John F. Kennedy’s Statement “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” was Not Interpreted as “I am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut”

Daven Hiskey 9

A Berliner Doughnut

Myth: John F. Kennedy blundered in one of his most famous speeches, saying in German “I am a jelly-filled doughnut” instead of what he meant (in the figurative sense) “I am a person from Berlin”.

As German professor Reinhold Aman stated about this:

“Ich bin ein Berliner means ‘I am a Berliner’ or ‘a male person/native of Berlin’ and absolutely nothing else! … No intelligent native speaker of German tittered in Berlin when J.F.K. spoke, just as no native speaker of German, or one who does know this language, would titter if someone said, ‘Ich bin ein Wiener’, or Hamburger or Frankfurter.”

Yet another linguist, Jürgen Eichhoff, in his paper covering the misconception stated, “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ is not only correct, but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.”

The fact that this is a myth shouldn’t be a surprise to many because if “Ich bin ein Berliner” had been interpreted, “I am a jelly-filled doughnut”, it likely would have been major comedic news at the time.  The reality was, though, that the first known record of anyone interpreting it as such wasn’t until 1983, in the novel Berlin Game, 20 years after the speech was made:

‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I said. It was a joke. A Berliner is a doughnut. The day after President Kennedy made his famous proclamation, Berlin cartoonists had a field day with talking doughnuts.

In a review of the book, the New York Times decided to take this statement as true, even though the book is a fictional novel and no such cartoonists’ works from that time seem to actually exist.  Since then, this common misconception has made its rounds through various major news organizations, including esteemed news sources such as CNN, the BBC, and Time Magazine, among many others.  You’ll even occasionally hear native English speaking German language instructors spread this myth, but you won’t hear a native German speaker interpreting the statement as such.

The misconception primary stems from Kennedy’s use of the indefinite article “ein”, rather than saying just “Ich bin Berliner”, as well as the fact that a “Berliner” is also known, mainly in far western parts of Western Germany at the time, as the name of a certain type of pastry created in Berlin around the 16th century.  Of course, a Berliner is also someone who is from or lives in Berlin.  Those from Berlin more commonly called that type of pastry a Berliner Pfannkuchen (“Berlin pancake”) or just Pfannkuchen.

Besides the fact that the person who translated that line for Kennedy, Robert Lochner, grew up in Berlin and was the one time Chief U.S. German interpreter in Western Germany, Kennedy also practiced the speech several times before hand, including in front of other native German speakers, such as Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who saw no problem with the wording because his use of “ein” is actually correct in this context.  Had he said “Ich bin Berliner”, he would have been saying he was literally a citizen of Berlin, which isn’t true at all, nor the sentiment he was trying to express (more or less, “I was not born here and do not live here, but I am one of you.”)

Because he was speaking metaphorically, adding the indefinite article “ein”, “Ich bin ein Berliner” made that explicit.  So to be doubly clear, including or excluding the “ein” here is the difference between “I am (literally) from Berlin” vs. “I am (like someone) from Berlin”.

Now because he was speaking figuratively, it is possible to interpret his “Ich bin ein Berliner” as “I am a jelly-filled doughnut”, the problem of course is context, which is always important in interpreting language.  In this famous speech, he used that “Ich bin ein Berliner” statement twice, as follows:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum’ ['I am a Roman citizen']. 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!” (full text of the speech here)

In neither case was he speaking of food and given he was a human being and the explicit reference he was making, nobody interpreted him as saying “I am a jelly-filled doughnut”, just as no one would interpret a person saying “I am a New Yorker” as meaning they are a magazine, burrito, or a town car.

The speech itself was meant to show support for the people of Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall and with the threat the USSR posed to them.  And contrary to what you’ll read in that original New York Times editorial covering this supposed gaff, no one laughed when he said it.  Rather, some 400,000+ people strong cheered.

You can watch the full speech below and see for yourself:

Bonus Facts:

  • The “Ich bin ein Berliner” part of the speech was actually borrowed from an earlier speech given by Kennedy on May 4, 1962.  During that speech, he quoted the “I am a citizen of Rome” bit, but this time comparing it to “I am a citizen of the United States”.
  • Kennedy originally had in mind to give the entire speech in German, but after several practice sessions Lochner decided that doing so would actually embarrass the President and detract from the message; thus, they decided to use a translator instead.
  • The Berlin Wall was officially named “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart) in East Germany.  In West Germany, it was often referred to as the “Wall of Shame”.
  • The Berlin Wall was created to stop people from East Germany defecting to West Germany.  Before it was put in place, between 1949 and 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people from East Germany managed to cross the border without going through the Eastern emigration system.  The Berlin Wall effectively stopped this, cutting the illegal defections down to around 5,000 over the course of the following few decades before the wall was torn down in 1989.
  • Kennedy strayed from the actual speech they had planned out, with most of his advisers thinking his changes went “too far”.  This speech greatly agitated Soviet officials who just two weeks before Kennedy had been singing a different tune with, telling them he’d like to significantly improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Later in the same day, when he gave the speech again at a University, he went back to the original wording they had planned out, rather than the more radical version.
  • Besides translating for Kennedy, Lochner was also a highly regarded journalist who was instrumental in helping restore the free press in West Germany after WWII.
  • The United States House Select Committee on Assassinations, which was formed to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the shooting of Alabama Governor George Wallace, concluded that the JFK assassination was probably a conspiracy, though what organization formed and executed the conspiracy was not determined.  They also concluded that there probably was a second gunman involved in the incident, though they agreed that Oswald was one of the killers.  You can read more on the assassination of Kennedy here: This Day In History: President John F. Kennedy is Assassinated

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9 Comments »

  1. Jon Weldon May 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Having lived in Germany, they do not say ein (“a, one “) in conjunction with place. Thus, they say “Ich bin Berliner.” Maybe that’s recent.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven May 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      @Jon Weldon: Yep, if you’re from Berlin or live there, you would not say the “ein”, but if you were not and trying to say you are “of” or “like” people from Berlin, you would use the “ein”.

    • Tom S. Fox March 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      Not true at all. While there is a tendency to omit the indefinite article before nouns that indicate a person’s origin, people sometimes don’t and that has always been the case. Just take a look at this book from 1861: http://books.google.de/books?id=GKdGAAAAcAAJ&q=“Ich bin ein Hamburger.”

      The problem is that, as is often the case in grammar, people have taken this tendency and elevated it to an inviolable rule.

  2. Rikster July 14, 2013 at 6:58 am - Reply

    It is a phrase that can have more than one meaning. It’s like saying, ‘I think you’re hot’. Does that mean temperature or sexy? In Berlin a resident of Berlin is called a Berliner. In Western Germany the term Berliner was also used to refer to a Jelly Doughnut. The direct translation is roughly, ‘I am with you in your plight’. (Remember Berlin was surrounded by a wall and cut off from Western Germany at the time.) It’s the comedians that use the second translation.

  3. Felix Tymcik September 10, 2014 at 5:40 am - Reply

    As a German I am impressed by the knowledge of my language in the US.
    KUDOs 4 tifo! Yu desoerv tu bikam äj ‘onorary Dschoerman! ;)

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