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Book Review: The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

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Nearly two decades since its demise, the Berlin Wall has largely faded from our thoughts. But Frederick Taylor’s latest book revives memories of a time when it seemed the Wall would never fall. Much more than the biography of a barrier, Taylor’s book profiles a structure that’s had a lasting impact on individuals and families, statesmen and nations.

Taylor sets the scene with an invigorating sprint through Berlin’s history, culminating in the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. With the Soviets occupying its eastern half, and American, French and British forces in the western sectors, Berlin was suddenly the embodiment of the post-war world’s great divide. West Berliners had to come to terms with the additional shock of finding themselves on a capitalist island deep inside a Stalinist republic.

Before long, thousands of young East Berliners were streaming across the open border to take up better education and employment opportunities in West Germany. Watching with alarm, the über-zealous leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Walter Ulbricht, turned to Moscow for help. Compared to the sabre-rattling Ulbricht, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev is depicted here as a model of restraint. Like John F. Kennedy, Khruschev was reluctant to see Berlin become a flashpoint for a third world war. But by 1961, two million East Germans had deserted their country and radical action was required.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1961, East Germany suddenly closed its border with the West. In Berlin, first barbed wire and then concrete barriers appeared, prompting a wave of desperate escape attempts. It’s here that Taylor’s powers of narration come into their own as he relates the valiant and foolhardy bids for freedom. Some took to the icy waters of the river Spree, some crawled through sewer pipes, while others chose the no-less nerve-jangling route of crossing the frontier with forged papers. Moments of ingenuity are highlighted, such as the man who sped under the checkpoint barriers in a sports car. Others were not so lucky. After being shot by East German guards, eighteen-year-old Peter Fechter lay dying for an hour before his body was recovered just a wall’s width from freedom.

Amid the tension and tragedy, there are some flashes of levity. Taylor recounts how Vice-President Lyndon Johnson arrived in West Berlin to boost morale in the days after the borders were closed. Following a hero’s welcome and much pressing of the flesh, Johnson asked West Berlin Mayor, Willy Brandt about the possibility of shopping for some quality porcelain during his visit. Brandt apologetically explained that as it was a Sunday, the shops were closed. “Well, goddammit! What if they are closed”, exclaimed the furious Texan. “You’re the mayor, aren’t you?” Johnson got his porcelain.

Despite public condemnation, the West privately acknowledged little could be done about the Berlin Wall. As mayor, Willy Brandt wrote an angry letter to Kennedy demanding a robust American response to the crisis. But as Chancellor of West Germany, Brandt adopted a more conciliatory stance with the GDR. Taylor observes that during the 1980s, even as a deep freeze set in between the superpowers, the thaw between the two Germanys continued. During a visit to West Germany in 1987, East German leader Erich Honecker allowed himself a rare moment of melancholy, suggesting the borders between the two countries were not as they should be. By this time, East and West Berlin were divided by a sophisticated system of barriers, traps and checkpoints of which “the Wall” formed only the final frontier. Escape attempts had dwindled, and it seemed as if the East Germans had finally come to terms with life under a grim, brutal regime. But something was stirring.

No-one was prepared for the speed with which events moved. On the night of November 9 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had loosened Moscow’s grip on its satellite states, slept soundly as thousands breached the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, making a visit to Poland’s new Solidarity government, discovered he was “dancing at the wrong wedding.” Taylor’s description of that night is enthralling. His minute-by-minute account captures the confusion surrounding a botched East German press conference and the subsequent euphoria at the newly-open border. Missing from this section, though, are the eyewitness accounts of ordinary Berliners which made the earlier chapters so vivid.

It might have been tempting for Taylor to end with jubilant Berliners dancing on territory where only hours earlier they would have risked being shot. But his final chapter, The Theft of Hope, examines the fallout from the Wall’s fall. So successful had East Germany’s ruling elite been in disguising the parlous state of their shambolic economy that Chancellor Kohl underestimated both the scale of reconstruction and the cost of making two Germanys one. East Germans themselves emerged blinking into the light of freedom, only to suffer effects familiar to the institutionalised. Cosseted by a cradle-to-grave welfare system, free education, full employment and little crime, they discovered the brave new world of capitalism had some nasty surprises in store.

However, Taylor finishes optimistically, noting that Berlin’s city council is now governed by a coalition of reformed Communists and Social Democrats under the leadership of an openly gay mayor, while Germany itself is led by a Chancellor born in the GDR.

Taylor set himself a daunting task to follow his compelling book about the firebombing of Dresden. But, if anything, The Berlin Wall is even better. Gripping and authoritative, scholarly and highly readable, Taylor’s latest work will appeal to all who enjoy a dose of drama with their history.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • SFC SKI

    Thanks for the review. I was briefly stationed in West Berlin and I had the opportunity to go to East Berlin on occasion. THe differences between the two Berlins were amazingly obvious in 1989. I went back to Berlin in 2002, and so much had changed, it’s hard to believe but worht seeing.

  • Maura Rubencamp

    My brother David served the US Army as a MP on a boat on the river, Spree, in 1966-68 and reported removing many bodies from the water due to machine guns on turrets killing escapees.Some were helped by the army to safety and the reality of communist oppression was very vivid ti Dave. He was stationed in east Berlin and met people he liked.
    In 1961 President Kennedy ordered reserves to battle service readiness and my husband went to Fort Dix and got winter clothing and training for the deployment that never came. I had an infant when he left and the public and my family supported the readiness to prevent the wall going up. That failure was a distinct blow to the Germans who then suffered in isolation for 30 years.

  • Jimk

    I only know of one Maura Rubencamp who would have a brother Dave, and they lived on Corlear Ave. in the Bronx.

  • Viktoria

    I’m writing from Germany.In 1967 I was 17 years old and my father had a boatyard right beside the American Recreation Center at the “Wannsee” which is nearly a part of the river “Spree”. That was the place where I got to know my first great love and this was Corporal David Rubencamp.With one of our rowboats I often visited him on the Patrol Boat. Later he came to our house and we were together till that terrible day when his time in the army came to an end.My wish to live in the USA with him later never came true but I’d like to hear from him.

  • James Carson

    Viktoria, I hope you manage to get in touch with David. It would be nice to know that you were reunited after all these years.

    James

  • Bob M.

    I heard David Rubencamp died almost 20 years ago.

  • Maura Rubencamp

    Thanks to Victoria for e-mailing me about my brother,David Rubencamp. It is unfortunate they can not reunite today as he did die in 1992. He was only 48 and it was unexpected. Thanks to all the e-mailers who remember him and stay in touch!Maura