Fresh Ideas: Finding insight into JFK’s words, 49 years later
September 4, 2012
In June 1963, I happened to be in West Berlin the day after President John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. He began his speech with those four words, (“I am a Berliner”) and the crowd of 450,000 cheered like crazy.
In Germany, that speech was the biggest news of the summer. I was thrilled at the thought that I had just missed seeing President Kennedy by a hair’s breath. Privately, I also thought it was a shame he had not pronounced the “ich” correctly, but I didn’t hear any complaints to that effect from the Germans. In fact, it seemed to me that Kennedy’s four words worked some strange kind of magic that summer. It was a magic I did not understand then, but do now.
At the time I was a 20-year-old at Michigan State and together with nine other students (all German majors) had been selected as scholars, good will ambassadors, and young Americans who “should,” as students of German, understand West Germany’s politics. Or, as my parents bluntly put it, “It’s good public relations for Germany.”
To that end, for the first two weeks we were mentored by a law student who also served as chaperone and guide as we rolled through West Germany in our VW minibus. We visited all the major cities, including of course, West Berlin and its famous “Checkpoint Charlie” – the border separating democratic West Berlin from Communist East Berlin.
Since the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 by Soviet-controlled East Berlin, it was no longer possible for East Berliners to escape or defect to West Berlin. The Soviets had upped the ante in building the wall, and as we crossed the checkpoint into East Berlin it was almost like stepping back into the aftermath of World War II.
Whereas West Berlin looked prosperous and modern, clean and well kept, East Berlin was down-at-the heels, the famous Unter den Linden boulevard cracked and infested with weeds.
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It was an eye-opener for all of us, including me.
Because my Latvian family had fled the heavy boot of communism during WWII, I grew up hearing stories about Soviet deceptions and brutality. Because Latvia had been “colonized” by Germans since the early 1200s, I also heard stories about German culture and education. In the early 20th century, Latvians looked to Berlin the way Americans look to New York or Los Angeles for the latest and best in products and ideas.
The Latvians I knew could never reconcile themselves to what they thought was America’s blindness to Soviet deception. They either said America was “too good,” or “too young and naïve.”
Today, having read a detailed account of the Berlin Airlift by Andrei Cherny, I not only know better but also have a more enlightened understanding of President Kennedy’s famous four words.
Berlin suffered 363 bombing raids and an invasion by the Soviets. To say it was in ruins was an understatement. Like Germany itself, Berlin ended up being divided into four sectors, each one governed by one of the four Allied powers. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets attempted to gain control over the entire city, halting trains, trucks, and barges that brought food, coal, and all else into the western sectors of the city. Two and a quarter million people in Berlin were cut off from everything they needed to survive.
There was no love lost between the American military forces in Berlin and the German people. President Franklin Roosevelt believed Germany had been treated too lightly after World War I and this time “we intend to rid them once and for all of Nazism and Prussian militarism and the fantastic … notion that they constitute the ‘master race.'”
By 1948, however, Communist expansion into Western Europe appeared to be a real threat, and “giving” Berlin to the Soviets was finally not an option. Knowing the antipathy toward anything German, both in Europe and here in the U.S., the now-fabled Berlin Airlift is more than the story of President Truman’s and America’s can-do spirit.
The Airlift showed Americans that everyday Germans not only had the fortitude to stand up to the Soviets’ “slash and burn” policy because they saw democracy as more life-giving than bread itself, but it showed the Germans that Americans valued human life more than ideology.
What I heard at the age of 20 was that Kennedy supported West Germany. What I didn’t realize was that Kennedy’s words were an acknowledgment of America’s and Germany’s history, one that bridged hatred and embraced kindness.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita of English at Western Nevada College.