JFK in Germany: Rare and Classic Photos, 1963
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First off, let’s get the whole jelly-doughnut fiction out of the way. For decades, people have been chuckling over the oft-repeated “fact” that when he delivered his now-famous speech at Berlin’s Schöneberg city hall in June 1963, John F. Kennedy flubbed the oration’s critical line. Instead of declaring his solidarity with the German people with a rousing, “I am a Berliner!” (Ich bin Berliner) — so the story goes — Kennedy instead proclaimed, “I am a jelly doughnut!” (Ich bin ein Berliner).
It’s a pretty good story, and it’s even more comical when it’s repeated, as it has been countless times in the subsequent decades, in JFK’s distinctive Boston accent and with his unique cadence. Alas, for comedians and for cocktail-party trivia experts everywhere, Kennedy’s assertion was not only perfectly comprehensible, but positively stirring, to the thousands of Germans who saw his speech live and to the millions of others who heard it on the radio or saw it on TV.
“I am a Berliner!” It might not be as hilarious as the apocryphal jelly-doughnut line — but five decades on, JFK’s simple declaration still feels inspiring.
Don’t take our word for it; judge for yourself:
Here, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s June 26, 1963, Berlin speech, LIFE.com recalls not only that one historic moment, but the look and the feel — the unprecedented energy — of his trip to Germany. Kennedy drew boisterous and, for the most part, adoring crowds wherever he traveled, and less than two decades after the end of World War II, in a West Germany that was now an American ally, was received as something of a rock star by young and old alike.
Staged less than five months before his assassination would stun the world, in a nation ripped apart by competing ideologies and by the brute, concrete symbol of the Cold War — the Berlin Wall — JFK’s triumphant German tour was one of the earliest and most poignant watersheds of the 1960s. As America moved deeper into the decade, and as violence seemed to erupt from every seam in the culture — the terrorist church bombing in Birmingham mere months later; the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy; the war in Vietnam; the Mansons; Altamont and on and on — the promise of a new, re-imagined and perhaps even morally ascendant United States flickered, and faded.
Writing in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas less than a decade after JFK’s assassination, Hunter S. Thompson caught — in the book’s famous “wave speech” — that same sense of a rare, marvelous opportunity lost. Here, truncated, is part of that passage from that singular book:
It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again…. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Thompson was writing, of course, about the intense, brief period in the Sixties when it felt like the forces of violence and Puritanism in America — and maybe even around the world — might finally be on the run. But he might as well have been describing the beginning of the end of the Kennedy era, as well — an era that was, in part, defined by a speech given by a young American president on a summer day in Berlin in 1963.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com