[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!]
striking and significant choices in Kennedy’s speech.
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.
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.
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!
German-American history tomorrow,
do you think? German-American contexts you’d highlight?