Critics of President John F. Kennedy, popularly known as JFK, claimed his eloquent 1963 speech before 400,000 people in West Berlin included an embarrassing gaffe. When he said, “ich bin ein Berliner,” he meant, “I am a Berliner.” But he really said, “I am a jelly doughnut” in German. Or so they claimed.
Kennedy’s point was to defend the ideals of democracy and self-government when both were threatened in Berlin.
After World War II, Berlin, like all of Germany, was divided into the democratic west and the communist east. Located in the heart of East Germany, it was an isolated satellite of West Germany.
From 1952, the border was closed between East and West Germany — except for Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans escaped to the West through West Berlin, which drained East Germany of labor and threatened its economic collapse.
Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev called West Berlin ‘a bone in my throat’ and threatened to ‘eradicate this splinter from the heart of Europe.’
In 1961, the Soviet-backed East German government began building the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin and to plug the biggest hole in the Iron Curtain. The wall itself was a concrete monstrosity with watchtowers, barbed war and machine gun emplacements.
In 1963, Berliners feared a takeover by East Germany. Kennedy feared conflict in Berlin would spark a nuclear war.
In a previous speech, Kennedy called civis romanus [“I am a Roman citizen”] the proudest boast one could make. He then adapted those words for the speech he delivered in Rudolph Wilde Platz on June 26, 1963. He told the huge crowd,
Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”…
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.”
Those words ranked up there with “Ask not what you can do for your country.”
Twenty years later, British fiction writer Len Deighton published a spy novel, Berlin Game. In it, he wrote that Kennedy had mangled the German language during the speech and actually said, ”I am a jelly doughnut.”
The New York Times picked up the mistake four years later in an op-ed. The Guardian, MSNBC, CNN, Time magazine and several books subsequently repeated Deighton’s accusation. They are wrong.
…it would be suggested that Kennedy had got the translation wrong—that by using the article ein before the word Berliner, he had mistakenly called himself a jelly doughnut. In fact, Kennedy was correct. To state Ich bin Berliner would have suggested being born in Berlin, whereas adding the word ein implied being a Berliner in spirit. His audience understood that he meant to show his solidarity.
Rudolph Wilde Platz was later renamed John F. Kennedy Platz. To listen to the 9-minute speech, click here.
John F. Kennedy was by no means new to Europe. He spent the summer of 1945 there as a reporter. A new book, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall examines Kennedy’s pre-White House years. This story was updated in 2021.