28 April 2004
“Ich bin ein Berliner” by John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy’s unforgettable speech “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) was delivered on June 26, 1963 on the balcony of the Schoeneberg Rathaus (city hall) in West Berlin. I want to write my rhetorical analysis about one of the best rhetorical speeches ever given. According to the website www.americanrhetoric.com, “Ich bin ein Berliner” is ranked number 22 of all American speeches. I am interested in this particular speech because I can relate it to my home country of Germany. I have heard many voices in my family who remember the message Kennedy delivered on this occasion. Kennedy gave this speech in front of hundreds of Berliners offering American solidarity to the citizens of West Germany. “Ich bin ein Berliner” is well- known among German people, even today, which shows how meaningful the speech was to the Germans. Critics concentrate mostly on the rhetorical situation and the themes (solidarity and freedom) of the speech rather than on the usage of rhetorical devices. Therefore, I will analyze the rhetorical devices of the speech in order to emphasize the speech’s themes. “Ich bin ein Berliner” was given in English, so an official German translation of the speech was created for the German people. I will compare rhetorical devices that were used in both the English and the German version of the speech.
The rhetorical situation is most important for this speech, because it is beneficial for Kennedy. “The image of a U.S. president saying ‘ich bin ein Berliner- Let them come to Berlin’ before a huge West German audience pressing against the Berlin Wall” (Jamieson, 115) creates a moment that could replace the very words of the speech. Since Kennedy did not speak German, “the German Chancellor Adenauer had made available to Kennedy his best English- German interpreter, who stood next to the president at the railing of the balcony and interpreted his speech consecutively, one sentence at a time” (Heichler). The Soviets “built the Berlin Wall, a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain, to stop the flow of professionals and skilled people out of East Germany. The Berlin Wall separated democracy in West Germany from communism in East Germany” (Farber, 39). Berlin became a focus of Cold War tensions between Communist countries led by the USSR and anti-Communist states led by the United States. Kennedy gave this speech in June, 1963, when the West Berliners were seeking for help from outside in order to stop the tensions between West Berlin and East Berlin. All the citizens of West Berlin wanted was to live in peace and freedom together with the citizens of East Berlin. One could say that with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, Kennedy chose the right time and the right place to say the right thing (kairos). Farber points out Kennedy’s perfect choice of the rhetorical situation for his speech in West Berlin: “This speech was the most powerful and compelling one of the Cold War”.
The first theme of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is solidarity. John F. Kennedy “strategically employed symbolic acts to create a sense of solidarity” (Daum). It is a symbolic act itself that the U. S. President comes to West Germany and tells his audience that he is one of them:
While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of
the Communist system – for all the world to see – we take no satisfaction in it.
As a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
Kennedy submerges in the plural pronoun “we” which shows that he assumes the attitude of the crowd: Kennedy establishes a shared sense of values and attitude with his audience about freedom and democracy (identification). By telling the West Berliners that he is part of them, Kennedy creates a sense of solidarity. He says that he is proud to be one of them which makes the people feel a sympathy for the President. It is easier for Kennedy to persuade his audience when there is a likable bonding between him and the West Germans. In the ethopoeia, “Ich bin ein Berliner” Kennedy puts himself in place of the West German people so as to both understand and express his feelings more vividly.
The most important sentence in Kennedy’s speech for proving his identification with the West Germans is “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Kennedy chose to say “I am a Berliner” in the language of his audience in order to express his solidarity. The German people “went wild, filling the air with cheers and applause for several minutes, when Kennedy pronounced: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’” (Heichler). Kennedy uses this German sentence at the beginning of his speech and repeats it at the very end of it employing diacope. This has the effect that his audience remembers this sentence. In fact, even today, most German people remember Kennedy’s German words and say them with an American accent just as the one Kennedy had.
By using both words and actions, Kennedy increases the memorability of the message which is included in the statements:
Two thousand years ago, 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.”
