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Interview with T.H.E. Hill, Author of The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?

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August 13th, 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Today I am talking with T.H.E. Hill, the author of a novel entitled The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?: An Alternate History of Cold War Espionage, a spy action thriller that’s an even better story than his highly lauded first novel, Voices Under Berlin. Both books were reviewed by me, and can be found here and here.

Also see here for another review of a Berlin Tunnel book, and previous interviews with Hill here and here

Thus far, Hill’s new novel has been selected as a finalist in the “Thriller” category at the prestigious NIEA Book Awards, but it hasn’t been out as long as his first, which has netted Hill six book awards.

LN: The title suggests that you think that we could have stopped construction of the Berlin Wall 50 years ago. Why is that?

Hill: When I was stationed in Berlin in the mid-1970s, there was a “legend” that I heard again and again. According to this legend, we had advance knowledge of the plan to build the Wall, and not only that, but we knew that the East Germans had been instructed to halt construction if we were to take aggressive action to prevent them from putting up the wall. That idea had a particularly strong impact on me, because I was living inside the bounds of the Berlin Wall at the time I heard it. That’s why the memory of it is still so strong after all these years. The thought that we knew that the East Germans were going to build a wall around West Berlin, and did not do anything about it when we could have has always bothered me, because the Berlin Wall was not just some minor inconvenience. It changed people’s lives forever. 136 people were killed while trying to escape across the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Just tearing down the Berlin Wall doesn’t change what it did to millions of people.

LN: You yourself say that your novel is based on a quote-unquote legend that was being told in Berlin when you were stationed there. Why should the reader place any credence in this legend? Isn’t “legend” just another word for fiction?

Hill: When I started the novel, I didn’t have any proof that the “legend” I had heard was true. The display quote on the “Legend” webPage for The Day Before the Berlin Wall is from John Sutherland’s Bestsellers (1981) where he says the attraction of secret histories is “the ineradicable popular belief that the real facts of history are never given.” The legend that the novel is based on certainly seems ineradicable. I heard it over and over in Berlin, and I’ve even heard it a number of times since I left Berlin. 2010 was the last time. It is also rather “secret,” because I have never seen it mentioned in print anywhere.

I decided to change it from a “secret” history to an alternative history, but without any proof, the only thing I could call it was a “legend,” in quotes to suggest that there might be some truth in it somewhere.

LN: How much truth do you think there is in this “legend” then?

Hill: Since the novel came out I have discovered a number of things that substantiate the legend. The non-fiction book by Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961, which came out seven months after The Day Before the Berlin Wall, is one of them.

In an interview on Amazon, Kempe explains that Kennedy did nothing. He says that his “book builds the best cases to date that Kennedy acquiesced to the border closure and the building of the Wall. The record shows that in many respects he wrote the script that Khrushchev followed — as long as Khrushchev restricted his actions to Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany, Kennedy would accept his actions. Kennedy falsely believed that if East Germany could end its refugee stampede, Khrushchev might become a more willing negotiator on a set of other issues. It was a tragic misreading of the man and of the situation. Berlin paid for it — as did tens of millions of people.”

Kennedy’s ill-founded belief that ending the “refugee stampede” would make negotiations with the Soviets easier on other issues suggests that Ulbricht’s forgotten comment about those in West Germany who wanted a wall built was not just a propaganda ploy.

LN: I’ve certainly forgotten it. What did Ulbricht say other than “No one has the intention of building a wall”?

Hill: Everyone remembers Ulbricht’s “No one has the intention of building a wall” from that press conference in June 1961. What they forget, however, is what Ulbricht said before that. He said: “As I understand your question, there are people in West Germany who wish that we would mobilize the construction workers of the capital of the GDR for the purpose of erecting a wall. I am not aware of the existence of any such intention. The construction workers of our capital are primarily engaged in the building of housing, and all their efforts are directed toward this goal. No one has the intention of building a wall.” Everyone always thought that it was just a propaganda ploy, but now it looks like he might have been telling the truth.

LN: That is very interesting in the light of what Kempe said in his book about Kennedy projecting a face of shocked depression at the building of the Berlin Wall to the press and the public, but displaying a sense of relief to those who were closest to him.

Hill: Kennedy’s public face was the one presented to Egon Bahr, the Press spokesman for the Berlin Senate, led at that time by Mayor Willy Brandt. Bahr recalls that, in the first week after the Wall went up, the Berlin evening newspaper Der Abend printed a story which suggested that the allies had known in advance about the Wall and had decided not to do anything about it. Bahr demanded that the U.S. issue a denial of the story within thirty minutes. Bahr got his denial even a bit faster than he had demanded. That’s Kennedy’s public face.

LN: Yet there are indications that the story in Der Abend was indeed correct.
Hill: Kempe’s book seems to confirm the Der Abend story and part of the legend upon which The Day Before the Berlin Wall is based. Kempe says that there was intelligence that predicted the construction of the Wall. He specifically mentions that four days prior to the construction of the Wall, the Chief of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to the Commander Group of Soviet Forces Germany (USMLM) predicted the construction of a wall at the weekly meeting of the Berlin Watch Committee, but he had no hard evidence to back up his prediction. Kempe also notes that one “reliable” but untested source was reporting that there would be a wall, and that construction was “imminent.”

Hagen Koch, a former member of the East German Stasi who was there when the Wall was built, confirms another part of my novel’s “legend.” “If the Americans had let General (Lucius D.) Clay knock down our barbed-wire barriers, we were under orders to do nothing,” said Koch. “Most of DDR personnel believed the Americans would call our bluff. They didn’t. It might have been different if the American President was Reagan instead of Kennedy.”

