Before I write about this book, some personal history…
I spent the summer of 1971 in West Berlin, inside the Wall, working as an intern at the Institute of Nuclear Research (translation approximate). Once, from a train, a Berliner pointed out a big cube of boxes or barrels stacked in a freight yard. It was covered by a tarp. “In case the Russians blockade us again. But we don’t actually know if the food is still good,” he said. That was my introduction to the Berlin blockade and the airlift.
From my point of view, living inside the Wall carried a distinct undercurrent of cold war fear. The Wall was 10 years old and had reached its full physical magnitude (I think). It consisted of…
- Cinderblock or brick
- concrete pipe on top mounted to roll so one could not scramble over
- Barbed wire
- 25 meter “death strip” raked so any footprint would show and probably mined
- Guard towers manned by soldiers in groups of three, so one couldn’t hold another at gun point and back across the border into the West
- And maybe there were dogs
I socialized with an international group of students, and was the only American present most of the time. We all spent time with Germans, mostly but not always younger ones, at our workplaces. We believed that the East German guards at the Wall were under orders to shoot (attempted escapees) to kill, but not to let their gunfire go into the Western zone. I met people who had escaped from East Berlin. It was accomplished by bribery. Physical assault type crossings had become impossible by 1971.
When I was preparing for my summer in Berlin, I read a good deal. I had to stop reading about World War II. I found it too upsetting. I decided to take Berlin as I found it in May of 1971. I had a wonderful summer! Better than wonderful – educational, magical, exciting, enlightening. Every student should be so fortunate.
At some point (after my trip to Berlin) I had read a novel about the airlift, and I was curious to find out if what I remembered from that book (by James Michener? Leon Uris?) reflected a historian’s “reality”. It wasn’t far off. The novelist made it more “exciting” and better organized, and missed the fact that the US military wasn’t enthusiastic about the airlift. They never intended to do what they did, both in terms of magnitude and duration.
The Candy Bombers is a WONDERFUL book. I got a little confused by the number of individuals profiled. Minor quibble…
Context: When Germany was conquered and occupied at the end of WW II, the four allied powers divided the county into zones, with the Russians controlling roughly the northeast quarter of the country. The Russian zone included the capital, Berlin, and that sprawling city was ALSO split into four zones. So the Western powers (France, Britain, USA) controlled the West Berlin “enclave” completely surrounded by the Russian zone, later known as East Germany or DDR.
This arrangement was unstable from the beginning. In June of 1948, the Russians decided to evict the Western powers from Berlin. They blocked all access except by air, expecting the other occupiers to pull out in a matter of weeks. The Western powers, angered by the Russian action, started supplying themselves by air. Somehow, this evolved into an attempt to supply the entire sector with food and later coal. It seemed impossible, and nearly failed. But, probably to the surprise of the Western powers, the Berliners in the three Western zones hated Russia so much that they were willing to starve rather than turn to the Russians for food. The West Berliners and the Western occupiers unexpectedly became allies.
This book contains the sort of climax or epiphany seldom found in nonfiction. The author describes the utter bleakness of November and December, when planes crashed and the weather was bitterly cold and hunger set in. But in the chapter entitled “November” there is a section called “And yet…”
- “And yet…in later years, Berliners…would (also) remember those months at the end of 1948 as among the most special of their entire lives…” p. 471
Why on earth?? Because the Berliners and Americans found a common cause and fought with all their strength to keep West Berlin from the Russians. Because the airlift caught the attention, first of soldiers and later of American citizens who wanted to feed hungry children. Donations flooded in, and the military went into overdrive, accomplishing a logistical miracle. “Candy bombing”, dropping candy to children, was started by a pilot who fully expected, when identified, to be disciplined for violation of many regulations.
I found gaps in this book, mostly pertaining to the time between the end of the war and the beginning of the blockade. My questions have much to do with the occupation, since I would like to better understand what has happened over the past 15 years in the Middle East.
My main question about the occupation of Berlin is WHAT WERE WE THINKING? How long did we plan to starve the children of Germany? A child’s ration was 200 calories per day.
I have no idea how to ask these questions. I’m no historian, nor even a very serious reader. The author of The Candy Bombers has a website, but I hesitate to attempt dialog.
What happened during the airlift was a TRANSFORMATION. A survivor wrote, “Things turned out in a way nobody could easily believe.”
“Transforming power” is sometimes a secular code word for God. And that’s the core of “liberal Christian” faith, the belief that transformation can happen. The Candy Bombers documents a transformative event of incredible magnitude. Berlin, of course, didn’t stay in the state of “grace” to which the airlift brought it. But the amazing fact of what happened remains.
At the end of the airlift “America’s strength was…an undisputedly moral voice”. My greatest wish for our country is that we might, once again, speak with that moral voice.
I originally read this book in November of 2008.