A big-picture history of a Berlin divided by postwar ideologies—and barbed wire.
London-based publisher MacGregor brings a useful perspective to his study of divided Berlin by reminding American readers that the Cold War was fought not just by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but by many allies on both sides—especially, among the occupying powers, the U.K. and France. Checkpoint Charlie, long a metaphor for a carved-up Germany, stood near the boundary of the American and Soviet sectors and became a potent symbol of the struggle between East and West: It was there that American and Soviet tanks held a standoff in 1961 and there where the Berlin Wall rose. At the beginning, the author observes that the division of Germany into communist and noncommunist parts helped create a buffer zone that, foremost, protected the Soviet Union from overland attack. It also created two very different nations, one wealthy and one desperately poor; when reunited in 1990, the weak economy of East Germany fell apart. As noted by a German journalist the author interviewed, “too many East Germans lost their jobs and their confidence in this new order. That is one of the reasons, in my opinion, for the rise of the Neo-Nazi movements in East Germany today.” There is little of the gripping thriller in MacGregor’s sober account, with its specific details of such things as the exact configuration of the no-man’s land between East and West, with its “3.6-meter-high Grenzwall” and “BT-11 guard tower, manned 24/7 by teams of 2-5 with clear fields of fire” and the rotational schedule of the U.S. Berlin Brigade. Yet there are plenty of human-interest stories as well, such as MacGregor’s portrait of the Greek-born cantor who helped rebuild the city’s tiny surviving Jewish community and who “seemed to float between the two halves of the city pre-1961."
Cold War Berlin is already well documented, but MacGregor writes with depth and precision of events that still reverberate.