Tag Archives: German History

Bad Start


Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961:
Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

          If you think there is already a sufficient body of hagiographic work on John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency, this may be the book for you. In “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” Frederick Kempe delivers a withering critique of Kennedy’s first year as President — “one of the worst inaugural-year performances of any modern U.S. president” (p.483), Kempe concludes. As his title indicates, Kempe focuses upon Kennedy’s handling of the crisis in Berlin in 1961 and his dealings with his primary adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Relying upon recently declassified documents from the United States, Germany, and Russia, Kempe has produced a highly readable account of a time when the Cold War was very hot. Kempe divides his book into short “time-and-place” narratives (e.g., “The Kremlin, Moscow, 10:00 am, Saturday, January 21, 1961,” p.73; “Berlin, Sunday Afternoon, June 4, 1961,” p.253; “The White House, Washington D.C., October 18, 1961,” p.430). He intersperses these narratives with human-interest stories, showing the effects which the super powers’ wrangling over Berlin had upon ordinary people, helping to make his book entertaining as well as informative.

          Two central events shape Kempe’s chronicle: Kennedy and Khrushchev’s meeting in Vienna in June 1961, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of that year. After Kennedy’s razor-thin victory in the 1960 presidential elections, the consensus in the Kremlin was that the newly-elected president was a “lightweight, a product of American privilege who lacked the experience required for leadership” (p.39).  Kempe details how the young and inexperienced Kennedy, in an effort to appear tough, rebuffed numerous olive branches thrown his way by his older adversary after his election. Had Kennedy accepted these branches, Kempe suggests, much of the tension relating to Berlin could have been defused.

          Preceding the Vienna meeting by about 60 days was the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, a CIA-led invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration, which Kennedy neither cancelled nor supported fully, and which failed miserably. To Khrushchev, Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs operation indicated that the young President was not resolute. “[N]ever in his fondest dreams had he anticipated such incompetence. In this first major test, the new U.S. president had lived down to Khrushchev’s lowest expectations,” demonstrating “weakness under fire” (p.177).

          The meeting in Vienna – what was termed a “summit” — was the first between the two Cold War leaders. Coming off the Bay of Pigs debacle, the young American President entered the “most important week of his presidency as a weary wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him in Vienna. Khrushchev would be scanning for Kennedy’s vulnerabilities after the Bay of Pigs, and there were plenty for the picking” (p.211). The German weekly Die Zeit unkindly compared Kennedy on his way to Vienna to a traveling salesman “whose business had fallen on bad times and who was hoping to improve his prospects by negotiating directly with the competition” (p.197).

          There was no pre-set agenda for the Vienna meeting, but the future of Berlin dominated the discussions. Although Berlin was deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR), the Allies’ agreement at Yalta in February 1945 had guaranteed Western access into and out of the Western sectors of the city. Khrushchev came to Vienna under great pressure from GDR leader Walter Ulbricht — perhaps the most Stalinist of the Eastern bloc leaders — to stem the tide of skilled workers fleeing East Germany through West Berlin. Too many East Germans were voting against Communism with their feet, exiting the socialist enclave for the decadent West. Khrushchev was very much aware that East Germany and the Soviet Union’s other Eastern European satellites had not reached a “level of moral and material development where competition with the West [was] possible” (p.329).

          In Vienna, Khrushchev reiterated an earlier threat he had made to conclude a separate treaty with East Germany and leave the West to negotiate directly with Ulbricht’s government on issues involving access roads and air routes to Berlin. Khrushchev let Kennedy know that he preferred to reach an agreement personally with the American President that would alter Berlin’s status. If that were not possible, however, Khrushchev said he would “act alone and end all postwar commitments made by the Soviets” (p.242). No force in the world, the Communist leader indicated, was capable of stopping Moscow from “moving forward on its peace treaty” (p.245). As Kempe notes dryly, Khrushchev was plainly threatening war.

          Kennedy looked upon Berlin primarily as an inherited inconvenience. During his first year in office, according to Kempe, Kennedy was “not focused on rolling back communism in Europe, but instead was trying to stop its spread to the developing world” (p.486). Although he publicly took a hard line on Western commitments to Berlin, Kennedy’s primary interest was in “preserving West Berlin’s status and access to the city (p.381)” and “avoiding instability and miscalculations that would lead to nuclear war” (p.486). According to recently declassified notes, Kennedy told Khrushchev in the Vienna meeting that “West Europe is vital to our national security and we have supported it in two wars. If we were to leave West Berlin, Europe would be abandoned as well. So when we are talking about West Berlin, we are also talking about West Europe” (p.243).

