There were a few articles doing the rounds in the British press last week to commemorate John F. Kennedy’s speech 50 years ago in Berlin, on June 26th 1963. It was on this occasion that he, to declare his solidarity with the put-upon Berliners, said the famous words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Many of those stories chose to focus on his well-known grammatical faux pas, namely, that by including the indefinite article ‘ein’, a literal translation would have it that Kennedy believed himself to be a doughnut. Another thing one might learn from this is that the British press are as comfortable with German grammar as they are with schadenfreude.
It is true that in German it is incorrect to use the indefinite article when stating, for example, your nationality, profession or what city you come from. Kennedy should have said, ‘Ich bin Berliner’. However, it is argued by Berliners that since they themselves do not call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ but ‘Pfannkuchen’, their jubilation at his words was not caused by his unintentionally funny mistake. Kennedy came two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, which, in addition to tearing families and friends apart, yet again put the city on the front line, this time of the Cold War. To the Berliners gathered in front of Schöneberg Rathaus that little ‘ein’ sounded like a way for Kennedy to emphasise his message of solidarity, and they responded in kind.
Pastries it seems are a rich area for cultural misunderstandings. The rest of Germany, bar a few regional exceptions, call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ – as they do in Denmark, the supposed ancestral home of all buttery, flaky pastry. Except that in Denmark, Danish pastry, as the Americans and British call it, is known as ‘wienerbrød’ (Vienna bread). Just to make matters worse, there is another Danish pastry called a ‘spandauer’ – and Spandau is a town within the city limits of Berlin. In a parallel world, Kennedy might have made his speech in Spandau, which no doubt would have resulted in more Schadenfreude, this time from the Danish press. So pastries can get you into some sticky situations, indeed.