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Steve Haycox: Sober reflection in Germany; cautionary lesson for America

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 27, 2013

This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy's speech in Berlin dramatically declaring U.S. support for the people of West Berlin and West Germany, 22 months after the communist government in East Berlin constructed the Berlin Wall to keep East Berliners and East Germans from migrating to the West. This is the speech in which Kennedy spoke the memorable phrase, "Ich bin ein Berliner," meaning, I count myself as one with the people of Berlin, figuratively a Berliner. The phrase was meant to convey America's support for West Berlin in the face of increasing pressure on the isolated city by the Soviet Russian government and its client state, East Germany.

The 50th anniversary of the speech was a major event in Germany, particularly in Berlin. The Berlin Wall went up just over a decade after the Berlin Airlift, the Western Allies' response to the Soviet closing of the road, rail and canal corridor through East Germany into West Berlin from West Germany that had been provided for in postwar agreements. Beginning on June 24, 1948, over the ensuing 11 months Allied air forces flew more than 200,000 flights into Berlin, bringing vital supplies to sustain life. The success of the airlift led to the founding of the two states of West and East Germany, Bundesrepublik Deutschland and Deutsche DemokratischesRepublik.

The memory of the airlift was still fresh in 1963 when Kennedy challenged Nikita Khrushchev and East German head of state Walter Ulbricht. Berliners expressed considerable anxiety over the belligerent Soviet stance represented by the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the aggressive measures East German army and police personnel took in making it impenetrable, which included shooting people attempting to scale, undermine or otherwise breach it. Kennedy's speech was prelude to a significant buildup of American and NATO armament in Western Europe, a major escalation of the Cold War.

Before going to Berlin, Kennedy stopped in the West German capital, Bonn, and the nearby major city, Cologne, meeting with Federal Republic chancellor Konrad Adenauer. A former mayor of Cologne, Adenauer had been anti-Nazi before and during World War II, living part of the time in the sanctuary of a Benedictine monastery. With American and Allied support, he led West Germany through postwar reconstruction and the recovery of the German economy.

Culturally, that reconstruction involved coming to grips with what happened to Germany and Germans under the Nazis. There was no denial in Germany that the Nazi period was criminal; if nothing else, the Holocaust confirmed the criminality of the regime and the era. But grappling with the question of responsibility has always been tricky. For several decades it was something difficult to talk about; the focus was on moving ahead and putting the past behind. And many claimed not to have been active Nazi party members or apparatchiks. But slowly, as writers and historians began to probe the lives of ordinary Germans, more and more stories of both active and tacit Nazi sympathy surfaced. For many it was the very human matter of going along to get along. Christopher Browning reviewed several new books on this theme recently in The New York Review of Books.

Historians have identified two major cultural strains that help make sense of the Nazi period. The first was a conviction of German exceptionality, that Germany was a more civilized and intellectually advanced culture than others, and therefore deserved to dominate. Think of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; Leibnitz, Kant and Nietzsche; Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck and Einstein. The second was a dismissive racism, not just regarding Jews, which the Germans shared with most other advanced cultures, but in relation to Poles, Slavs, the peoples of the Balkans and eastward, in particular. Both elements helped the Nazis persuade much of the general German populace that conquest was appropriate and ethnic slaughter justified. As several new books have chronicled, Russians too saw the same people as expendable.

Both of these cultural elements bear an uncomfortable resemblance to America, where exceptionalism still reigns, and the racist past continues to show its ugly presence in contemporary society and politics, an instructive comparison.

In Germany, the anniversary of Kennedy's speech has generated concerted reflection, the useful role of any commemoration.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox


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