Fifty Years Ago: Kennedy at Freie Universität

Prof. Dr. Peter-André Alt ist Präsident der Freien Universität Berlin
Professor Peter-André Alt is the president of Freie Universität Berlin. Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher
June 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the day John F. Kennedy visited Freie Universität. President Kennedy’s visit to Berlin was planned a long time ahead, eagerly anticipated since the day the Berlin Wall was built, surrounded by great expectations. In March 1963, well ahead of the visit, Shepard Stone, then the director of the Ford Foundation, in New York, had sent a telegram to Ernst Heinitz, the Rector of Freie Universität, recommending that the university invite the President to visit for a public ceremony honoring his achievements. A few days later, the Academic Senate decided to award Kennedy the title of Ehrenbürger, or honorary member, of Freie Universität – a distinction that was reserved, then as now, for a very few select honorees.

On April 10, 1963, the representative of the American mission in Berlin indicated that the President would be pleased to accept the invitation, and that he would certainly also want to say “a few words to the students.”

In fact, when he visited, on June 26, Kennedy gave a half-hour speech. The address outlined his views and was by no means limited to polite remarks. That morning, the President had spoken before a cheering throng of 400,000 in front of Schöneberg City Hall, announcing his support for Berlin and the American government’s commitment in terms of security policy.

That afternoon, in Dahlem – this time with a smaller audience of 20,000 – he changed his perspective. The main focus now was not on stirring the crowd’s emotions, but on presenting a sober analysis. His message: A policy of reconciliation was the only way to overcome the Cold War. Kennedy evoked a “wind of change” – thereby charting the course for a new strategy of understanding.

Those seated in the VIP stands in front of the Henry Ford Building on the afternoon of June 26, 1963, also included Berlin’s Governing Mayor, Willy Brandt, and the head of the Berlin Press and Information Office, Egon Bahr. Both of them took up the impetus sparked by Kennedy’s speech in the months that followed. Bahr called for “Wandel durch Annäherung” – change through rapprochement – to describe a policy of easing of tensions. Six years later, the coalition of social and liberal parties in power enacted that policy.

Kennedy had good reasons to choose Freie Universität as the site of his groundbreaking speech. The university had been founded just 15 years before, with American support. From the start, Freie Universität aimed to provide a counterpoint to ideological rigidity and dogmatic stubbornness, standing for academic independence, a cosmopolitan outlook, and the spirit of inquiry. Kennedy appealed to those same values when he called on the audience to be willing to take risks and dare to change their thinking. The fact that the first public announcement of the new policy of easing of tensions, in June 1963, came at Freie Universität is thus perfectly logical given the setting.

In celebrating this anniversary together with the Senate of Berlin and the Embassy of the United States of America, we are not merely commemorating past events, but also looking forward to another visit by an American president, on June 18 and 19, when Barack Obama comes to Berlin. Like Kennedy’s visit, Obama’s public appearance in the city is eagerly anticipated. Berlin has great symbolic value, since this is the right place for speeches that lay out big-picture views and policy plans, as John F. Kennedy’s visit showed.

By Peter-André Alt
The author is the president of Freie Universität Berlin.