Picture Berlin in 1963. A divided city, cut in half by a wall erected two years prior by the East German authorities. At the height of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy delivered his (in)famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg.
What was meant as an earnest message of support morphed into an urban myth and internet meme. Did Kennedy proclaim he was one of the Berlin residents? Or a jam-filled fried pastry?
What did Kennedy say?
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’
What’s a Berliner?
A Berliner is a resident of Berlin, male or of unspecified gender. Similar to English, German attaches the -er suffix to place names and forms nouns and adjectives denoting belonging to those places.
It’s also common for cities to give their name to traditional food items. This phenomenon is very present in the German language. Hamburger, Frankfurter and Wiener are some of the best known examples.
A famous German dessert is a ball of dough, filled with jam, fried and sprinkled with sugar. This seemingly banal pastry suffers from multiple personality syndrome. It’s called Berliner in most of Germany. In Berlin and parts of northern Germany, it’s Pfankuchen. In southern Germany and Austria, it’s Krapfen.
Many legends attempt to explain the origin and name of this doughnut. What is certain is that for centuries people in middle Europe have been eating stuffed fried balls of dough, first as a celebratory delicacy for Carnival and more recently as an everyday treat.
Anatomy of a myth
For years, an urban myth claimed that, in his speech, J.F. Kennedy unintentionally announced to the world he’s a jelly-filled doughnut. The reasoning went as follows: If the American president wanted to identify with the people of Berlin, he should have said “Ich bin Berliner”. The usage of the indefinite article ein robbed the sentence from its intended meaning and made every German laugh below their breath at this blunder.
The first recorded mention of the myth appears in Len Deighton’s 1983 spy novel Berlin Game. In it, the character Bernard Samson is quoted saying:
‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I said. It was a joke. A Berliner is a doughnut. The day after President Kennedy made his famous proclamation, Berlin cartoonists had a field day with talking doughnuts.
It’s important to note that Samson is an unreliable narrator. Even the author warns the reader against taking his words literally.
In its review of the book, the New York Times claimed:
Here is where President Kennedy announced, Ich bin ein Berliner, and thereby amused the city’s populace because in the local parlance a Berliner is a doughnut.
A 1988 op-ed titled “I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut” perpetuated the myth further.
Even David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest mentions the myth in the following passage:
Few foreigners realize that the German term Berliner is also the vulgate idiom for a common jelly doughnut, and thus that Kennedy’s seminal ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ was greeted by the Teutonic crowds with a delight only apparently political.
In the same year, Reinhold Aman, a native German speaker, debunked the myth in his book Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words. In the chapter Debunking Kennedy’s ‘I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut’, he sarcastically explains:
No intelligent native speaker of German tittered in Berlin when J.F.K. spoke, just as no native speaker of German, or one who does know this language, would titter if someone said, Ich bin ein Wiener or Hamburger or Frankfurter.
Grammar police to the rescue
The point of contention that gave birth to this myth is the supposedly wrong usage of the indefinite article ein. This claim is in fact not accurate. “Ich bin ein Berliner” is a perfectly correct sentence.
The usage of ein in this case denotes a metaphorical or figurative identification with the people of Berlin. Had the president said “Ich bin Berliner”, it would have been understood as him claiming to be literally a resident of Berlin, which obviously was not true.
It’s also crucial to keep in mind the context of the speech. Why would the strongest man in the world announce to the masses that he’s a doughnut? Unless a terrible conspiracy took place behind the scene, why would the native German speaker who wrote this part of the speech commit such an oversight?
Another important aspect is that the omission or addition of articles highly correlates with the North-South divide of the German language. Reinhold Aman pointed out in his book that Southern Germans tend to use articles in places where Northern Germans wouldn’t.
Let’s also not forget that the pastry in question is not even called Berliner in Berlin.
Mystery solved and myth debunked!