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Review: 'Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth' by Frederick Kempe details drama leading to Berlin Wall

On the evening of Aug. 12, 1961, East German soldiers and East Berlin police began laying barbed wire and placing wooden sawhorses all along East Berlin's 96-mile perimeter. In the weeks that followed, a permanent concrete wall was erected.

Starkly crossing over streets and cutting through buildings, the wall ringed the Soviet-controlled city, separating children from parents, lovers from their partners, friend from friend.

Not only did the wall disrupt the lives of Berliners and East and West Germans, but it immediately became the cosmically perilous flashpoint between the Soviet Union and the United States until its unexpected destruction 28 years later on Nov. 9, 1989.

In Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Frederick Kempe, former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, author of Divorcing the Dictator and Siberian Odyssey, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, renders a perceptive, assiduously researched and definitive study of one of the key events of the Cold War.

Carefully detailing the events leading up to the forced division of East from West Berlin 50 years ago, Kempe informs us that the wall was built in order to halt the ceaseless exodus of people from Communist-controlled East Germany to the much more prosperous West Berlin and West Germany. It was a voluntary mass migration of historical proportions: Some 500 refugees a day left East Germany; 200,000 in 1960 alone. Not only that, but among those who emigrated were many doctors, academics, engineers and others with valuable skills.

Kempe tells us that East German President Walter Ulbricht implored Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to give him permission to somehow correct this metastasizing problem. Khrushchev, feeling particularly emboldened after the Soviet Union put the first man in space in April 1961 and after President John Kennedy's agonizing humiliations at both Cuba's Bay of Pigs and the Vienna Summit in the summer of '61, gave Ulbricht the go-ahead.

According to Kempe, the June 1961 Vienna Summit Meeting set the stage for the Berlin Crisis. Kennedy, only 44 yet on crutches (off camera) with severe back pain and Addison's disease, was infused by the notorious "Dr. Feelgood" (physician Max Jacobson) with a plethora of medications. Debilitated by the drugs, Kennedy was savaged at the meeting by a ferocious Khrushchev, who thought of him as both a "son of a bitch" and as someone "so young and inexperienced as to get into" the Bay of Pigs mess and have "no guts" to see it through.

To Kennedy, Khrushchev was wild, bombastic and utterly terrifying, especially when the premier stated that he would "eliminate this thorn" — Berlin — "this ulcer," and, when talking about a possible nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, said he did not care if 70 million people were killed. No agreement was reached, and the Berlin Wall went up two months later on Aug. 12-13, 1961.

On Oct. 27 of that year, 10 Soviet T-72 tanks rolled up to Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse, crossing to confront 10 U.S. M-48 Patton tanks about 100 paces away. CBS broadcaster Daniel Schorr, who feared he might be covering the beginning of World War III, exclaimed, "What a picture for the history books!"

Aside from his excellent descriptions of Kennedy and Khrushchev, Kempe gives us fine portraits of the other major players: Walter Ulbricht, the Stalin-like "organizational zealot" and cold "man of precision and habit" who thought up the wall; Erich Honecker, Ulbricht's aide, who was pivotal in the wall's construction; and Willy Brandt, the impertinent and embattled mayor of West Berlin.

But Berlin 1961 really comes alive in Kempe's frequent focus upon the telling detail of human interest. He writes of a devastated President Kennedy, brutalized by Khrushchev, flying back to the United States with no Soviet agreement, "his back throbbing in pain . . . tears running down" his cheeks . . . muttering about Khrushchev's unbending manner" and thinking about "women and children perishing in a nuclear exchange."

There is 24-year-old tailor Gunter Litfin, who, while trying to swim to freedom across the Spree Canal, was fired upon by three East Berlin police officers: "When he came up for air and raised his hands in surrender, the Trapos screamed derisively at him. A shot pierced his neck, and Gunter sank like a stone," Kempe writes.

And there is 19-year-old East German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann, who waited for the right moment and, in an act of sheer bravado, raced and jumped over a barbed-wire fence and, tossing off his Kalashnikov submachine gun, soared into free West Berlin to the accompaniment of a wildly cheering crowd. Photos of the incident became an icon of the Cold War.

Though Kempe paints on the wide global canvas of Cold War international relations, his continual focus on human detail is what really propels Berlin 1961.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

By Frederick Kempe; foreword by Gen. Brent Scowcroft

Putnam, 579 pages, $29.95

Review: 'Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth' by Frederick Kempe details drama leading to Berlin Wall 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 4:30am]
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