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.”
West Berliners lived in a constant state of political and psychological tension, surrounded by communist East Germany and prey to the belligerent rhetoric of aggrandizing Soviet authorities. Mr. Kennedy plays to the crowd in West Berlin’s main square and counters their sense of Cold War isolation by emphasizing the enviable universality of their experience. They are connected with the greatness of history, resembling the ancient Roman whose confident declaration of citizenship (“I am a Roman citizen”) was an active assertion of rights throughout the vast Empire beyond Rome. But paradoxically, the language of freedom in 1963 is expressed most powerfully through a simple statement of identity from the cut-off Berliners themselves, an acknowledgment of their daily reality that gives them kinship with the whole of the free world.
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. And there are even a few 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.
Instead of attacking the Soviet system directly, Mr. Kennedy turns to fence-sitters, idealists and pragmatists. In place of an argument, he gives them a physical place that can’t be ignored or denied, with a gentle phrasing (“Let them come to Berlin”) that is the exact opposite of demanding totalitarian rhetoric. Berlin is depicted as the truest reality in a world of dubious intellectual and economic positions. The simple repetition of one-syllable words (“Let them come...”) is a powerful device that adds to the force of Mr. Kennedy’s position, and the restatement in German pleases the crowd immensely.
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.
People who profess their love of freedom in the modern world rarely do so with Mr. Kennedy’s spirit of humility – we get it wrong, he admits, as he probably had to, c. 1963, in order to persuade skeptics in socialist Europe and elsewhere. But this statement of self-effacement is just as much a softening-up for the real Berlin-based message, the tangible, unavoidable image that tells you everything you need to know about why the other side is wrong: They can’t even get walls right. This is the closest thing to a joke in the speech, a display of wit that fits Mr. Kennedy’s easy-going confidence and neatly humanizes the capitalist cause.
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, 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 yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.
Berliners had suffered for decades: the devastation of war, ongoing military occupation, a Soviet blockade, the divisive Berlin Wall, and a physical isolation that seemed never-ending. Having focused on Berliners for much of his speech, Mr. Kennedy now redirects their worries to the wider world and a better future. It’s an escapist tactic familiar to orators who recognize the harsh reality their listeners will return to once the cheering stops.
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 most famous line of the speech, voiced at the beginning but restated at the end in a new formation: Mr. Kennedy personalizes what was a general boast, speaking for the world but also for himself. The ability to identify with an audience is key to an effective speech but Mr. Kennedy’s literal approach is much more direct and engaging – if nothing else, he can bypass his translator, guaranteeing loud cheers at the finish. His spoken German, though much practised in the weeks before the speech, was very awkward and he had to write out a phonetic pronunciation to guide his tongue: “Ish bin ein Bearleener” says the handwritten note preserved at his presidential library. It has been suggested that he should have said “Ich bin Berliner” and the addition of the definite article meant that he was actually describing himself as a doughnut. But most authorities accept that “Ich bin ein Berliner” means what Mr. Kennedy wanted it to mean.