Monday, April 19, 2010

The Literary Face of the Secret Cold War by T.H.E. Hill, Author of Voices Under Berlin

Today's guest blogger is T.H.E. Hill, author of the award-winning spy novel, Voices Under Berlin: The Tale Of A Monterey Mary.

A spy novel about the Americans who ran the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA used to tap Russian telecommunications cables, and about the Russians whom they were intercepting. The novel is ostensibly set against the backdrop of the Berlin Spy Tunnel (Operation GOLD, covername: PBJOINTLY). The yarn is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel, and how they fought for a sense of purpose against boredom and the enemy both within and without. This side of the story is told with a pace and a black humor reminiscent of that used by Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Richard Hooker (M*A*S*H*). The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their end of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. Voices Under Berlin is the proud winner of 5 Book Awards: PODBRAM Best Historical Concept, “Puss Reboots” book blog Top 10 Books for 2009, Hollywood Book Festival, Branson Stars & Flags Book Award and Military Writers’ Society Book of the Month.

"The Literary Face of the Secret Cold War" by T.H.E. Hill

I have written all my adult life, and one of the things that I discovered in doing this was that the act of putting words on paper, whether they are to be read by another human being or not, helps to focus the mind on the essence of what little knowledge you may, or may not possess. Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary is the result of the distillation of the knowledge I gained during the Secret Cold War.

War novels have a prominent place in Literature. War is a time that tests the metal of people's souls, and the process of passing through that crucible has inclined more than a few people to write about their experiences. The fiction of war is more the search for sweeping truths of global breadth than for precise details of an action that ignores the processes that take place in people's minds. The pseudo-reality of fiction seeks to subsume the individual factual realities of the many. This literary distillation process, however, can take a long time. The reason for this is that a novelist needs more time to separate the literary truth from the factual chaff than a memoirist, whose task is more descriptive than analytical.

William Brinkley's Don't Go Near the Water, a novel of war in the South Pacific, took eleven years to distill. It was not published until 1956, yet its impact was not diminished by that time lapse. It was the bestselling work of American fiction that year.

The distillation process was a bit faster in Germany, where the first of the Gunner Asch trilogy by Hans Hellmut Kirst was published in 1954, only nine years after the collapse of Nazi Germany.

The black humor of Joseph Heller's satirical novel of the Air War in Europe, Catch-22, is set in the final stages of World War II, yet it was not published until 1961, 16 years after hostilities ceased. It is often considered one of the great works of twentieth-century American literature, and its title has become a household word.

The literary essence of the Korean War (1950-1953) had to wait 15 years for Richard Hooker to publish MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near the front lines during the Korean War in 1968.

The Vietnam War (1959-1975) likewise took 15 years to distill into Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Voices Under Berlin took 17 years to reach publication after the end of the Cold War (1945-1991).

The Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949), and came of age inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. I was a direct participant in some events, and an indirect participant in others. The Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia and of Afghanistan; the rise of the Solidarity Movement in Poland. I saw Havel and Dubcek raise their clasped hands in victory on a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989. That same year I watched in awe as the East Germans cowed the border guards into opening the wall by chanting “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the People!)

Alas, poor Cold War. I knew it well. It was a war of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, fought more often in the shadows of the mind than to the death, yet the lives of millions hung in the balance. It is a war without monuments, but not without casualties. 136 people were confirmed killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Major Arthur D. Nicholson, the last casualty of the Cold War, was a classmate. That makes it very personal.

In all the years that I and others like me fought the Secret Cold War, it was under the banner of “Peace is our most important product.” That was our motto, because the alternative was unthinkable. We accomplished our mission. The Iron Curtain came down without the Cold War turning hot.

On a recent visit to Berlin, we met an old German couple, who, when they discovered that I am an American, thanked me for the food and coal brought in on the Airlift that kept them and their newborn son alive that very cold winter, and for keeping them out of the clutches of the Russians. They also apologized that the younger generation has forgotten those things, and does not like America anymore.

A friend who still teaches Russian at DLIWC put their apology into perspective when he pointed out that almost all his students these days were born after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Cold War is history to his students, but not to me. The Cold War and I grew up together.

The realities of the War, any war, are best explored in fiction rather than in the objective presentation of precise facts that make up the non-fiction books on the war. While Voices Under Berlin is "a work of fiction," the truth is not being stretched as far as those who have not lived the life described in it might suspect. It might not be exactly the way that someone else lived the Secret Cold War, but it is close enough so that people who fought the Secret Cold War in places other than Berlin say that they felt right at home while reading it. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by a post from a soldier who is currently fighting the Secret War in the mid-East. In a post on the Discussion Boards, he said "I thought it was hilarious how some of the SIGINT/linguist jokes and eccentricities have virtually remained unchanged in sixty years . . . I can assure you the same situations are being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as I type this. :-) I encourage anyone currently in SIGINT to read up on this stuff. It will make you smile a bit knowing that people have been going through the same crap you did as a SIGINTer for the past 60 years!"

I wrote Voices Under Berlin, because I wanted to record what it was like to fight the Secret Cold war for posterity. When their children ask "What did you do in the Cold War?", most Secret Cold War veterans, have to say something trite, like "If I told you, I'd have to shoot you." I wanted to give voice to some of their stories so that they would not disappear when the generations of generations of Secret Cold Warriors who are sworn to silence shuffle off this mortal coil. I wanted Secret Cold War vets to be able to answer their children and grandchildren with: "I can't tell you exactly, but why don't you read Voices Under Berlin?" Many of them have.

T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called "Monterey Marys". The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working.

You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books at

Read the Reviews!

The setting for this deftly written spy novel is divided city Berlin during the height of the 1950s Cold War. What sets “Voices Under Berlin” apart from so many others of similar venue is not just the focus on the American military linguistics resources and personnel, including cryptographers and intelligence analysts, but also the author’s combining a genuine gift for humor with a deft literary astuteness in telling a story that fully engages the reader quite literally from first page to last. Simply stated, “Voices Under Berlin” is a terrifically entertaining 312-page read and an enthusiastically recommended addition to community library collections and personal leisure time reading lists.

– Midwest Book Review

It’s not often, these days, to get the news that a spy novel has earned a prestigious award. But Voices Under Berlin, a comic novel by T.H.E. Hill, about the goings-on around the Berlin Tunnel in the early 1950s, was among the award winners at the 2008 Hollywood Book Festival. . . . We cannot recommend the book more strongly, and will be pleased to help promote this outstanding contribution to insightful and original espionage humor.

–Dr. Wesley Britton, author of Spy Television, Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film, and Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage

I thoroughly enjoyed Voices Under Berlin and I feel it holds up to its promise to be akin to M*A*S*H* and Catch-22. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve been sent for review.

–Puss Reboots

Follow T.H.E. Hill's virtual book tour all month long by visiting

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