By comparing the West German people with the proud Roman people who lived two thousand years ago, Kennedy inspires the Berliners with pride. By employing the encomium, “the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’” he wants the West Berliners to be proud of their freedom and their democracy. The epizeuxis, “Two thousand years ago, two thousand years ago” has the effect that the audience realizes that Kennedy expresses strong emotion in order to emphasize on this huge time frame. There has been no other city in between these two thousand years that could be compared with the pride of those people who lived in Rome. Finally, two thousand years later, there is a city whose habitants can be proud to live in.
Another passage in the speech focuses on the American solidarity with the West German people:
I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years.
Kennedy speaks for all American people in order to give the impression that every single American person offers solidarity to the citizens of West Germany. He identifies himself with the rest of the American people by saying “my countrymen”. So Kennedy establishes a shared sense of values and attitudes with both the Americans and the citizens of West Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) by using the rhetorical device of identification. This device gives the audience the impression that Americans and Berliners share the same values and attitudes, which persuades the audience to accept the offer of American solidarity. Kennedy employs another rhetorical device in this passage. In the commoratio, “who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you” and “even from a distance” Kennedy strongly emphasizes the solidarity of American people although they are so far away.
The second and most important theme of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” is freedom. Kennedy makes it obvious that his goal is the advance of freedom everywhere by repeating the words “freedom” and “free” thirteen times in his short speech consisting of 681 words only (diacope). During the entire speech, Kennedy uses idealistic terms to “encourage the West German people to face the struggle between freedom and communism” (Bostdorff):
What is true of this city is true of Germany: real lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.
The obvious message of this passage is the need for a united, peaceful, and free Germany. The usage of diacope emphasizes this message: the words “Germans, free, and peace” occur several times in this passage in order to emphasize on the idealistic Germany. Kennedy does not distinguish between West Germans and East Germans in this paragraph, which shows that he wants communism to be banished from Germany. Kennedy only speaks about the idealistic Germany in this paragraph without even mentioning communism. By employing this apophasis, he tries to make it imaginable to his audience how perfect it could be to live in Germany as free people without even thinking about communism.
In another paragraph, Kennedy addresses indirectly those people who see any kind of advantages in communism:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.
Kennedy uses many rhetorical devices in this paragraph in order to persuade every single person that communism is not the right political path. In these lines, he makes sure that he includes anyone who favors communism, because he wants everyone to stop believing in the good of communism. In order to achieve this, Kennedy employs deduction: He opens with a statement many people believe is true about communism. He continues mentioning a statement which some people think is true, and he finally talks about a statement which is believed by even a few people. By shifting from general points of view to particular premises, Kennedy makes the audience able to relate his sample statements to people they know in particular.
Another important rhetorical device in this paragraph is antonomasia. Kennedy does not distinguish between democracy and communism, but the free world and the Communist world. In substituting “free world” for “democracy”, Kennedy persuades the audience to believe that communism is the opposite of being free. By using this antonomasia, Kennedy does not allow his audience to make up its own opinion. He appeals to the audience’s emotions when he refers to a “free world”. In employing this pathos, Kennedy moves the West Berliners to seek for freedom and democracy instead of communism. He enforces this anti-communism rhetoric by employing the meiosis, “we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in – to prevent them from leaving us”. This belittling method has the effect that his audience is amused about the communist system.
The last and most important rhetorical device in this passage is the diacope, “Let them come to Berlin” because it is Kennedy’s repeated response to possible beliefs and disbeliefs that people have of communism and democracy. The diacope, “Let them come to Berlin” is also a refutation, because it is Kennedy’s answer to opposing arguments that he anticipates. Berlin became a focus of Cold War tensions between communism and democracy in the 1960’s. By employing the diacope, “Let them come to Berlin” Kennedy uses Berlin as an example in order to explain to everyone why communism does not coincide with democracy. In order to increase the memorability of this message, he enforces the diacope by translating it into his audience’s language: “Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen”. It is the second sentence that Kennedy says in German which shows that “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen” are the two most important sentences in his speech. As a result of Kennedy’s translation, German people remember these two sentences. “Ich bin ein Berliner” strongly expresses the first theme of American solidarity in Kennedy’s speech, and “Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen“ emphasizes the second theme of freedom.
