Fifty years ago today John F. Kennedy made one of the most memorable and important speeches in US Presidential History. In Berlin.
And, dear reader, I was there.
Odd, true, quaint, ridiculous, but my 20 year old self just happened to be in West Berlin when he made that historic address.
I watched his cavalcade go by, with Konrad Adenauer the West German Chancellor and Willy Brandt, the florid faced legendary mayor of West Germany, followed finally by the smiling JFK.
How should I happen to be there? Well it happened after this wise:
I was at the end of my first year at Cambridge and my old school friend Alan Sinfield and I were hitch hiking around Germany for the second year running.
The previous year’s adventure had almost ended in disaster when, just outside Stuttgart we were offered a ride by a flash geezer and his girlfriend in a fast Mercedes. Where were we going? Munich. Happy to take you there, climb in boys, this is my girlfriend Berthe. A tubby cheeked smiling Fraulein. Hello, how are you, throw your rucksacks in the trunk of the car and away we go, rollicking along the autobahn at high speed nach Munchen.
Half way there we stopped for lunch and he paid for everything. He offered to show us the famous Hoffbrauhaus in Munich and take us to dinner there. Better yet he would put us all up at a Pensione and next day we would set off for Vienna. Were we up for that? Were we ever. Wow. This was the best lift in the world.
We checked into a delicious little Pensione, two adjacent double rooms, one for him and his girlfriend and one for us. If we wouldn’t mind waiting with his girlfriend while he popped out to make a dinner reservation and gas the car? Of course not. Happy to.
After about an hour when he hadn’t returned we began to worry. Had something terrible happened? Was he ok? After two hours we were very concerned. Our rucksacks were in the back of his car, passports, travelers checks, sleeping bags, clothing, everything we owned in the world. We questioned his girlfriend. Where was he? She crumbled into tears. She wasn’t really his girlfriend. She too had only just met him. He had picked her up in Pforzheim just before us in Stuttgart. He had promised her the world and now done a runner. With all our stuff. Oh shit. It was a Friday evening. We had no money. We had no passports. The British Embassy was closed. It wouldn’t open until Monday. The Munich Police took a list of everything that was in the rucksacks. They weren’t interested in us but they were quite interested in him. Turned out he was a known North German criminal from Hamburg on the run, fleeing southwards to Italy.
Broke and hungry we spent the weekend sleeping in the Munich train station before being issued with temporary passports and enough cash for us to hitch hike home.
Amazingly, eventually, the rucksacks were returned by the Munich police. Ah that German efficiency…
The second year (1963) we were better organized. Mark had turned up a distant relative in Berlin. We would hitch hike through Belgium and into Germany and see if we could get to Berlin. We slept rough, sometimes in fields, often in unfinished building sites which offered us shelter from the elements. But hey it was June, the sun shone and we saw Heidelberg and visited a Schloss on the Rhine where we saw Charles Vth’s signature, the autograph of a Holy Roman Emperor. Nuremburg was quaint and the medieval city, which had been almost totally destroyed by the Allied Air forces, had been completely rebuilt. We visited the Albrecht Durer museum and of course stood on the spot where Hitler had given his largest rally.
In Nuremburg we learned that we would be forced to take a bus to Berlin. Berlin was an island, between us and it was East Germany. And hence the importance of the Kennedy visit. The East Germans had just built the wall separating East from West Berlin. As they said, to keep the fascists out, but really, as everyone knew to keep their people in.
In 1948 Stalin had closed all borders into Berlin, and America and Britain had come to the rescue of the starving two million citizens with the Berlin Air Lift, an incredible exercise in supplying everything needed to stay alive by air for 18 months before the Russians gave in and re-opened the road and rail links to the West.
Now Kennedy was coming to pay his respects to the City which had stood for freedom against the Stalinist iron curtain.
And we were heading directly for it, without a clue. We had no idea. We had been hitch hiking for about ten days. No newspapers. No TV. No radio. We were free and on the road across Europe like Laurie Lee tra la la, tra la lee.
So, in total ignorance, we bought tickets for a bus ride from Nuremburg to Berlin. We were the only foreigners on the coach. Two young English boys. At the Border Control into East Germany armed guards pulled us off the bus. What? Where were we going? Why? Menacing men with red ribboned caps grilled us. Our fellow passengers stared mutely at us through the windows of the coach. There was a great deal of barbed wire. Would they let us in? Would they let us out? Surely we knew. What? Herr Ulbricht the great leader of East Germany was visiting East Berlin. Oh. And also Kennedy was visiting West Berlin. Oh.
I suppose we convinced them that two English spies would not be so dumb as to claim they didn’t even know about these events making headlines round the world, for, finally, they let us back on the bus and we travelled the barbed wire fenced AutoRoute through the Democratic Socialist Republic of East Germany into the glittering city of Berlin. Which was en fete. Everyone was happy and excited. The great Kennedy was coming to visit. He would see for himself the Berlin wall.
Mark’s distant relatives turned out to be a charming couple with young children in a nice house in a pleasant leafy suburb of Berlin. We were comfortable, fed and welcomed. Next day we joined the throngs heading for the center of town. And there we waited for a long time with a patient crowd with little German flags and little American flags until finally a huge cavalcade of cars came into view along the linden tree lined street. Big Cadillac’s, buses packed with Press Corps, big wigs stared at us. Not since the Nazis had there been a parade this size. And then finally in an open necked car, the President himself, JFK, larger than life, with that huge head of hair and that glowing healthy color of wealthy men who spend time on Yachts.
Kennedy smiled the Kennedy smile and the crowd went wild and he waved at us and suddenly they were gone and we all went home happily to watch the rest of the show on TV.
“Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Eddie Izzard is wrong when he repeats the gaffe that it means “I am a Doughnut” in German. It’s a good joke. But it’s not true. It’s perfectly good German.
The real point is that within half an hour the Berlin streets were filled with merchandise and glossy handouts of a smiling Kennedy with the legendary words underneath. Somebody knew this was coming.
Next day we went through the Berlin wall via Checkpoint Charlie into the cheerless world of the workers’ paradise. But that’s another story.
On the way back we were once again pulled off the bus by East German guards and heavily grilled. They went through our stuff and confiscated every single picture of The Wall. Really? You think in the West we don’t know it’s there? Finally they let us go. Cheerio then.
But still, isn’t it odd to think that I was there fifty years ago today, for a single moment in history in just the right place at just the right time.