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[This is by way of an experiment, albeit one I fully expect to fail, or more accurately one I suspect will fizzle out into silence before too long. Whenever I do my roundup of the books I’ve read during the year, I find that books I remember having lots of things to say about at the time I was reading them, end up with some bland remarks in my summary. Ah, if only I had written about them as the year went by. Except, I’ve thought about this many times in the past, and the idea has faded to nothingness if it ever even got started. And anyway, there are plenty of books I read where there really isn’t much to say about them. Look at all the Maigrets I’ve been reading recently, wouldn’t endless blogs eventually stutter into dull repetition over the weeks? So as often as not the idea has died before it ever really got started. But I can’t get rid of the idea completely, it keeps coming back to haunt me. So I’m going to give it a go for one year, if only to prove once and for all that I don’t have the stamina to keep it going for a full year. So let’s see how far I can get …]

I cannot remember when I first heard about the Berlin Airlift. It was almost certainly during my schooldays, because I have a vague memory that I once wrote an essay in class about the airlift. But though it lodged in my mind as a curious and rather dramatic interlude in the story of Cold War relations, I never really knew much in the way of detail about the event. Did it last for just a few weeks, or for a year or more? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. (in fact it was just short of a full year.)

Which is why I found Checkmate in Berlin so interesting. It is, at the same time, the most detailed and the most straightforward account you could hope to find.

Milton begins with the Yalta Conference in February 1945, which we can safely identify as the starting point for the Cold War. Roosevelt was dying and really wasn’t up to the argy-bargy and excessive drinking that any conference with Stalin involved. Churchill, meanwhile, was drunk most of the time, didn’t bother reading his briefing papers, and was inclined to make promises that caught everyone on his staff completely off-guard. (I couldn’t help noticing how closely this unflattering portrait of Churchill resembled our own dear Churchillian leader.) As for Stalin, he was, as ever, forensic and brutal. He made demands that the others were too weak or too dull-witted to resist; and he made promises that he had no intention of keeping though the others fell on them with relief. George Kennan (one of the stars of Louis Menand’s The Free World, so I was familiar with this part of the story) understood exactly what Stalin was doing and where Soviet foreign policy was heading, but it would be another couple of years before his clear-eyed analysis would be recognised and adopted by the US State Department.

This failure by the West to understand that the Soviet Union was no longer their reliable wartime ally would be a feature of international relations, in Europe and particularly in Berlin, for the next several years. The Russians raced to capture Berlin and large chunks of Germany; the British and Americans hesitated, moved slowly, and worked on the unshakeable principle that they must do nothing to upset their Soviet allies. Despite a binding agreement to split Berlin into three sectors, Russian, British and American (the French sector was carved out of the British and American sectors some time later, though the French were barely acknowledged by the Russians), British and American troops and administrators were prevented from entering the city for several weeks while the Soviets openly looted it, and kidnapped a host of scientists, engineers and their families, many of whom would never see Germany again. When the British and Americans finally reached the parts of the city they were supposed to administer, they found no infrastructure, no machinery, no intact buildings, no medicines, and virtually no food or drinkable water.

The real miracle of Berlin was how quickly and how effectively the military administrations of the Western sectors made the city at least barely liveable. The two men chosen to head up the western sectors seem to have been unusually well-chosen, though you might not think so from their names: Colonel Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley for the Americans and Brigadier Robert “Looney” Hinde for the Brits. Initially Hinde was more reluctant to antagonise the Russians than Howley was, though the two eventually formed a good team countering Russian provocations. But in time, of course, Hinde was replaced by somebody totally unsuited to the job, a stiff, by the letter military man with no obvious redeeming features at all, which left the British side slow to react as tensions escalated towards the blockade.

Of course, the Russians were single-minded in their approach to Berlin. They wanted to squeeze the West out of the city, take over Germany, and protect the Soviet Union with a cordon sanitaire of Soviet-friendly puppet states. Indeed before the war had even ended they had flown in Walter Ulbricht with a team dedicated to securing a smooth transition to communist rule. The trouble is, they bodged it. They knew that an overtly communist rule would be unpopular (the officially sanctioned rape and looting that Russian troops had perpetrated on first entering the city had seen to that) so they helped to establish a centrist Social Democrat party, but then on the eve of city-wide elections, they used bribery, intimidation and straightforward threats to arrange a merger of the Social Democrats with the German Communist Party. But they had misjudged the mood of the city and in the subsequent elections the new Socialist Unity Party was soundly defeated. Only the Russians didn’t admit defeat, they installed their own people in the city government regardless of the election results, they refused to allow the popular Ernst Reuter to be installed as mayor, and they created their own police force under the leadership of a former Nazi thug.

Even so, there were powerful voices in both Washington and London who wanted to continue to appease the Soviets. But the defection of a Soviet diplomat in Canada, and the subsequent discovery of the atom spies, helped to change attitudes. Meanwhile in Berlin Howley in particular had been convinced that the Soviets had to be stopped, and he proved adept at winning the propaganda war. Eventually, the Russians fell back on coercion. In June 1948 they closed all the land routes to Berlin, and shut off supplies of food and fuel. While Howley in Berlin called for an airlift of supplies, the new British administrator in Berlin, General Herbert, predicted the western allies would be defeated by October, and the government in Washington was similarly pessimistic. But the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that “under no circumstances will we leave Berlin.” And after that it was impossible for the Americans to withdraw unilaterally. The problem with an airlift was that it would require a minimum of 4,500 tons of food a day to keep the city alive, which worked out at 1,800 flights a day. How the logistics of all this were worked out and maintained, even through the weeks of freezing fog in that impossibly cold autumn when flights were often impossible, is an absolutely gripping story.

I have read and enjoyed other stuff by Giles Milton. He is a good storyteller, and marshals the fact well so it is always clear what happened and why. But I suspect this could be his best to date.