Ich bin ein Berliner”: 
Did Kennedy really say he was a jelly-filled doughnut?

The short answer: No! Read on to learn why not.

Historical Background

The Cold War reached its hottest point in the early 1960’s. The nation of Germany and the city of Berlin had been divided into four zones ofSchöneberg Rathaus occupation by the British, French, American and Soviet armed forces. The Soviets had assumed political control over the eastern zone and created a separate country, ironically named the “Deutsche Demokratische Republik” (DDR) or “German Democratic Republic” (GDR). They also separated the eastern zone of the city of Berlin from the west, and proclaimed East Berlin as the capital, in direct violation of the Yalta Conference.

As part of the division, the elected mayor and parliamentarians from western Berlin were refused access to the main city hall (“das rote Rathaus”), which now lay in the eastern part of the city. Instead, they used the city hall in the Schöneberg district (see the picture to the right, taken by the author in 1995) as their “temporary” government offices. As it turns out, they ended up staying at this location for more than 40 years (~1950-1991)(1). A Liberty Bell, a copy of the one in Philadelphia, was hung in the 230 ft. high tower of the City Hall. It was donated to Berlin by General Lucius D. Clay in 1950 in the name of the 17 million Americans who donated money for it. An inscription on the bell reads “May this world, with God’s help, see a rebirth of freedom.”

In 1952, the “East Zone” formally sealed itself off from the West, installing a barbed wire fence, a literal “Iron Curtain,” along the length of the border between the two halves of Germany. However, the city of Berlin was still openly accessible to skilled workers and other people trying to flee the Communist system in the East. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled their country. In August 1961, at the insistence of the Soviet Union, GDR officials had a double concrete wall built around the three Western sectors of Berlin. The Berlin Wall was 102.5 miles (165 km) long (times two, because of the double wall) and up to 15 feet high. Between the two walls they placed 252 guard towers, 136 bunkers, landmines and machine guns on trip wires. When it was erected in 1961, the West Berliners were frustrated and upset that the West didn’t react more strongly against this inhumane act. 

machineg.jpg (17458 bytes)A shrapnel-spewing machine gun used along the Wall. The gun was attached to a trip wire. It is housed in the “Haus am Checkpoint Charlie” museum in Berlin. Photo by the author. All in all, 78 people are thought to have lost their lives at the Wall during the 28 years of its existence. When the Soviets tried sealing off Berlin, the Allies organized an airlift operation for 16 months, during which 54 Allied airmen lost their lives.

The Speech

Pres. John F. Kennedy decided to travel to Berlin to demonstrate his support of the democratic processes in the Western sectors. He arrived in Berlin on June 26, 1963, following appearances in Bonn, Cologne and Frankfurt, where he was warmly welcomed. In Berlin, a throng of half a million people crammed into the square and down the streets surrounding the city hall in Schöneberg, not far from the Berlin Wall (2). After Kennedy’s group toured the Wall itself at “Checkpoint Charlie,” he was driven to Schöneberg.

wall1.jpg (37974 bytes)        Views of “Checkpoint Charlie” taken by the author in 1982.     wall2.jpg (40248 bytes)

Kennedy’s speech was not long; less than 700 words. The crowd was electrified. JFK actually gave much of the address impromptu, discarding many of his prepared remarks. But his words that day showed in no uncertain terms the support of the world’s greatest superpower for this island city surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. His final sentence had exactly the impact he hoped it would.

“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 crowd listening to Pres. Kennedy’s speech. Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/kennedy.html 

The full text of President Kennedy’s speech can be viewed and read here..

The Faux “Faux Pas”

But what about the “mistake”, where Kennedy supposedly called himself a jelly-filled donut? This incorrect interpretation did not surface for a full 25 years after the speech was given, and it came from a letter to the editor. In 1988, a man named Kenneth O’Neill wrote in a letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine: “To the Germans [‘Ich bin ein Berliner’] meant ‘I am a jelly doughnut’.”(3) Just a few months later, the New York Times ran a full article entitled “I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut.”(4) The fable took on a life of its own after this, in spite of attempts by German language specialists to refute it.

