On the Double Meaning of Being a Berliner

Imagine you’re at the absolute Ground Zero of the Cold War — Berlin. The City is divided between West (backed by Britain, the US, and France) and East (backed by the Soviet Union). The Berlin Wall had just been built. Tensions between East and West couldn’t be higher.

In June 1963, a young President Kennedy stepped into this Ground Zero. He was in Berlin to give a stirring speech at the base of the Wall, telling West Berliners that the United States stood with them in defiance of the Soviet-backed East German government.

And what did he do? He stood up and said, over and over, “I am a jam doughnut.” Only in the madness of the Cold War could something so absurd take place. And only a young and inexperienced President could mangle the German passages in his speech in such a ridiculous fashion.

But you guessed it, Buzzkillers. The whole “I am a jam doughnut,” story about JFK’s speech is a myth. At the very least it’s a major misconception.

President Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He meant “I am a Berliner,” a statement of solidarity with besieged West Berlin citizens. But word soon spread that Kennedy had misspoke and said that he was a popular pastry known in Germany as a “Berliner.” The story spread as all urban legends do, without backing evidence but with a great deal of delight by those looking for a good story that punctured Kennedy’s image.

Germans, and citizens of Berlin, however, were never confused about what JFK meant. First of all, the pastry in question wasn’t called a Berliner in Berlin itself, only in provincial Germany. Secondly, the people of Berlin weren’t idiots. The context of JFK’s statement made it perfectly clear that he meant “I am a citizen of Berlin,” despite the fact that “Ich bin Berliner” would have pleased grammar pedants as the more correct way to express JFK’s sentiments. But “Ich bin ein Berliner” was good enough.

Just think of it, Buzzkillers, saying you’re a New Yorker doesn’t make you a magazine!

JFK Disclaims Donut Myth

JFK Disclaims Donut Myth: Photo Illustration using Cecil Stoughton, White House, photo from National Archives.