Two Generations Talk about Kennedy's Visit in Dahlem
Heinz Fortak, 86, was one of the youngest professors at Freie Universität when Kennedy visited.
Jun 05, 2013
One was still a student, the other was already a professor. But Winfried Fluck and Heinz Fortak have one thing in common to this day: Neither one has ever experienced anything like the sense of community that they shared with the crowd of some 20,000 viewers who turned out to hear John F. Kennedy speak in front of the Henry Ford Building on June 26, 1963. In this interview, the two of them share their memories of June 1963.
Professor Fortak and Professor Fluck, what was the mood in the city in the days and hours before the visit?
HEINZ FORTAK: Just days earlier, on June 21, 1963, the American Secretary of State Dean Rusk had made an important guarantee statement for the security of West Berlin. Kennedy's visit reconfirmed this guarantee. That was exceedingly important for those of us who lived in West Berlin because we were repeatedly made to feel insecure by the threats of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
WINFRIED FLUCK: The significance of the visit was apparent to all of us, there was great anticipation and even excitement. I grew up in West Berlin, in a working-class home in Kreuzberg. We also experienced the situation very intensely, the island location of the western part of the city, even before the threats by Khrushchev. Whenever we traveled to the Federal Republic of Germany, we were re-confronted with the dependent status of West Berlin. Basically we had no means of resistance; we were totally dependent on the Allies and their support.
Can you describe the mood from the perspective of a student?
FLUCK: For the younger people, not only the students, the importance of this visit and the figure of Kennedy in general were mixed with certain attitudes toward American culture. Kennedy basically came to Berlin as an American hero, not only because of the political commitments, but also because he embodied certain qualities and manifestations of American culture that the younger generation found to be refreshing.
How was the mood among the professors?
FORTAK: Approval for Kennedy as a person was unanimously positive, perhaps especially strong in me. In 1960 I had accepted a tenured position as a professor at an American university and had moved with my family to the United States. We were very interested in the fate of the U.S. Of course, we were also fully behind him in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. His firm stance in this dangerous situation had strongly increased our trust in him.
Which passage of the speech do you particularly remember?
FORTAK: Overall, I was very moved by the entire speech, although there were certain statements that we had expected and that we had heard before. The renewed emphasis on the freedom of the Western world and the dissociation from ideology and the claim to power of the East were parts of his speech that were in line with our beliefs.
FLUCK: I would also say that was the usual rhetoric of the time. The formulations were quite established by then. American politicians had to make assurances that the United States was supporting Berlin, and that there was no doubt about it. I don't remember too many details about what he said, but rather the general atmosphere of the scene, the great excitement that prevailed, and the tumultuous applause. It was actually like a royal visit. That this politician would actually come to Berlin! It was practically the equivalent of the king of the Western world. His reception on the streets of Berlin was accordingly enthusiastic.
FORTAK: My feelings that day were influenced in part by the physical setting. I was standing above and behind Kennedy, in front of the Henry Ford Building, which at the time was the university’s main building. I had an excellent view of the event: people, people, and more people, everywhere you looked. The Henry Ford Building and the University Library had been built with donations from the Americans – our campus was a gift from these people, one of whom was speaking. I also felt grateful because the Americans had been the ones who made the founding of the university possible in the first place, in 1948.
FLUCK: There was the self-conception of Freie Universität as a progressive university. The members of the university saw it as a new beginning, even within the German university landscape. At that time progress was strongly associated with America. With Kennedy, full of vitality, as the young representative of this country, you were reminded of this fact and thought to yourself: Well, we are actually moving in the right direction.
About the witnesses
Meteorology professor Heinz Fortak, now 86, listened to the American President’s speech from the faculty seating arranged in a semicircle behind Kennedy. Just 35 at the time, he was the university’s youngest professor.
Fortak studied mathematics and physics, and later also geophysics, at Humboldt-Universität, where he earned his doctorate in 1955. In 1957, he moved to Freie Universität Berlin to work as a research assistant, completing the Habilitation process to become a professor there in 1959. The year after that, he went to work at a university in the U.S.
Two years later, he returned to Freie Universität as a professor and developed the field of theoretical meteorology there. Fortak’s long and varied career includes stints as a guest scientist at the NASA Institute for Space Studies and as the director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the DLR, the national aeronautics and space research center of the Federal Republic of Germany. He has won various commendations for his scientific work.
Winfried Fluck, at the time a 19-year-old student, heard John F. Kennedy’s speech in front of the Henry Ford Building at Freie Universität Berlin as part of the huge crowd. Born in 1944 in Blumenfeld, Baden-Württemberg, Fluck grew up in West Berlin. He studied German, English, and American language and literature at Freie Universität Berlin, Harvard University, and U.C. Berkeley from 1963 to 1970.
Fluck completed his doctorate at Freie Universität Berlin in 1972 and finished the Habilitation process to become a professor in 1983. After stints at Harvard and Yale, he was named a professor of English and American literary history at the University of Konstanz, and then, starting in 1989, worked as a professor of American culture at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität. He was also a visiting professor at Princeton, the University of Barcelona, and Dartmouth and a research fellow at the National Humanities Center, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and at the Internationales Zentrum Kulturwissenschaften, in Vienna.