1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The story behind John F. Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner'

Torsten Landsberg
June 23, 2023

During the Cold War 60 years ago, US President John F. Kennedy sparked hope with a legendary speech given in West Berlin after the Berlin Wall came up.

Deutschland | Besuch US Präsident John F. Kennedy 1963 in Berlin
Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

The June 1963 visit to West Germany by then-US president John F. Kennedy was eagerly awaited. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been somewhat strained since his inauguration in 1961, especially due to his administration's decision to show restraint towards the Soviet Union. West Germany, especially the city of West Berlin, felt that political decision very directly.

Nevertheless, the crowds were huge when Kennedy arrived in West Berlin on the fourth day of his trip, after visits to the then-capital Bonn, and to Cologne, Frankfurt am Main and Wiesbaden.

More than a million people welcomed the US president on the streets of West Berlin on June 26, 1963.

Hope and gratitude for the Allies' Berlin Airlift

Kennedy was a beacon of hope, and his state visit also coincided with the 15th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift — a rescue mission for which the people of West Berlin once again showed their gratitude on this day. 

A black-and-white photo from 1948/49, showing a boy, seen from the back, in short trousers and climbing a lightpost on the right-hand side of the photo, while a US military transport plane flies above a tree through the center of the image.
From 1948, the Western Allies flew air missions to get around the Soviet Blockade of Berlin and get vital supplies to the populationImage: dpa/picture alliance

With the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet Union had cut off the supply routes over land and water to West Berlin from June 24, 1948, until May 12, 1949.

By doing so, the Soviet Union hoped to gain power over the part of the city occupied by the Western Allies after World War II.

The Western Allies, led by the United States, immediately responded to the blockade with the Berlin Airlift: The Allied forces used military aircraft to deliver food and other necessities to the more than two million residents of the isolated city. 

The Berliners started referring to the aircraft used as "Rosinenbomber" (raisin bombers), after some pilots started throwing down little packets of sweets, chewing gum and raisins to children before landing.

JFK's state visit to Germany: Two years after the Berlin Wall came up

By the time of Kennedy's trip, the political situation had taken a previously unanticipated turn: West Berlin was surrounded by a wall. So many residents of the city hoped that the US president's visit would mean freedom for them and an end to the division separating family members and friends. For them, the visit was a sign that the US would not give up on West Berlin.

In a black-and-white photo, President Kennedy's military aide, Maj. Gen. Chester V. Clifton, leans forward to clear off the windshield of some of the large quantity of ticker tape that fell on the car. President Kennedy, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stand in the back of the car passing large crowds lining a West Berlin street, June 26, 1963. A bus marked "press pool" can be seen in the background. The motorcade is flanked by Secret Service agents and Berlin police officers on motorcycles.
US president John F. Kennedy's triumphal motorcade through Berlin, accompanied by Berlin mayor Willy Brandt and West German chancellor Konrad AdenauerImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

And there had been some doubts about that. The newly elected President Kennedy did not intervene in August 1961 when the Soviet Union began building the Berlin Wall. Historians now believe Kennedy was concerned about the threat of a nuclear war, and that he considered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to be unpredictable.

Ahead of giving his speech at Schöneberg city hall, which served as the office of West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt, Kennedy experienced a triumphal motorcade through the city. The open-topped car carrying him, Brandt, and West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer traveled past throngs of cheering people. 

After stops at the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, where US and Soviet tanks faced off in the Autumn of 1961, the motorcade reached Schöneberg city hall at around 1 p.m.

A podium had been set up at the entrance to the building, from where Kennedy first thanked Adenauer and Brandt, and then the US Army general Lucius D. Clay, who, as military governor of the United States Zone in West Berlin, had organized the Berlin Airlift — which the crowd enthusiastically applauded.

Inspiration from ancient Rome

Then the US president spoke the words that would go down in history: "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is: 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"

The crowd cheered and responded with chants of "Kennedy, Kennedy." A banner held up read, "When will the Wall fall?"

Kennedy's now legendary sentence was a reference to a quote by the Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Cicero, "civis romanus sum," or "I am a Roman citizen." What during the Roman era was intended to express that all residents of the Roman Empire, even those outside the city, enjoyed special rights, was now re-interpreted to express unreserved solidarity with the people of West Berlin.

The idea for the sentence, at that point still in English, is said to have come to Kennedy at the White House, a few days before his trip. It did not make it into his speechwriter's manuscript, but on the way to Berlin, Kennedy wrote it himself, phonetically: "Ish bin ein Bearleener." 

According to an urban legend that emerged decades after the speech, the crowd had laughed upon hearing Kennedy's words, since one interpretation of the sentence could be that he had just referred to himself as a German jelly-filled doughnut called the "Berliner." The myth, which is believed to have emerged through a character's fictional remark in a 1983 spy novel, was erroneously spread by the New York Times through an 1988 editorial, as well as by British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. 

In this June 26, 1963 black-and-white file photo, US President John F. Kennedy, bottom left, waves to a crowd of more than 300,000 gathered to hear his speech where he declared "Ich bin ein Berliner," ("I am a Berliner,") in the main square in front of Schoeneberg City Hall in West Berlin.
After JFK spoke the iconic phrase, 'Ich bin ein Berliner,' the crowd responded with chants of 'Kennedy, Kennedy'Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

But in fact, with his speech, Kennedy had bolstered West Berlin as a strong-willed island of freedom. He said that those claiming that it was possible to work with the Communists, or even that communism would be the political system of the future, should come to Berlin: "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."

An indeed, the construction of the Berlin Wall was the Soviet Union's reaction to the mass exodus of East Germans to the West. Some 2.8 million people are estimated to have left East Germany for West Germany between 1949 and 1961, fleeing either political persecution or economic hardship. 

Kennedy's speech also paid tribute to the personal fates of family members separated by the Wall, and then concluded with the now famous words, "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.'" 

It was another 26 years before the Berlin Wall finally fell. And a few months after his visit to West Berlin, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The true motivation behind the act remains unclear.

This article was originally written in German

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.