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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

RIAS, Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor in German or Radio in the American Sector
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is an espionage thriller set in post-WW2 Berlin. Our hero's father got him out of Germany prior to the war. Alex, for that is our hero's name, went to California, wrote a best seller and was living the good life until the HUAC started asking him questions that he refused to answer. No longer welcome in the USA he goes back to his home town in Germany: Berlin.

Brandenburg Gate
It's 1949, the Soviets and the Allies are pushing and shoving, working their way up to the cold war. Somebody in the American intelligence community realizes that Alex could be a valuable asset, never mind that he won't answer the bull-necked Senator's questions, so Alex has friends in the American sector. Because he has communist leanings, he has friends in the Soviet sector as well, and because this is his home town, there are people he knows from back in the day. Whether they are still friends might be in doubt, war changes people.

Adlon Hotel in Berlin, survived the war but burned in 1945
He quickly learns that the Soviet brand of communism is 100% bullshit, which puts him in a bit of bind. The action escalates so quickly it begins to look like a James Bond movie, but more complicated, and with real characters.



Douglas C-54 Skymaster cargo airplanes at Templehof airport.
The Berlin airlift is going on and while it doesn't play a big part in the story, it's quite a story all by itself. I remember hearing about it when I was a kid, but I never realized just how big a deal it was. So they had to fly in some supplies from the West, I mean how many plane loads did they need? There couldn't have been more than a few hundred people living there, I mean most of them got killed in the war, right? Well, no.

Schematic Diagram of Air Lift Routes
There were almost three million people living in Berlin at the time. At one pound of food and two pounds of coal (winter in Berlin is cold) per person, that's like 5,000 tons of material a day. This is when cargo planes were hard pressed to carry five tons, which meant that there were a thousand flights a day, every day for ten months. That's a serious expenditure of effort. It paid off though, because eventually the Soviets relented and the Allies managed to keep hold of half of Berlin.


Using a Geiger Counter on samples in a Wismut mine, c. 1960.
Another situation that bears on the story: the Soviets were mad to build their own atomic bomb and to do that they needed uranium. The only source they knew of at the time were some mines along the Czechoslovakian - German border. They went at it in a typical Stalinesque manner, using forced labor from POW's and criminals and when that wasn't enough they started conscripting regular people. While the conditions were not as bad as the German slave labor operations, they weren't good. Thousands of people died.

WISMUT mine in Thüringen, Germany. The hills are waste material that has been removed from the mine. The two white metal structures are the head ends of the elevators that go down into the mine.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany was left with a environmental disaster that they are still working to clean up.


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