In 1961, East Germany and their Soviet comrades had a problem: they were leaking people. Word on the street was there’s a better Germany next door, and millions of East German citizens are going to see it and never coming back. In the year that followed, anger over their friends leaving to play with someone else led to the fortification of a border that changed Germany and Europe forever.
At the end of the second world war, the triumphant Allies divided the newly-defeated Germany up into four administrative zones, each governed militarily by either the United States, France, the United Kingdom, or the Soviet Union. Four years later, in 1949, the first three zones were dissolved and returned to German leadership. But the Soviets weren’t ready to give up their piece of the German
The three reunited zones became the western-facing, democratic and capitalist West Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany), while the Soviet occupation zone was reformatted under the communist banner of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. The split created an international border separating the once-solid country, but it also came with a fun little quirk in the center: the four-piece puzzle that the allies had created in Germany had also been established in the capital city of Berlin, the heart of the Nazi war machine. All of the land surrounding Berlin was part of East Germany, but half of the city itself belonged to the west.
Within East Germany, heavy change is underway. Taking a country from anti-communist Hitler to anti-Hitler communist ASAP is a lofty undertaking, and a lot of East Germans aren’t interested. It sounds hard, and… maybe dumb? Their words. The solution, for some of them, is to defect. Becoming a refugee is usually hard work, involving finding a place for yourself in a foreign country that may share neither your language or culture. Luckily, for the East Germans, that’s not (as much of) a problem. There’s a country that shares both their language and culture right next door. For some, the journey to the west is relatively long and involves passing through a complex military border. For the people of East Berlin, it’s as simple as crossing the street. And for the would-be refugees of East Germany, one of the easiest ways west is to do just that. Hop along down to West Berlin and, if you don’t stay there, claim legal passage from there to the west. It works great.
Too great. The East Germans don’t like how great it works, and the Soviets hate it. Their machine only functions so long as it has its pieces, and too many of the pieces are leaving. They enact punishments and make it illegal to cross the border, but once the people of East Germany make the crossing, they’re beyond the legal jurisdiction of punishment, just out of reach of the spanking hand. The East turns to their last recourse: making it harder to cross the border. They build a wall.
The Berlin Wall is famous, probably #2 as far as celebrity walls go. The Soviets and East Germans put it up in record time, and, for the most part, once fully erected, it did its job real well. The number of East-to-West border crossings fell dramatically following its completion in 1961. If you’re a young little shit like me, your experience is probably limited to newsreel footage of it falling down and Ronald Reagan demanding that the Soviets make it fall down. Maybe you’ve seen them played back-to-back in a cutesy way that suggests there weren’t two full years between the events.
Reagan’s speech about the wall that divided Berlin is probably the most famous, at least in today’s America. But coming in at number 2 is one delivered by John F. Kennedy just under two years after its construction. In it, Kennedy argues against the division imposed by the Soviets and generally applauds the west while antagonizing the east. Par for the course. The speech uses Berlin as a sort of synecdochical avatar for the surrounding conflict, and Kennedy ends with the key sentence “I take pride in the words ‘ich bin ein Berliner'”, German for “I am a Berliner”.
Kennedy meant to identify himself with the crowd and express that the United States was behind an affected West Berlin. The people there were into it. Some folks back home weren’t. It was a fine speech, they reasoned, but Kennedy fucked up when he called himself a jelly doughnut.
Before we continue, some culinary history. German speakers love naming foods after their supposed places of origin. Hamburgers from Hamburg, Wieners from Vienna (Wien), Frankfurters from Frankfurt. Those are the big ones. A lesser-known one, at least over here, is a jam-filled pastry known in Germany as the Berliner.
Critically, the same thing can have different names in different places, even when those places speak the same language. There’s a Business Insider piece that I reference with every single person I meet that maps differences in regional terminology in the United States. Sneakers and Tennis shoes. Soda and pop (or, in the south, coke). Some Wisconsinites call drinking fountains bubblers. Most of the country doesn’t have a name for rain that occurs in sunny weather, but in part of the south, those are the days when the devil is beating his wife.
We don’t even have to venture far to see these linguistic differences at play within the German language. I just brought up Frankfurters and Wieners. They’re the same thing. Similarly, what a lot of Western Germans call Berliners, actual residents of Berlin refer to as Pfannkuchen, or… pancakes. So within Berlin, the confusion is non-existent, because Kennedy stopped short of saying “I am a pancake”.
Outside of Berlin, some argue it was Kennedy’s choice to add the article “ein” (“a”) that did him in – some Germans might just say “ich bin Berliner”, and the ein makes it clear he’s talking about an object. Which object? A jelly donut.
It’s a fascinating smoking gun, but it’s bullshit. The aide who offered the phrase to the surprisingly not-fluent-in-German Irish Catholic Masshole President of the United States was a native German speaker who knew his shit. The phrase was accurate, and even Germans who called their jelly doughnuts ‘Berliners‘ understood it. If I tell you my friend speaks Danish, you won’t guffaw at the idea of someone whispering to a pastry. Likewise, the Germans understood that Kennedy was talking about the city of Berlin. They’d heard of it before.
Kennedy’s speech jazzed onlookers, but it didn’t come close to ending turmoil in Berlin. The city stayed divided for another 26 years, the wall refusing to fall for anything short of the end of communism in Europe. It’s hard to say what impact early American diplomatic action had on German reunification; I’m no expert. But I do know JFK didn’t call himself a jelly doughnut.
- ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’: JFK Got It Right — He Was No Jelly Doughnut by Ben Zimmer for The Wall Street Journal
- Where the Myth of JFK’s ‘Jelly Donut’ Mistake Came From by Kat Eschner for Smithsonian Magazine