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Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
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Mar 31, 2011

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bookshelves: first-reads

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 stereotypical history book, yet it was tedious and repetitious on a few occasions. The big event occurred on October 22, 1961 when a US diplomat, Allan Lightner, was stopped at a Berlin checkpoint by East German police. The wall had gone up a couple months prior. Lightner presses the point of wanting to enter East Berlin to attend a theatre production. Soon he is escorted by US tanks and an armed infantry squad. Before too long, Russian tanks appear to face off against the American tanks. Thankfully, no shots were fired as the various heads of state attempt to negotiate a stand down. Only 33 pages of the book are devoted to this event. I wanted more. I also wish the aftermath of this event had been more developed.

Instead, the bulk of the book focuses on the lead up to the October confrontation, developing profiles of Krushchev, Kennedy, West German leader Adenauer, and East German leader Ulbricht. Krushchev had his own issues with East Germany and was fearful of “losing face” with the Chinese. He quickly figured out how far he could push Kennedy without consequences. Warning to Kennedy fans: he is not portrayed favorably in this book. One gets the sense that Kennedy was in over his head during the first year of his administration and afraid to take a stand against the Soviets. In particular, he gave a disappointing performance at a summit with Krushchev in Vienna, although one is left to wonder how much of Kennedy’s ineffectiveness was due to being over-medicated for his back pain courtesy of a quack doctor. Meanwhile, brother Bobby Kennedy is having regular clandestine meetings with Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov in DC. And in fact, communications via this channel may have played the biggest part in calming down the tensions stirred by the October confrontation in Berlin.

Prior to reading this book, I did not realize how close the two superpowers came to open fire. If someone wants a better understanding of the various undercurrents influencing the cold war, this book is a good place to start.

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