Adventures in Bookland: Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

Although they share titles, this is not the book of Steven Spielberg’s film despite the fact that they both deal with the same incident: the first spy exchange of the Cold War. On 10 February 1962, Rudolf Abel (as he gave his name) was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the two men walking past each other across the Glienicke Bridge on the outskirts of West Berlin as men on either side of the River Havel watched the silent passage through telescopic sights.

Spielberg’s film concentrates very much on the relationship between Rudolf Abel and the lawyer, James Donovan, who defended him when he was brought to trial on espionage charges – and then the unlikely turn that saw the same James Donovan charged with negotiating the exchange of Abel for Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down on 1 May 1960 (plus another American, Frederic Pryor, a student who unwittingly got caught up on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall and who became a pawn in international power politics).

Whittell’s book is much more wide ranging, spending as much time on Gary Powers as Rudolf Abel, while devoting only a couple of pages to Donovan and the trial. More than fifty years later, it’s salutary to remember just how dangerous the world was then, with two superpowers in ideological confrontation, each armed with nuclear weapons. It’s tempting to see our own times of Islamist terrorism as uniquely bad but really there’s no comparison. During the Cold War, a misstep or a misunderstanding could have unleashed nuclear hell upon us all. Today’s terrorists are reduced to driving a car at pedestrians. So this book is an excellent corrective and a fine and exciting piece of historical writing, bringing together spying, spy planes and high-tension international politics. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s film, it’s well worth reading for a broader and deeper understanding of what went on and why.


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