In this exhaustive work, Frederick Kempe targets his investigative skills on a very specific place and time – Berlin 1961 – as the key turning point 20th Century history. This is the year the wall went up, the year John F. Kennedy struggled to define his presidency, the year that made a line through Europe material that lasted for for decades.
When I travelled – briefly – through Berlin, the physical immediacy of its recent history encouraged me to learn more about the lived experience of most of its citizens. Kempe’s book then appeared in front of me at a bookshop a couple of weeks later, the perfect encouragement. Following the three main players – Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Erich Honecker – it painstakingly pieces together the stories the countries themselves, the games these leaders played, and the political pressures that lead to an unthinkable act – the building of a wall that divided a city.
And because so much time has passed since 1961, Kempe has incredible access to personal conversations and correspondence. By utilising dialogue and of course a little journalistic inference and creativity, this non-fiction book reads like a fiction narrative, even despite the fact that we know how this story ends. It is sometimes exhausting in its detail however, as Kempe is scrupulous in including facts to add depth and knowledge.
Simply, though, the revelations that Berlin 1961 contains are its value. Germany became the battleground of the war between the USSR and the USA. West Berlin was welcoming East German refugees at an ever increasing rate every single day: they were one people, divided by post-WWII politics. The personal relationship and power games between Kennedy and Khrushchev informed a surprising amount of their state’s interactions. The idea of a wall between East and West Berlin was a joke, was unthinkable, until it happened. Honecker moved in the night, surprising his citizens with restriction of movement one Sunday morning. And of course, retrospect always helps in understanding how this all happened. Consider this quote from Konrad Adenauer (West German Chancellor) early in 1961:
“Little noticed was Adenauer’s later response to a reporter’s question at the National Press Club about a rumoured concrete wall thwart might be built along the Iron Curtain. ‘In the missile age,’ Adenauer said after a short pause, ‘concrete walls don’t mean very much.'”
Kempe is a studious investigator, investing his care in facts and background and context. His tenet that if you understand Berlin in this year, then you understand this period of 20th Century history plays out well with his detailed approach. By showing the personality and politics of just a few men – because it is their folly that changed the shape of Europe for the next three decades – Kempe does justice to the lived experience of its citizens.