This Day in History | 1963 – Kennedy: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’

The US President, John F Kennedy, has made a ground-breaking speech in Berlin offering American solidarity to the citizens of West Germany.

A crowd of 120,000 Berliners gathered in front of the Schöneberg Rathaus (City Hall) to hear President Kennedy speak.

They began gathering in the square long before he was due to arrive, and when he finally appeared on the podium they gave him an ovation of several minutes.

The president had just returned from a visit on foot to one of the Berlin Wall’s most notorious crossing points, Checkpoint Charlie.

He was watched from the other side of the border by small groups of East Berliners unable even to wave because of the presence of large groups of the East German People’s Police.

In an impassioned speech, the president told them West Berlin was a symbol of freedom in a world threatened by the Cold War.

“Two thousand years ago,” he told the crowd, “the proudest boast in the world 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,” he continued. “But we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.”

His speech was punctuated throughout by rapturous cheers of approval.

He ended on the theme he had begun with:

“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.’”

After the speech, the mayor of West Berlin, Willi Brandt, spoke out for the citizens of East Germany, saying they would be brought out in a few days to greet the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, whether they wanted to or not.

“But they would much rather be with us, freely gathered here,” he said.

“We tell them, we will not give up. Berlin is true to those behind barbed wire as to fellow countrymen in the West and friends in the whole world.”

His words were followed by the tolling of the Freedom Bell from the belfry of the Rathaus in remembrance of those in East Germany.

For the first time that day, the massive crowd fell silent.

Courtesy BBC News

In context

President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was seen as a turning point in the Cold War.

It was a major morale booster for West Germans, alarmed by the recently-built Berlin Wall.

It also gave a strongly defiant message to the Soviet Union and effectively put paid to Moscow’s hopes of driving the Allies out of West Berlin.

Two months later, President Kennedy negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, in what was seen as a first step towards ending the Cold War.

But on 22 November that year, he was assassinated, shot in the head as he drove through Dallas, Texas, on his way to a political festival.

The Berlin Wall was finally brought down, piece by piece, in November 1989 as communism collapsed and the Iron Curtain fell from Eastern Europe.

Germany was re-united in October 1990.

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