Reliving the Cold War through books and movies


Nov. 9 marks the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What began as a misinformed statement made at a press conference by an East German official who had not been fully briefed soon resulted in East German citizens crossing en masse into West Berlin. Gates were simply thrown open to avoid the use of lethal force by guards. People took sledgehammers to the 12-foot high cement wall. Confusion and joy reigned that night as Germany began the long-awaited journey toward reunification. The wall was an icon of the Cold War. After its collapse, communist regimes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union fell like dominoes and the Cold War thawed.

I own a small fragment of the wall, given to me by a German houseguest who lived there at the time. I wasn’t in Berlin in 1989, but I did cross the wall into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie while spending a year at a West German university during the Cold War period. The group I was traveling with took a bus to East Germany, visiting Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin. Experiencing this slice of historical tension was exciting and totally new. Fearless and curious, I took along a copy of Stefan Heym’s fictionalized book about a five-day labor uprising in East Germany in June 1953, titled “5 Tage im Juni.” The book had been banned in that country. Per protocol, border guards boarded the bus and inspected passports and reading material. Surely, I thought, my book would be confiscated, but disappointingly it was handed back. Members of the Soviet military strolled the streets of East Berlin, and bookstores displayed many titles in Russian, a mandatory subject in East German schools.

Our accommodations during that trip were in West Berlin. One day I took the subway along one of the train lines that had been divided between the east and west halves of the city. The train went from one part of West Berlin to another, but passed through East Berlin, eerily slowing down but never stopping at the guard-patrolled stations located in East Berlin called Geisterbahnhoefe (“ghost stations”). It was the perfect setting for a cloak and dagger spy thriller.

Later that year, I visited Poland with my parents on a night train. In either East Germany or Poland, stern guards knocked on the sleeping cabin door in the middle of the night asking for passports. My mother was terrified. I found the sense of frisson deliciously thrilling.

During my student time in West Germany, an American friend who had married a West German and stayed behind told me stories of narrow escapes some of her husband’s relatives had made from East Germany. She refused to give compromising details but the very thought of her connection to people who had risked their lives in this way was fascinating.

Here are a few books and movies available in the Valnet catalog to take you back to the Cold War era in eastern Europe:“The Tunnel”: Film based on the story of two East Germans who built an escape tunnel from East to West Berlin. Several people made it out before the Stasi closed in and shut it down.

“The Tunnels”: by Greg Mitchell: Nonfiction book about the same event, the American TV networks who filmed it, and the Kennedy administration’s attempt to suppress the films.

“Good Bye Lenin!”: Tragicomedy film that takes place right before and right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“The Lives of Others”: Suspenseful drama about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by Stasi agents.

“Deutschland 83”: TV series about a young East German sent to West Germany as a spy.

“The Third Man”: Novella and film from 1949 set in postwar Allies-divided Vienna.

“Bridge of Spies”: Story of the American lawyer who negotiated the release of U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers in exchange for a Soviet spy.

“Bridge of Spies” by Giles Whittell: Nonfiction book about prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., often taking place on Glienicke Bridge in Berlin.

“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” by John LeCarré. Novel made into a film about a British agent sent to East Germany to sow disinformation.

“Leaving Berlin” by Joseph Kanon. Novel set in 1948 Berlin, the earliest days of the Cold War.Philip Kerr’s series of novels featuring private eye Bernie Gunther, spanning life in East Germany from the Nazi era to the 1950s Cold War.

“The Spy and the Traitor” by Ben Macintyre: Story of British-Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky, his roles with MI6, the CIA and the KGB, and his betrayal by a CIA double agent.

Chris Sokol is director of the Latah County Library District.

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