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Obama turns JFK's Berlin speech into new call for freedom

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from behind a bulletproof glass at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from behind a bulletproof glass at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Erik Kirschbaum and Roberta Rampton

BERLIN (Reuters) - President Barack Obama offered a new twist on Wednesday to John F. Kennedy's historic 1963 call for liberty -- "Ich bin ein Berliner" -- by saying other oppressed people eager to join the free world were also "citizens of Berlin."

Just days before Berlin marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's clarion call for freedom, Obama opted to use that stirring Cold War speech as a forward-looking invitation for the world to do more to fight for liberty.

"His words are timeless because they call upon us to care more about things than just our own self-comfort," Obama told a crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate, just east of where the Berlin Wall that divided the city stood from 1961 to 1989.

Obama said the world should not shrink from supporting people in places like Afghanistan from taking control of their future, from backing those working for Middle East peace or from helping people in Myanmar to emerge from a dictatorship.

"In this century, these are the citizens who long to join the free world," said Obama, on his first state visit to Germany, an important U.S. NATO ally and a major trade partner.

"They are who you were. They deserve our support for they too, in their own way, are citizens of Berlin. And we have to help them every day."

The 3.6-meter high Berlin Wall was a 160-km long concrete barrier that encircled West Berlin, leaving its 2 million citizens trapped in an island of democracy in the heart of communist East Berlin.

The Berlin Wall was one of the world's most deadly frontiers. At least 136 people were killed trying to escape to the West, most of them shot by East German border guards. About 5,000 people managed to make it over or under the Wall.

MAKING HISTORY

Kennedy's speech on June 26, 1963, to the frightened people of West Berlin was the tonic they needed after the Wall was built, and a crowd of some 450,000 people cheered his pledge of solidarity, an address often called Kennedy's best speech.

"Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner'," Kennedy said. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner'."

Kennedy is still lionized in Berlin and throughout Germany, with schools, streets, squares and bridges named after him.

Other U.S. presidents tried to sprinkle a few words of German into their Berlin speeches but none had the resonance or longevity as Kennedy's.

Obama, who earlier on Wednesday held talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and with President Joachim Gauck, did not attempt more in German than 'Vielen Dank' (many thanks) and only used Kennedy as a starting point for his call to do more.

"The Wall belongs to history," Obama said. "But we have history to make as well.

"And the heroes that came before us now call to us to live up to those highest ideals -- to care for the young people who can't find a job in our own countries, and the girls who aren't allowed to go to school overseas, to be vigilant in safeguarding our own freedoms, but also to extend a hand to those who are reaching for freedom abroad."

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, writing by Erik Kirschbaum, editing by Gareth Jones)

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