The author, a retired senior American diplomat, writes about experiencing the formal visit to Berlin thirty-five years ago of the charismatic American president, John F. Kennedy — “He took the city by storm.” Further, he recounts the memorable reaction of the German people to the young president’s assassination only months later. —Ed.
by Lucian Heichler
In the evening of November 22, 1963, the cultural affairs officer of U. S. Mission Berlin hosted a reception for young Fulbright scholarship students recently returned from their stay in the United States. When I arrived at his home a few minutes before eight, someone had turned on the radio to catch the AFN news. We heard the fateful words, “The President has been shot….” Within minutes the announcer confirmed the worst: “The President is dead.”
The reception ended immediately; the guests left quickly and quietly. Much the same thing was happening all over the city, but I did not know that yet. I learned only later that everywhere in West Berlin stage, film and concert performances ended abruptly, bars and restaurants closed, private dinners and parties broke up. Trained to respond like a homing pigeon, I headed straight for my office in the U. S. mission on Clay-Allee. A young Foreign Service officer assigned to the mission’s political section, I held the special and unusual position of liaison officer to the West Berlin city government, then headed by Governing Mayor Willy Brandt. Without waiting for a summons, a number of the military and Foreign Service officers on the staff of the U. S. Commander Berlin, the Berlin Brigade, and the U. S. mission [State Department] gathered at U. S. headquarters for what turned into an all-night vigil and working session in the “bunker,” the rarely used emergency operations center.
Almost eagerly we began to attend to mundane, practical matters, partly because it was necessary, partly because it helped us to deal with our own emotions. Once persuaded that there was no international crisis, no need to move to a higher stage of military alert, we became absorbed in questions of protocol — almost like a family suffering a sudden death: What needed to be done? None of us knew the procedures to be followed when a president dies in office. Manuals were consulted, cables were fired off to Washington requesting instructions.
We arranged to buy a number of so-called “condolence books” from Berlin stationery stores, books which would be placed in various public locations around the American Sector of Berlin and opened to people who might want to pay their respects by signing their names. No one dreamed that in the days which followed more than a quarter of a million people would stand patiently in block- long queues, waiting to sign these books. Our military colleagues searched frantically for what army protocol required under these circumstances and came up with a number of proposals, including a special review ceremony to mourn and honor the slain commander-in-chief. This review would be held on the parade grounds of Andrews Barracks, with German and Allied dignitaries invited.
By coincidence, the student councils of West Berlin’s two universities had met in joint session that evening. On learning the tragic news, they instantly adjourned and organized a torch-light procession of students to march to the Rathaus, West Ber-lin’s provisional city hall in the Borough of Schöneberg. As the students marched, thousands of other people joined the procession so that by midnight about 75,000 people stood in Rudolf-Wilde-Platz in front of the Rathaus, waiting for their mayor to say some words of comfort and reassurance to them.
Only that afternoon Willy Brandt had returned from an ex-hausting two-week swing around West Africa. He had gone to bed and was asleep, his wife Rut told us when we phoned his residence. Frantically, we insisted that he must be awakened to hear the terrible news. Thus it was that at one o’clock in the morning on November 23 Brandt appeared before the huge crowd assembled in front of city hall and announced to them that he personally would fly to Washington to represent Berlin at the funeral two days hence of the American president. At the hour of the funeral his deputy, Mayor Heinrich Albertz, would preside over a commemorative rally to be held in front of city hall — the same spot where Kennedy had addressed jubilant Berliners only a few months earlier.
The American military review to honor the memory of the fallen commander in chief was deeply moving. Never before or since have I witnessed the quiet, measured step — more of a loping stride than a march step — of infantry marching to the beat of muffled drums. The ceremony was concluded with the playing of “Taps,” rendered exceptionally moving by an echo effect achieved by two buglers posted at opposite ends of the parade ground, echoing the haunting melody back and forth between them. Brandt was so taken with this that he turned to me to ask that I make exactly the same arrangements for the Rathaus memorial service. I transmitted the Mayor’s request; accordingly, Berlin Brigade sent the two buglers downtown. One stood on the Rathaus roof, the other atop an office building across the square. The effect was every bit as beautiful as it had been at Andrews Barracks.
For Monday, the day of the funeral in Washington, U. S. military protocol prescribed that guns should be fired every minute on the minute, all through the long day, until evening. For this purpose Berlin Brigade drew up six 105-mm howitzers in the courtyard of American Headquarters, deploying three of the self-propelled guns on each side of the central flagpole. These guns fired in rotation, one every minute, like rhythmic, rolling thunder, all the day long, providing a somber background and punctuation to our work in the building.
About 4:30 in the afternoon that day a bugler and a platoon of infantry came marching up to the flag pole to conduct a simple retreat ceremony. Along with one or two other people still in the building I went downstairs to attend. I watched as the flag was slowly lowered; I listened to the bugler playing “Taps” against the background of the guns booming away with their sullen, somber regularity — and at that moment something snapped; I was finally overcome by emotion and gave way to tears.
