Study Guide

Ich bin ein Berliner Speech Introduction

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Ich bin ein Berliner Speech Introduction

Life lesson: if you're in a foreign country, people will like you more if you say something in their native language.

(Okay, maybe not everybody. Wookies hate it if you try to speak their language. There's just no way to speak Wookie without sounding mocking. And they are known to break arms. But fictional aliens don't really count.)

People here on Earth will—when you croak out "Merci beaucoup!" or "Tesekkür ederim!" or "Kamsahamnida!"—look at you like an adorable toddler who just learned what tongues are for.

And this is especially true if you're an American in a foreign country. It's (unfortunately) generally assumed that Americans can only utter brash, twang-y English as loudly as possible…like some star-spangled cavemen. So any deviation from that is music to a foreigner's ears. After all, it's not impolite to mispronounce; it's impolite to not even try to pronounce.

And this life lesson is brought to you by a guy named John F. Kennedy who, in addition to being able to teach us all about how to charm foreigners, convinced so many people to vote for him that he became president of the United States.

Being an all-around likeable guy, President Kennedy was invited to tour West Berlin and speak to a crowd of its citizens. He was faced with a bit of a tough audience, considering Berlin was a city that had been nearly destroyed by bombs in World War II, occupied by four different countries in the years since the war, and then ripped apart and walled off when those countries couldn't decide on how to govern the city.

The Berliners who gathered had certainly been through a lot, and could be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic at some guy coming to tell them about how, even though there may be a wall in the middle of their city, at least they're on the right side of it.

But Kennedy and his speechwriters had a plan: play to the audience.

The speech Kennedy gave in Berlin on June 26th, 1963, is officially called, "Remarks at the Rudolph Wilde Platz, Berlin," but it's remembered as the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech because (1) that's a much more memorable title and (2) he spoke a few lines in German, which made the people of Berlin feel understood and listened to.

They loved Kennedy and his words so much that they renamed the square where he delivered the speech the John Kennedy Platz. Yeah. That's big.

  

By inserting a few well-placed German sentences, the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech becomes more than just your average Cold War warning against communism. The Cold War lasted for more than four decades and nine U.S. presidencies, enough time for everyone with a pulse and a microphone to talk on about how communism is the worst, most awful, horrible, no-good thing to have ever been created.

Kennedy said all that too—but he just said it a lot better than everyone else: he said it (partially) in Deutsch. And that megawatt smile didn't hurt, either.

If you only read one anti-communism speech, make it Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. It's short, focused, and specially designed to make the crowd go wild.

What is Ich bin ein Berliner Speech About and Why Should I Care?

After the terrorist attacks on Paris in 2015, people changed their Facebook profile pictures to the tricolor French flag. Scrolling through social media was a blur of blue-white-and-red faces, Eiffel Towers, and declarations that, "Today we are all French."

And no: these weren't only French people. These were people from around the globe whose hearts had been broken by the mayhem and devastation in Paris. They felt shocked, hurt, and betrayed—and they felt empathy.

Empathy that manifested itself in a show of solidarity. Sure, not a whole lot of these people had ever been to Paris, studied French in high school, or even listened to an Edith Piaf song. But still, their empathy was strong enough that they declared themselves temporarily French.

And this wasn't the first time this had happened. Think of people's responses in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Or the Brussels bombings. Or the bombings in Lahore. Or the bombings in Ankara.

And the world took notice of this social media solidarity, both praising it and condemning it. After all, the naysayers naysaid, you're not actually French/Charlie/Brussels/Lahore/Ankara. So why are you pretending to be? Doesn't altering your profile pic like this cheapen the grief of those who are actually grieving? (Source)

But here's the thing—solidarity in the form of declaring yourself as one of those affected by historical calamity ain't nothing new. Broad declarations of support with complex meanings go back a lot further than the dawn of internet access.

President Kennedy gave one of the most famous of these assertions in 1963 when he stood in front of a crowd in West Berlin and declared, "I am a jelly doughnut." Although what he almost certainly meant was actually, "I too am a citizen of Berlin." The German word Berliner does double-duty as both a person who lives in Germany's capital city and as a delicious jam-filled pastry. (Mmm.)

In his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, Kennedy was making the mid-century equivalent of changing his profile pic to the German flag and giving some serious side-eye to communism. At the time, Berlin had become the latest victim of the Cold War because (instead of actually fighting each other) the U.S. and the USSR had encouraged a chaotic situation resulting in a wall dividing Berlin.

Kennedy makes it clear that communism is to blame for the Berlin Wall, and that if you hurt one city, then you're hurting all of mankind. Like today's responses on Facebook (true fact: we're not all French), his words are both stirring and an exaggeration. After all, Kennedy wasn't going to travel to every troubled city in the world declaring himself a citizen of them all.

Instead he was bringing attention to one specific place in order to raise support and promote disgust for communism. "Ich bin ein Berliner" was a calculated status update for a world split by the Cold War—but it's also an inspired, and inspiring, bit of speech-making.

Ich bin ein Berliner Speech Resources

Websites

All the Cold, All the War, and All in One Place
Everything you ever wanted to know about the Cold War linked to everything else you ever wanted to know about the Cold War.

No One Knows the Berlin Wall Like the British
The BBC archive of everything Berlin including pictures, videos, and interviews. And in English, not German as you might expect.

Whoa, Back Up, How Can a War Be Cold?
Need to go back and figure out where it all began? Teacher demanding that you understand the cause and effect of, like, everything in history? Yeah, we can help you with that.

From Almost Destroying the World to…Not So Much
So, there's this great story about how the world almost ended and then didn't because people decided at the very last possible minute to calm down and not kill everyone and everything. It's called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Movie or TV Productions

A Large Wall Prevents People From Having Normal Interactions
As the Berlin Wall is going up Tom Hanks tries to save some people because he's the only nice guy left in a cold, Cold War world.

The Berlin Wall 2.0
A family tries to recreate East Berlin after the wall comes down—this is a film that finds humor in former communist oppression

Articles and Interviews

Jelly Doughnut Or Citizen of Berlin? The World Need to Know!
JFK's famous phrase is investigated.

Video

Watch People Beat Some Concrete
There isn't really camera footage of the Berlin Wall going up, but you can definitely see it coming down. In 1989 basically every journalist in the world went to Berlin and watched as Germans started smacking the wall with hammers and other blunt objects. Then they got something to drink, climbed on top of the wall, and had a party.

Audio

Audio and Video of the "Ich bin ein Berliner" Speech
Listen to or watch (or both) the actual speech.

Images

JFK At a Podium About to Speak (In German)
Photo of Kennedy about to give the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

When You're President, They Save Your Notecards
Kennedy's notecards from the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech—he wrote out foreign words phonetically.

An Excellent Turnout
The crowd at the "Ich bin ein Berliner" Speech seen from the air.

How Germany Was Divided
A map showing the four sectors of Germany and of Berlin.

Zooming in on Berlin
A map of Berlin showing the sectors and how the wall surrounded the city.

Diagram of the Wall and Surrounding Area
Diagram of the wall and surrounding area details about the wall, the "Death Strip," and how it was patrolled.

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