What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war"

That was John F. Kennedy's verdict on the prolonged foreign policy crisis of 1961 surrounding the status of Berlin, still in limbo 15 years after the end of the Second World War, which had left both the city and Germany itself split into rival factions that gave dramatic shape to the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the beginning of 1961, the year that Fred Kempe chronicles so painstakingly in this excellent diplomatic, political and social history, it was fairly straightforward for residents of Soviet-occupied East Berlin to cross into West Berlin, made up of the British, French and American sectors. So straightforward, in fact, that thousands of refugees -- including the young and able-bodied that East Germany's new Communist leaders needed to stay put -- were using Berlin as a way to simply walk across the border and take refuge in the West. East Germans may not have had free elections, but they were exercising their right to vote with their feet and fleeing at an ever-faster rate.

As this book opens, Ullbricht, the East German leader, is determined to halt this flow and enlists Khruschev, himself fed up with the need to subsidize the ailing German economy. On the other side of any negotiations about Berlin's status was Kennedy, just elected, who seemingly has never encountered a figure of importance whom he couldn't charm or a problem that was truly intractable. He saw Berlin as a sideshow at the time of his inauguration; for Khruschev, it was clear that the city was the most dangerous place in the world.

Kempe's chronicle of the events of 1961, which culminated in the building of a wall that would divide the city for nearly three decades, is a delicate balancing act. Just when the risk that the reader might bog down in too much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing reached perilous levels, he injects a short three- or four-page tale focusing on a particular character whose life was affected by the division of the country and the city. These examples of how real lives were brutally affected by the great power talks were well chosen and force the reader to stop and remember the thousands of individual tragedies that preceded and followed the wall's construction. This isn't just a diplomatic history -- although it's that par excellence -- it's the story of real-world confrontation, misunderstandings, mistakes and missteps. Many of these were on the part of Kennedy, Kempe points out: while Khruschev may have looked like a buffoon to Americans when he slammed his shoe on the rostrum at the UN to win attention, he was a wily street fighter whom Kennedy was ill-prepared to confront. For his part, Kennedy may have been smart as a whip, but as Dean Acheson wryly remarked (and Kempe pointedly quotes), "brains are no substitute for judgment." The Bay of Pigs debacle, followed by a disastrous performance at the Vienna summit, put Kennedy at a diplomatic disadvantage that Kempe points out the Soviet leader ruthlessly exploited in 1961 in Berlin.

This probably won't be a book for all readers. It's a hefty tome, with 502 pages of text that require close scrutiny. On the other hand, it's been a long time since I've read a book about the Cold War years that engaged me as much as this one did. I grew up in a world where the Berlin Wall was simply a fact of life (I was born months after its construction; educated at schools in a rigidly divided Europe and honestly had little hope of seeing anything different) and it was fascinating to realize that while we may now see this as a simpler era -- one easily identifiable enemy, taking the shape of a nation state -- at the time policymakers were grappling with the unknowns of their situation in the same way they do today. It's also a sharp reminder that the process of making policy isn't simply a matter of what seems logical or wise, but what is politically expedient or what is dictated by the personalities and biases of the policymakers and the information they have at their disposal. (After all, Kennedy himself, lounging in a bathtub in Paris, commented that bickering over the state of Berlin when Germany would never be reunified anyway, was a bit of a foolish pastime.)

Before the postmortem reputation of Kennedy the statesman took hold and was fostered energetically by his circle, there was this Kennedy -- the man out of his depth in the aggressive games of power politics being played on a global stage. Read this book to understand how that shaped the world that many of us lived in in the decades that followed. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the personalities, the era, the issues or diplomatic history in general.

Full disclosure: While the author and I worked for the same publication in Europe for a few years in the late 90s, neither he or his publishers contacted me with respect to this book, or provided a copy for review.


  1. I have this one sitting here on the TBR pile. Thanks to your thorough review, it's going to have to get moved up in the queue. I enjoy reading history, and getting some insight into the why's behind the what's.

  2. Great review of "Berlin 1961", Suz. I have had my eye on this book, and I'll plan to buy it soon.