April 1983 my wife and I stood silently on an observation platform
at the edge of West Berlin and looked across at the Berlin Wall
with its watchtowers, searchlight installations and barbed wire. It
was the ugliest thing I had ever seen in my life, and remains so to
this day. The drab, lifeless buildings of East Berlin (which we
later visited) stretched beyond it.
British historian Frederick Taylor has produced more than a history
of the wall itself. THE BERLIN WALL is a fascinating and
brilliantly written history of the two Germanys that existed side
by side for 44 years, glaring at each other in mutual distrust
across an artificial frontier.
It is a story of people great and small --- Kennedy, Ulbricht,
Reagan and Honecker rub shoulders with virtual unknowns like East
German soldier Hagen Koch, who delineated the exact border with a
brush and a pot of white paint, and Burkhart Veigel, who
masterminded an escape operation that got many East Germans safely
into the west. It is also a story of political strategy at the
highest level, from the Kennedy White House to Khrushchev’s
Kremlin, reconstructed in fascinating detail.
Taylor opens with a short historical sketch of the city’s
early history, but his tale really begins with the postwar division
of the city into occupation zones in 1945. He relates in
infuriating detail the constant efforts of the Soviets to chip away
at Western access and ultimately bring all of Berlin under Kremlin
control. He depicts Walter Ulbricht, the dour and unlikable East
German leader, as a master of “salami-slicing” ---
squeezing the west by small incremental steps to achieve a goal for
which he was unwilling to risk nuclear war.
The detailed secret planning for the wall project is laid bare. It
was not simply a matter of building a barrier. They had to cut
subway lines, telephone lines and sewer connections. They had to
tighten checkpoint access in both directions to the point of
And they largely succeeded. The west was caught flatfooted on the
night of August 13, 1961 when the first temporary barbed-wire
barriers went up. No one knew how to respond, and no one did.
Within a week or so the barrier was virtually impregnable.
Taylor’s writing is at its best, however, when his focus
shifts from the corridors of power to the streets where ordinary
Germans, also caught unawares, tried to cope. His chapter on
“break-outs,” a detailed account of the desperate
methods Germans devised to flee to freedom, is heart-rending. The
number of people killed while attempting escape over the wall
varies from 86 to 125 or 227, depending on who is doing the
counting. A few of them, like 18-year old Peter Fechter, became
posthumously famous. Fechter, fatally shot by border guards as he
tried to scale the last barrier, was left to bleed to death while
soldiers from both sides watched from a distance without coming to
his aid. His agony was caught in a famous news photo.
And you probably remember the dramatic picture of a young East
German soldier stepping across the barbed wire to freedom. That was
Corporal Conrad Schumann, who later found himself shunned by his
hometown for what he had done, and eventually hanged himself.
Taylor gives facts and figures to prove that East Germany as a
whole was a massive Potemkin Village, its economic weakness and
industrial backwardness masked by rose-colored government lies.
Thus, when East Germans were suddenly given the opportunity in 1989
to flee through Hungary and Austria without hindrance, the whole
house of cards came tumbling down in a matter of weeks.
Celebrations broke out all over East Germany and in East Berlin.
Crowds poured into the streets in numbers that left the
Soviet-backed oppressors helpless to stop them. The hated wall was
destroyed almost overnight. Germany became one nation again.
A lot of people, like myself, lived through all this history. We
remember it. But Frederick Taylor has made it live in this superb
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 22, 2010