“Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” 

In just a few words, JFK, a Massachusetts native, uplifted all of Berlin.

Kennedy Speech CardThough many associate Massachusetts most strongly with the American Revolutionary War, the state’s influence extends well beyond national boundaries and into modern times. One of the best examples of the state’s continued importance in modern and international history is the leadership of President John F. Kennedy who was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and grew up to lead America during part of the Cold War.

In June of 1963 JFK visited Berlin, the epicenter of the Cold War. After World War II, the allied forces who had defeated Nazi Germany divided the governance of Germany between them. Berlin was the most important city, so it too was divided into four territories. As tensions heightened between the West and the Soviets, Germany was split into two separate countries, one Soviet and one supported by the U.S. and their allies. West Berlin therefore became an enclave of free Germany in the Soviet sector.

Berlin Blockade MapIn 1961 Walter Ulbrict constructed a barbed-wire fence around West Berlin officially named, “the anti-fascist protective barrier.” The Berlin Wall’s actual purpose though was to prevent East Berliners from escaping Soviet control and reaching the freer West Berlin. Eventually the fence was turned to a concrete wall, and nearby buildings were replaced by an empty “death zone” patrolled by Soviet soldiers carrying machine guns.

Nineteen-year-old Peter Fechter became the first to die in an attempt to cross the Berlin Wall. In 1962 he and a friend ran across the “death zone” and were fired upon as they tried to climb the barbed-wire fence. Peter’s friend made it across the wall, but Peter was shot and fell back into the death zone. Despite his screams for help, the guards did nothing, and West Berliners watched helplessly as Fechter bled to death.

Just a year after this brutality, JFK famously announced his solidarity with the people of Berlin and his appreciation of their strength. He read from this speech card phrases in German that won the hearts of his 450,000 person audience:

“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 am a Berliner].”Peter Fetcher

JFK also declared that anyone who had seen Berlin could not doubt his or her responsibility to oppose the communist Soviet Union. For those who doubt this, he said, “Lass’ sich nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.”

In his speech, Kennedy gave hope to both the West Berliners in the crowd and to the East Berliners watching from the other side of the wall. Kennedy’s speech was a symbol of German-American solidarity that was remembered until the wall was torn down on November 10, 1989.

For more information please see:

The JFK Library Exhibit

Kennedy in Berlin

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