29 March 2011

Memorable speeches in Berlin revisited

Before leaving for a few days in Berlin last week, I posted a note about my first visit to the city in 1964 (HERE), one year after John F. Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner speech and more than twenty years before Ronald Reagan challenged Mr Gorbachev to open this gate and tear down this wall.

On arriving home, I heard Ed Miliband making a not very successful attempt at delivering a memorable speech, in which he sought to identify with the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and the suffragettes (HERE).

Coming so closely together, these two events got me thinking again about something I've blogged about before, namely the question of what makes a speech memorable? Of the speeches mentioned in that particular post, I noted:

'.. what, if anything, did these particular speeches have in common that made them stand out as more memorable than most?

'The best I’ve been able to come up with is that, in each case, the speaker managed to hit the jackpot by saying something that struck just the right chord with just the right audience in just the right place at just the right moment in history – which means that it’s more or less impossible to predict ‘memorability’ with any certainty in advance of any particular speech - though I did wonder whether this was what Barack Obama had in mind when he tried unsuccessfully to speak at the Brandenburg Gate when visiting Berlin last year – given the previous Berlin successes of Kennedy in 1961 and Ronald Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall’ in 1987.'

Right chord, right audience, right place, right time
Given that Ed Miliband's speech at the weekend arguably failed to hit the mark on any of these counts, it's hardly surprising that it didn't get a very good press - and, though I don't often make predictions, I'd say that there's not much chance of its going down in history as 'memorable' - unlike those by Kennedy and Reagan in Berlin, both of which scored highly on all of these attributes.

Since my last visit to the city in 1964, it had changed almost beyond recognition. Being able to wander around the Brandenberg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and some of the remaining segments of the wall (without fear of being noticed or harassed by armed guards) is quite a moving experience if you'd seen what it was like just after the wall had been built.

As a speeches anorak, I found lines from Kennedy and Reagan coming back to me and kept wondering what it must have been like to have been there listening to them speak in the shadow of the wall. On arriving home, I watched both of them again and wasn't disappointed.

If you're too young to remember them or have never seen them, a few minutes looking at them will be time well spent.

John F. Kennedy, 1963
Although some have claimed that "Ich bin ein Berliner" means "I am a doughnut" and that JFK should have said "Ich bin Berliner", my German friends assure me that both options are equally acceptable ways of saying "I am a Berliner."

Three technically impressive points are worth noting:
  1. His final line repeats and harks back to his first use of it at the beginning of the speech - always an impressive technique for creating a neat impression of overall structural unity (Lend Me Your Ears, pp. 292-293).
  2. The first appearance of Ich bin ein Berliner came as the second part of a past-present contrast, further strengthened by the contrast between Latin and German versions of the 'proudest boast'.
  3. The repetition of "Let them come to Berlin", concluding with more words in German, was greeted by repeated cheers and applause from the audience. Had "Ich bin ein Berliner"not struck such a powerful chord, the speech might well have become known as the "Let them come to Berlin" speech - just as the repetitive use of "I have a dream" by Martin Luther King became the name of another great speech in Washington two months later.

I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin. And I am proud -- And I am proud to visit the Federal Republic with your distinguished Chancellor who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress, and to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed.

Two thousand years ago --
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum." Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner."

(I appreciate my interpreter translating my German.)

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world.

Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say -- There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.

Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen.

Let them come to Berlin

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in -- to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope, and the determination of the city of West Berlin.

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system -- for all the world to see -- we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

What is -- What is true of this city is true of Germany: Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.

You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we look -- can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All -- All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Ronald Reagan, 1987
The most famous lines were by no means the first impressive parts of the speech. Other points worth noting included:
  1. The target audiences had been clearly analysed in advance (Step 1 in preparing a speech or presentation, Lend Me Your Ears, pp. 280-286): "Our gathering today is being broadcast throughout Western Europe and North America. I understand that it is being seen and heard as well in the East. To those listening throughout Eastern Europe, I extend my warmest greetings and the good will of the American people. To those listening in East Berlin, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me. For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin].
  2. Powerful imagery: "those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers."
  3. Powerful use of contrasts: "President Von Weizs├Ącker has said, 'The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed.' Well today -- today I say: As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind."

Script of video clip
And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

For full script and video, see HERE and HERE.

Other Posts on Kennedy & Reagan

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