The controversy revolves around the principle that German does not normally use an article between the verb sein and a noun indicating occupation, nationality or place of origin. Thus, we say “I am an American,” but a German says “Ich bin Deutscher.” Mr. O’Neill apparently assumed that since Pres. Kennedy used the article ein, the people in the audience would automatically think he was not talking about nationality or place of origin, but rather some object called a “Berliner.” As it turns out, there is a very popular pastry in Germany which is like a hole-less doughnut filled inside with (usually) strawberry jelly and sprinkled with sugar, and which is called a “Berliner” in some parts of Germany. Hence, Mr. O’Neill stretched his imagination to assume that this was the only logical interpretation of JFK’s words, and the press was only too happy to pick up on a presidential “blunder,” even if it was 25 years afterward.

Explanations

Perhaps the definitive study on the “doughnut” question has been written by Jürgen Eichhoff, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.(5) Prof. Eichhoff points out that the two German phrases used by JFK in his speech were translated for him by his interpreter, a native German who grew up in Berlin. Kennedy practiced the phrases several times in then-Mayor Willy Brandt’s offices before it was time to give the speech. He even wrote down on note cards the phonetic transcriptions of the phrases given to him by his interpreter. (Click here to view one of those cards.) Kennedy specifically chose the phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” to make a clear parallel between Cicero’s significant declaration “civis Romanus sum,” which JFK quoted at the beginning of his speech, and the situation in West Berlin in 1963 A.D.

There are three primary reasons why no one in the audience that day in Schöneberg could have possibly understood anything other than exactly what Pres. Kennedy intended: context; German grammar; and German regional vocabulary use. 

  1. Context: No one in Berlin was thinking about pastries on the day the leader of the free world arrived in town. In the context of the speech as a whole, which talked about citizenship and freedom, and in the context of those fearful, uncertain days of the cold war and Berlin’s isolated situation some 100 miles within an unfriendly foreign nation, nothing but the primary meaning of the homonym Berliner could have been construed.
    A modern corollary would be if Pres. Bush went to New York City after September 11, 2001 to express solidarity with the people of that city by standing next to Mayor Giuliani and saying “I, too, am a New Yorker.” It would be ludicrous to think that any person present would think Pres. Bush were referring to himself as a burrito.
  2. German grammar. If Kennedy had said, “Ich bin Berliner,” he would have been stating that he had been born and raised in Berlin and that he was still a resident there. Of course, everyone in the audience knew this was not the case. By adding the ein, which his native German interpreter did for him, he was emphasizing in effect that, “Even though I was not born here and do not live here, nevertheless I am one of you.”(6) This is exactly the meaning he intended to convey and the only meaning the native residents would have understood. Colleagues of mine in Berlin have confirmed this view.(7)
  3. Regional vocabulary usage. Although some Germans (and many Americans) refer to the pastry in question as a Berliner, people who live in Berlin or in any of the surrounding areas simply do not use that name. They predominantly use the term Pfannkuchen (pancake). A language map of German compiled during the 1970’s clearly shows that the term “Berliner” in reference to a pastry is used almost exclusively in the far western borders of the former West Germany.(8) This situation is similar to the regional usage of pancake, hotcake, flap jack, or griddle cake in the U.S.

Another native German writer, and an expert on Berlin history, summarized the misunderstanding this way:

There is a persistent erroneous claim, repeated again most recently by Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy, Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (New York, 1991), p. 606, that the phrase “ich bin ein Berliner” is incorrect and should have been “ich bin Berliner,” in part because Berliner also happens to be the word for a jelly roll. In actuality, “ich bin Berliner” means that one is a native or, at least, a permanent resident of Berlin, whereas Kennedy’s assertion that he, too, was a Berliner in spirit, is properly expressed as “ich bin (auch) ein Berliner.”(9)

In a recently published book on translations and mistranslations, a native German and professional translator emphasized that “there was no mistranslation” in Kennedy’s speech.(10)

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly support Prof. Eichhoff’s sentiment: “The Berlin Wall is no more. Now let us also put to rest the notion…that John F. Kennedy made a ‘most dramatic flub’ when…he told his audience that ‘[he was] a Berliner’.”

