Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe

One excerpt on the back describes this volume as 'history at its best...' While I can agree that this text is a history of sorts, I can't say that it's 'history at its best.' There are some things trained historians can do that others cannot, and this book proves it. While the author can be commended on assembling a vast array of sources to tell the story of Berlin in 1961, those sources and their stories are only a small part of a larger picture which more often than not is overlooked for various tidbits of juicy information about Kennedy, Khrushchev, Clay, Konev or any number of other, usually less important, individuals that come and go throughout the narrative. Yes, the putting up of the Wall in Berlin is/was an event that should be documented, and in and of itself this text does a good job of setting the stage and going through the motions of showing what each side was thinking (although to be fair the U.S. gets a lot more attention than the U.S.S.R.) and why they decided on the actions they did. For instance, Khrushchev needed to deal with the fact that thousands were escaping from East Berlin on a regular basis and the economy simply could not be sustained if it continued. For Kennedy, however, it was important to show West Berliners and West Germany/Western Europe in general that the U.S. would support them, even by force if the need arose (furthermore, after the disaster that was the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy needed some type of 'win' for the public at home). That by itself is highly relevant and important to understanding the setting of Berlin in 1961, however, this book, which weighs in at some 500 pages, could easily have been told in 100-150 pages less. Finding information that few others are aware of that makes for a juicy story are fine for a journalist, but not for a historian (this is why historians use footnotes/endnotes for those who have a passing interest in such details). Thus, while there are chapters that move quickly, there are also just as many that you will get bogged down in as your mind begins to wonder why the need for so much superfluous detail. Lastly, one of the ideas behind the book is to showcase how close the Cold War came to being Hot. I can't say I found the author's argument(s) convincing. Due to the wide variety of personalities he showcased and identified, it is evident that any drastic action that would lead to all out war would have had to go through a myriad of red-tape to even begin to be considered on the side of the U.S. (such information, in regards to decision making, is not readily presented in regards to the Soviets). Just because some were beginning to think of such drastic actions doesn't mean the world was close to annihilation. For those who enjoy a journalistic account, you will probably find this an interesting read on Cold-War Berlin.

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