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JFK's 1963 Berlin Speech - "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

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It was 50 years ago today - 26th June 1963 - that President Kennedy delivered his famous speech in Berlin, something that became one of the most important individual events of the Cold War. Estimates of the crowd that gathered to welcome his motorcade range between one and two million. Schoolchildren were given the day off, many businesses closed and the city ground to a halt as he spoke and about half a million people flooded onto the square in front of the city hall (subsequently renamed John F Kennedy Platz). To put this into perspective, last week President Obama spoke in front of 4,000 handpicked guests.

The most famous words of the speech were "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner), a phrase which epitomized the President's personal pledge of responsibility to Berlin's security and freedom. Note he didn't say the US is a Berliner, or "today, all Americans are Berliners". He said he was one; a brave statement of personal responsibility which would have made it hard for him to back down from taking action in the future to defend the city against Soviet aggression.

Ich bin ein Berliner

After his death, his wife Jackie Kennedy wrote in a note to then Berlin mayor and future chancellor Willy Brandt, "How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language." He didn't even plan to say them in German, only making the decision to do so when he saw the size of the crowd.

In the Kennedy Museum in Berlin there is a note card in the President's handwriting with the words scrawled phonetically in red ink spelling the words to ensure he pronounced them correctly - "Ish bin ein Bearleener" (along with the other German phrase from the speech Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen - let them come to Berlin - phonetically transcibed as 'lass z nack Beerlin comen').

However, the correct way to say "I am a person from Berlin" is Ich bin Berliner, i.e. without the word "ein," just as someone would say, "Ich bin Doktor" to mean "I am a doctor." By adding the indefinite article, he actually said, "I am a jelly doughnut," as a jelly doughnut is known colloquially in the city as a 'Berliner.'

To be fair, linguistic pedants claim that his German was technically correct, as the word 'ein' is necessary when someone speaks in a figurative sense as the President did, as he was not literally from Berlin but only declaring his solidarity with its citizens. But there's no doubt that many in the crowd saw the unintentional humorous side of it.

A full transcript of the short speech is found below with the rhetorical devices used highlighted in bold and the name of each following in brackets in CAPITALS. If you're unsure about the meaning of any of the terms, you read more about each, together with lots of examples, at Rhetorical devices. And if you'd prefer to watch a video of the speech, you can do so below.

"I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin.

And I am proud (ANAPHORA) to visit the Federal Republic with your distinguished chancellor who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress (TRICOLON), and 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.

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".

I appreciate my interpreter translating my German!

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't (EXPLETIVE), 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.

And there are even a few (REVERSE CLIMAX) who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin (SYMPLOCE).

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.

I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you (ANAPHORA & SCESIS ONOMATON), that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years.

I know of no town, no city (ANAPHORA & SCESIS ONOMATON), that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and (POLYSYNDETON) the determination of the city of West Berlin.

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your mayor has said, an offence not only against history but an offense against humanity (ANTITHESIS), separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and (POLYSYNDETON) sisters, and dividing (TRICOLON) a people who wish to be joined together.

What is true of this city is true of Germany - real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice.

In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.

You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main.

So let me ask you as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow (ANTITHESIS), beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond (ANAPHORA) yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free (ANASTROPHE).

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 (ANAPHORA & TRICOLON) 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 (ALLITERATION) 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".


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