Study Guide

Ich bin ein Berliner Speech Analysis

By John F. Kennedy

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  • Rhetoric


    Kennedy made people have all the feels. He's tugging at the heartstrings of the audience throughout his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The guy is laying on the pathos with a trowel.

    His is not a logical or reasoned argument. In fact it's illogical. Dude's not a Berliner. Nor are most of the people of the world. But in an emotional appeal, he says that he's from Berlin and that everyone is from Berlin. It sounds good, it makes the crowds cheer, and it wins people over to his side. It's a politician's speech through and through.

    There are no stats in the speech, and he doesn't give any details or facts about what has happened in Berlin. You have to know the history of the city to understand what he's talking about. The speech lacks any informed opinions or quotes except to paraphrase one other politician's emotional sentiment, "it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity…" (18). His tone is of disappointment with a world that has failed Berlin.

    Kennedy also doesn't claim to be the one who's going to fix everything. The message is not to look to him for saving. The idea in the speech is that some day things will get better: "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…" (22).

    He's super vague on how or when this will happen, instead using only figurative language. But hey: it's one super-uplifting speech. Watch it and tell us that it doesn't give you chills.

  • Structure

    When you're the president people expect you to give a lot of speeches. You basically can't walk into a room without people shoving a microphone in front of your face and asking you speak about the state of world affairs.

    This gets awkward when presidents need to use the restroom, but they manage somehow. Actually, they manage by having speechwriters…and by giving the same basic speech over and over again with only minor tweaks.

    The "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech is unique because Kennedy largely disregarded the speech that his speechwriters wrote for him, which was similar to speeches he'd given before and would give after that day in Berlin.

    The speech Kennedy made wasn't entirely written down for him—he was making parts of it up as he went along. The fact that we remember and study something that a president said off-the-cuff one day is remarkable…and goes to show how impressive the structure of the speech was.

    This was not a big formal State of the Union or inaugural speech that got carefully worked over for months until it was perfectly succinct and easily quotable. Kennedy gave those, and he was good at doing that type of speech, but this was something different.

    "Ich bin ein Berliner" was a quick, hey-I'm-the-president-and-I-just-walked-into-the-room type of speech, the kind of speech that rarely makes it into the history books. Except this one did, because it was just that good. Kennedy doesn't ramble or stray from the topic at all.

    He gives a tight little essay about Berlin vs. communists and drops the mic.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1: The Introduction

    Sentences 1-5: Getting Your Attention With a Dead Language

    Kennedy had just been introduced by another speaker and was on a stage with other important people, mainly fellow politicians. He acknowledges some of these other people and then actually begins his speech with a Latin quote, "civis Romanus sum" (3), in much the same way you might begin an essay with a quote to grab the reader's attention. This line is used to signify that the pleasantries are over and the real speech is beginning.

    Section 2: The Body

    Sentences 6-22: The Body May Be Thin, But That's How the People Like it

    This section also follows the structure of a standard paragraph essay. These are much like the three body paragraphs of a five-paragraph essay that you could be assigned at any minute in school…except that these don't contain a lot of specifics. (Your teacher would likely ask you to rewrite these with more facts and fewer opinions.)

    But Kennedy's words are all about emotion. He starts by asking the world to look at Berlin as an example of the failures of communism. Next he criticizes the wall itself. And finally he asks Berliners to hope for a better future. On content it's thin, but this wasn't written to win an essay contest; it was just meant to sound nice and to stir emotions.

    Section 2: The Closing

    Sentences 23-26: The Ending is the Only Thing Anyone Remembers Anyway

    These last three sentences again mimic an essay's conclusion. He is restating his thesis and main ideas.

    Oh yeah—he also brings down the freaking house. Kennedy: mic drop.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    There isn't one.

    Okay, but only sort of. The speech was just named after the place where it was delivered, either "Remarks at the Rudolph Wilde Platz" or "Speech from the Rathaus Schöneberg." The Rudolph Wilde Platz was the town square (today John F. Kennedy Platz) and the Rathaus Schöneberg was a city hall in West Berlin.

    But the speech became famous for its opening and closing lines containing the German phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner," so that's what people ultimately called it.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    We're gonna go out on a limb here and say that the first two sentences where President Kennedy talks about who he's proud to be standing around Berlin with shouldn't be considered the opening lines.

