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5.10 John F. Kennedy in Berlin

Ich bin ein Berliner
Read about German history!Between 1945-1989, Germany as a whole, and Berlin as a city, was divided by the Cold War (der Kalte Krieg), a state of open confrontation between the Communist bloc and the NATO alliance. The West had been already been forced to come to Berlin's aid once before in 1948, carrying out an eleven-month airlift of food and industrial supplies to the Western sectors after the Soviets had started a temporary blockade of West Berlin's railroads, highways and waterways.

John F. Kennedy in Berlin in June 1963

Click here to listen to President's Kennedy speech!In August 1961 the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall to stop the mass exodus of people fleeing Soviet East Berlin for West Berlin and the non-Communist world, thus sealing West Berlin behind a twelve foot wall for some twenty-eight years. Only two years after this, on June 26th 1963, American President John F. Kennedy came to West Berlin as part of a European goodwill tour and addressed the city's populace. The last part of his speech has gone down in history as a ringing endorsement of freedom. You can read a transcript of this below. Click here or on the sound icon at the start of this paragraph to listen to a recording of Kennedy's speech.

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. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. 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." 

Kennedy in Berlin

Did Kennedy really call himself a doughnut?
A laughing matter?Stirring stuff, no doubt, but Kennedy's actual German has been a source of controversy ever since 1961. For as we have learned, to say that you come from a certain place necessitates the construction: "Ich bin Engländer", "Ich bin Österreicherin" etc. - i.e. a construction without the indefinite article.

So by saying "Ich bin ein Berliner" instead of "Ich bin Berliner", some people have concluded that Kennedy had made an embarrassing mistake. For the word, "der Berliner" has two meanings, not only "a citizen of Berlin" but also "a jelly doughnut", and by using the indefinite article in his speech Kennedy has been interpreted as outing himself as a tasty culinary delicacy! Similarly, if you said "Ich bin ein Hamburger" instead of "Ich bin Hamburger", you might be seen to be implying not that you came from Hamburg but that you are a quarterpounder with cheese...!

Kennedy's handwritten notesIn fact, Kennedy inadvertently outing himself a jelly donut is an urban myth. For one thing, he was told to say this sentence by his translator - who was a German. For another, the crowd patently understood what Kennedy was saying, and cheered him instead of laughing. Whilst not worrying too much about the distinction for the time being, there are many regions of Germany where the indefinite article can be used to describe your profession and where you live. This is particularly the case in Bavaria - and in the north-east of Germany where Berlin is located. Furthermore, if you claim that a "Berliner" can be a type of character as well as a place of birth, then the grammatical rule as to whether you use the indefinite article or not in this context becomes very blurred.

So what lessons should we learn as students of German? We would still recommend omitting the indefinite article when describing your profession and where you live. You should nevertheless be aware that native Germans who include the article are not trying to indicate that they are nutty as a fruitcake. Or a jelly donut. Or a hamburger for that matter.

 Web Links 
J.F. Kennedy speech (MP3) Listen to an mp3 file of President Kennedy's famous speech in Berlin in 1963.
Kennedy still a 'Berliner' The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle tells how Kennedy came to make his famous speech in Berlin.
The History Place Full transcript of John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech in Berlin. In English and with a sound file at the bottom of the page.
American Rhetoric - John F. Kennedy The German transcript of President Kennedy's speech in Berlin.
Ich bin ein Berliner About.com explodes the myth that JFK and his interpreters made a linguistic mistake.
Ich bin ein Berliner Robert Shea explains why Kennedy didn't call himself a jelly doughnut.
Berlin doughnuts How to make a Berliner Krapfen - a Berlin doughnut.

Weiter! Chapter 5: Exercises

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