Final Note

Berliners (i.e. citizens of Berlin) have a wonderful sense of humor. For example, they have developed nicknames for many of the notable buildings in their city. Their Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster” and the TV tower is called “tele-asparagus.” In spite of this, when an American raises the “I am a jelly-filled doughnut” issue, natives of Berlin, or of Germany as a whole, are confused because they see no reason for any misunderstanding. 

However, the fact that someone else finds humor in the situation does provide Berlin residents an opportunity for action. So I should not have been too surprised to find a street vendor selling the decal shown below on Berlin’s main street in 1995. I’m sure only Americans buy them…passing Germans just stare blankly at the decals and proceed on their way.

Decal I purchased from a street vendor on the “Ku’damm
(main shopping street) of Berlin in October 1995.

© Brooks Haderlie. Last updated: 28 May 2014

http://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=1&ID=174&style=Fhttp://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=2&ID=174&style=Fhttp://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=3&ID=174&style=Fhttp://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=4&ID=174&style=Fhttp://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=5&ID=174&style=Fhttp://www.byui.edu/counters/binary.asp?c=6&ID=174&style=F


Footnotes:

1 I spoke with a lady in Schöneberg after the reunification, when the city government had moved back into the “rotes Rathaus”, and she complained “We used to be the focal point of the world. Now nobody even knows we’re here.”

2 Not even 5 months later, Pres. Kennedy would be assassinated; the square around the Schöneberg City Hall was renamed “John-F.-Kennedy-Platz” after this tragic event.

3 Newsweek, 18 January 1988: 15.

4 The New York Times, 30 April 1988: 31.

5 Jürgen Eichhoff. “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’: A History and a Linguistic Clarification.” Monatshefte 85 (1993): 71-80.

6 For example, in 1985 a book was published in Germany with the title “Als ich ein Türke war. Reportagen,” in which the German author dressed and behaved like a guest worker from Turkey in order to find out how such workers were treated in Germany.

7 Jochen Schramke. E-mail on 24 Sep 1998. Subject: Re: Auskunft, bitte. With his permission, I quote:

        “Ich bin ein Berliner”:
        Diese Version drückt die Zugehörigkeit zu den in Berlin lebenden Menschen aus (“I BELONG to the people of Berlin”) und ist deswegen die bessere Art, eine Solidarität zu bekunden. Die Möglichkeit, den Pfannkuchen in diesem Zitat zu sehen, ist zwar von der Semantik her gegeben aber in Berlin unmöglich, da man hier peinlichst vermeidet, den Pfannkuchen als “Berliner” einzukaufen. Diese Assoziation ist also nur von anderen Wessis her möglich, war aber wegen der Berühmtheit des Zitats und der Herzlichkeit und Solidarität, die in diesem Zitat steckt in der Vergangenheit wenig gebräuchlich.

        “Ich bin Berliner:”
        Diese Version drückt VERSTÄRKT die Tatsache aus, dass jemand in Berlin geboren oder schon sehr lange ansässig ist (“I am FROM Idaho”). Es wäre im Falle von Kennedy sicherlich der weniger richtige Ausdruck.

        Nebenbei habe ich in der jüngsten Vergangenheit auch schon fragende Blicke erzeugt, wenn ich in Westdeutschland testweise “Berliner” einkaufen wollte. Es scheint, als ob dieser Begriff für Pfannkuchen ausstirbt.

8 Eichhoff, Jürgen. Wortatlas der deutschen Umgangssprachen. Vol. 1. Bern: Francke Verlag. 1977, p.  61.

9 Diethelm Prowe, “The Making of ein Berliner: Kennedy, Brandt, and the Origins of Detente Policy in Germany.” In From the Berlin Museum to the Berlin Wall: Essays on the Cultural and Political History of Modern Germany, edited by David Wetzel. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. p. 186, footnote 1.

10 “The Kennedy Mistranslation Myth” in Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, New York: Perigree, 2012, pg. 57-58.