John's Reviews > Berlin 1961

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
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Jul 05, 2011

it was amazing
Read from June 24 to July 05, 2011

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 earlier historians, and he made good use of it.
It's the details that make this book so fascinating; the details and the major players. People talk about history books that "read like a novel," but "Berlin 1961" reads so much better than a novel because you know the events and the people were real, and if a few things had transpired differently the past 50 years could have been very different.
Khrushchev, Kennedy, West Germany's Adenauer and East Germany's Ulbricht come to life, as do supporting players such as Gen. Lucius Clay of the United States -- arguably insubordinate and even something of a loose cannon, but I found myself wishing people had listened to him.
President Kennedy doesn't come across very well in "Berlin 1961." Perhaps other historians will see it differently. At least he avoided a nuclear war.
The only thing I would fault this book for is unnecessary use of italics. Actually, the short sections told in italics, in which the tales of ordinary people affected by the Berlin crisis are told, don't really add that much. The overall narrative is so fascinating that you just want to get back to it.
I spent about two weeks reading "Berlin 1961," and most of that time, if I was doing something else I wished I was reading it.
And by the way, we learn that some linguists later determined that what Kennedy literally said with the expression "Ich bin ein Berliner" was "I am a jelly doughnut." But the Berliners had no doubt about what he meant.
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