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.Powered by Sidelines