Berlin 1961
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Berlin 1961

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  538 ratings  ·  105 reviews
A fresh, controversial, brilliantly written account of one of the epic dramas of the Cold War-and its lessons for today.

"History at its best." -Zbigniew Brzezinski

"Gripping, well researched, and thought-provoking, with many lessons for today." -Henry Kissinger

"Captures the drama [with] the 'You are there' storytelling skills of a journalist and the analytical skills of...more
Hardcover, 579 pages
Published May 10th 2011 by Putnam Adult (first published January 1st 2011)
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Stasiland by Anna FunderThe Berlin Book of Lists by Max HofstetterBerlin Noir by Philip KerrThe Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le CarréThe Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
23rd out of 229 books — 109 voters
Berlin 1961 by Frederick KempeThe Magic Lantern  by Timothy Garton AshThe Ghosts of Berlin by Brian LaddErin the Fire Goddess by Lavinia UrbanErin the Fire Goddess by Lavinia Urban
20th Century History of Central Europe
1st out of 39 books — 33 voters

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I love winning Goodreads Giveaways. Not because I get it for free but because I get it first!

Time it was and what a time it was. It was.

The power and weapons of one country controlled by one man: a bully, a binge drinker, a man who felt it insignificant to detonate millions of people, and a man who felt the political pressure of appearing weak. The power and weapons of another country controlled by one man: an indiscriminate sex addict, juiced on amphetamines, steroids, testosterone, phenobarbit...more
Historians of the Cold War have regarded as its worst crisis, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, often citing it as its most significant event. However, in his "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, And The Most Dangerous Place On Earth", former journalist Frederick Kempe has made a most compelling case instead for the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Berlin Wall's construction in the late summer and early fall of 1961, culminating in a standoff between American an...more
Robert Morrow
4.5 stars (out of 5).

The quality I have admired most in President Kennedy was his ability to grow, to learn from his mistakes. This is the story of many of his early mistakes. The source of those mistakes was brilliantly identified by the author as Kennedy not wanting to deal with the problem he had inherited in Berlin (much like President Obama not wanting to deal with the problem he had inherited in the economy), but almost trying to wish it away so he could deal with what he considered more...more
Corey Preston
Slow and overwrought.
And the fixation on dinging/damaging Kennedy is weird and forced. I understand the need to have a "thesis" for something like this, but once Kempe drops his--which is basically that Kennedy was a disaster and could have ended the Soviet Union in 1961 without firing a shot--it becomes hard to trust his reporting or sense of scope on other matters.
Mr. Kempe makes a big stink about a suggestion, made after the fact, that the U.S. could have bowled the wall over with tanks whe...more
Zohar -
“Berlin 1961” by Fred­er­ick Kempe is a non-fiction book which fol­lows the polit­i­cal tur­moil in 1961, a defin­ing year in US-Soviet rela­tion­ship. Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin "the most dan­ger­ous place on earth”, read­ing this book I found out why.

The book is divided into 3 parts:
Part I: “The Play­ers” – the author intro­duced Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, Wal­ter Ulbricht and Kon­rad Ade­nauer. Mr. Kempe brings out their moti­va­tions and fear for the drama that is being staged....more
Kempe, Frederick. BERLIN 1961. (2011). ****.
It’s difficult to read a book of history when the period covered is well within your lifetime and memory span. Although most of the events covered in this book were known to me, what makes it more or less required reading is the release over the years of previously classified documents. “1961” was the year Kennedy took over as president. One of the early items on his agenda was a meeting with Kruschev in Vienna. It was there that he came face-to-face...more
I won Berlin 1961 in a Goodreads Firstreads Giveaway. Thank you!

Using recently released documents and a
"re-examination" of material contemporary to the events or previously released, Fredrick Kempe has written a compelling story. Whether or not you agree with some of his conclusions regarding the fortitude of President Kennedy, his response to the Berlin Crisis and the possibility that the Cold War was extended by three decades because of Kennedy's apparent inability to respond to rapidly chang...more
Jason Dikes
This is an excellent history of not only Berlin's crisis of 1961, but the dance between JFK and Khruschev that had been going on since 1960. The only problem I have is with one of the books two conclusions.

The first conclusion is that JFK's weakness over Berlin led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Absolutely. I don't think Khruschev would have taken the risk without Kennedy's weakness over Berlin and Bay of Pigs.