His statement is corroborated by Wolfgang Leonhard, a well-known West-German commentator on Soviet Affairs, who said “We know now — we learned later from refugees — that the leadership in East Berlin would have backed down if the West had stood up to them.”

LN: With hindsight, it looks like your “legend” was true. But at the time you were writing the novel, you didn’t have these facts. How did you work out the story line?

Hill: I am one of those writers who put their characters on-page in a certain situation, and then listen to what the characters have to say. I put a young Army sergeant on-page in East Berlin, gave him the information about the impending construction of the Berlin Wall, and waited to see what he would do with it. He did what any of the smart Army Military Intelligence sergeants whom I’ve known would do. He recognized the value of the piece of intelligence he had in his hands, and did his best to report it.

History, however, suggests that he wasn’t successful. At the time, I thought that if he had been successful, the Berlin Wall would never have been built.

I asked the character why he didn’t report this intelligence. His reply was that a chain of events kept him from getting back to his unit. Any good spy story needs obstacles for its protagonist to overcome, and there was a bunch of good ones. To begin with, he is in East Berlin and has to get back to West Berlin to report his information. The Stasi (the East German secret police) are prepared to kill to keep him from reporting it. They have killed his postmistress, and framed him for her murder. Now it is not only the Stasi, and the Vopos (the East-German “People’s” Police), but also the West-Berlin municipal Polizei and the U.S. Army MPs who are after him.

LN: That could slow him down a bit, but would it stop him?

Hill: Like most young Army sergeants I’ve known, he’s determined, resolute, and dedicated to the job of protecting American lives and interests. As long as they don’t kill him, given enough time, he will probably make it back to the West, and report his information. But this is a novel, so he doesn’t have enough time. It’s the day before construction is scheduled to start, and time is running out, so he is running as fast as he can. The key question of the novel remains, did he make it? Or…

LN: Or what?

Hill: Yes, that is a question of Shakespearean proportions. I asked my character the same thing. For history to turn out the way it did, he was either killed or arrested, or something else kept him from making it back to West Berlin. Or he did make it back, and they ignored his information.

LN: Which outcome did you chose?

Hill: Since there was a legend that we had the information, I had to assume that he made it.  Otherwise, nobody would have known about the information, and there would have been no legend. I could not decide between the remaining possible choices, so in the end, I paraphrased the opening to Walter Cronkite’s historical TV series You Are There, and said, “It is 23:00 Central European Time, August the sixth, 1961, and you are in Berlin. Everything is as it was then, except that now you can decide what to do with WAGON TRAIN’s information.” I gave the reader two endings to choose from. One leaves history unchanged. The other changes history, and the Berlin Wall doesn’t go up.

LN: In his “Foreword” to Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe, General Brent Scowcroft says “History, sadly, does not reveal its alternatives.” How did you decide which alternative history might have presented, if the intelligence information from the legend had been used to stop construction of the Wall?

Hill: While General Scowcroft was hesitant to speculate what might have happened, Henry Rowen, now Professor Emeritus at the Hoover Institution Stanford University, then on the staff of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze, wasn’t. In his review of Berlin 1961, Rowen says that Kempe’s book “leads to the following speculation: Had Kennedy been more determined over keeping West Berlin open to East Berliners, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous episode during the Cold War, might not have happened.”

On the one hand, General Scowcroft is right. History does not come right out and say, if you had done X, the outcome would have been Y. Those types of nice cut and dried scientific solutions don’t exist in the real world. That kind of approach is only valid in laboratories where they deal with the hard sciences.

When people are involved, there are no 100%, black and white guarantees that changing one variable will result in a predictable outcome. History does, however, rhyme a lot, as Mark Twain said. It is, therefore, possible to present probable outcomes for changing certain variables in a scenario, based on the history that has gone before.

To create my alternate history of the Berlin Wall crisis, I studied the history of the end of the four-power occupation of Austria. Vienna was divided into four Sectors, one for each of the occupying powers, the same way that Berlin was. Vienna, like Berlin, was deep inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Many of the political issues were the same in both cases. The occupation of Austria ended in 1955, on the basis of perpetual Austrian neutrality, with the withdrawal of all occupation forces. German neutrality was a continuing demand from the Soviet side. I envisioned an outcome based on the acceptance of permanent German neutrality and the withdrawal of all occupation forces. In the context of Austrian history, my alternate history is not as outlandish as it may seem to those considering the Berlin Crisis of 1961 in isolation.

If Lucius D. Clay, the former military governor of the U.S. Zone, Germany (1947–49) and the “father” of the Berlin Airlift (1948–1949), had still been alive to write the “Foreword” for The Day Before, his comments might have included a statement that Clay made about the building of the Wall. Clay felt that “we might have been able to have stopped the Wall from being built that night,” if the American Commandant of Berlin had taken action, “even if he had been in violation of his instructions, he would have succeeded and he would have been forgiven and he would have become a very great man.”

LN: So you’re saying the same thing that Charles McCarry said in his review of Berlin 1961 for the Wall Street Journal: “Kennedy blinked?

Hill: The key phrase in Clay’s statement is “even if he (the U.S. Commandant of Berlin) had been in violation of his instructions.” Nobody knows the name of the U.S. Commandant of Berlin who let the Wall be built on his watch, because General Albert Watson II (U.S. Commandant: 4 May 1961–’62 January 1963) did as he was told, and his instructions came from Washington. This brings us back to the continuation of General Scowcroft’s comment about history not revealing its alternatives. Kempe’s book, says Scowcroft in the next sentence, “prompts the reader to reflect on crucial questions regarding the Berlin crisis that raise larger issues about American Presidential leadership.” The same indeed could be said of my novel.

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About Lou Novacheck