Understanding The Cold War And Berlin Wall
Why Understand The Cold War And Berlin Wall?
I was just 6 years old when the Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989, signalling the end of the Cold War. I don't have many memories from that age anyway, and even if I did, I doubt I was very aware of the momentous events taking place just across from the UK in Europe. Oddly though, despite how much of an impact the Cold War had had on my parents generation, the threat of nuclear war etc., and the ongoing impact it has on our daily lives (for example would mobile phone technology be quite where it is today without the space race?), I don't remember a single mention of it during my schooling in the 1990s. Whilst we studies periods of history like the Tudors, the Romans and even up to the First World War, the more recent history was never on the curriculum, perhaps my Sister-In-Law history graduate is right, history ends about 300yrs ago, after that it is just stuff that happened!!
Whilst I was aware of the Cold War and aspects of what had taken place through cultural references such as books, films, TV etc (for example the Jack Ryan novels and subsequent movie adaptations or having to read Animal Farm for my English Literature studies) this really only gave me a basic understanding and separating fact from fiction was almost impossible. Beyond that I was at a loss.
So why now, at the age of 30, have I decided to delve into this complex subject and start to learn more about the world that my parents generation lived in? There are several triggers:
- I became a father last year and this brought with a sense of feeling that Dad's always know the answer so I started to take more of an interest in recent history
- For my 30th Birthday I was bought an Amazon Kindle. I had never been a big reader, mainly because I only read before bed and I hated trying to combine getting comfortable with reading, having my kindle meant I could start reading more, and reading much more in depth books than the very same-y paper-back fictions I had occasionally indulged in.
- The first book I read on my kindle was a re-read of Nelson Mandela's - A Long Walk To Freedom that I had first read in 2000 shortly after visiting South Africa. Whilst he was incarcerated for much of the Cold War, his discussions about interactions with the Communist Party in South Africa piqued my interest in to how close many parts of the world came to following this theory. (Check Out My Hub On This Subject Here)
- However, most importantly in catching my imagination was two upcoming (now passed) business trips to Berlin itself.
I had visited Berlin previously but had not even left Schonefeld Airport as I was there for an airshow, so my business trips were to be my first ventures in to this once divided city. I had spent quite a bit of time in other areas of Germany (Stuttgart/Munich/Hamburg) but all of these were in the West and whilst the main purpose of my trips was work, I knew I would get a short while to explore and see parts of the old East.
The Cold War - John Lewis Gaddes
When starting out on a learning adventure, the best place to start is an overview. I didn't know quite where to start so I looked at a few of the top level books I could get in Kindle format and this one had very good reviews.
If you ask me whether this is a good book for understanding the Cold War then my answer would have to depend on your background knowledge. If you already have a basic understanding of the events and key players within the Cold War then this book would be great. However, if like me you really don't, then maybe another book would be a better place to start.
The book is very well written and looks at an overview focusing more on the WHY rather than the WHAT. It takes you back and forth concentrating on how the allies who had fought together during WW2 to defeat the Nazi's, quickly became the fiercest of enemies, stuck in a fragile stalemate that at any time could have broken, leading to potential world destruction.
With lots of citations and references, this book would be ideal for someone studying the subject and to be honest, I will probably look to re-read the book in the future when I have a better understanding. Unfortunately as I didn't really many of the main players and at what time they were involved, it sometimes made life difficult as I would be trying to work out in my line the time line. I will probably therefore look out for another summary book in the future outlining a full timeline of events that would hopefully then back up the knowledge gained in this book so that I end up with a full knowledge of both WHY and WHAT.
The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 - 9 November 1989 - Frederick Taylor
By the time I had finished the book above I had undertaken my first trip to Berlin with work and had been able to visit a couple of the well known landmarks that in many ways are intrinsically linked with images of the Berlin Wall such as the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. Therefore I decided to point my next foray in to reading more about this specific subject. Obviously the wall had been regularly mentioned within the previous book but I wanted more, especially as walking around Berlin, it was hard to imagine a city divided so recently.
As the John Lewis Gaddis book had been a little tough reading as I didn't have a clear timeline in my mind, I was determined this time to read a book that gave me that. Fortunately this book had a free kindle sample and just a couple of pages in I could tell by the writing style that it was the right one for me so ordered it and started reading straight away. The book starts with the authors personal story and how the erection of the first barriers that later became the more permanent wall coincided with the death of his father before quickly moving in to a brief history of Berlin over the ages, leading up to WW2. It then speaks of the changes through the years following the war, including the Berlin Airlift but oddly for a book about the wall, it doesn't actually get erected until chapter 9.