The second conclusion is a hypothesis that if JFK had stood up to the Soviet Union over...more
Shiela Hanlon
May 30, 2011 Shiela Hanlon is currently reading it
“Berlin 1961” is a new book by Frederick Kempe that dramatically recounts fascinating cold war events that occurred in my youth and which I am recalling now, in this reading, via a series of “I-remember-that!” moments (a particular delight to this sexagenarian who can only remember where she parks her car by parking it always in the same spot). Kempe was more than 25 years with The Wall Street Journal as Berlin bureau chief and editor of the WSJ Europe edition, his previous books including “Fath...more
Erma Odrach
Frederick Kempe has a keen journalistic eye. He relates the political turmoil in Berlin in 1961, where Khrushchev called Berlin "the most dangerous place on earth." This book is very well researched with lots of info and insights into the decisions taken in shaping the Cold War. Berlin was a tale of two cities and the author includes some great photos.
Rupin Chaudhry
This book is a brilliant account of the most important part of the cold war era that would witness a young and inexperienced Kenedy administration in a conflict with the ruthless and shrewd Nikita Khruschev. This is a story that would lay the foundation of a wall which didn't just divide the city of Berlin into two parts but would also divide the world into conflicting parties.
This is story of cold war between two conflicting superpowers, shaped by their commitments to the interests of their al...more
This is a well-written account of 1961, which most must agree was a year that Kennedy had a rough time in. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight the author indicates what he believes were errors Kennedy made, and even Kennedy's admirers, of which I confess I am one, must agree that history shows it was not a good year for Kennedy--though whether it was as dire as Kempe indicates other historians may not agree. I found the book unfailingly excitng reading and well-written, dismaying as some of it i...more
I am consistently surprised and switched on at all the “inside baseball” histories written recently about events we studied in high school history class. Usually it’s a British historian who accessed some archives that were off-limits during the Cold War and it usually reveals that things were a lot more complicated than we were led to believe in that high school textbook. Kempe, however, is an American, an award-winning journalist (e.g., Wall Street Journal), and now President of a foreign poli...more
I received Berlin 1961 in the GoodReads “First Read” program. Normally, my taste leans toward literary fiction. However, I’ve read quite a few novels set during WWII Germany and was interested to learn more about the 20th century history of that country. As a child, my cold war memories consisted of bomb drills held at school and playing hide & seek in the fallout shelters found in the basements of neighborhood homes.

Written by a journalist, this book is more engrossing than the stereotypica...more
One downside, for me at least, of learning about the early 60s in greater depth is that I begin to lose more and more of the respect for John F. Kennedy that lingers from when I was in elementary and middle school. Berlin 1961 narrates to a high degree how unprepared Kennedy was to confront Nikita Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht during the beginning of his presidency, and how his confused leadership led to the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

On the oth...more
Excellent history with a focus on the high-level diplomacy, but with plenty on the experiences of Berlin citizens on both sides of the wall. With access to Soviet records, you get much more of a sense of the flow of events and decisions from both sides.
While it is impossible to know how a more hawkish alternative might have played out, the author makes a good case that Kennedy too readily acquiesced to the division of Berlin. It's hard to believe his suggestion that the refugee crisis might hav...more
This is a seriously detailed history of the events of 1961 in both Berlin, the USSR and the USA. A tough read but remarkably engaging. I am amazed that we are all still alive after reading how badly all the events of the year were handled by the Kennedy administration. There was Kennedy who was - to quote the book - arrogant and naive and Khrushchev who was paronoid with an inferiortiy complex. The Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit and the buidling of the Berlin Wall all made up for what was the wo...more
This was an interesting book about the tension between the US and the former Soviet Union over the status of Berlin in 1961. I always thought the closest we came to nuclear war was over the Cuban Missie Crisis in October 1962. But this book makes it very clear that the events in August and September of 1961 were clearly the closest we ever came to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

The author chronicles in detail the way in which Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev played the young, inexperienced new...more
Adam Higgitt
For students of the Cold War, this day-by-day account of the US-USSR stand-off that culminated in the erection of the Berlin Wall (and some very sweaty trigger fingers on Soviet and American tanks facing each other across that line) is essential reading.

