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“Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Much has been said over the years regarding Kennedy's supposed linguistic faux pax. It resembles an urban legend in some regards, and a morality tale in others. It is, however, in the larger scheme of things much like the rest of us: unimportant.

[...] 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.”

As has been pointed out numerous other places (offline, please see Eichhoff, Jürgen, “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’: a History and a Linguistic Clarification.” Monatshefte 85 (1993), 71-80.) saying “Ich bin ein Berliner” is not really a problem. Thousands of American high school learners of German (and probably thousands of college learners, as well) have been taught that when Kennedy spoke these words the President made a subtle and humorous error. The reason for such a claim goes as follows: 1) when denoting a profession or regional affiliation one does not use the indefinite article (thus, it would be proper to say “Ich bin Berliner” or “Ich bin Lehrer/Kellner/Mechaniker,” etc.) and 2) “ein Berliner” is a type of doughnut—that is to say, Kennedy called himself a jelly doughnut in front of a national audience. The “reality” is that 1) the inhabitants of Berlin did not misunderstand him, 2) they did not laugh at him, and 3) his (or his speech writer’s) choice to use “ein” was, pragmatically, perhaps the best choice (since he was not really from Berlin).

Why bring this up today of all days?

15 years ago, on this date in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That is a rather passive construction. The wall did not fall; people climbed on top of it, climbed over it, took picks and hammers to it, and tore it down. Ronald Reagon was famous for demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” but it was not Gorbechev but wave upon wave of Berliners to undertook that task.


In the summer of 1991 I went to the Rotary district meeting in Sun Valley, Idaho, where I met a young woman who had been to Germany in 1989. She had an actual piece of the wall, from which my tiny piece originates. One of the more famous postcards of the wall coming down clearly shows evidence of a 1989 Rotary exchange student trip to Berlin. Shortly after I arrived in Germany for my one year stay, the country celebrated its one-year birthday; on October 3, 1990 the two Germanies had been reunited (“wiedervereinigt”).

What many students (and thus, other people) do not understand is that the 9th of November is a difficult day—not because of 1989, but because of two other years in the 20th century. November 9, 1938 is hardly a date to celebrate; instead, it marks Kristallnacht, aka “the Night of Broken Glasss.” Although the pogrom was supposedly in response to events on November 7th, one cannot ignore that it was also the 20th anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic.

This means little, but it suggests a great deal. Positioning Kristallnacht on the same day as the proclamation of the old republic would be much like “9/11” having occurred on the 4th of July, instead; a day of celebration would become a day of tragedy or shame. Similarly, letting the wall come down on the 9th in 1989, the same day that marked Kristallnacht, was much like trying to turn “9/11” into a celebration (by way of a sports victory or a political victory, for example). In the German case, all three events must be superimposed.

The Wall is dead. Long live the Wall!

—November 9 2004