Robert Lochner

Kennedy's coach for 'Ich bin ein Berliner'
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The Independent Online

Robert Hoyer Lochner, journalist and interpreter: born New York 20 October 1918; married (one son, three daughters); died Berlin 21 September 2003.

Robert Lochner is for ever linked with the visit of the American President John F. Kennedy to West Berlin on 26 June 1963, at a dangerous point in the Cold War. Kennedy's adviser Ted Sorenson hit on the idea of inserting a German sentence into Kennedy's speech, held before a vast crowd. The sentence was, "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").

The crowd, taken by surprise, loved it, as did millions of Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain who heard the speech on the radio or television. Lochner, as Kennedy's interpreter for his visit to Germany, practised with the President until he got it right. Kennedy's visit helped to buoy the flagging morale of the West Berliners, who felt cut off, two years after the building of the Berlin Wall.

Lochner was no stranger to top-level interpreting. He was interpreter at the Four-Power Berlin conference in 1954, and, in 1955, at the Vienna conference, which resulted in Austria getting its freedom from American, Soviet, British and French occupation. He interpreted for General Dwight D. Eisenhower as supreme commander of Nato, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and many others. He preferred Kennedy to Johnson. In close contact with Kennedy, Lochner did not hear him utter a harsh word to anyone - despite suffering from a bad back. Johnson, on the other hand, was very volatile.

Robert Lochner was born in New York in 1918, of German-American parents. He grew up in Berlin, where his father, Louis, was head of the local office of the Associated Press, the American news agency. As a 14-year-old Lochner witnessed the Nazi torchlight processions of 1933 celebrating Hitler's takeover, and felt both elation and fear. After one term at Berlin University he completed his higher education in politics and economics at the University of Chicago.

Between 1941, when the US entered the Second World War, and 1945, he worked for the German service of NBC in New York. He returned to Germany in 1945 as an American major, investigating the results of Allied bombing. He came to the conclusion that mass bombing was no way to win a war because it brought Germans - Nazis and anti-Nazis - closer to each other. He was also sent to Nuremberg to help with the interrogation of Nazi war criminals. In 1948, he announced the introduction of the successful new currency, the Deutsche Mark, on Radio Frankfurt.

Lochner played an important role in re-establishing democratic media in West Germany, serving as chief American control officer of Radio Frankfurt, 1947-49, and editor-in-chief of the (American) Neue Zeitung, 1949-52. As head of the European Department of Voice of America, 1958-61, and Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), 1961-68, he played a major part in the West's "hearts and minds" campaign. RIAS attracted a large audience behind the Berlin Wall, especially in times of crisis. It was liked for its music as well as its information. It was hated by the Communists, and its employees, including Lochner, were the targets of everything from dirty tricks to kidnapping.

Among the key events witnessed by Lochner was the division of Berlin on 13 August 1961 by the Communist East German authorities. Using a diplomatic passport, he got through to the Friedrichstrasse rail station in the East, where thousands of East Berliners were still hoping to get a train to West Berlin. One old woman, apparently not clear what was going on, asked a policeman when the next train would be. He replied, "There'll be none of that any more, Granny. You are all caught in the mousetrap now."

RIAS and Lochner faced opposition from a small but very active, extreme left-wing student movement in West Berlin, in 1968. Its members regarded RIAS as part of American imperialism. A bigger threat, however, came from Washington. Lochner was regarded by his boss as being too pro- German and was forced to move to a sinecure in the US embassy in Switzerland.

Although Lochner had worked in Vietnam and Washington, he preferred Berlin and returned there from Switzerland in 1971, keeping up his interests in the media and German history.

David Childs