          With that pronouncement, Kempe contends, Kennedy went further than any previous American president in differentiating “so clearly between his commitment to all of Berlin and to West Berlin” (p.243, Kempe’s emphasis). In Vienna, Kennedy tacitly let the Soviet leader know that he could do “whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin or Allied access to the city” (p.488). Vienna thus produced a de facto deal which Kennedy was prepared to strike with Khrushchev: “He would give Khrushchev a free hand to seal Berlin’s border in exchange for a guarantee that the Soviets would not disrupt West Berlin’s continued freedom or Allied access to the city” (p.489).

          During his time with the avuncular Khrushchev, Kempe concludes, the young President:

failed to challenge the Soviet leader where he was most vulnerable. He had not condemned the Soviet use of force in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956. Worse, he had not posed the most important question of all: Why were there hundreds of thousands of East German refugees fleeing to a better life in the West (p.233).

Kennedy’s Vienna performance confirmed Khrushchev’s growing impression that Kennedy “could be easily outmaneuvered, and from that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay” (p.259).

          Kennedy returned to the United States badly weakened after his lackluster performance in Vienna. An aide compared the return trip on Air Force One to “riding with the losing baseball team in the World Series. Nobody said much” (p.258). In what Kempe terms “one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander in chief,” Kennedy told the journalist James Reston that Khrushchev had “savaged” him (p.257).

          Two months later, early in the morning of August 13 of that year, East Germany commenced construction of a barbed wire wall between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin, implementing a plan Ulbricht had devised which Kempe compares to Nazi blueprints for building and operating concentration camps. Though Ulbricht’s project was less murderous, “its execution would be no less cynically exacting” (p.325). Under the 1945 four-power agreements, the American, Soviet, British and French military governments of Germany had agreed that they would ensure unrestricted access throughout Berlin, a point reconfirmed in 1948 by another four-power agreement that ended the Berlin blockade. Thus, when the wall went up, Kennedy would have had “every right to order his military to knock down the barriers put up that morning by East German units that had no right to operate in Berlin” (p.359).

          But Kennedy had already signaled in Vienna and made clear through several other channels that he would “not respond if Khrushchev and the East Germans restricted their actions to their own territory” (p.359). Just a few days prior to construction of the wall, Kennedy had told Walt Rostow, his Deputy National Security Advisor:

Khruschev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open (p.293).

Then, when the wall went up, Kennedy “could not publicly express his genuine relief that the communists had closed the border, but at the same time he didn’t want to express false outrage too loudly” (p.383-84).

          Kempe pinpoints two “aftershocks” to Kennedy’s mishandling of Berlin in 1961: the long-term “freezing in place of the Cold War division of Europe for more than three decades;” and the more immediate Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, with its threat of nuclear war. “The Wall’s construction not only stopped East Germany’s unraveling at a time when the country’s viability was in doubt,” Kempe writes. It also “condemned another generation of tens of millions of East Europeans to authoritarian, Soviet-style rule with its limits on individual and national freedom” (p.485). For 28 additional years, the Berlin Wall “would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist” (p.502). As to the Cuban missile crisis the following year, although history would celebrate Kennedy’s management of that crisis, “Khrushchev would not have risked putting nuclear weapons in Cuba at all if he had not concluded from Berlin in 1961 that Kennedy was weak and indecisive” (p.485).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
January 27, 2013



Filed under German History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History

Wounded Animal

Ian Kershaw, The End:

