Obama’s Berlin Speech Delivered the Right Message

WASHINGTON—Fifty years after John F. Kennedy made his iconic Berlin speech — with its famous line of “Ich bin ein Berliner” — the parallels to the one delivered by his successor Barack Obama last week are unavoidable. Both charismatic leaders assumed the U.S. presidency as symbols of hope and change, young representatives of new political generations and of excluded minorities. But their speeches were made in very different ways — and in very different Berlins.


Kennedy came to Berlin when the infamous Wall was just two years old and tensions were still high in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A crowd of 450,000 was present in front of the Schöneberg city hall, as Kennedy gave a tightly-knit and cohesive nine-minute speech in English, with an interpreter repeating his remarks in German. He was fired by emotion, having just seen the Wall for the first time a few hours earlier, and he departed from his prepared notes, improvising over half the speech, including its most famous line. Kennedy and his audience were as one, and his speech was interrupted by cheers and chants. Most importantly, Kennedy was emphatic and cared about Europe and Berlin, taking the time to work on his German pronunciation and connecting not only with his audience, but with all of West Berlin by driving through the city in an open car.

By contrast, just 4,500 selected people were present at Obama’s speech. The rambling 45-minute talk was delivered only in English to an audience that included a large number of U.S. high school students from the John F. Kennedy School. Obama was, as always, self-possessed, cool, and detached. He did not depart from his text and received polite applause from a sun-baked crowd that had stood in the Pariser Platz for over two hours. Due in part to the legacy of Kennedy’s assassination, Obama was isolated from his audience by a bulletproof screen and was kept in a security bubble throughout his time in Berlin.

Beyond these differences, what was important was the change in German-American relations reflected by the two speeches. Andreas W. Daum pointed out in his definitive study, Kennedy in Berlin, that when JFK came to West Berlin he made its citizens American Berliners. His visit to Berlin — a divided city with a menacing Soviet troop presence just on the other side of the wall — was the high point of the close and emotional connection between West Germany and the United States. Such a moment was unique, and no president since has come close to matching it because the conditions of the relationship have been fundamentally transformed. In Daum’s phrase, it is now Germany’s Berlin.

In referring to Kennedy’s speech, Obama pointed out that “Ich bin ein Berliner” was not all that he said. “Less remembered is the challenge that he issued to the crowd before him…Look, he said, ‘to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.’” Obama used these lines to make his main point: “complacency is not the character of great nations.” His intention was to nudge Angela Merkel’s reluctant new Germany into playing a larger role in Europe and beyond.


The differences between U.S. and German approaches to the euro crisis, the Middle East, and other issues reflect Germany’s evolution into an autonomous and sovereign country, which is now the most powerful in Europe yet seems reluctant to assume the responsibilities that come with this power. The U.S.-Germany relationship is no longer a Eurocentric one, but part of a global partnership in a time when rising powers may reshape the world in ways that threaten Western values. Obama’s long list of challenges is global and his call was for a new relationship centered on economic strength and values rather than on military power. His too brief reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is the basis on which the relationship is now based rather than on deterrence and the traditional security concerns that concerned Kennedy’s generation. Ultimately, while Obama’s message could have been more effectively delivered, it was the right one for this generation.

Stephen Szabo is the executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.

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