Rhetorical devices support the two themes of this speech in both the English and the German version of “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The most important rhetorical devices of the English version that I have discussed already coincide with the ones of the German translation. Furthermore, both versions agree with the rhetorical occasion: Kennedy chooses the deliberative type of oratory for his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Kennedy appeals to the general good of the citizenry of Berlin. By saying, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free” Kennedy intends the well- being and happiness of as many people as possible. Kennedy seeks for the “advance of freedom everywhere” because it is his goal that the largest possible number of people benefits from freedom and democracy.
In addition, the English and the German version of “Ich bin ein Berliner” agree with the artistic proof Kennedy takes advantage of: he uses pathos, the psychology of emotion, in order to give his persuasive message its power to move his audience to action. Kennedy appeals pathetically to West Germany’s patriotism and to its freedom and unity in order to lead the audience to act against communism. Kennedy describes communism as, “an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together”. By employing the encomium, “the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’” he strengthens the West Berliners’ patriotism.
In the very first paragraph, the German translation differs from the English version of “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Kennedy begins his speech with the encomium, “I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor” in both versions in order to compliment his hearers to win their confidence. He gives Berlin’s mayor authority by praising him because he wants to get his sympathy. This encomium is important to the meaning of the speech, because Kennedy needs to win his audience’s confidence and sympathy. Therefore, it is used in the German translation, too. In contrast, there is a difference in the sentence length and structure in the first paragraph. The first paragraph of the English version consists of only two long sentences that appear to follow Kennedy’s mind as it worries the introduction through. This running style stands in contrast to the periodic sentences in the first paragraph of the German translation, which consists of three shorter but clearer sentences. The second sentence of the English version repeats the conjunction “and” five times (polysyndeton) in order to emphasize on how many good things the Chancellor has done. Another effect of employing this polysyndeton is that the audience recognizes the quantity of positive events that have happened in Berlin. According to the German version, Kennedy does not employ polysyndeton. Therefore, the effect of emphasis on quantity of positive actions misses. Other than sentence structure and sentence length differences between the English and the German version, the usage of rhetorical devices in both versions is very similar to each other.
In conclusion, John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is successful in persuading the audience that democracy is necessary in order to live in a free world. Kennedy employs great rhetorical devices to emphasize his themes of freedom and American solidarity in “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Kennedy chooses not only the right rhetorical devices to persuade his audience that communism does not coincide with democracy, but he also chooses the perfect time and place to give this speech (kairos). He “took the city by storm”(Heichler), and by employing kairos, Kennedy creates an unforgettable moment that could replace the words of the speech. The rhetorical situation and Kennedy’s usage of German language for the two most important sentences in the speech express the American solidarity and make the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech memorable to the German audience. I now understand why my mother and my father memorize the joyful June 26, 1963, the outstanding rhetorical situation, and Kennedy’s German words that he uses in the speech. The original English version employs more rhetorical devices than the German translation. However, the rhetorical devices used in the German version are sufficient to emphasize the two themes of freedom and American solidarity in the speech. My mother views Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” as the groundwork for the Cold War’s termination, which shows how successful and persuasive his speech is- even in German.
Bostdorff, Denise, and Goldzwig, Steven. “Idealism and pragmatism in
American foreign policy rhetoric: The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam.”
Presidential Studies Quarterly. 24 (2004) 1 par. 20 April 2004
Daum, Andreas. “Symbolic politics do matter: from ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ to the German
Way.” American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. 2002. 14 April 2004
Farber, David. The age of great dreams. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Heichler, Lucian. “I remember how Berlin mourned John F. Kennedy.” American Diplomacy.
30 May 2002. 14 April 2004
Jamieson, Kathleen H. Eloquence in an Electronic Age. Oxford, NY: Oxford University
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