military, economic, cultural and moral leadership. And there was no doubt in our mind that Kennedy stood for all that."

Kennedy's premature death at the hands of a gunman in Dallas only a few months after holding his Berlin speech temporarily plunged the city into depression and despair. Today, 40 years later, Kennedy's legacy lives on in Germany's collective memory - for example in school books, documentaries about the cold war and in an exhibition at the German National Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn. There, the most famous excerpt of Kennedy's speech is displayed on a television monitor, and there is a copy of the piece of paper John F. Kennedy held in his hand when delivering his speech, complete with the lines "Ich bin ein Berliner" and "Let them come to Berlin" scrawled on it in his own hand-writing.

Herman Schäfer, a custodian at the museum, says the document still elicits a deep response today.

"The reaction of our visitors is very enthusiastic, still enthusiastic, even though this 40 years ago. Everybody - be it young or old people - have in mind that this is a quotation from John F. Kennedy. So they hear this quotation and then the look into the glass case and see with even more surprise that there is this little document with the phonetic transcription of John F. Kennedy. So there is still this enthusiasm about this quotation that (puts) so much emphasis on the German-American friendship during the 1960s."

Kennedy's speech has been cited and used as a model by other politicians since 1963. Shortly before the Berlin wall came down in 1989, U.S. President Ronald Reagan addressed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from the same location, telling him the time was ripe for German reunification. And when after the Sept. 11. attacks on New York and Washington, Chancellor Schröder pledged "unlimited" support to the US in its war on terrorism, he alluded to George W. Bush' famous predecessor.

"When the defense of Berlin was at stake, John F. Kennedy said - and you all know this famous sentence - 'I am a Berliner'," Schröder said. "That was the expression of incredible solidarity. Today I believe that we have every reason - especially we Germans - to return this solidarity by expressing our solidarity with the American people."

Strained relations

However, following Germany's refusal to back the U.S.-led war on Iraq, relations between the two countries reached a historic low. Many Germans refused to believe that the ideals Kennedy had upheld in Berlin were being appropriately defended by Bush. Because of the widespread rejection of the war, Germans have been accused of anti-Americanism.

But according to Schäfer of the National Museum in Bonn, the US-German relationship has not been fundamentally impaired.

"It is still as strong as in former times and if we look to the development of our civilization, I personally think that the United States is something like the leading civilized nation of the world," he says. "And there are a lot of different developments which are already there - if we like them or not - and many of them I do not like, I would not agree with all developments which are under way in the U.S. They will come to our state, to our country, to Europe soon or later. But we have to decide individually if we want to adopt them."

Editor's Note: John F. Kennedy's historic visit to Berlin in 1963 is also the subject of a new exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which will be displaying 400 artifacts from the life of the former president through Oct. 13.

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  • Date 26.06.2003
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