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The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (2007)

The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (2007)
Rating
3.99 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0060786132 (ISBN13: 9780060786137)
languge
English
publisher
harper
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The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 196...
The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (2007)

About book: At its best this book is entertaining. At its worst it is over extended, sloppy and a rag-bag of whatever the author felt was interesting with no consistent focus.With 449 pages of text about half actually deals with the Berlin Wall and then only about a six or seven-year period around the wall's construction and then again the last few years down to 1989. The rest is filled up with a run through of Berlin/German history that is irrelevant, patchy and occasionally inaccurate and some general cold war tidbits. But it is easy reading.It's a lazy book. For example Taylor finishes his section on the Khrushchev-Kennedy show down over the Wall by describing it as a defeat for Communism. OK there is nothing wrong in principle in having a simplistic conclusion, particularly in a book that was just a high level history of the cold war looking at the events from the perspective of the Politburo and the Presidency. But it is lazy in a book which just a few pages earlier was taking a more sophisticated 'wag the dog' approach showing how Walter Ulbricht, like Fidel Castro in Cuba, was despite being in the junior position relative to the Soviet Union, was able to create and drive an issue that conformed to his agenda rather than Khruschev's. Maybe I'm simply too critical in expecting a book written by a single author to be internally consistent. Or indeed other eastern Bloc countries were described as relatively more liberal than East Germany, which in the context of one party Stalinist states is an unhelpful choice of words. Would it have taken so long to mention that they practised Goulash Communism - a system geared to providing subsided foodstuffs and basic consumer goods to win the acquiescence of the population?There is a consistent lack of context. Vienna as I remember from The Third Man was also divided among the four occupying powers but no comparison is made. The author does point out that the Soviets removed German factories and relocated them into Russia but doesn't point out that the British did exactly the same in their sector and that this was a recommendation of the Morgenthau plan. A point arising from this that would have been relevent to his discussion of East German economic weakness was that in the western zones this created something like a blank slate that manufactures could take advantage of, but this effect does not seem to have occurred in the east.The narrative is again effected in his discussion of the fall of the Wall because of a lack of context, here the actions of the Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments come out of the blue despite being part of wider developments tied up with Gorbachev's perestroika impulse, but that in turn was driven by not too dissimilar economic problems to those that beset East Germany. Yes, as Taylor says, East Germany was borrowing heavily from the Capitalist world, but then so were all the other Eastern Block states (actually I'm not sure about Albania, but they were aligned with China anyway). In other words what is presented as a specifically East German problem was in fact a systemic crisis that brought down almost the whole of the Soviet Union and its sphere.For me this is the heart of the problem. A book called the Berlin Wall 1961 to 1989 turns out not to be much about the Berlin Wall.There's just a sketchy introduction to the city existing divided between two states with people living on one side and going to work or school and so on on the other side. The only problem mentioned is with the workers on the U and S-Bahn who were employed by the East and paid in East Marks. Eventually the West Berlin authority agreed to subside those workers who lived in West Berlin to make up the value of their wages. But this situation can hardly have been unique. Life in the East was cheaper and wages in the West were higher. It's hard to imagine that most people didn't take some advantage of this.Generally a city has a unified system of sewerage, waste processing, rubbish removal, utility supply, transportation - what happened to all these once the city was divided by the Wall? There is a mention of U-Bahn tunnels beginning blocked and sewers having stronger grills attached after escape attempts but what about the operation of those systems? Were duplicate systems set up or was there cross border co-operation? Is there really no story here or just an absence of curiosity on the author's part? Is it wrong to expect that the person who is writing a book about a subject should be curious about it? The author mentions that westerners boycotted the S-Bahn during the 60s and 70s but never explains why, let alone why they then stopped (presumably) boycotting it in the 80s. The author doesn't go into any detail about the processing camp for refugees from the East at Marienfelde either. What was it's capacity, how were people debriefed, screened, cared for and moved on, estimates of how many East German spies got through without being weeded out - these are the kinds of things I would have liked to have read about in a book about the Berlin Wall rather than digressions about the Maginot line. Taylor mentions Stasi agents like Guillaume getting through into the West or Stasi agents infiltrating the Western groups that were digging escape tunnels for Easterners - it would have been interesting to read about how this was done. Oh and you know what, since East Germany collapsed and all the Stasi files that weren't destroyed are available to be studied an author can research these things if they can be bothered. What about the enclosure of West Berlin - the text gives a bare couple of mentions to the majority of the length of the Wall which ran round the perimeter of the zones belonging to the Western powers in favour of spending time on the short bit that ran through the middle of the city.Finally when I can spot mistakes in a text, for example the author claims here that the Kaiser abdicated and then a republic was proclaimed when in fact the Republic was proclaimed first and then the Kaiser had no choice but to abdicate, then I wonder how many more there are in the book as a whole.This is a journalistic account of Berlin Wall. There isn't a consistent focus, there is a sense that relevent parts of the story were ignored, and while there is some interesting stuff such as Honecker's trip back to the Saarland or the tunnels dug under the Wall the lack of context, whether deliberate or out of ignorance on the author's part, means that are inaccuracies among his statements. I couldn't recommend this in good conscience.

