Friday, September 22, 2006

"...and will come again if ever needed" - Remembering JFK in Berlin

Last week, I joined a group of about 50 people for a four-days-tour to Berlin. The trip was organized by the Press and Information Office of the Federal Government (Federal Press Office) to show us citizens and taxpayers how the politicians are using our money. It was an interesting journey which most informative parts were about German history. The first site we paid a visit to was Checkpoint Charlie, and among other places, we also visited the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum - and the Rathaus Schöneberg, the location where then US President John F. Kennedy held his famous speech in 1963, proclaiming "Ich bin ein Berliner".

A few years ago, I worked near the Rathaus Schöneberg for almost a year, and visiting the building used to be an everyday business to me. I knew about the Kennedy speech including the famous quote, but I didn't really pay attention to back then. Therefore, it was quite a strange experience to enter the building as part of a guided tour. We even entered the balcony, from which we had a similiar view as JFK on June 26, 1963, when he delivered his speech from a platform some feet below. The guide told us about the historical context of the speech and how important it was that JFK was accompanied by General Lucius D. Clay, the "father" of the Berlin Airlift. After I've watched the video of the speech, I think that the opening remark

And I am proud (...) to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed.

was the most important part of the whole speech, at least for the audience at that time, giving them exactly the boost of confidence and reassurance to be under U.S. protection they needed.

JFK's interpreter, Robert H. Lochner, remembers:

Clay, whose interpreter I had been, had recommended me to Kennedy, and I interpreted for the president during the whole trip to Germany. The reception Kennedy received in Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt had already been enthusiastic but paled against the reception by the West Berliners.

As we walked up the stairs to the city hall in West Berlin for Kennedy's major speech, he called me over and asked me to write on a piece of paper in German, "I am a Berliner." I did, and when we got to West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt's office, while the hundreds of thousands of Berliners were cheering outside, Kennedy practiced it with me a few times before going out on the balcony for his historic speech.

The most powerful part of the speech, of course, is the following, ending with the second German phrase used by JFK, which even made it to youtube, as you can see below:

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.

Robert H. Lochner, again:

To Kennedy's political adviser, McGeorge Bundy, if nobody else, it was immediately apparent that making the famous "I am a Berliner" pledge in German gave it considerable additional force. Some historians argue it wouldn't have gone around the world and into history the way it did if he had said it in English. When, after the speech, we again briefly assembled in Brandt's office, I stayed close to the president in case he should talk to any Germans. I could not help overhearing Bundy saying to Kennedy, "I think that went a little too far."

I hear some, if not many Americans complaining that Germany seems to have forgotten about German-American post-war history, especially about the airlift and the contribution of John F. Kennedy and his successors as presidents of the United States. It might well be that we don't remember this history as it would be appropriate - but it is not forgotten. To illustrate my point, I want to close with a quote from a Deutsche Welle article back from 2003, dealing with the 40th anniversary of the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech:

Today, 40 years later, Kennedy's legacy lives on in Germany's collective memory - for example in school books, documentaries about the cold war and in an exhibition at the German National Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn. There, the most famous excerpt of Kennedy's speech is displayed on a television monitor, and there is a copy of the piece of paper John F. Kennedy held in his hand when delivering his speech, complete with the lines "Ich bin ein Berliner" and "Let them come to Berlin" scrawled on it in his own hand-writing.

Herman Schäfer, a custodian at the museum, says the document still elicits a deep response today.

"The reaction of our visitors is very enthusiastic, still enthusiastic, even though this 40 years ago. Everybody - be it young or old people - have in mind that this is a quotation from John F. Kennedy. So they hear this quotation and then the look into the glass case and see with even more surprise that there is this little document with the phonetic transcription of John F. Kennedy. So there is still this enthusiasm about this quotation that (puts) so much emphasis on the German-American friendship during the 1960s."

Submitted to Carnival of German-American Relations

Update August 16, 2009: Since the originally embedded youtube video was removed, I replaced it with a similar, albeit longer, video.



zoca said...

A wonderful, very strong, very moving post!

Also, your unfortunately "belated entry" to last year's carnival pointed me to Richard Ford's marvelous chronicles of Frank Bascombe's adventures in life. I still owe you a "thank you" for that pointer, too.

Joerg said...

Great post.

I did not know that Kennedy said "Let them come to Berlin" in German as well. Thanks for the Youtube movie as well.

"Jack is Back in November 2006, says the website for a new museum:

Die Zeit wrote about last month:

David said...

Thanks for this.

Every time I get discouraged by the ridiculous rhetoric coming out of Washington today, I go back to JFK's speeches to remember what true courage and greatness looks like.

Next to MLK's speeches, I find JFK's the most inspiring.

Mad Minerva said...

Wonderful, wonderful! Thanks for a great post.

(Plus,I was hoping to hear more about your trip. It sounds like it was very good indeed!)