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How and why the Berlin Wall came to be built

The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe, by Norman Gelb. New York: Times Books. $19.95. Nowhere else does East meet West in quite the same way as at the Berlin Wall.

And even readers who know how the story comes out will find this account of the building of the wall a gripping tale.

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Norman Gelb, a Mutual Broadcasting Network correspondent in Berlin when the wall went up, begins his story with the closing days of World War II. The Soviets reached Hitler's capital before the Western allies did, and so claimed sovereignty over the whole city, despite an agreement to share jurisdiction among all four Allies.

The story of postwar Berlin until 1961 was basically that of Soviet attempts to squeeze the Western Allies out, and of Soviet miscalculation of the Allies' determination to keep Berlin free. The first major crisis came in 1948, when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin. The Allies responded with an unprecedented airlift that kept the city going until the Soviets backed off.

But like generals who are always planning to fight their last war over again, the Allies remained braced for another blockade. And so when, in the small hours of Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, the barbed wire was unrolled and the concrete blocks put into place, all within the Soviet sector, Western authorities were not quite clear how to react.

If American tanks had faced down the East Germans on ``barbed wire Sunday,'' what would have happened? The East Germans might simply have pulled back to another position deeper inside the Soviet sector. But as Gelb makes clear, the East Germans were desperate to stanch the flow of refugees through the open border to West Berlin; their economy was in danger of collapse, and they pressured the Soviets to let them do something.

Other options were apparently considered but rejected as infeasible: walling off all of Berlin from East Germany, or setting up a strict system of passes to control East Berliners' and East Germans' access to the West - a wall of bureaucrats, so to speak, rather than of concrete.

Ultimately, the wall had to be accepted as a fait accompli, but it never succeeded in pushing the Allies out. The facedown in Cuba a year later, with Khrushchev's removal of the missiles and the resulting loss of face for him back at the Kremlin, effectively ended his ability to make trouble for Kennedy in Berlin. And West Berlin remains today a glittering island of democracy and capitalism deep in the heart of East Germany.

Gelb's book is full of satisfyingly substantial research - and interesting detail. He makes the case that however obnoxious the wall might be, it was better than a war.

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