Checkmate in Berlin, by Giles Milton

Major General Sir Robert Corbett

The story of Berlin after the war is a remarkable one, so says the last British commandant of the city.
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I suppose you could say that I was a survivor of the Cold War. All my military service, from a rude awakening as an 18-year-old recruit for the Irish Guards at Caterham, until I finally stepped off in 2004, was spent in its constantly threatening and frequently perilous shadow. Never, in my wildest imaginings, could I have thought that I would one day be present as the 21st and last British Commandant in Berlin, at the time of the fall of the Wall and the collapse of communism – arguably the most important turning point in the second half of the 20th century. This makes Giles Milton’s book, Checkmate in Berlin, of the most direct and personal interest to me. I am privileged to be able to review it.

The first thing to say is that this is a brilliant piece of work – an extraordinarily absorbing, exhilarating and very strongly researched account of the first fraught years of the Four-Power occupation and administration of the shattered, ravaged, once-proud capital of defeated Germany. These were years in which Stalin’s Soviet Union all too quickly turned away from initial, though always partisan, cooperation with the Western powers. The US, Britain and latterly France (at the instigation of Churchill), had to contend with open hostility that was the harbinger of the Cold War to come.

Soviet behaviour was in direct contravention of the agreement for the occupation of Germany first drawn up at Yalta in February 1945 and subsequently confirmed at Potsdam in July of the same year. The post-war administration was to be carried out through the Allied Kommandatura, always known colloquially as the AK. This was the rather unattractive Russo-Germanic name given to the body established to hold the ultimate legislative and executive authority for the governance of Berlin. This huge responsibility was vested in the persona of the Allied Commandants. Milton portrays vividly the increasingly tense time following the assumption of these powers in July 1945. His description, quoted from the US commandant, the redoubtable Col. Frank Howley, of his bloody-minded Soviet counterpart, General Alexander Kotikov, is particularly striking, ‘A big, bulky man…With a mouth like a petulant rosebud’. This rings true to me, who so often had to sit under his scowling portrait in meetings of the AK. His office had not changed – the same Cyrillic nameplate on the door, same bakelite telephone and the like – since the day the Soviets walked out of the AK on 16 June 1948, never to return.

Milton paints many other marvellous cameos of the protagonists in this dramatic arena. For example, he reminds us of the central role played by the British Foreign Secretary, the pugnacious Ernest Bevin, who seemed to treat the Soviet government like a breakaway faction of the Transport and General Workers Union and had to be physically restrained from punching his Soviet opposite number, Vyacheslav Molotov, at the Paris Peace Conference in July 1946. ‘I’ve ‘ad enough of this, I ‘ave.’ were the words used. There are many human asides, such as the story of the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Walter Bedell Smith, being obliged to go through the Moscow Conference in the spring of 1947 with pink hair following a visit to a Russian barber; was this deliberate sabotage?

But suddenly I find myself, with regret, out of space in which to further describe this remarkable book. I am sure it will be understood that I have read it (from cover to cover in one sitting) with an almost uncanny sense of déjà vu. For me it provides a powerful example of the supreme importance of standing firm in the face of totalitarianism. I unreservedly commend Checkmate in Berlin, which can only be described as narrative history at its very best. I could not put it down.

Major General Sir Robert Corbett was the last commandant of the British Sector in Berlin, and present when the wall came down in 1989.