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June 28, 2023

2023 JFK Anniversary Rathaus Schöneberg

Thank you, Mayor Oltmann.

During the 1000 days of President Kennedy’s administration, I was just a schoolgirl. But I can recall the time as if it were yesterday. The President’s call to public service inspired me.  It has influenced my scholarship and my public service in defense of democracy to this day. Kennedy was a global citizen of democracy. He spoke directly to his fellow citizens across the world, asking “what together we can do for the freedom” of all.  Hundreds of millions were inspired by his spirit of hope and idealism.  This spirit resonated right here where we stand today, when President Kennedy visited West Berlin.

The Cold War was becoming more dangerous.  Both sides possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world, many times over.  A wall violently divided West from East. Families and communities were torn apart. President Kennedy’s motorcade toured the city.  Lining the streets to welcome him were over one million Berliners.  Their outpouring spoke volumes to the tragedy of a divided city, made even more moving after stops at Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, next to the killing zone blocking all roads to East Berlin.

President Kennedy was scheduled to speak here at Schöneberg Rathaus.  A huge crowd had gathered here.

When he arrived, he was greeted by roars of welcome that continued throughout his speech, reaching a crescendo when he spoke four words in German that he had added to his speech at the last minute during his tour of Berlin. Four words in German. Four simple words, emanating from the heart: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  The rest is history.

These four simple words reminded Berliners and the world of the Airlift of 1948.  And of how, without firing a shot, the allies brought West Berliners the food and supplies they needed during the Soviet blockade.

Four words that linked the United States  to freedom’s struggle here in Berlin and Germany.  President Kennedy stood up for the rights of Berliners, Germans, and all people to lives of freedom, peace, and opportunity in a democracy.  These values will prevail.

We all now know: The wall did fall.  Germany was reunited.  Democracy prevailed in Germany, and it spread throughout Eastern Europe.  Few of us here today are old enough to remember that world divided, a world built along the fault-lines of the Cold War.

Yet it is essential that every generation—whether we were born after World War II and the Holocaust, after the Airlift, after the Wall went up and came down, after 9/11, or yes, even after Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine—all of us recognize that global citizenship was born right here in this city, out of dictatorship, war, repression, and division.  JFK joined Berliners to be the face of a new era.

Sixteen months ago, Vladimir Putin launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

No one can turn their eyes away from the atrocities Russia is committing against the Ukrainian people.

Our democracies and our freedom are under attack.  They and we are being tested.

The world today is also divided and dangerous, as it was when President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963.  Yet I still see that spirit that JFK inspired in my generation in the way Germans today have opened their hearts and home to victims of war.  I see it in the way our young activists are working for a better climate future now.

And I see it in the way our transatlantic partnership has come together to say “Wir sind Ukrainer.” Ambassador Makeiev, just as we stood up for the people of Berlin 60 years ago, we support the people of Ukraine as they defend their country, freedom, and future.  Thanks to the courage and determination of Ukrainians, Ukraine will proudly remain a sovereign and independent nation.  And we will be with you as long as it takes for democratic sovereignty and peace to prevail.

Governing Mayor Wegner, friends and fellow Berliners, in the Kennedy tradition, I am proud to be “eine Berlinerin.” And to join together here with you today to champion the rights of Ukrainians and all whose freedom is under attack.  For as long as it takes.  We will never cease to answer that historic call by President Kennedy and the citizens of Berlin: what can we do together for the freedom of all?

(Note: This speech is part of a series of events commemorating the anniversary.)