Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Berlin-1961" by Frederick Kempe (2011)

I have always been fascinated by the Cold War. Particularly, I have always had a deep and abiding interest in Berlin at the time this book takes place. I was 7 years old when the TV show I was watching was interrupted with the news that the Soviet Union had closed the border with West Germany. Although I did not fully understand the implications at the time, the episode itself would remain with me until this very day.

In June 1961 President Kennedy met with Premier Khrushchev in Vienna for a summit. The items on the agenda ranged from the failed U2 flight of Gary Powers the year before, and the Bay of Pigs episode; both of which had been planned under the Eisenhower administration; to the major issue concerning the division of East and West Berlin. There was a "brain drain" occurring at the time, with thousands of East Germans simply crossing the street to West Germany, and never returning. The right of Freedom of Access was the issue most important to the Communists, who were seeking to revoke this right, and they were adamant in their position on it. The loss of their best technicians was to come to a halt, even if it meant war.

After the beating that President Kennedy took at the Summit in June, he was hard pressed to make the Soviet leader understand that the United States was willing to risk a confrontation over the issue of access, which was clearly a violation of the earlier 1945 agreement on that very issue. At the time there were people living in Communist East Germany who simply crossed the street to work at jobs, or owned businesses in West Germany. These people lived right on the border, taking advantage of the difference in the value of the respective currencies.

By August of 1961, all plans had been laid to separate the city of Berlin. By carefully ordering supplies of barbed wired and concrete pillars, the East Germans were able to stockpile these items at strategically located points for use in creating a temporary barrier at the appointed time. That time came in the early morning hours of August 13th, 1961 when the East German Police, along with the Army, encircled the city in the dark of night. The residents of East Berlin, who had gone to bed with free access to relatives and work in the West, would awaken to a cordon of barbed wire, reinforced by German Police and thousands of factory workers who had been mobilized to back up those Police. Behind those factory workers were Soviet tanks.

The author neglects nothing, covering East German soldier Hans Conrad Schumann’s iconic leap over the barbed wire to freedom, as well as the East German women whose homes opened onto West German alleys: allowing some to lower themselves to freedom by sheets; this book is a gripping account of one of the most impressionable events of my childhood.

The author also does an incredible job of making the chess like game of nuclear brinkmanship come to life, rather than providing only boring facts and dates. By using the quotes, and written accounts of the events, ranging from the preparations for the summit, all the way through the crisis engendered by Ambassador Lightner’s attempt to attend the ballet in the Eastern sector in October, prompting the most famous, and dangerous incident at Checkpoint Charlie, Mr. Kempe has taken a journey back in time, placing the reader right on the forefront of the Cold War at its height.

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