Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World by Giles Milton - review by Luke Daly-Groves

Luke Daly-Groves

The Secret Powers of a Swagger Stick

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World


John Murray 416pp £25

Between 1945 and 1948, Berlin went from being the heart of the Third Reich to the front line of the Cold War. Giles Milton tells the story of how this came about largely from the perspective of the British, American, Soviet and French military officials who worked in the Kommandatura and the Allied Control Council, Berlin’s postwar governing bodies. Disputes within these institutions concerning the future of Germany eventually reached breaking point, culminating in the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the Allied airlift (described by Milton in marvellous detail), through which the Americans, British and French called Stalin’s bluff and scored a spectacular victory.

From the outset, readers are introduced to the brutality of the Soviet occupiers. Looting and kidnap were commonplace in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Berlin, and the accounts of mass rape are difficult to read. Milton makes it clear that the Soviets had not come to give Berlin democracy but to force communism upon it. Yet the leading Soviet representative in the Kommandatura, General Alexander Kotikov, was not completely without charm and was able to cooperate with his Western colleagues when he saw fit. Ultimately, though, he proved no match for his American counterpart, Colonel Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley.

Howley is the star of this book. Despite expressing a willingness to pursue friendly relations with the Soviets, en route to Berlin Howley punched the first Russian he met – a harbinger of things to come. Realising the dangers of a communist takeover earlier than many, Howley stood out

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