‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, JFK, and jam doughnuts
The fall of the Berlin Wall (initially called antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or ‘anti-fascist protective barrier’) in 1989 is a momentous occasion in German history and a crucial milestone hailing the end of the GDR, which had been founded in 1949 and was officially dissolved in 1990. Over 51 years, the GDR formed an important part of the Soviet Union and Berlin, as a divided city, came to be a symbol for two opposing forces: East vs West, communism vs capitalism. It is therefore not surprising that many state leaders’ and dignitaries’ visits to Berlin were politically charged and of immense historical significance.
‘Ich bin ein Berliner’
One of the first state leaders to deliver a speech in the divided city, addressing the division of East and West Berlin, was US President John F. Kennedy. He gave the speech in June 1963, only a few months before his assassination on 22 November of the same year. The speech is arguably one of his most famous, and is often regarded as one of the most memorable of the Cold War period. It is due to JFK’s speech that the phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ has gone down in history. It is based on the Latin phrase ‘civis romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’) from Cicero’s In Verrem. This phrase was used to refer to one’s civil rights as a Roman citizen, which also entailed certain privileges. It is therefore not surprising that JFK used it to express his solidarity with the citizens of Berlin.
An important article?
However, it is still a common misconception that JFK called himself a jam doughnut, simply because he used the indefinite article ‘ein’; residents of Berlin would usually say simply ‘Ich bin Berliner’. Now before I go on: all grammatical reasoning aside, let me assure you that German speakers don’t really have this connotation. Yet English speakers have asked me about it time and time again. The question is then, why is it a misconception?
There is a difference, albeit a very subtle one. Kennedy is speaking of himself as a citizen of Berlin in a figurative way and he is right to do so—disregarding his terrible pronunciation of course. For example, I was born in Ulm so if I say ‘Ich bin Ulmerin’, that means that I am from Ulm and to all intents and purposes a real citizen of Ulm. If someone who isn’t from Ulm wants to express (for whatever reason) their ‘Ulm- ness’ in a figurative sense, it would be correct to say ‘Ich bin ein Ulmer/eine Ulmerin’. As in JFK’s case, they may want to express solidarity or a feeling of belonging. The German language does allow for these intricacies!
Keeping context in mind
Also, as with so many things in life, context matters! The speech was delivered in Berlin in front of 450,000 people, most of whom I would assume were probably Berliner (no ‘s’ in the plural). It is true that a Berliner is a jam doughnut, but only in certain parts of Germany is it actually called a Berliner. Funnily enough, it isn’t in Berlin. There, it is referred to as a Pfannkuchen (pancake), whereas it’s called Krapfen in southern parts of Germany and Austria. So if JFK had said ‘Ich bin ein Pfannkuchen’, there probably wouldn’t be any room for speculation, but I think we can all agree that it’s pretty clear that he didn’t mean to call himself a pastry.
May I therefore humbly suggest that we focus on other parts of the speech instead and remember it for its huge historical significance rather than an allegedly misplaced indefinite article:
‘Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”’
‘Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.’
‘It [the wall] is an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.’
The question, then, is why this misconception — like so many others — still sticks. I suspect it’s simple: wouldn’t it be funny if the President of the United States had called himself a doughnut with jam filling and vanilla icing in front of the entire world? Well sorry, he didn’t!
Still not convinced? Listen to the full speech and, most importantly, the crowd’s reaction to the allegedly offending article.