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

  • By Frederick Kempe
  • G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • 502 pp.

The myriad personalities and politics behind the creation of the Berlin Wall.

Americans, especially those born after the dramatic year of 1961, may not have a full appreciation for European grievance and fury over the building of the Berlin Wall. Such people  would do well to do two things: first, listen to the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun,” in which tourists visit the Wall and watch those on the other side (who are, in turn, watching the tourists); and second, read Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961. Johnny Rotten and his band mates express the fury; Kempe explains the grievance in powerful detail.

The subtitle of the book indicates the importance of Kennedy and Khrushchev, but the cast of characters is, as were the events of that fateful year, sweeping in scope: Adenauer, Ulbricht, Brandt, de Gaulle, MacMillan, RFK, Lyndon Johnson, Lucius Clay, Lightner, Thompson, Gromyko, Dobrynin, Bolshakov and Konev. All deserve (if they don’t have already) a book about their diplomatic involvements that year.

But beyond the knights and bishops on this German chess board, Kempe also conveys the stories of those powerless to the tide of history, among them Günter Litfin, the first East German shot dead trying to break out. There is also Eberhard Bolle, a West German student who spent four years in prison after attempting to deliver a West German identification to an East German classmate. Through these stories and various others, we see both the necessity (to the East Germans and Russians) and the horror and frustration (to the Western world) of the building of the Wall.

Ironically, the bottom line for the creation of the Wall was the same as for its collapse: The West was free and prosperous, politically and economically, and Germans preferred the Western way. The Wall was built to contain the East Germans, who were fleeing at the rate of 2,000 citizens a day. And it fell because it could no longer hold back those who wanted to flee. All the Wall did was buy East German leader Ulbricht, and his successor, Erich Honecker, 28 years of oppressive rule, for which scores of people paid with their lives and millions paid with their spirits. And it’s worth noting that the Soviet Union collapsed two years after the Berlin Wall.

For readers who like American success stories, this isn’t one of them. JFK’s first year in office was dominated by Khrushchev’s and Ulbricht’s machinations. In the never-ending considerations of diplomacy, JFK heard so many opinions that he didn’t know whom to trust, and he seemed to be in a genuine (morbid) paralysis over the idea of nuclear war. Khrushchev, who learned the art of negotiation from Stalin, kept Kennedy guessing and, by JFKs own admission, walked all over him at the Vienna Summit in early June. For rah-rah Americans, it’s painful reading.

Kempe highlights one specific aspect of Kennedy’s diplomacy that was new and unexpected, and opened the door to the building of the Wall. He presents the transcripts of JFK’s conversations with Khrushchev and tells us that career U.S. diplomats and State Department bureaucrats cringed when they saw what Kennedy was saying — in essence, that the Russians and East Germans could do what they wanted with East Berlin so long as West Berlin remained open and accessible to U.S., NATO, British and French troops. This notion had never been considered by the Allies in the years after WWII. It was through this loophole that the Wall was built.

For Kennedy, the purpose of the negotiations, and the whole year of diplomacy, was to avoid a nuclear cataclysm. For Khrushchev, the negotiations were necessary to halt the collapse of East Germany, and perhaps all of Eastern Europe, and the Soviet regime itself. Kempe suggests that the Wall reduced the likelihood of these possibilities. As one bit of evidence, he presents this striking exchange between Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht:

Khrushchev: When the border is closed, the Americans and West Germans will be happy.

Ulbricht: Yes, and we will have achieved stability.

But, of course, at the expense of the lives of Berliners.

There is plenty of drama in this book. No sensitive reader can miss the multiple human levels of struggle, hope and despair. This is the most admirable aspect of Kempe’s work, and is satisfying reading for novice and scholar alike. However, the “Introduction” and “Epilogue” appear to have been prodded out of Kempe by his editors. The former is breathless in the manner of a salesperson. The latter is slightly redundant, and hints, like a Hollywood movie, that Kempe’s sequel will concern itself with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But let’s not quibble. Kempe, even with a narrow chronology, has taken on a monumental task and succeeded. The story-telling is masterful, both entertaining and elucidating. The story itself is one to provoke grievance and fury across generations. Just ask Johnny Rotten.

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a community college in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (   

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