The book is extremely well written and is in a clear and concise manner. It takes you through in a logical order, telling not only the facts but also how various people on both sides from the general public through to the leaders of the felt and reacted. Sometimes I felt like it may be a benefit to have a map next to me just so I could more easily place where events had taken place. Since visiting I had a clearer idea on some key locations such at the Brandenburg Gate or Alexanderplatz but other times I was a little lost, especially as even when I was in the city I could never tell if I was in the East or West.
If you are reading this hub and want to get an understanding of the history of the wall I would wholeheartedly recommend this book. I can see on Amazon that he has also written several other books on German history and I may well have to check some of these out in the future.
The Blockade Breakers: The Berlin Airlift - Helena P.Schrader
Growing up, whilst I didn't know huge amounts about the Cold War era (hence why I started reading up and sharing in this hub), I had at least heard of many of the bigger aspects of the conflict. However, there was one part that I had never heard of until 2008. I was fortunate to visit the ILA Airshow held at the former East Berlin Schonefeld Airport. This was the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift and there were several era aircraft on both static and flying display. The concept of the airlift fascinated me but until now I had not read any further on the matter.
After WW2 Germany was split between the victorious allies and France, to be governed and to prevent a repeat of the rise of Nazism. Due to the historical and political significance, these division also applied to the capital city of Berlin, even though it same deep inside the Soviet sector. In hindsight it is very apparent that the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were never going to be happy bed fellows but they had united against the common enemy. As it was the Soviets who had liberated Berlin, it was several weeks until the other allies were able to take up their positions in the rest of this city and by the time they had arrived, much of the useful infrastructure had been taken by the Soviets as "compensation". With all the food and resources for the Western sectors being bought in or through the Soviet sectors, coupled with the Soviets vetoing many decisions made for the city as a whole started to make the Western powers very dependant.
Meanwhile the Soviets were desperate to annex the whole of Berlin in to their German state and started to lean on the Western allies. As their leader once claimed: "Berlin is like the balls, I just give them a squeeze and see them squeal". This all came to a head in 1948 when overnight they closed all access via land and sea for the Western forces to bring in food and other resources. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but only the air corridors in and out of the city were guaranteed in contract and suddenly West Berlin was unable to bring in the sustenance to survive. It would have been quite easy to have relinquish control but the allies were determined to keep their parts of Berlin and set of on an adventurous decision to supply the city by air only. This meant bringing in enough food, fuel and most importantly coal for a population of 2 million.
This book is a great summary of the ensuing airlift that at it's peak saw aircraft landing in the city every 90 seconds. When I was looking for a good book to read I saw many comments congratulating the author on not just concentrating on the US part of the airlift. It is true that about 80% of the tonnage was lifted by the Americans but the RAF and UK civilian operators did there fair share (especially as the French were unable to help as their aircraft were in use in the Indo-China conflict). The book outlines both what happened but is full of anecdotes, giving a real flavour of what people were feeling throughout the crisis.
The chapters are quite long and reading on my kindle there was always the conflict between finishing for the night or reading through to the end of the chapter, always a good sign! At many stages I felt proud of the efforts put in by those involved as they managed the impossible through the winter and kept the city sustained for a full year before the Soviets decided that their efforts were futile and lifted the blockade. It was interesting to hear that whilst in many ways the airlift was a success, some saw it as the driver towards Germany being split and the Berlin Wall becoming a feature of the city in years to come. There are also the more tangible impacts we feel today. For example, the current main Berlin at Tegel (until Brandenburg opens at site of Schonefeld) was constructed from scratch to support the airlift and many modern techniques of air traffic control came about from managing the hundreds of flights in a congested airspace.
Overall, I would really recommend giving this book a read and finding out more about this fascinating subject!
What Am I Concentrating On Next?
As you can tell from the reviews already on this hub, I have dove head first in to understanding the period of history that encompasses the Cold War. However, at almost 50 years in length and changes in the fast paced world, there are still specific areas I would still love to find out more. If anyone has any good suggestions for books in the following categories or suggestions on other events I might find interesting then please leave a note in the comments.
Cuban Missile Crisis - I don't think is possible to talk about the Cold War without mentioning the Cuban Missile Crisis as this particular point was agreed by many to be one of the closest to destruction we as a planet came when the Soviets based nuclear weapons just miles off of the American Coast. I have now read into this subject and the impact it had on people in the UK. Please check out my hub on the matter.
As you can see from my final module, this is a subject I really want to learn more about and expand my knowledge. If you have any comments on my reviews or more importantly, suggestions on which books I should try next then please leave a comment!