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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Reviews
Simone
I remember where I was when I heard The Wall was coming down. Do you? It was unbelievable - I still get goose-bumps when I see the footage; David Hasselhoff in the light-bulb jacket excluded. Even more unbelievable then The Wall coming down, was it going up at all in the first place!!! I was born about 10 years later, and as a child I never really gave it any thought. I knew there was “a wall in Germany” but that was about it. When I was a teenager and learned it was built in 1961 I was astounded! That’s “modern times” I thought to myself, and how do you split up a major city with roads, and telephone lines, and trains, and a connected infrastructure!!! It’s so preposterous, yet it happened!! And of course, who can forget Reagan’s famous commanding speech: TEAR. DOWN. THIS. WALL. Almost 25 years later it’s still powerful! I am a bit disappointed with this book because I found it rather complicated to follow. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but it goes into so much “political chess” that I lost track of who was who, who worked in what government department, what agency was in charge of what... and the alphabet soup of titles!!!!... forget it! I am more interested in things like the escapes attempts and how they were orchestrated, the culture and the climate of the city when The Wall was up and what daily life was like in the GDR from the perspective of the citizens, not the politicians. The first third of the book was all about the history of Germany - interesting, but I could have skipped all of that. Overall I think I would have preferred something a little more concise; the book was too heavy on names and dates for me. If you want detail, you’ll love this book but I don’t need to know that this happened on the morning of July 3 1942 and that happened on June 8 1959 and this happened on January 6 1960 etc etc etc I am not going to remember ANY of those dates! I want a rundown of what happened, not the nitty-gritty of the exact moment in time a document was signed. Sure it’s all important information, but for me it’s too much detail.I’m roughly 80% done with this book, and then I am going to read when I am done. I think it will give me a little more of what I am looking for... I hope!
Karen Mardahl
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to others. The first part of the book provides the historical background - how did the Wall appear in anyone's mind, let alone be constructed. The history is what makes this interesting. My own knowledge was weak in this area, so I liked getting history delivered this way. I saw a criticism on Amazon that decried the lack of many escape stories. They didn't realize it was about the history of the Wall - up to and during. There were escape stories, but the ones that were pertinent to the thread of the book. A good listen (heard audiobook).
Aryaa
A wonderful book! History, trivia, fun facts, this book has it all. The book simply does not talk about the Berlin Wall alone or the politics that kept it strong for 28 long years. The book, also, very vividly describes the misery of the people who stood witness to this crude act of cowardliness. Opens with an apt situation and closes with an equally interesting thought, and every point just as relevant as the other to the context. A trip to Berlin (even if it weren't your first one!) is completely justified after reading the book.
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