That weekend, and in the days and weeks to follow, we Americans in Berlin received condolence calls and notes not only from many Berlin friends and neighbors but also, most movingly, from many total strangers. Waitresses we had hired for one dinner or reception called or wrote to express their sorrow and sympathy. Gradually it began to dawn on us what John F. Kennedy had really meant to these people, and especially to the youth of Germany and the world, how to them he had been a symbol of hope — one leader, at last, in whom they dared to place their confidence and their faith.
The hour of the Trauerfeier — literally the “festival of mourning” — at city hall drew nigh. Once again, as on that beautiful, sunny day in June, hundreds of thousands of Berliners filled the square in front of the Rathaus. But what a terrible contrast: In place of bright sunshine, cold drizzle in the foggy darkness, instead of cheering, chanting crowds, a sad and largely silent throng of mourners. For the first time since the occupation of Berlin, the city government had asked that an Allied military honor guard be posted there: A platoon of American soldiers stood at attention and presented arms across the front of the Rathaus. Mayor Albertz and other dignitaries delivered their eulogies.
As I sat among the other invited guests in the hastily erected bleachers, I reflected on the stark and terrible contrast between this sad hour and the electrifying moment when John Kennedy had stood here and told the madly cheering crowd, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
What a joyful day that had been! Kennedy won not only the hearts of the Berliners; he managed also to charm the rather cynical, hard-bitten officers who had worked for two months to prepare every detail of his eight-hour triumph in Berlin. I re-called every moment of that day and of our preparations for it with all their crises and frustrations, their bickering among allies, and their funny, even ludicrous moments:
Air Force One, a Boeing 707 four-engine jet, was too large to land at Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector. Only Tegel, a French air force base in the French sector of the city, had runways long enough to accommodate the president’s plane. Now, the American commandant, naturally enough, wanted to be first in line to shake the hand of his president. But the French commandant argued that since Tegel lay in his sector, he should have that honor. And Willy Brandt argued that it was, after all, his city; he was the host, and therefore. . . .
And then there was the problem of appropriate music for the arrival ceremony: We, the Americans, wanted the three Allied military bands to play the three Allied national anthems. But the British demurred: It was contrary to British protocol to play “God save the Queen” on this occasion; however, they would be glad to play the Star-Spangled Banner if we would play their anthem… And the Germans, naturally enough, wanted to play Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, but the Allies didn’t like that, especially the French, and they suggested that the Berlin Police band play Das ist die Berliner Luft, a popular and rather silly ditty. The Germans, naturally enough, considered this suggestion an insult to their national pride and dignity. And so it went, and in the end, of course, everything worked out perfectly.
John F. Kennedy came and took the city by storm. He solved our protocol problems by seeming to shake all proffered hands simultaneously. The route downtown from the airport, like all the routes taken in the course of the visit, was lined with people six rows deep, cheering wildly. Berlin gave itself a holiday, the like of which had not been seen in many, many years. A few poignant details stand out in my memory. By dint of my special position as liaison officer I was deeply involved in Kennedy’s stop at the Rathaus and his unforgettable speech on that occasion, plus the state dinner given there in his honor by the city fathers.
When President Kennedy spoke from the balcony of the city hall to the approximately one million people filling the square below, I stood behind him as a member of his entourage. German Chancellor Adenauer had made available to Kennedy his best Eng-lish-German interpreter, a Herr Weber, who stood next to the president at the railing of the balcony and interpreted his speech consecutively, one sentence at a time. When Kennedy reached the climax of his speech — the dramatic pronouncement “Ich bin ein Berliner” — Weber unthinkingly repeated the German phrase in German. While the crowd went wild, filling the air with cheers and chants and applause for several minutes, Kennedy, with his pixyish sense of humor, quickly leaned over and commented to the interpreter, “Thank you for correcting my pronunciation.” Only a few of us on the balcony at that moment were privileged to overhear this footnote to one of Kennedy’s most famous lines.
A mere five months later John Kennedy lay dead in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, and none of us were yet able to comprehend the senseless tragedy which had befallen us. How have the myth, the hope, the promise fared in Germany in the years since November 22, 1963?
Inevitably, Kennedy’s image has become somewhat tarnished over the years, and Europeans are less aware than knowledgeable Americans that Kennedy’s presidency was already beset by in-creasing difficulties when he was assassinated. Nevertheless, to a remarkable extent the myth of Camelot lives on, especially among the Germans east of the Elbe River, liberated from communist dictatorship only seven years ago. The Kennedy myth lives on.
1. Armed Forces Network
2. To be renamed “John F. Kennedy-Platz” only three days later
3. Today Tegel is Berlin’s international airport, and planning is going ahead to build a larger airport outside the city limits.
4. I wrote the initial draft of that speech — but I can take no credit for the inspired “Ich bin ein Berliner” passage.