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German Myth 6

John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Berlin Speech

German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes > Myth 6: JFK

Did President Kennedy Say He Was a Jelly Doughnut?

There is a persistent claim that JFK's famous German phrase, "Ich bin ein Berliner," was a gaffe that translates as "I am a jelly doughnut." But when Kennedy made that statement in a West Berlin speech in 1963, his German audience understood exactly what his words meant: "I am a citizen of Berlin." They also understood that he was saying that he stood by them in their Cold War battle against the Berlin Wall and a divided Germany.

No one laughed at or misunderstood President Kennedy's words spoken in German. In fact, he had been provided help from translators who knew the language well. He wrote out the key phrase phonetically and practiced it before his speech in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus (town hall) in Berlin, and his words were warmly received. Yet this German myth has been perpetuated by teachers of German and other people who should know better. Although a "Berliner" is also a type of jelly doughnut, in the context used by JFK it could not have been misunderstood any more than if I told you "I am a danish" in English. You might think I was crazy, but you wouldn't think I was claiming to be a citizen of Denmark (Dänemark). Here is Kennedy's full statement:

All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that in statements of nationality or citizenship, German often leaves off the "ein." But in Kennedy's statement, the "ein" was correct and expressed that he was "one" of them. Not only that, but in Berlin a jelly doughnut is actually called ein Pfannkuchen, not ein Berliner. (In most of Germany, der Pfannkuchen means "pancake.") Over the years there have been translation or interpreting errors with U.S. public officials abroad, but this isn't one of them.

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Also see: The Last Days of the Berlin Wall - Die Maueröffnung - a detailed timeline

MORE > Deutsche Geschichte (German History Timelines) - with JFK's words

WEB > Berliner Pfannkuchen (de.wikipedia.org)

Another source: JFK: 'I am a Jelly Doughnut' from About.com Urban Legends Guide David Emery.

German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes
Those tales you've heard about German chocolate cake, Frau Blucher, the autobahn, and Thomas Nast may not be true.


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