In June 1987, just shy of my 13th birthday, international affairs were already part of my daily interests. I would clip newspaper articles about the Cold War from our local paper before my parents even had the chance of reading it, much to their despair. During that month, on the 12th to be more precise, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and pronounced a major speech calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. “He’ll never do that”, my father replied to me. Retrospectively, anything is possible of course. But few people could imagine back then what would happen only two years later when the Wall crumbled without a single shot being fired.
Fast-forward to 2015. After 9 grueling months stranded as administrative prisoners in Poland due to lack of efficient bureaucracy (to put it mildly), we finally received our coveted residency cards. First order of business was to plan a serious change of scenery for everyone. I could finally take a few days off. Berlin was just a couple hours away by train and I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.
On December 19th, we got off the train and I will always remember the sense of freedom and exhilaration that engulfed me. I had made it to the city that had always fascinated me as a child. The morning after, nothing in the world could have prevented me to finally realize the long-held dream of visiting the iconic Checkpoint Charlie. I was not disappointed. I was therefore very excited and impatient to read Iain MacGregor’s book about this legendary landmark of the Cold War.
The main two criterions by which I consider a book are 1) whatever new material and information it contains and 2) the style of the author. On both counts, Iain MacGregor doesn’t disappoint. The Wall having been a tragic feature for 28 years, it is easy to imagine that it was a static border frozen in time. At least, that’s what I had always been prone to think. The author made me realize it was everything but. While East German security forces deployed daily efforts to prevent escapes and breaking up of the socialist fabric, “Special Forces […] attached to the US Berlin Command [were given the mission] to range more than one hundred miles deep into Communist territory and [be] ready to take the fight to the Soviet armed forces. It was the Allies’ secret weapon should World War Three commence in Europe.” Reading about this unit’s actions and about the Allies intelligence gathering operations is as fascinating as watching James Bond, even if sometimes much more tragic such as when you read about the fate of Major Arthur Nicholson, a US officer who “was shot dead by a Soviet sentry at a training area” in the German Democratic Republic.
By far, the most impressive character of the cast portrayed by the author is Sir Robert Corbett, the young Irish Guards Lieutenant who was at the head of a reconnaissance platoon attached to a train destined to West Berlin passing through East Germany in the Fall of 1961. He was later to be appointed the last Commandant of the British sector in Berlin 1989. At the very end of the book, Iain MacGregor quotes him as saying that “[…] it is worthwhile remembering that the small things are those on which so much can turn.” This is probably history’s most enduring lesson.
60 years ago today, when the East German régime started to erect the wall on August 13, 1961, border guards were “carrying their weapons but had no ammunition. They were under strict orders from the Soviets to retreat immediately should they be confronted by Allied military forces.” If the American, British, and French leaders had shown more resoluteness in preventing the carving of Berlin with concrete and barbed wire, the Wall as we came to know it might never have been built. They didn’t call Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff. While I don’t want to fall in revisionist history, that revelation left me speechless.
On the morning of 10 November, 1989, Major General Corbett walked to the Soviet War Memorial, where thousands of civilians were regrouped after the opening of the Wall. “[…] The Soviets [being] notoriously trigger-happy”, the military leader was eager to prevent a bloodbath. He went to speak to the Soviet soldiers in charge of safeguarding the physical remembrance of their forebears, telling them that both they and the monument they oversaw would be safe. In an extremely tense and volatile situation, this amicable chat might have defused a potentially catastrophic scenario.
Finally, there is the inevitable and fateful role played by Mikhail Gorbachev. Iain MacGregor recounts that former US Secretary of State James A. Baker III confided to him that “[…] events could easily have spiraled out of control had it not been for the foresight of Bush’s opposite number in the Kremlin.” In these fateful hours when the fate of Berlin, Europe and, to a certain extent, the world hanged in the balance, the chieftain of the Kremlin decided that fear and terror would no longer be the dominant values of his régime. On that score, I’m happy to say my father was wrong.
Berlin could breathe in peace and become a lasting symbol for freedom-loving people. In a sense, that might be what I felt when I got off the train on that memorable December evening. And thanks this exceptional author, I now grasp the full magnitude of what Checkpoint Charlie meant for all those years. It was never meant to be permanent, like the régime it opposed, but always determined to be a beacon of freedom for every citizen trapped behind the Iron Curtain but also of the world.
For anyone fascinated by the Cold War, special operations or simply an enthralling read, Checkpoint Charlie is a memorable book. It will now stand beside the piece of the Berlin Wall I was offered by a German diplomat when I was a teenager.
To quote one of my favorite past US Presidents, Ich bin ein Berliner!
Iain MacGregor, Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth, New York, Scribner, 2019, 352 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers of Simon & Schuster Canada for proving me with a review copy of this exceptional book.