BOOK REVIEW: Checkmate in Berlin

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World
Giles Milton
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright 2021 by the author

In the waning days of the Second World War, the allies – Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union – were all on reasonably good terms when it came to defeating Nazi Germany. Sure, there were a few rough spots, but “the enemy of my enemy” and all that saw to it that any differences were papered over for the common cause.

Four years later, the Soviets tried – and failed – to blockade western Berlin into submission, and NATO had been founded to counter the Communist threat.

How did it all happen?

One can discuss all the geopolitical strategy behind it, but Milton instead focuses his attention on divided Berlin. His “main character”, if you will, is Col. Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley, who was appointed deputy commandant and then full commandant of the American sector of Berlin. We’ll be there for all the local politics and bureaucracy that comes with running a conquered and divided city. The shortages of everything, the black market, the commandeering of buildings and homes for use by the occupiers…

We get a front row seat to all the diplomatic manipulations that gave the Soviets an unintentional advantage (they began their working day around 11 AM, when the western Allies had already been up for a few hours, and wouldn’t stop for a lunch break until much later in the day). And the many “receptions”, with their copious amounts of vodka, champagne, and caviar, along with nearly constant toasts to everyone’s good health….

To those who would say that the western Allies sold out Berlin and East Germany to the Soviets at Yalta, Milton notes that at the conference, Roosevelt was in very bad health. It can’t be easy for a delegation to focus when the leader is slowly dying before your eyes. And at Potsdam, Great Britain had an election while the conference was going on. Churchill was booted out; Clement Atlee took over. That too had to have had an effect on any negotiations. Truman, meanwhile, was still finding his way around the Presidency and dealing with the war in the Pacific.

It’s also clear that the Soviets never really intended to “play nice”. They constantly broke agreements to score propaganda points. And from the very start, they treated Berlin and East Germany as a place to be plundered. Troops grabbed anything of value that could be moved, from industrial equipment to fine china to light bulbs. People who could have helped a West Berlin government in any capacity, even people who had some technical skill, found themselves and (if lucky) their families being “involuntarily relocated”….

Somehow, through all this, the western Allies managed to resist and keep their side of the city running. Milton keeps things moving along at a fine pace, never getting bogged down in the finer details or broader geopolitics. This is about living in a divided city. One really feels the walls closing in around West Berlin, as the Soviets piled on the restrictions and annoyances to an already suffering populace. When the blockade comes and the airlift begins, it’s a relief that the western Allies are finally fighting back.

Intensely researched to the point where you’d swear Milton talked to all the principals himself, this work fills in the gap between WWII and the Cold War.

And it’s a great, dramatic story, too.

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