Ich bin ein Berliner!

John F Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy in Berlin and the alleged “jelly doughnut” speech – an urban myth and misconception?

On 26 June 1963, on a visit to West Berlin less than two years after the Berlin Wall first appeared, US president John F. Kennedy gave one of the most memorable speeches of his career in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg, the city hall for the borough of Tempelhof-Schöneberg in Berlin, to an estimated crowd of 450,000 people. The Berlin Wall had supposedly been erected to keep spies and agents from West Germany from crossing into the East, but its real purpose was to keep East German citizens from escaping to the West via one of the three sectors of the western part of the city controlled by the NATO allies France, Great Britain and the United States. The Wall sealed up the biggest hole in the Iron Curtain, turning Berlin from one of the easiest places to enter Western Europe from the East into one of the most difficult. The West had been accused of failing to react decisively to the erection of the Wall, and so Kennedy took the crucial opportunity to express his personal solidarity with the increasingly beleaguered citizens of West Berlin. His speech that day was to become one of the most memorable events of the entire Cold War, famously including, and ending with, the following words:

“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum’ [‘I am a Roman citizen’]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ [‘I am a Berliner!’] … 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!’”

John F Kennedy

Many years later, however, there was suddenly talk that, in expressing his solidarity by claiming “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”), Kennedy had inadvertently announced to Berlin and the world that he was a jelly doughnut, which is also known as a “Berliner” in southern Germany in particular (much less so in Berlin itself, however, where it is simply called a “Pfannkuchen”, or pancake). This claim appears to be at least partially attributable to a passage in Len Deighton’s 1983 spy novel Berlin Game, which, by definition, was just a work of fiction, and which in any case also featured a deliberately “unreliable narrator”. Indeed, some years before I started learning German myself, I remember being on holiday with friends over the 1983/84 New Year period where the subject had come up, and everyone was having a good laugh about it. A whole folklore has since grown up over this alleged gaffe, slightly taking the gloss off Kennedy’s memorable speech.

However, a closer analysis of the language usage involved shows just how tricky the whole jelly doughnut story is – indeed, it is a classic little German-English translation issue in itself. To be idiomatically correct, someone claiming to be a real Berliner would normally say “Ich bin Berliner”, leaving out the indefinite article “ein” (although this isn’t binding – it is still possible to leave it in). This is generally how Germans say that they belong to a group of some sort: this doesn’t necessarily even have to relate to a place, for example you can also say “Ich bin Vegetarier” to say that you are vegetarian. Nevertheless, the passage in Deighton’s novel seemed to suggest that the President had just called himself a jelly doughnut, simply because he had used the indefinite article “ein”. This was later backed up by a number of other notable commentators, magazines and newspapers, including Alastair Cooke in his popular Letter from America broadcasts, Time magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian and others.

John F Kennedy

German linguists, however, have strongly argued that Kennedy couldn’t have phrased his statement any other way, simply because he wasn’t from Berlin himself, but had instead intended the comment figuratively, to say (more or less) “I wasn’t actually born here and I don’t live here, but I’m with you in spirit anyway”. The linguists therefore argue that he would have had to use the “ein” in order to be completely clear. It seems he was not misunderstood at the time: contrary to rumours, people present at the speech did not laugh at him, but cheered and applauded loudly instead (as can be seen in historic film footage), and cartoonists also did not have a field day with doughnut caricatures the next day. The German linguists also maintain that no intelligent, articulate German could possibly have misunderstood Kennedy’s meaning, any more than someone claiming to be “a New Yorker” could possibly be referring to a famous magazine or a type of burrito; although it could be argued that they also weren’t making quite enough allowance for the warped, absurd British sense of humour, something which may well have been very much at the heart of the matter to begin with.

Postscript: In November 1989, of course, the years of the German Democratic Republic and the Berlin Wall came to a sudden end, and this was eventually followed by the German reunification on 3 October 1990. Berlin, too, was once again an undivided city. At the time of the reunification, I was living in Munich, in the deep south, and I remember how we were all highly amused by a sly jibe from that year’s “Wiesnwirt”, the proprietor of the Munich Oktoberfest, who was being interviewed on television, holding up a huge beer stein in his hand, and reigniting the old Bavarian-Prussian rivalry – which has never really gone away – by saying, in his thick Bavarian dialect: “Es gibt nur ein Berlin – sogt Walter Momper [then Governing Mayor of the reunited Berlin]. Sog i – Gottseidank!! Prost!!”, which translates as: “There’s only one Berlin, says Walter Momper. And I say: Thank God for that!! Cheers!!”

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