The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45

In “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45,” eminent British historian Ian Kershaw, author of a highly-acclaimed two volume biography of Adolph Hitler, details how Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first half of 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost.  Kershaw also analyzes why Germany continued to fight to the end, the more enticing aspect of the book for me.  Kershaw begins with the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, led by Klaus von Stauffenberg.  From this point onward, Kershaw contends, there was no realistic possibility of removing Hitler and, hence, no realistic possibility of averting the catastrophic route which Hitler insisted upon.  The book ends approximately 10 months later, after Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, the capitulation of the Nazi regime on May 8, 1945, and, finally, the end of an interim government lead by Admiral Karl Donitz on May 23, 1945.
The details of this 10-month period are grisly.  At times, I wanted to say, enough already, Kershaw; you’ve made your case that the Nazis brought unparalleled destruction and depravity to Germany and her own citizens, in addition to the horrors they inflicted outside Germany.  Please spare me further details, professor.  It could not have been pleasurable for Kershaw to assemble this record of sustained madness, irrationality and brutality that characterized the Third Reich throughout it existence and continued until the very end.  But Kershaw has done so resolutely, like a top-notch prosecutor coldly setting out the facts to make sure that the court understands fully the heinous nature of the charges against the defendant.
By the end of winter 1945, Kershaw writes, the Nazi regime was “like a wounded animal in its death throes” which lashed out wildly at “anyone seen to impair in the slightest the imperative to fight to the last in an obviously lost war” (p.225).  Although on the verge of its own destruction, the Nazi regime retained “its murderous capacity to the very end” (p.331).  Most German deaths in World War II, civilian and military,  occurred during the 10-month period which Kershaw covers.  Intensified Allied bombing caused many civilian deaths, but countless German civilians also fell victim to what Kershaw describes as the “uncontrolled violence” of the Nazi regime during its final months (p.325).   The main targets of Nazi violence were “real or imagined opponents of the regime, defeatists, ‘subversives’, supposed ‘shirkers’, presumed deserters or ‘cowards’, or anyone welcoming the end of Nazism or the arrival of the enemy” (p.327).
Unlike almost all other armies on the verge of defeat – e.g. Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 and Italy in 1943 – in Germany in late 1944 and early 1945 there was “no danger of mutiny in the ranks feeding into internal collapse” (p.155).   German armed forces were “far removed from the point at which they were unwilling to fight on any further” (p.60).  A deeply inculcated but “utterly warped” sense of duty propelled military officers to fight to the end (p.395), Kershaw writes.  A German cavalry officer in captivity in March 1945 explained to his British captors that in 1918, the year Germany surrendered to end World War I, “we experienced more open revolutionary tendencies.”  As the end drew near in 1918, German soldiers were “already behaving in a very insolent fashion.  They don’t do that now” (p.272).
Away from the front lines, Germany also somehow managed to function to the last.  Throughout the Civil Service, there remained an almost “unthinking loyalty” to the homeland (p.393).  There was “no descent into anarchy” (p.5).  Wages and salaries were still being paid in April 1945.  Civil administration continued and bureaucratic wheels kept turning.  No matter, however trivial, was “beneath bureaucratic attention” (p.162).  As German civil servants “tried to cope with huge social dislocation after air raids, refugee problems, housing shortages, food rationing and many other issues,” they “never lost sight of the need to complete forms and have them officially stamped for approval” (p.162).   A last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic took place on April 12, 1945, four days before the Red Army launched its final assault on the capital.  The last football match took place on April 23, 1945, involving Bayern Munich.
Kershaw’s grimly comprehensive factual record provides the foundation for his explanation of why Germany continued to fight when defeat loomed so clearly.  Much of his explanation can be found in the final substantive chapter, “Liquidation,” and a short conclusion, “Anatomy of Self Destruction.”  But throughout the book, Kershaw doggedly returns to what he terms, quoting a German scholar, the “puzzle” of why Germans who “wanted to survive” nonetheless “fought and killed so desperately and so ferociously almost to the last moments of the war” (p.7).
Kershaw weaves together many strands to explain this puzzle.  He cites “ideological commitment, fanatical loyalty, a sense of comradely duty, fear of consequences of non-compliance and sheer lack of alternative” (p.314).  But the fight to the end, “down to complete defeat and destruction,” may be attributed above all to what Kershaw terms the “charismatic leadership” of Adolph Hitler.  This term refers less to Hitler himself and more to the “character of his rule” and the “structures and mentalities” that had been put in place to uphold his “charismatic domination” (p.400).  These structures and mentalities “continued even after Hitler’s popular appeal was collapsing” (p.13-14).
Although Hitler’s popularity among average Germans was on the decline throughout this period – except for a short upsurge of sympathy in the immediate aftermath of the failed von Stauffenberg plot – it was “impossible to separate support for Hitler and his regime from the patriotic determination to avoid defeat and foreign occupation” (p.14).    The structures and mentalities of Hitler’s charismatic rule lasted until the very end of the war and “precluded dominant elites from preventing Hitler from taking Germany into total destruction” (p.400).  Nazis leaders and, to a lesser extent, average Germans, felt that they had “no future without Hitler.  This provided a powerful negative bond: their fates were inextricably linked” (p.14).  By war’s ending, Kershaw concludes, it was no longer a case of blind faith in the Fűhrer but rather “charismatic rule without charisma” (p.400).
Fear of Bolshevism also motivated German soldiers and civilians, a fear which Nazi propaganda encouraged.  Even when Germans had lost faith in Hitler, they  looked at fighting Bolshevism as a noble cause.  The “conviction that a victory of the Soviets would mean the extinction of life of the German people . . . bolstered the readiness to fight and radicalized intolerance towards those seen to be shirking their ‘duty’” (p.187).  As the Allies closed in on Germany, there was a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western fronts, with brutality noticeably more widespread in the East.  When they crossed into Germany, Soviet soldiers were encouraged to extract maximum revenge for earlier German brutality:
The Germans had shown no mercy as they had laid waste Soviet towns and villages, burning homes and farmsteads, slaughtering innocent civilians.  Red Army soldiers, and their commanders, saw no need for restraint now [that] they were the conquerors, advancing through the land of those who had brought them such misery, raping, plundering, murdering as they went (p.176).

