The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?
— An Alternate History of Cold War Espionage
from T.H.E. Hill, the author of
Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary
|The construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961. Once completed it had shut the people of East Berlin and from East Germany off from the freedom which West Berlin—the American, British and French sectors—had been offering them. It is estimated that before the wall went up more than three million East Germans made their way into one of Berlin’s western sectors. East Germany could not afford this haemorrhaging, not economically and not politically. Thus the wall arose.
It stood from 1961 to 1989. Throughout this period thousands of East Germans found ways to get under, through or over it into West Berlin. Well over a hundred East German citizens were killed attempting to escape. Stories and legends abound. A few stretches of the wall still stand in Berlin as monuments to history. One of Berlin’s more interesting museums which describes many of the daring escapes is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. And one of the memorable moments of the late Cold War came on June 12, 1987 when President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech on a platform in front of the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin overlooking the wall. He posed a challenge to the Soviet Union to allow eastern Europeans more freedom, saying: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later the Berlin Wall did indeed crumble.
Was the rise of the Berlin Wall predictable? Although in the 1950s and into the early 1960’s, as the flood of people crossing from East Berlin into the western sectors continued, the East German rulers continually denied that a barrier would go up to prevent this, the role-out of barbed wire coils in August 1961, the pre-cursor of the cement structure that followed, was clearly planned.
The planning would have had to have been long and detailed, since the wall would have to be some 100 miles long and its construction complicated in many places. It is certainly conceivable that western intelligence, highly active as it was in West Berlin, knew the Berlin Wall was coming. Years later, in American military circles in Berlin, legend had it that they did.
If this was the case, how might this intelligence information have arisen? How might behind-the-scenes events have played out? This is where The Day Before the Berlin Wall, comes in. In a fascinating piece of fiction, written by T.H.E. Hill, an author who knows his material. It turns out the key person was a young American sergeant who acquired the knowledge of the East German intent to put up the wall.
In the novel the sergeant, once he has this information, immediately faces numerous problems. The first is that he is in East Berlin and the East German authorities know he has this intelligence. In a fast moving plot, with many unexpected twists and turns, the sergeant criss-crosses Berlin, always staying a half step ahead of several groups of East Berlin police, the West Berlin police and the U.S. Military Police. In the process we get to know a number of genuine, entertaining Berlin characters. But we also develop a feel for Berlin as it was in the early sixties, the places where east meets west, what it was like going from sector to sector, what the public transport arteries were which crossed the eastern and western zones.
With the story presented from the perspective of the sergeant, T.H.E. Hill uses an ingenious technique to take us into the sergeant’s reasoning processes, his intuitions and feelings. Lively mental processes are presented as crisp dialogues and debates which take place between his consciousness, his id and “the little voice at the back of head”, that is his hunches. The inner conversations, as the sergeant weighs his options and makes his split second decisions to elude, are often dry and ironic and sometimes wickedly funny.
T.H.E. Hill, who rose to prominence with his first Berlin book, Voices Under Berlin, knows the city like the back of his hand. He understands the workings of the East German secret police, the Stasi. He has a great feel for the mindsets of the civilian police forces in both parts of the city. And he has an intimate knowledge of the American forces then present in Berlin, their culture and their way of functioning. This is a great tool bag from which to draw in creating a thoroughly enjoyable story.
The reader, after finishing it, might easily conclude that though the book is fictional, it might not be too far off the mark in terms of what actually happened on the day before the Berlin Wall went up.
Adrian de Hoog
Canadian author of the thrillers:
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