West used to be best

The Kennedy museum in Berlin is a reminder of a fraught, yet optimistic age

Beneath the Brandenburg Gate, just around the corner from Dunkin' Donuts, is a new museum, devoted to John F Kennedy, that sums up Germany's waning love affair with the United States. JFK spent less than eight hours in Berlin during his tour of Germany in June 1963, but the speech he made here was the defining moment of his presidency, and he knew it. "We'll never have another day like this one," he said, as he left Berlin that evening.

Good politicians know how to make ordinary people feel important. Great politicians make them feel loved. West Berlin felt loved that day, and JFK's death, less than six months later, guaranteed that the illusion would never waver. This underground gallery is the ultimate expression of that myth.

Descending the polished staircase into the hushed basement feels like entering a sacred space, more mausoleum than museum. The ambience is reminiscent of an imperial crypt. The centre of the room is given over to JFK's everyday artefacts (his dress shirt, his briefcase, his fountain pen), preserved behind plate glass like the holy relics of some latter-day saint. All that is missing from this shrine is an embalmed body in an open coffin.

Ranged around the presidential knick-knacks are more than a hundred photographs in a long procession along whitewashed walls, like the Stations of the Cross. The pictures are arranged in two parallel rows - public shots above and private shots beneath. "We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda," said Kennedy. "It is a form of truth." These two rows of photographs show that Kennedy's camera delivered both. The upper row of public images is pure propaganda. The private row beneath feels far closer to the truth.

The JFK in the upper row is healthy and monogamous; the JFK in the lower row is the real man, with his prostate problems, his urinary infections, his allergies, his diarrhoea. Here he is, wearing spectacles. Here he limps along on crutches, crippled by osteoporosis - exacerbated by the steroids he took to fend off the ill-effects of an ineffective adrenal gland. "I'll guard your secret identity as I guard the secrets of our nation," JFK tells Superman in a 1960s comic strip. He could have been talking about himself.

Yet the real JFK is actually less revealing than the fantasy, especially here in Berlin, where history has been ripped up and rewritten so many times. With its brash shopping malls and burger bars, West Berlin used to feel like an American city. Now America seems like just another part of its complicated past. "All of us in the Kennedy family are very, very proud of our special relationship with your great city," declares Teddy Kennedy in a handwritten note to the people of Berlin, marking the opening of the museum, known simply as The Kennedys. But the special relationship that the museum commemorates is between Berlin and the Kennedys, rather than Germany and the United States. It was President Bush who brought down the Berlin Wall, not JFK, but I doubt there will ever be a museum here devoted to George Bush Sr, or to his son.

Berlin's dwindling affection for America is partly a matter of geography. During the Cold War, West Berlin had no option but to look west. Now, with Poland and the Baltic states in the European Union, Berlin has been reunited with its historic hinterland, where its new trading partners now live. It is less than a century since it ruled a Reich that stretched all the way from here to Lithuania, and although today's Germans realise that those territories are lost for ever, Berlin still feels closer to the states beyond the Oder than the western änder of the Bundesrepublik.

Yet there is more to it than that. Any museum about the Kennedys was bound to be nostalgic, but in the wake of the Iraq war it feels poignant, too. For my father's German family, after the Second World War, America and Britain were the liberators - the nations that saved them from the Red Army. Half my German family went to America. The other half came to Britain. The few who stayed behind were rescued by the Marshall Plan. Now Germany has stepped aside while Britain and America wade into Iraq, and it is hard to find anyone in Berlin who thinks that the Bundesrepublik made the wrong move. Though it focuses on a fraught moment at the height of the Cold War, The Kennedys feels like a memento of a more optimistic age.

Before I left for home, I paid a visit to Tempelhof, Berlin's oldest airport, with its huge memorial to the 39 Britons, 31 Americans and eight Germans who died during the Berlin airlift, flying in food and fuel to break the Soviet blockade. The Germans call it der Luftbrücke ("the air bridge", rather than the airlift), and the sculpture depicts a bridge suspended vertically in mid-air. That Anglo-American bridge kept West Berlin alive, and older Berliners are still grateful. But gazing at the monument made me realise how suddenly the history of the place has shifted, and how abruptly my present has become the past. It was only the legend of JFK that made Berlin a western city. Now that the Cold War is over, this Prussian capital is turning towards the east once more.

More information: http://www.thekennedys.de

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits