Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin – Leon Uris

Leon Uris is my literary equivalent of comfort food – I find myself going back to his familiar pages after every 7-8 books. It also helps that most of his books take place in the era I am interested in, so it’s like visiting my favourite place all over again. The book I revisited this time was Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin, which is based on the Berlin Airlift and gives us a dramatized account of the events leading up to and beyond it in signature Uris style, where he takes a real historical event and adds his own dash of fiction to it in terms of certain people, places and instances. But looked at as a whole, you don’t find any of it out of place. The people, the places, the interactions, all could very well have existed in the times he describes. And as always, the beauty of his books is that in those people that he creates you find some or the other part of your own self.

Armageddon begins just before the Allied invasion of Normandy with Captain Sean O’Sullivan, the eldest of three brothers, all three of whom are fighting in the war (the youngest having been killed in Africa). He is part of the Military Government led by General Andrew Jackson Hansen (based on General Lucius D. Clay, who became the deputy military governor of Germany after the war ended) and tasked with the creation of a manual that can be used by the victorious Allies for the purpose of governing the de-Nazified, de-industrialized Germany till such time as the Germans can be made to start governing themselves again.

It is a task that Sean finds personally distasteful as he blames all Germans for the death of his brother, and it shows in the early drafts of the manual where he advocates draconian measures to control even the civilian population. With Hansen mentoring him, he manages to keep his own views aside, water down the vitriol, and create a realistic manual. Then, his second brother, a fighter pilot, is killed during an attack on a V2 rocket base, and Sean decides he can no longer sit on the sidelines. He asks to be transferred to a combat unit, but Hansen, recognizing his administrative genius and the fact that he would need people like Sean for the battle after the war, convinces him to stay where he is, giving him command of a Pilot team that will take over the administration of a German city after the War.

The city chosen is the fictional city of Rombaden, a feudal Landkreis (equivalent to a barony or duchy) ruled for generations by the von Romstein family, a hotbed of Nazi pageantry and adjacent to the Schwabenwald concentration camp, where Jews, Polish POWs and Germans who opposed Hitler are incarcerated. The camp is fictional, just like the city, but it is historical fact that even before the Jews, concentration camps were built to house the real and perceived opponents of the Nazi philosophy. Sean’s plans must take every aspect of this into account, considering they will be putting directives and practices into place that will be followed by every other Military Government team. His idealism and belief in the ‘American Way’ is shown as a subject of cynical derision among his European compatriots, but as they proceed with the planning he wins over most of them with his obvious skills and determination.

As the Allied offensive begins in 1945 and the US army reaches Rombaden, Sean’s team is right on their tail and ready to move in. For a first-time field operative, Sean does remarkably well as the Military Governor, ruling the populace fairly but firmly and putting to rest all the earlier cynicism of his European teammates. He only loses his composure once in the beginning, when they liberate the Schwabenwald concentration camp and are among the first ones to see the horrors within. His orders for the entire civilian population of Rombaden to travel to and see for themselves the atrocities of the camp if they want food rations is right out of history books. As in real life, however, in the book too the civilians are quick to disassociate themselves from any of it and happy to put the entire blame on the now dead Hitler and the SS.

Sean’s resolve and idealism are severely tested as he leaves the security of the planning room. The first is when he realizes that even though most of the German civilians were, if not complicit, implicit in their support of the Nazi powers, and are now quick to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing while being equally quick to implicate as many of their fellow citizens in order to ingratiate themselves with the new rulers. Then, as the von Romstein family seek to whitewash their crimes by honey-trapping one of Sean’s junior officers and close friend. In all this, he is shown as choosing the moral high ground, making the wrong-doers pay for their mistakes, no matter which side they are on.

The pivotal incident, the one that brings him close to questioning not only his ideals but that of his country, is when the Commandant of Schwabenwald gets captured along with his wife. The Commandant’s wife, though undoubtedly criminal, is portrayed as being much eviler than she is by an unscrupulous reporter (the Commandant’s wife’s character is based on Ilse Koch, the wife of the Commandant of the Buchenwald and Majdanek camps); the American government responds by issuing a directive that allows for a kangaroo court to try her for her crimes. Sean has no individual sympathy for her, but in an effort to stop his government from making what he feels is an immense mistake, he fights on her behalf against the directive, and almost loses his army commission in the process. The American government does ultimately rescind the directive, prompting Jackson to remark, “We Americans have the damnedest luck. The Lord has granted us a thing . . . that chance to take a second look at things. And on that second time around, we usually come out alright.”

By Dean L. Dennis – National Archives, Washington, Public Domain,

The incident further convinces General Jackson of Sean’s importance in the post war scenario, and he invites him to be a part of the General’s team that will govern the American sector of Berlin. Jackson considers Sean his prodigy, and knows that in order to counter the Russians and halt their spread of communism he will need people like him. Here, through Jackson, Uris delivers a brilliant synopsis of the rise of communism and of Stalin in Russia. His prejudice as a Jewish American writer is evident in places, specially when he is describing the docile subservient nature of the Russian people, but overall it is real, hard hitting and makes you curious to know more. Jackson concludes by stating that until the American government and people realise they cannot be isolationists any more, he and Sean will be one of the few people who will have to stem the tide at Berlin while being demonized by both sides.

Sean becomes part of Jackson’s special troubleshooting team, and experiences first-hand the duplicity of the Russians. While paying lip service to terms like democracy and freedom, they are in reality doing everything to impose their own brand of Russian communism throughout Eastern Europe. The betrayal of the Polish Resistance, the elimination of democratic parties in Hungary and Yugoslavia, all is mentioned in a matter of fact way that makes it more chilling in its reality. The Russian plan is to absorb Baltic countries into the Soviet Union, while setting up Eastern Germany as a stripped-down agrarian buffer against capitalist Western Europe until they can overpower and control that too. As they conduct Four Power meetings for restoring basic amenities to the Germans, their engineer corps is being instructed to strip down every last piece of metal from Russia occupied Germany.

Sean grapples with the ground level issues, and his superiors face the same attitude in the Four Power meetings being held to decide Germany’s future. While the Western Allies are hesitant to push the Russians because they bore the brunt of Hitler’s attacks and had the highest number of casualties, the Russians have no such compunctions and keep pressing for all the advantages they can get. In the midst of all this, the Americans find an unlikely ally in the Berliners themselves. Not wanting to trade a Nazi master for a Communist one, they slowly but surely show their teeth in their desire to stay Berliners above all else. This shaky alliance and the Western powers deciding they will no longer be pushed around results in the breaking of the one-sided Russian command over everything from the judiciary to the police force to the labour unions to the education system.

As the Russians see the city slipping away, they play their final card – a full blockade of Berlin by road, rail and water ways citing ‘technical reasons’. The objective is clear; to make it difficult for the Western powers to sustain their garrisons, leave alone the civilian population. This, the Russians hope, will cause them to abandon both the city and the populace to the mercy of the Russians and allow them to control the entire city. Their certainty comes from their engineer corps giving the verdict that supplying a city this large only by air has never been done before, and never in the midst of a European winter. General Jackson’s earlier fears about the Russians are vindicated, and he flies to America to confer with the President and his team to convince them to remain in Berlin, fight back, and recall General Hiram Stonebraker to active duty.

General Stonebraker is the book version of General William Tunner, the Air Force officer who engineered the airlift operation in WW2 known as the Hump, and is considered as the father of the Berlin Airlift. In the book, Stonebraker is shown insisting on clearly defined and agreed to air corridors to and from Berlin even before the threat of the blockade, which will now be used for supplying Berlin by air. Recalled to active duty, he is given the almost impossible task of flying up to 1500 tons of supplies into Berlin every single day, while having virtually no resources to make this happen. Stonebraker brings his old team of Hump veterans back, who after the initial disbelief and sense of futility start building up the Airlift capability bit by bit.

Uris creates a literary time lapse image as he describes the Airlift, from its initial days of existing only on paper to growing into a monolith of extraordinary proportions. Stonebraker and his logistics genius take over, breaking down every requirement into numbers, planes, loads, flights, fuel and more. At the same time, the older cargo planes are phased out and newer ones with higher load carrying capacity brought in. Pilots from all over the world are brought to Germany, as are the thousands of crews required for airports to function. After the initial hostility, even the American public embraces the Airlift as ‘a fight for democracy’ (but also because the Airlift resulted in a major boost for American production facilities and thus raised the living standard of American citizens).

Disproving Russian belief that Berlin cannot not be supplied by air alone, the Airlift continues increasing the tonnage put down each day, with everyone from the army to the navy to the air force involved in this mammoth operation. Stonebraker revolutionizes the traditional practice of stacking planes for landing and enhances the fledgling Ground Controlled Approach (GCA), allowing for planes to land in conditions of zero visibility and breaking the stranglehold of winter on the Airlift. The Berliners too, stand in solidarity by refusing all overtures by the Russians, suffering through the shortages of the present for a better future. The tonnage keeps increasing, and slowly the city starts limping back to normalcy with small business taking root and trading with the rest of Western Germany. Finally, as the Airlift puts down more tonnage in a day than they did by road and they seem capable of doing it indefinitely, the pressure is off the Western Allies, and they launch a counter-blockade of their own to force the Russians back to the negotiating table.

By Henry Ries / USAF – United States Air Force Historical Research Agency via Cees Steijger (1991), “A History of USAFE”, Voyageur, ISBN: 1853100757; USAF photo 070119-F-0000R-101 [1], Public Domain,

Through this all, Sean is forced to confront his own views about Germans. Having had to work closely with them, seeing them in all their human frailty and their determination, he mellows a bit; but the resentment always hovers close to the surface. This is complicated when he inadvertently gets attracted to a German woman, the niece of the political head of the Social Democrats. She is one of the few Germans who is willing to acknowledge the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis and seek atonement for it, and her attitude further revises Sean’s opinion of his former enemies. Her uncle also plays an important part in changing Sean’s attitude, having been one of the Schwabenwald inmates liberated by him and working with him since Rombaden.

Sean’s story doesn’t quite end the way you expect it to, though. The father of the woman he loves turns out to be deeply involved with the Nazis, and having lived his life by the book, Sean has no choice but to have him incarcerated. This also causes the woman to distance herself from him. As moral as she is, she doesn’t want him tainted publicly by rumours that their relationship might tempt him to get her father off the hook. The book ends with the Germans and Americans celebrating the Airlift’s success, while Sean heads home in personal defeat.

Armageddon, more than any other Uris book, is where opposing ideologies are set up as characters more than the actual characters themselves. Thus, the Airlift is the American giant itself, woken from its isolationist slumber, realizing its own power, shielding the city of Berlin from the relentless advance of communism and gaining respect from the other players as the new ‘protector of the free world’. The Russian blockade, on the other hand, is the shifty eyed Bolshevik, intent on recreating the entire world in his own communist image. The pure idealism of the Americans is the idealism and promise of America itself, while the robotic puppets and their puppet masters are Russia incarnate. As someone living in today’s times, it is quite interesting to note where it began from, and where it all has reached today, for both the players.

Pick it up and read it if you haven’t yet, and I’d love to know what you think of it!

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