This book follows in the exemplary footsteps of David Hoffman's superb The Dead Hand, drawing on vast amounts of often newly released archive material from both sides to chronicle one particular episode of the Cold War. Hoffman's focuses on the d...more
Eric Bittner
An interesting read about a somewhat neglected period of 20th Century history. Lots has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis (I think I have at least 10 books about it), but not nearly as much about the Berlin crisis of the previous year. Which is unfortunate, as the Berlin crisis set in motion some of the events that would lead to the crisis of October 1962. This book does a very good job of laying out the whole story of how Kennedy and Khrushchev dealt with each other in the former's fi...more
Steven Buechler
A fascinating look back at one of the most pivotal and dangerous events of the 20th Century. Fill with both official and personal accounts of the time.
from page 485
"The world now knows what President Kennedy did not envision at the time: that the Berlin Wall would fall in November 1989, that Germany and Berlin would be unified a year later in October 1990, and that the Soviet Union itself would collapse a year after that, at the end of 1991. Given the Cold War's happy ending, it has been temptin...more
Wow. I really loved this book. Berlin: 1961 by Fredrick Kempe details the establishment of the Berlin Wall. The first section offers a look into the leaders who played key rolls in the Berlin crisis. Then readers are treated to a by-by-play account of creation of the wall and the western response (or lack there of). Finally, the epilogue takes readers through a critique of Kennedy's actions and how the aftermath of Berlin was linked to Cuba. I will say the last 1/3 of the book provides the real...more
"Berlin 1961" is a fascinating read that has you feeling the zeitgeist. It also reaffirms my belief that Kennedy was the most over-hyped and under-performing president in history (this hyperbole is consistent with that of his administration - where everyone was a "genius" and the issues were the most complicated and serious ever). What is clear is that Kennedy was not up to the job during the first year of his presidency. He deserves a position with George Bush the Younger, among presidents of t...more
My knowledge of the years of a divided Berlin basically consisted of two quotations: President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner," and President Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
So I had a lot to learn, and I learned so much from this book. It's 50 years since the events described in "Berlin 1961" took place, and perhaps that's the amount of time that needs to pass before history can be well-told. Frederick Kempe had so much documentation available that wouldn't have been available to...more
I'll open this review with an admission of my ignorance. I had no idea Berlin was located so deep in East Germany. In my head, my whole life, Berlin sat on the border and the wall reflected that larger border.

So to find out (and probably not for the first time, but this was the first time it stuck) that Berlin was a strange island. So then I kept thinking of the Vienna of The Third Man and wondering how many other places were so strangely divided.

Oh, the Cold War. Such an odd moment in history....more
Bradley Skaught
A missed opportunity on many levels. The Berlin wall and all of the events that surround its creation are fascinating, but, strangely, not particularly momentus. The Vienna summit is an event and the wall going up is another explosive moment, but the rest is diplomacy and Kempe is not well enough equipped to give that much dramatic shape or momentum. Kempe's attempt to weave in the personal stories of German citizens whose lives were affected by the Wall is admirable, but it's done in a somewhat...more
Michael A.n.
Extraordinarily well researched. The tragedy of letting an entire generation be locked up is spelled out, but it also shows what few tools President Kennedy had at his disposal short of potentially starting a new (albeit short) world war.

As weak as Kennedy is, his candor and self-criticism is refreshing.

Lucius Clay's comes out "smelling like a rose," Adenauer less so, and Willy Brandt has earned more respect than I ever thought he'd earned.

Khruchev leaves one baffled - sometimes you think you re...more
This book is essential reading for anyone who is interested in U.S. - Soviet relations in the second half of the 20th century. Khruhschev's desire for "peaceful co-existence" with the west was certainly a missed opportunity on our part to thaw diplomatic relations after WW2. In hindsight, it is easy to see that Khruhschev was a much more open minded leader than many who followed him, and certainly more open minded than the man he followed. The author is excellent at keeping you interested, and t...more
Brendan Kane
An outstanding account of a series of events that unjustly pales in the public memory to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While perhaps lacking the concise '13 days' nature of the latter event, the slow burn of months of distrust and miscommunication over Berlin is similarly gripping and unnerving. This book does a wonderful job of weaving a robust narrative of the geopolitical events at the great actor level with stories of the individuals caught up in the world the former are creating. Finally, the a...more
I have wanted to read Berlin 1961 for some time. The main reason is because I was there in mid August 1961 with my parents while this crisis was going on. I was one of the last westerners allowed into the East Zone a few days prior to the wall going up on Aug 13.
This book is very well written and of great interest to others who have and have not visited Germany and Berlin. I have visited many times and lived a total of five years in West Germany and was always on the alert that war could be at a...more
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Journalist and author. Editor and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, founding editor of Central European Economic Review.
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“After asking Humphrey to name his native city, Khrushchev bounced to his feet and drew a bold blue circle around Minneapolis on a map of the United States hanging on his wall—“so that I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly.” 0 likes
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