Review: ‘Berlin 1961′ by Frederick Kempe

by Kim on March 20, 2012 · 11 comments

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Title: Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Author: Frederick Kempe
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher as part of the Indie Lit Awards
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Summary (Source): In June 1961, Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin “the most dangerous place on earth.” He knew what he was talking about. Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War-and more perilous. It was in that hot summer that the Berlin Wall was constructed, which would divide the world for another twenty-eight years. Then two months later, and for the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only yards apart. One mistake, one nervous soldier, one overzealous commander-and the tripwire would be sprung for a war that could go nuclear in a heartbeat.

Review: Berlin 1961 is outside my normal nonfiction reading and, to be honest, if it hadn’t made the nonfiction short list for the Indie Lit Awards, I probably never would have read it. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall are both outside my political frame of reference — too recent to really have found their way into my history reading, but too far back for me to even remember. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was only three years old. The first major crisis-level event I remember clearly is the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, and the first event I understood the political repercussions for is the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

That’s not to say that I don’t know what the Cold War was about, just that I only know the most cursory details and probably don’t have enough background to assess the accuracy of Kempe’s major argument of the book, that the months leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1931 were the most fought and dangerous of the entire Cold War, and that President John F. Kennedy’s lack of leadership during that time was a direct cause of the Wall’s construction.

But as a novice history reader? I believed him. Kempe does a nice job offering evidence from a variety of sources and pulling together the stories of major players on all sides of the conflict. Kempe is not especially kind to Kennedy, but his criticism of the president’s performance in office seems warranted. Hindsight (and access to Soviet intelligence documents) gives him information Kennedy never had, but the book makes clear there were moments where history could have turned in an entirely different direction.

Another part of the book I liked a lot were brief stories about “the little people” who were impacted by the decisions made by the big players. These stories help show the human side of this story, and give some levity and sorrow during important moments. For as much as political posturing can seem theatrical, it’s always nice to be reminded that these decisions have very real human consequences.

I don’t think Berlin 1961 is the kind of book I’d recommend to novice nonfiction readers, or a book that I think would be fascinating for readers who previously had no interest in the Cold War or Berlin history. Other books on the nonfiction short list — Lost in Shangri-La or In the Garden of Beasts — fit that general recommendation a lot better. But for history buffs or readers curious to learn a new and possibly controversial assessment of early Cold War policies, Berlin 1961 has a lot to offer.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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