Andreas Daum: Berlin an Appropriate Stage for Obama Speech Says Historian

Historians in the News

Berlin is a much different city today than it was when presidents Kennedy and Reagan delivered iconic remarks there, but it remains an appropriate setting from which Barack Obama can deliver an important message about global relations, according to a University at Buffalo history professor who wrote a book about John F. Kennedy's famous speech in Berlin.

"A spectacle is guaranteed on Thursday when Obama gives his speech, but the more serious question is: How will the United States define its relationship to a Europe that has dramatically changed since the days of the Cold War," says Andreas Daum, Ph.D., author of "Kennedy in Berlin," released this year by Cambridge University Press.

"For Obama, I think Berlin is a reference to old Europe, and giving a speech in Berlin is a way to tell Europeans that he's interested in developing a unified approach to global challenges, such as terrorism and global warming, that affect us all."

In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy provided the world with an iconic moment when he visited the then-divided city of Berlin and gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in front of jubilant crowd of more than 400,000. In 1987, Ronald Reagan used the backdrop of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate to call on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this (Berlin) Wall."

In both cases, Daum notes, the city of Berlin was regarded as one of the most important arenas and political stages of the world.

"And now Obama gets his turn on this stage, yet in a very different Germany, 19 years after the Wall came down," Daum says.

After Kennedy, presidents Reagan, Carter and Clinton each included German phrases in speeches delivered in Berlin. But Daum thinks Obama should forgo this obvious linguistic ploy.

"I think it's risky," he says. "He might mispronounce some words and it might be perceived as unoriginal by the European audience."

Legend has it that Kennedy misspoke when he uttered in German his famous "I am a Berliner" line and mistakenly said "I am a jelly doughnut." Daum, however, calls the legend "nonsense."

"Kennedy's German was perfectly fine and no one in Germany questioned the sentence at the time," Daum says. "If the legend helps us remember JFK's visit to Berlin, then perhaps it has its purpose in popular culture."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.
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