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Monday, June 26, 2023

June 26, 2023: Germany and America: Kennedy in Berlin

[On June 26th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. That was just one of many interesting moments that brought the two nations together, so for the speech’s 60th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy it and other German-American histories!]

On three striking and significant choices in Kennedy’s speech.

1)      I am a Berliner: First things first: that famous line, with which Kennedy both begins and ends his speech, was not translated nor understood, not in the moment and not for many years thereafter, as having anything to do with jelly donuts (the creation of that urban legend, discussed in that hyperlinked article, is an interesting subject in its own right to be sure). It was also not particularly surprising—Kennedy’s entire visit, after all, was about showing solidarity for the West German people, and there was no better way to do that than with such identification. But Kennedy isn’t just expressing his own perspective—he calls it “the proudest boast … in the world of freedom,” a bold and important act of collective identification.

2)      A city and people divided: Kennedy’s speech isn’t just about the rest of the world, of course—it’s at least as much about the specific situation in which the people of West Berlin and West Germany found themselves. Importantly, Kennedy describes those communities as half of a divided whole, rather than separate from East Berlin and East Germany—arguing, as West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt had also done, that this division was “not only an offense against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.” Of course the East German government wanted to define the city and nation as a unified whole as well—but Kennedy’s choice resisted that definition and offered a free alternative.

3)      A collective future: In his moving final paragraphs, Kennedy imagines another, far broader form of unity, one addresses directly to his East German audience: “You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.” Not sure there’s a more well-constructed and powerful moment in the history of American presidential speeches, nor that I need to say any more about it than that!

Next German-American history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? German-American contexts you’d highlight?

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