A Review of The Candy Bombers, by Andrei Cherney
(Note: This review appears in the Haysville Sun Times for Friday, June 20th.)
In times of difficulty – wars and rumors of wars, terrorism, rising unemployment, relentlessly increasing food prices, gasoline prices approaching $4 a gallon, global warming – it is easy to yield to cynicism or despair. Yet it is precisely during such ‘times that try men’s souls’ that it becomes more vital than ever that we maintain hope and redouble our conviction that humankind truly can triumph over grim adversity.
“If you ever need a jolt of hope about the world we live in,” writes Andrei Cherny near the end of his marvelous history of the Berlin Airlift, The Candy Bombers, “go to Berlin and see the possibilities history can hold. In Potsdamer Platz, where Hitler and Speer planned for a gargantuan fountain and parking spots for a thousand cars, where Markgraf’s police raided the black marketeers, where hundreds of American and Russian troops faced off with machine guns, where a single, stooped man dragged a paintbrush across the pavement to divide the city, there is now an IMAX movie theater, a Sony store, and a Legoland.
“To be sure, there is still competition in Berlin for the allegiances of its people. On what once was the American side of Checkpoint Charlie, there is a Subway sandwich shop. Mere feet away, on the old Soviet side, there is a Schlotsky’s deli. Some may tut-tut such rampant commercialization, but no one dies or starves in face-offs over cold cuts and condiments.
“That this is Berlin today is a testament to the strength of allied military power, to the commitment of two generations of Americans to the idea that democracy and freedom can be brought to the most unlikely places, and to the redemptive, transformative power of human goodness.”
It is above all else the redemptive and transformative power of human goodness that permeates and animates the narrative of this wonderful book.
In truth, when I lived in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War, more than three decades after the events recounted in this book, I met dozens of Germans whose most intensely emotional childhood memories were of the “Luftbruecke” (the “air bridge”), and whose gratitude for the “candy bombers” remained undiminished by the intervening years.
There is no doubt in my mind – a certitude reconfirmed in the reading of this work – that the single most important turning point in postwar history was the Berlin Airlift.
When the events recounted here began, three years after the end of the most destructive war in human history, Berlin was a landscape of unmitigated devastation. The city comprised nearly two billion cubic feet of rubble, and little else. In three laborious years, the Germans had cleared less than half a percent of the vast wreckage. (When the task was finally completed years hence, the enormous quantity of detritus was scraped into a gigantic mound named Teufelsberg – the Devil’s Mountain – forming the highest single point in Central Eastern Europe from Berlin eastward to the Ural Mountains, deep within the Soviet Union. On the peak of this monument to destruction, the Americans built Field Station Berlin, an intelligence facility, where I worked for three years during the later Cold War as a Russian linguist.)
In 1948, three years after the conquest and despite American commitments, the people of Berlin were starving. The daily distribution of food supplies by the occupation forces averaged 1,040 calories. (In the hungry years of the Great Depression, Americans had consumed an average of 3,260 calories per day.)
When asked about the biggest problem they faced in educating their children, 42 percent of Berliners replied that it was a lack of food. Hunger was cited as their principle worry by 74 percent. “The average German over the age of forty was 30 pounds underweight, and the average man in the American zone weighed 112 pounds.”
Three times as many Berliners died each week as were born. The infant mortality rate was higher in Berlin in 1948 than it is in war-ravaged and starving Darfur today. In America, a Hershey bar cost five cents. In Berlin, an entire month’s wages could have bought just five of these precious candy bars. Used, half-smoked cigarette butts were common currency.
Unsurprisingly, prior to the Russian blockade and the Airlift, the starving Berliners reported that they preferred a full stomach to freedom by a margin of 70 to 22 percent. Yet they had neither food nor freedom. “In the last weeks of 1947 and first weeks of 1948, 1,600 Berliners – a large number of them anti-Communist activists – had simply disappeared, vanished without a trace.” Hundreds more were openly arrested by Russian troops, and also disappeared. As the Supreme Commander of the American occupation, General Lucius D. Clay laconically observed, “You cannot build real democracy in an atmosphere of distress and hunger.”
Although these dismal facts, and much beyond, are recounted in these pages, it isn’t distress and suffering which The Candy Bombers is about. Instead, it is about transcendence: the amazing story of how, against all odds and despite the opposition of the powerful, the practical and the “wise”, good triumphed over evil.
To reiterate but a few of the Airlift’s astonishing historical results:
- “The siege of Berlin had not only failed, it had backfired. Berliners had become rabidly pro-democratic; Western European nations under threat were banding together and seeking a defense treaty with a United States that was turning its back on isolationism; and all around the world the Berlin Airlift had become a symbol of an America that was not only strong but good.”
- “Before the blockade, Soviet Communism had been a force that was on the move, creeping across the map of Europe and toppling free governments one by one. After the blockade was defeated, the Communists would not gain another inch of territory in Europe. In fact, they would never even try again.”
- “…in 1948, had it not been for the Berlin crisis, Thomas Dewey [and not Harry Truman] would have been elected President of the United States.”
For anyone curious about the grim aftermath of World War II, the genesis of the Cold War, or the more urgent contemporary challenge of introducing freedom and democracy to a population long-inured to dictatorship, The Candy Bombers is imperative reading. Diligently researched, excellently written and emotionally compelling, Andrei Cherny’s book is a revelation. If you read just one “serious” book this summer, The Candy Bombers would be an excellent choice.
Ken Bell is the Assistant Director of the Haysville Community Library. His elder daughter Krystal lives, works and studies in Berlin.