Kennedy, Obama and Berlin

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of JFK's historical "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, on June 26, 1963 at the Rathaus Schöneberg, then the seat of the West Berlin government. He also visited Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing point for U.S. Army service members in Berlin. On both occasions, he attracted hundreds of thousands of cheering West Berliners. Grown men cried, women were giving him their babies to kiss. Every factory, every office, every school was closed, so everybody could come. This is the standard Obama is held up against.

So, Obama seems to have lost his luster. My Berlin friends all sound jaded. They spent the visit mostly by posting jokes about surveillance on Facebook, actually, especially on Facebook, with this added "in your face" attitude (to attend Obama's speeches in person was impossible for mere mortals, due to security restrictions). Berliners dubbed his visit "Yes, we Scan," referring to the East German Stasi, here at a rally at Checkpoint Charlie, the same place Kennedy visited.

But was Kennedy so beloved, really? It is hard to tell from hindsight. Berlin in 1963 was a very, very different place than Berlin today. The Wall had just been built. The West saw itself as a bulwark of freedom, the East saw itself as a symbol of anti-fascism and equality. West-Berlin, at that time, was occupied by the Western Allies. The Allied Control Council dictated many aspects of city life, including who could own and run newspapers and radio stations. There was undercurrent mumbling that the Americans were just showboating, not really standing up to the Soviets, but people kept quiet. To criticize the American president, no matter whether it was a Democrat or a Republican, could get you fired as a journalist, and it was met with open hostiliy by some people on the street. West Berliners lost their job when they were seen as too sympathetic to the East. It was not until the Vietnam War when that changed.

Those mumblers were right, though. Many American politicians, including Kennedy, were relieved when the Wall was built. We know this today because the National Archives have declassified documents from the 1960s. But to voice these concerns then would get you labeled as a Commie and a conspiracy theorist.

Berlin today, however, is not only totally different in a political sense. Also, the population has changed practically completely. After all, by 1945 nearly half of the Berliners have been killed either by the Nazis or by allied bombings, or were driven out. Many soldiers died in the siege of Berlin, old people starved in the hunger winter afterwards. Infant mortality was 60 percent. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Berlin, first people fleeing the Red Army, then Easterners driven from Prussia and Silesia. Their first stop was Berlin. After the Wall was built, West-Berliners left the city in droves, Turkish and Greek migrants, college students, and draft dodgers moved in in huge numbers. And when the Wall came down, many more people came from all over the world, a lot of them from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, while West-Berliners headed for the suburbs.

In addition, also the political situation today is totally different, not only in Berlin, but also on the world stage. In 1963, Berliners were hoping that Americans would protect them from the next war. In 2013, Berliners are afraid that Americans will drag them even further into a war they have not signed up for in the first place.

So, to compare the reception Obama and Kennedy got does not make a lot of sense in any respect. It is just about appearances. After all, they both are (or were) boyish Democrats with a modern feel and a talent to talk. But Berlin then was not Berlin today and the Berliners then were not the Berliners today.

It does teach us, however, that it makes sense not to listen too much to pundits, but to what we, the people are telling about our own history, and to ask twice.