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"People want to be reminded of America at its best"

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Photo: DPA
12:13 CEST+02:00
On the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, Steve Kettmann speaks with Andrei Cherny, author of The Candy Bombers. The former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry hopes his new book will force Americans to look at current US foreign policy through the prism of the unique humanitarian effort that began June 26, 1948.

Cherny's book, which carries the subtitle The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour, personalizes the historic account of the unprecedented logistical endeavour by focusing on the original candy bomber Gail Halvorsen.

The book has attracted wide attention in the United States, including a gig for Cherny on the popular news satire show “The Colbert Report.” Host Stephen Colbert asked, “I'm no military expert, but how much damage can a Hershey bar do?”

The Local recently caught up with Cherny, who argues the fact that the Airlift succeeded, against all odds, was decisive both in Harry Truman's surprise re-election in 1948 and in the formation of NATO the following year.

The Local: The book has been among the top sellers at Amazon, especially in the category of contemporary books on Germany. Why do you think it has struck a chord?

Andrei Cherny: Here in the United States there is a sense that people want to be reminded of when America was at its best, when we were doing the right things in the world. The book is by no means one that paints the Americans as perfect – it does not show a black and white picture – but it does recount how America was able to inspire people around the world and win over the hearts of the German people after World War II.

This book is important for Germans as well as Americans to read because it tells a story that most people do not know and do not want to hear about: the extent to which the western occupation of Germany was failing in the years after World War II. This is a vitally important story considering what is going on in Iraq. Most of all, people on both sides of the Atlantic do not want to hear about how Germans were becoming steadily more pro-Nazi, more pro-authoritarian, and more anti-American as the occupation went on. In the years after 1945, the number of Germans who believed that Nazism was “a good idea badly carried out” rose and the number who disagreed dropped. And more and more Germans said they would choose a government that offered economic security over one that offered freedom. These attitudes did not change until during the Airlift – just when the economic situation was at its worst in Berlin. This is, unfortunately, history that is being swept under the rug in both America and Europe.

The Local: Are there any plans to publish a German edition of the book?

Andrei Cherny: There are not so far and it is very surprising. This book has found a wide audience in the United States and has been the top selling new book about Germany and America for many months. However, German publishers have not wanted to bring an edition to the German people. They have given us two reasons, both of which are disappointing. The first is that Germans think they know all there is to know about the blockade and Airlift. In fact, this book shows that much of what is commonly believed about these historical occurrences is false. It shows the level of deep animosity that existed between Germans and Americans before the Airlift, which many want to now ignore. No previous book in Germany or America has examined the psychological transformation that occurred in Berlin in 1948-49. The other objection among German publishers to the book is that the German people do not want to read about how America as a force for good. Yet, I must believe that even in this Bush era there must still be Germans who want to know the true story of the good that America did and how it can be a force for justice in the world again.

The Local: You chose this story because it represented to you a high-water mark for American's role in the world, but did Berlin itself draw you to the material as well?

Andrei Cherny: I write in the book that if readers ever need a jolt of hope about the world we live in they should go to Berlin and see the possibilities history can hold. At Potsdamer Platz, I remembered that this was where Hitler and Speer planned for a gargantuan fountain and parking spots for a thousand cars, it was where police raided the black marketeers, where hundreds of American and Russian troops faced off with machine guns, where a stooped man dragged a paintbrush across the pavement to begin the real division of the city. Yet today there is an IMAX movie theatre, 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 criticize 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 fierce passion for liberty that the people of West Berlin showed during the blockade when things were at their darkest, 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.

The Local: Do you know if US presidential candidate John McCain or Barack Obama or any of their advisers have read your book yet?

Andrei Cherny: I know that many of Obama's advisers have been reading the book. It is an important story from the point of view of his campaign because he has been speaking often about how America must show a different face to the world – one that says that America will act with humanity and kindness that we will stand on the side of those that need a champion.

Steve Kettmann is an American author and journalist in Berlin. His latest book Letter to a New President, co-written with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, goes on sale this week from St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books.

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