“Ich bin ein Berliner:” Kennedy in Berlin
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.” US President John F. Kennedy on June 26, 1963, Berlin
Enlarge image The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner) In June 1963, US President John F. Kennedy made his only visit to Germany as president. The visit was a return invitation of sorts, as German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had traveled to Washington to meet with Kennedy in April 1961 when Kennedy was still new in office. In Germany now in the first days of summer in 1963 what began as a rather traditional state visit would end as a seminal moment in German-US relations.
Arriving in Köln/Bonn on June 23, 1963, the 46-year-old US president was greeted by the 87-year-old Chancellor, who then traveled with Kennedy to Adenauer’s hometown of Cologne and then on to Bonn, the West German capital, where they met bilaterally the next day. On the 25th it was on to visit the US military base in Hanau and then to Frankfurt. At each stop on the itinerary, Kennedy was greeted by enthusiastic crowds of thousands and tens of thousands. And at each stop, his remarks, at the city halls in Cologne and Bonn and in Frankfurt’s historic St. Paul’s Church, underscored America’s commitment to Germany, to liberty and to the transatlantic partnership.
- The visit of President Kennedy to a divided Berlin was the first in a line of highly symbolic visits by US presidents to this historic city. Most recently, President Barack Obama spoke at the Brandenburg Gate. Just one week before this Kennedy anniversary, Obama paid tribute to Kennedy’s stirring words and took the theme of “peace with justice” as a basis for his own speech.
If the German crowds greeting Kennedy in West Germany were enthusiastic, the hundreds of thousands of people who came out to see him on June 26 in Berlin were positively ecstatic. The President’s visit to the city came nearly two years after East German leader Walter Ulbricht, with the permission of Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev and the backing of Soviet troops, ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, to seal with brick and mortar the inner-German border and the division between the Communist East and the free West. It was the first visit by a US president to the city since Harry S. Truman was there in 1945 for the Potsdam Conference, during which the Allied Powers decided on the division of Germany, and Berlin, into occupation zones.
Enlarge image Excited crowds waved and cheered as the Kennedy motorcade traversed the city. In the open-top limousine were Kennedy, Brandt and Adenauer. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Wegmann) On June 26, 1963, the people of Berlin were ready for the visit by Kennedy, for even beyond the speeches–and he would deliver several remarks that day–it was received as a symbol of solidarity and friendship for a population surrounded on all sides by the Communist East. West Berlin schools gave pupils the day off, and government offices and other employers gave workers a few hours off to go see Kennedy. In all over one million people saw Kennedy either as he traveled through the city in his open-top limousine, accompanied by Adenauer and Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, or as he spoke in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus. They gathered not only along the streets, but on top of signposts, on balconies and on rooftops to try to catch a glimpse of the US president. Those who didn’t join the masses, watched as his visit was broadcast live on television or listened to the live broadcast of radio station RIAS.
Enlarge image President Kennedy mounted a viewing platform to look over the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which the GDR regime had festooned with flags. (© picture-alliance / dpa) In Berlin for less than a day, Kennedy’s schedule was tightly packed, and included stops at a viewing stand at the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate and a visit to Checkpoint Charlie, but the highlight was surely his speech in front of the West Berlin City Hall in the Schöneberger Rathaus. Numbers vary, but more than 120,000 people likely packed Rudolph Wilde Platz, with more watching from windows, balconies and rooftops nearby, greeting Kennedy with an ovation of several minutes before he even spoke. His remarks were relatively brief at 674 words, according to a transcript at his presidential library, but of those, 15 were either “free” or “freedom.” His remarks were a tribute to the spirit of West Berliners, which had been so vividly demonstrated to him in just a few hours on the ground.
Enlarge image Crowds greeted Kennedy not only with cheers, but with posters featuring his image. Their jubilance in the midst of bombed-out buildings and barbed wire also made an impression. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Wegmann) “I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin.” And it expressed his vision of a united Germany and a united Europe. “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe.”
His ultimate tribute to the people of Berlin he chose to voice in German. He actually uttered the famous German sentence two times during the address, once near the beginning, and more memorably, in closing: “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.’” The address garnered immediate thunderous applause, but Kennedy and his delegation soon joined their German hosts for a luncheon in the city hall before he traveled on to deliver more remarks before boarding a flight for the next station on his European trip, Ireland. But the day in Berlin already stood out in Kennedy’s estimation as unforgettable. “We’ll never have another day like this one, as long as we live,” he is reported to have said to his speechwriter and advisor Ted Sorensen on the departing flight.
This tour would be Kennedy’s last international trip as only five months later he was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. On that fateful day, November 22, 1963, thousands of people gathered spontaneously in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus in grief. “Berlin especially is mourning because we have lost our best friend,” Mayor Willy Brandt said to the crowd. Just three days later it was decided to rename the square John F. Kennedy Platz, and on the one-year anniversary of the speech, the late president’s brother Robert unveiled a memorial plaque next to the main entrance of the Rathaus.
By Tanya Jones, Senior Editor, German Embassy Washington