'Ich Bin Ein Berliner' Obama Invokes Kennedy in Speech

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy's legendary Berlin visit, Barack Obama wowed the city with a rousing speech at the Brandenburg Gate, saying all oppressed people are "citizens of Berlin" -- and urging the world to help free them.
US President Barack Obama in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: "We are also citizens of the world."

US President Barack Obama in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: "We are also citizens of the world."

Foto: Carsten Koall/ Getty Images

Not even the unseasonably hot summer haze could damper the enthusiasm as crowd members clutching fluttering German and American flags filed into Berlin's Pariser Platz on Wednesday. It's here, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, where President Barack Obama was to make his first public speech in the German capital city as the leader of the United States.

The flag-lined square was flanked with secret service and police, who perched on the roofs of buildings and weaved in and out of the some 4,000 invited audience members braving the glaring sunlight. In the crowd, there was an almost American vibe, with copious brimmed hats, women lithely fanning themselves and men in short-sleeved button-ups and suspenders. One bleacher, holding some 600 high school-age students of the local John F. Kennedy international school, showed particular ardor by chanting "Obama" in unison and doing the wave as the 3 p.m. start time neared.

A violinist warmed up the crowd, beginning with a vaguely celtic version of the American national anthem and then segueing into Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" over a backing track. He announced that his next song was at the president's request. "It's Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in America,'" he said before breaking into a rendition of "Born in the USA."

Finally Obama took the stage, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit.

After brief comments by the mayor and the chancellor, Obama approached the microphone. It's been pointed out that Merkel and Obama have very different public personas, and this couldn't have been clearer than in the contrast between the chancellor's somewhat subdued introduction and the president's booming "Hello, Berlin!," which was met with thunderous applause.

Yet Obama was quick to point out a similarity between the two leaders: "Angela and I don't exactly look like previous German and American leaders," he said after thanking the first female chancellor for her friendship. He then removed his jacket, citing the weather. "We can be a little more informal among friends," he quipped to cheers from the crowd.

'Ich Bin ein Berliner'

As expected, President Obama, who gave his speech behind dramatic panes of bulletproof glass as sweat dripped down his forehead, made heavy reference to Kennedy's iconic 1963 Berlin speech. He recalled the former US president's historic sound bite before asking the audience to look past it.

"That's not all that he said that day," he said. "Less remembered is the challenge that he issued to the crowd before him: 'Let me ask you,' he said to those Berliners, 'let me ask you to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today' and 'beyond the freedom of merely this city.' Look, he said, 'to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.'"

Obama went on to apply Kennedy's notion of "peace with justice" to the contemporary world. He referenced poverty and the mass unemployment that has followed the global debt crisis, and touched on race, religion and gender discrimination, specifically mentioning equality of sexual orientation less than two weeks after a German court ordered that same-sex partnerships be given the same tax benefits as married couples.

"And if we lift our eyes, as President Kennedy called us to do, then we'll recognize that our work is not yet done," Obama continued. "For we are not only citizens of America or Germany -- we are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before."

Obama then touched -- albeit vaguely -- on the NSA spying scandal, the closing of Guantanamo Bay and the American drone program. He was more concrete on the subject of nuclear disarmament, which he pledged to tackle in the coming years in cooperation with Russia. But the parallels between the issues of today and the history of Berlin, in particular, seemed to go over well with the crowd, which remained in good spirits despite the unrelenting heat.

'It Felt Like They Were Standoffish'

"I really liked how he tied in the history of Berlin with current issues," said Esther Stern, a 16-year-old from Braunschweig who had come to Berlin with a group from her high school. "In spite of the heat, it was great! He's a very good speaker -- different than when you see him on TV," she continued.

Some were slightly more critical, however, like Will Giles, a 20-year-old political science student in Berlin on a semester abroad from Duke University in the US. "It was interesting to observe the Merkel-Obama dynamic," said Giles. "You can tell by body language what people really think of each other, and it felt like they were kind of standoffish."

At the bleacher of local international students, however, the take-away was undoubtedly positive.

"It was definitely worth the six hours of waiting and boiling," said 14-year-old Emma Defty, standing in a rare shady spot as her fellow students filed out behind her. "It was also great that he talked about Kennedy, because he and Kennedy are a lot alike I think. They're on the younger side and they really speak to the public. They seem somehow… human."

"I think he really earned sympathy points when he took off his jacket," added her friend Elisabeth Evans, 13. "It's like we're all friends!"

"And I liked that he talked about global warming," Defty said. "Yeah," Evans rejoined, "because it never gets this hot!"

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