Berlin 1961

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Title: Berlin 1961
Author: Frederick Kempe
Genre: Nonfiction, history
Publisher: Putnam, 2011
Source: Publisher
Read for: Indie Lit Awards, Chunkster challenge

I've heard of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, of course. However, I knew next to nothing about them -- essentially, that the Cold War was with Russia and we were competing to have bigger weapons, and that the Berlin Wall was a wall and it was hard for East Germans to escape (this courtesy of the awesome movie Night Crossing. For serious, watch it). Berlin 1961 delineates the dangerous, intense events leading to the construction of this wall and the face-off between Russian and United States forces at Checkpoint Charlie on the wall at the end of 1961.

Honestly, I was not expecting to like this book. While I find history to be interesting, too many details are a turn-off to me. Also, I tend to like events and personal stories, not complex political intrigues. Politics make me nauseated, in a word.

However, I thought Berlin 1961 was fantastic.

I'm not sure what it was, exactly, that drew me in. And of course, it wasn't an easy book for me to read -- it took me almost a month to get through it. In all honesty, it might be the fact that I am obsessed with the movie Night Crossing and was excited to learn more about why that division existed. But I absolutely loved it.

Kempe's writing is excellent, and I think that was key to my enjoyment of the novel. As I mentioned before, I struggle with excessive detail and politics, and Berlin 1961 abounded with both. Kempe's ability to turn a phrase made the 500+ pages fluid and interesting, leading me from one idea, one conversation, one diplomatic encounter to the next.

I also appreciated Kempe's attention to the personalities of the event. I felt that I become well-acquainted with Khruschev, a man I had not even heard of. His idiosyncrasies, his calculated outbursts at meetings, and his personal agenda came together to paint a picture of who this man was in history. I also felt better acquainted with Kennedy, and in particular his vulnerabilities at the beginning of his presidency. Lesser characters were also well realized, making me feel not like a was reading a dry story of political giants but instead an intimate rendering of a complex event and the way it was shaped by individual personalities.

The topic also became interesting to me -- I knew so little about that time period and the Cold War that it was interesting to learn about why events progressed as they did. My one complaint is that Kempe assumes that we have some knowledge already. I had no idea why Berlin was divided, or for that matter why Germany was divided (and I still am not completely sure -- Berlin was so far from the rest of West Germany. How did that work, exactly? Or am I understanding incorrectly?). While I picked information up as I read, the background was never completely clear to me. A brief summary of events leading up to 1961 would have been indispensable to me.

Overall, this book was a pleasantly fascinating surprise. I had the opportunity to learn about an event in history that I previously was almost completely ignorant of, and enjoyed Kempe's excellent writing.

4 stars

Warnings: Language, maybe some descriptions of Kennedy's affairs, but nothing explicit


  1. Sometimes the ones that take the longest to read are the best.

    1. I agree. I am rereading Les Mis and while it is painfully slow it is so much more rewarding than some of the quickie books (that I also love, however).

  2. I agree completely. If I'd had my way, I'd have picked this one as the best nonfiction of 2011.

    1. We definitely had a wide range of books for the Indie Lit Awards. I'm glad this one at least made it in as runner-up.


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