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"Ich bin ein Berliner": 49 Years Later

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Yesterday (June 26) marked the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin, some 22 months after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, though symbolic sent an unequivocal message of support. Roughly 60 percent of West Berliners turned out to hear the young president from the United States.

Before Kennedy actually made it to the podium to speak, pandemonium had already reached a feverish pitch during the motorcade. Because the shadow of the Nazi regime was still covering Germany, Kennedy's reception and the raucous chants of "Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy" also caused some measure of discomfort. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "Does this mean Germany can one day have another Hitler?"

Standing proxy for the hopes of West Berliners, Kennedy said to the ecstatic crowd:

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. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Kennedy then took a direct swipe at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, reminding all that the Wall was a reflection of his inability to address his emigrant problem and the inherent weakness of the Soviet system: "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."

He concluded his remarks in the same manner that he opened. Kennedy began his address by saying: "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was 'civis Romanus sum' (the Latin phrase that translates: I am a Roman citizen, implying, all the rights and privileges associated with the status of Roman citizenship.) Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"

He closed by saying: "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 has been well documented that the rough translation of Kennedy's words were "I am a jelly doughnut." Kennedy should have said, "Ich bin Berliner," which translates "I am a Berliner." But anyone viewing a tape of the speech would clearly see, based on the reaction of the German people, they made the accurate translation. They heard Kennedy's words with their heart and desires. For that brief moment Kennedy's mangled German was fluent.

The speech in Berlin completed an amazing month of oratory for Kennedy. In volume two of American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, of the five speeches attributed to Kennedy, three were given in 1963. In addition to the "peace speech" at American University and the Berlin speech, Kennedy's address to the nation on June 11, 1963, is widely considered the most important speech on civil rights by a president since Abraham Lincoln.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the Cold War, civil rights, and Vietnam combined to make 1963 a year of hope and hostility. But 49 years ago, Kennedy made "Ich bin ein Berliner" a global euphemism for all who desired to be free.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of the forthcoming book: 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit the website 1963hopeandhostility.com