Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: Berlin 1961

Spoiler Alert:  We won the Cold War.  Sorry, I had to do that. As a historian, this is about as funny as it gets.   

I have to admit, I picked up Frederick Kempe’s book, Berlin 1961, in hopes of doing some research on the defense of Berlin during the following year, 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  I’m one of those writers that live in the footnotes of a book for potential sources and logic.  I profess, prior to this book, what I knew about the wall going up in Berlin was that it went up, and they shot people trying to get across from East Berlin to the west.  Like most people, I had no idea of the depth of political and diplomatic wrangling that went on that led up to the crisis. 

To start with, Kempe’s writing style is very engaging and entertaining.  There were a few parts where I actually chuckled at his prose, in a good way.  I enjoyed reading this book.  This is not a boring read - it's a book that is highly readable. 

Having said that, this book is not entirely for the faint at heart.  The politics and diplomatic to-and-fro in this were a researcher’s nightmare to keep track of.  Kempe does an admirable job of keeping the reader engaged without bogging down in too much detail (as is often the temptation.)  I had no idea all that had occurred during the Berlin crisis and found it highly entertaining to read. 

There are some drawbacks to the book.  This crisis ends rather anti-climatically.  That’s not Kempe’s fault as a writer, but the reality of historical events.  He does a very good job of building up the characters and their motivations and the build up to the climax.  But in the end, we all know we didn’t go to war in 1961 with the Russians and East Germans so, well, you kind of know that it ends peacefully.  My only complaint with the writing in the book is that I wanted more at the end.  The crisis ended, there was a nice lead in to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s infamous speech on Berlin – but that was it. 

My only other issue has nothing to do with the author.  I got the Kindle edition and there were no photographs.  This has happened with a few publishers and it’s irritating.  Kempe’s writing refers to iconic photos, but there were none with the Kindle edition. 

Is the book worth picking up – yes.  It is THE book on the Berlin crisis and a real lesson in diplomacy and how countries painfully examine what is said by leaders and take action on those words. 

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