The rape of German women, “young and old, often many times over – a mass phenomenon and act of revenge through inflicting maximum humiliation on the defeated male population by the degradation of their wives and families – was a terrible hallmark of the first encounter with the Soviet conquerors” (p.181).


Kershaw gives limited credence to the view that the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender prolonged Germany’s participation in the war and was counter-productive.  The Allies’ demand marked the first time in modern warfare that a sovereign state had “formally been offered no terms short of total and unconditional capitulation” (p.87).  The approach plainly played into Nazi propaganda, contributing, “at least initially, to strengthening the will to hold out” (p.362).  But the demand for unconditional surrender “cannot be regarded as the decisive or dominant issue in compelling the Germans to fight on” (p.362).  Attributing blame to the Allies for a “mistaken policy of ‘unconditional surrender’” amounts in Kershaw’s view to little more than a “flimsy excuse” (p.362).
Kershaw’s analysis of why Germans continued to fight for a hopeless cause shades into the provocative question of collective guilt, the degree to which average German citizens and soldiers bore responsibility for the crimes committed in their nation’s name.  Kershaw does not let average German citizens off the hook, refusing to buy into the notion that they were also victims of the Third Reich’s monstrous crimes.  Kershaw agrees with recent studies that have “increasingly tended to place the emphasis upon the enthusiastic support of the German people for the Nazi regime, and their willing collaboration and complicity in policies that led to war and genocide” (p.9).
Kershaw notes that German citizens at all levels, with a few honorable exceptions, clearly bought into the demonization of Jews.  “However much Germans saw themselves, increasingly, as victims of Hitler and the Nazi regime, many of them were not ready to extend their sympathies to concentration camp prisoners, least of all Jews, or to embrace the true victims of Nazism as part of their ‘community’” (p.334).  Conceding that German citizens were “indisputably also victims of events far beyond their control,” especially in the final stages of the war, Kershaw notes that “few stopped to consider why they had allowed themselves to be misled and exploited” (p.383).  For the most part, average German citizens did not wish to:
dwell on what horror their own fathers, sons or brothers had inflicted on the peoples of eastern Europe, let alone ponder the reports (or rumors bordering on hard fact) they heard of the slaughter of the Jews.  The gross inhumanity for which Germany had been responsible was suppressed, forced out of mind.  What remained, seared in memory, was how the Third Reich had gone so tragically wrong (p.384).
A survey taken shortly after the war found, revealingly, that 50% of Germans thought that National Socialism had been in essence  a “good idea that had been badly carried out” (p.382).
The Third Reich ended definitively on May 23, 1945, when Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower ordered Donitz and his cohorts of the interim government arrested as prisoners of war.  The debts of the Third Reich for crimes against humanity, Kershaw concludes, “would not, and could not, ever be repaid.”  But a  “long process of reckoning was about to begin” (p.379).  Kershaw’s comprehensive account of the war in Germany between July 1944 and May 1945 lays bare the extent of the Nazi regime’s crimes against humanity during this 10-month period and presents an entirely plausible explanation as to why Germany continued to fight so fiercely when faced with certain defeat.  In addition, Kershaw’s account demonstrates the moral enormity of the reckoning process that was to follow.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

December 2, 2012


Filed under German History, History