    Sure, they're technically the opening lines and, yeah, they provide good context. But his speech really begins with sentence 3: "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum."

    This is apparently a thing that real, toga-wearing Romans used to say (as best we can tell, because none of them bothered to get it on video).

    Basically civis Romanus sum meant literally, "I am a Roman citizen," in a really snotty way. As in, "How dare you treat me like this, I am a Roman citizen and therefore better than you!" Or, "I am a Roman citizen and thus deserve all the legal rights that Romans get." Since Rome was among the first places on earth with constitutional rights, this was the way people could demand that they be treated fairly…or at least by the law.

    When Kennedy follows up his civis Romanus sum punch with his Ich bin ein Berliner jab, he's demanding better treatment for Berlin in a really old-school way. And he's saying that Berliners—all Berliners, not just those who happened to live on the Western side of the wall—should be able to say "Ich bin ein Berliner" and have it mean the same thing as "civis Romanus sum"—"I am a Berlin citizen and thus deserve all the legal rights that (both East and West) Berliners get."

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The last few sentences are when Kennedy gets philosophical and energizes the crowd one last time. He wants to inspire change without actually promising to change anything. He isn't talking specifically about Berlin and the wall anymore, but rather about a wider idea of how mankind is connected.

    The speech ends with a final repetition of his statement from the opening line, "Ich bin ein Berliner," applied to the whole world and giving closure to his speech.

    Talk about a memorable last line.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Sure, President K slips in a few foreign phrases, but overall this is an easy read. After all, he was giving this speech to an audience where most of the people only knew English as their second language.

    He doesn't try anything too elaborate and he repeats himself a lot, considering the entire speech is only twenty-six sentences long. If you're still not convinced, watch the video of him actually delivering the speech, take a deep breath, and just let that thick Boston accent wash over you.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Civis Romaus Sum appears in Cicero's In Verrem (3)

    Historical and Political References

    The Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt (1, 18)
    The Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer (1)
    General Lucius Clay (2)
    Kennedy's translator, Heinz Weber (5)

    Biblical References

    Civis Romaus Sum appears in the New Testament (3)

    References to this Text

    Historical and Political References

    News anchors and political cartoonists have referenced "Ich bin ein Berliner" every time a U.S. president has given a speech in Germany. However only Bush Number One actually repeated the phrase when he was vice president, saying, "Ich bin ein Mödlareuther!" while in the German town of Mödlareuth.

    Pop Culture References

    Pop culture references to the phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" include The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, Animaniacs, Eddy Vedder of Pear Jam, and Eddy Izzard.

  • Trivia

    More than 100 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but over 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall into West Germany. (Source)

    The Berlin Wall was 96 miles long, with 27 of those miles cutting through the center of Berlin. This made it a great length for the Berlin Marathon on the west side. Unfortunately on the east side the city portion of the wall was actually two walls separated by a "death strip" guarded by 302 watchtowers. (Source)

    Since the Berlin Wall came down, pieces of it have gone to museums and have been sold as souvenirs (including to a Las Vegas casino where slabs of the wall are mounted behind the urinals in the men's restroom). So, hands up, who wants to pee on the Berlin Wall? (Source)

    Cold War concerns consumed Kennedy's presidency from the very beginning. In his inaugural address he doesn't mention domestic issues at all, but talks the entire time about foreign problems. This is very rare because presidents give speeches that cover a wide range of topics. But Kennedy was driven like a rocket—a rocket that would get Americans all the way to the moon. (Source)

    Kennedy was the wealthiest U.S. president ever, having a family fortune of about one billion dollars. He was also the only U.S. president ever to have earned a Purple Heart and the only one to win the Pulitzer Prize. Because he was loaded with cash and prizes he worried about losing the respect of the public, so he gave his presidential paycheck to charity. Meaning that he never once got paid for the job that ended up killing him. (Source)

    Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, like Kennedy, was known for his speaking skills. In 1960 he waved his shoe around (and maybe pounded it on the podium) to make a point before the United Nations. Debate still rages about whether or not he took off one of his shoes, or if he brought in a third shoe as a prop. (Source)

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