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Love struck: Photographs of JFK's visit to Berlin 50 years ago reveal a nation instantly smitten

Photographer Ulrich Mack accompanied Kennedy on the entire trip. The results, published this month as Kennedy in Berlin, have mostly never been seen before and are an astonishing record of a watershed moment, says John Walsh.
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Fifty years ago, in June 1963, the most powerful man in the world visited the Federal Republic of Germany. President John F Kennedy and his entourage landed at Cologne-Bonn airport on Sunday morning, 22 June. A mayoral reception, a speech to the huge Cologne crowd, mass in the cathedral, and the presidential motorcade swept off to Bonn, to meet the Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.

On Monday, Kennedy had talks with the German Federal President, Heinrich Lübke, with Willy Brandt (then mayor of West Berlin) and the German Peace Corps. On Tuesday he was helicoptered to Hanau, to address troops of the American 3rd Army Division, then driven to Frankfurt where he addressed a crowd on the Römerberg, before flying to Wiesbaden for talks with Vice Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and a motorcade to the Kurhaus for a reception hosted by the prime minister of Hesse.

So far, so unexciting – a predictable itinerary of meetings with dignitaries, diplomatic chats, lunches, dinners and hotel nights. Kennedy, by all accounts, wasn't a big fan of Germany in 1963: he looked askance at their post-war economic resurgence, their calls for reunification, their growing importance as a buffer against Eastern Europe. During his trip, Der Spiegel carried an article headed 'John F Kennedy doesn't like the Germans'. But by the end of his trip, something extraordinary had happened: Kennedy and the German people had fallen in love with each other.

In Cologne, in Bonn, in Frankfurt, in Wiesbaden, huge crowds had turned out to see the charismatic American president. At 46, Kennedy seemed a world away from the gaunt, saurian Chancellor Adenauer, from the venerable De Gaulle in France, Macmillan in England, Khrushchev in Russia. The Germans greeted him as a hope for the future, a decisive, libertarian, intellectual and, most crucially, young head of state who understood how much they hated living as a divided nation, half in Communist hands, a division symbolised by the Berlin Wall, built two years earlier.

They came out in their thousands to greet him. Among them was a 31-year-old photographer called Ulrich Mack, commissioned by Quick, a large-format illustrated magazine with a circulation of 1.2 million. Mack's brief was to accompany Kennedy on the entire trip, from touchdown at Cologne to departure from Berlin. He brought with him four Leica cameras with focal lengths of 28, 35, 50 and 75mm and miles of Tri-X film, and recorded the whole visit.

The results, published this month as Kennedy in Berlin, have mostly never been seen before. Quick published only six photographs; Kennedy didn't even make the cover. But they are an astonishing record of a watershed moment. Mack moves in close to the motorcade, to Kennedy's magnetic presence, to individual faces in the crowd – then moves miles back to capture the big picture, the multitude, the wide-open spaces, the granite blankness of the Berlin Wall, the seething multitude that fills all four sides of the shot. He pictures a line of German boy scouts sitting by the roadside with their American flags; the presidential car all but mobbed by US military; a row of hard-hatted construction workers waving from the top of a motorway sign.

And he was there on the magical final morning, when Kennedy flew into Berlin's Tegel airport. June 26 was fine and sunny. Emboldened by reports of massive crowds greeting Kennedy elsewhere, two million people swarmed into the streets of Berlin. Kennedy was driven to the Brandenburg Gate, and to a viewing platform from which to inspect the Berlin Wall. His motorcade inched through the hordes, who threw cascades of flowers, rice and torn paper at the presidential Lincoln.

At 12.50pm, at Schöneberg Hall before 450,000 enraptured Berliners, he made the most famous speech of his career: "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin…" He called the Berlin Wall "the most obvious signal of the failure of the Communist system, dividing a people who wish to be joined together". And he concluded, "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'."

The crowd's applause was prolonged and deafening. Kennedy told them, effectively, that America was on their side against the Communists. These photographs record their delight. The Süddeutsche Zeitung ran the headline, 'The Guest Who Makes The Germans Ecstatic'. Kennedy, on his return, told his wife "I love Berlin" and later mused, "There are things in this world you can only believe if you've experienced them yourself, and with regard to which it is difficult to comprehend afterwards what has happened to you".

Unfortunately, we know exactly what happened to him. It occurred five months later, in Dallas. He died in the same Lincoln Continental that had taken him through the ocean of joyous faces in the streets of Berlin.

'Kennedy in Berlin' edited by Hans-Michael Koetzle (Hirmer) is published 24 June, £29.95