In honor of the long-awaited return of the critically beloved TV drama Mad Men, we’ve asked Jeopardy! fixture Ken Jennings to educate us on some of the most persistent myths from the Mad Men era. Last month he set us straight on the 1950s; this month, we’re moving right into the turbulent 1960s. It’s often said that anyone who remembers the sixties wasn’t actually there, but luckily Ken was born a decade later, when most of the pot smoke had dispersed and all the go-go boots and lava lamps had been moved to the nation’s attics. So he’s pretty much an expert.
Sixties Myth #3: When JFK Said “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” He Claimed to Be a Donut.
In June 1963, President Kennedy gave one of his most iconic speeches, standing on the steps of a Berlin town hall in front of hundreds of thousands of German spectators. West Berlin had recently been barricaded by Soviet barbed-wire and concrete, and Kennedy’s speech expressed solidarity with the citizens of the besieged city. He ended his speech by claiming that free men everywhere take pride in the boast “Ich bin ein Berliner”—“I am a Berliner,” a line he delivered in thickly Boston-accented German to a roar of approval from the crowd.
But twenty years later, a legend had arisen that Kennedy had ludicrously botched his German. The correct way to say “I am a Berliner,” the story went, would have been to say “Ich bin Berliner.” By adding the article “ein,” Kennedy had supposedly told a confused audience, “I am a jelly doughnut!” The claim was boosted when it appeared in a 1983 Len Deighton spy novel and within five years had been confirmed as fact by Time magazine, the BBC, and The New York Times as well.
It’s true that Germans do call jelly doughnuts “Berlin pancakes” (Berliner Pfannkuchen, seen at left), but in the Berlin area, they’re never called “Berliners,” just “Pfannkuchen.” What’s more, German scholars say that “Ich bin Berliner” is the correct way to conversationally remark, “I’m from Berlin,” but to make a more formal, allegorical claim like Kennedy’s, the “ein” was absolutely the right phrasing. So JFK’s famous speech didn’t mention doughnuts after all. If only we could say the same about Bill Clinton.
Quick Quiz: In many parts of the U.S., jelly donuts covered with powdered sugar are named for what famous German?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user Olivier Bruchez. Used under a Creative Commons License.