Reviewed by Anne Applebaum
Sunday, July 22, 2007
THE BERLIN WALL
A World Divided, 1961-1989
By Frederick Taylor
HarperCollins. 486 pp. $27.95
To anyone who remembers the surreal presence of the Berlin Wall, its absence now seems little short of miraculous. Walk from the Tiergarten, once in the West, across Pariser Platz, once a wasteland, and have a beer on the Unter den Linden, once in the East. Now it takes a few minutes; before November 1989, it wouldn't have been possible at all. Or drive through Berlin's western suburbs: Although there are neighborhoods where the streets form odd patterns, it is no longer possible to say which house was on which side of the border back then, so thorough has been the renovation and regeneration of the landscape. And yet at the time, the concrete structure of the Wall seemed so permanent, so indestructible.
This book tells the story of this strange piece of architecture -- that is, how the Berlin Wall was built, and how it then suddenly, and strangely, ceased to exist. It's a story we think we know, since the outlines have long figured in headlines. But as Frederick Taylor demonstrates in this new history, it's also a story with odd twists and hidden secrets, many only recently revealed, some that have been forgotten and are worth repeating.
There are the Wall-jumpers, the hot-air balloonists and the scuba divers who tried to breach the Wall, of course, as well as the story of the East German policeman who drew the white line down the middle of the city, right through the heart of what had been tightly knit neighborhoods, separating neighbors for almost 30 years. There are the tunnelers, both the early enthusiasts and those who later turned it into a business. NBC news sponsored one tunneling team; now we know the West German secret services helped several groups too.
And there is also the tale of vice president Lyndon B. Johnson's momentous tour of Berlin in August 1961, the week after the Wall was constructed. Sent as the envoy of President Kennedy, he greeted the cheering crowds of West Berliners, consulted with Berlin mayor Willy Brandt and inspected the ominous new rolls of barbed wire. Then, at the absolute height of the crisis, just as Johnson was speeding to the East German border to greet newly deployed U.S. troops, the vice president turned to his surprised hosts and asked where he might be able to "pick up some stuff to take home for the folks there." Told that the porcelain shop he was particularly interested in happened to be closed on Sundays, he exploded. "Well, goddammit," he told Brandt. "What if they are closed? You're the mayor, aren't you?" It's a good story -- Taylor clearly enjoys retelling it.
In the end, Johnson went home with his porcelain, and the American commitment to West Berlin's strange status was confirmed once again. Indeed, over the 28 years of the Wall's existence, it was never really in doubt, no matter how distracted the Americans were by shopping and other matters. And for good reason. Although the Wall always seemed a brutal symbol of confrontation, Taylor underlines the degree to which it also represented a tacit agreement: The West agreed not to knock it down, and the East agreed to tolerate West Berlin, an island of democracy and capitalism in the center of a communist country. Indeed, despite the shock of its rapid construction on a summer day in 1961 -- a move that caught the CIA, the West German secret services and pretty much everyone else by surprise -- East and West Berlin learned to live with the Wall, and with each other, even becoming in some ways mutually dependent.
Certainly the Wall's existence saved East Germany, which by 1961 was hemorrhaging people -- mostly educated youths seeking a better life in the already more prosperous and freer West -- at an astounding rate of 20,000 every month, according to Taylor. Though the regime always characterized the Wall as the "anti-fascist protection barrier," there was never any doubt that it was designed not to keep fascists out, but to keep East Germans in. Nor was there any doubt that without it, the regime would have collapsed, as indeed it did in 1989 when the Wall was finally breached.
The Wall also allowed West Berlin to develop into the peculiar place it became in the 1970s, when businesses shunned the city but young left-wingers flocked to live there. Residents of West Berlin were not only exempt from military service, they were also likely to be on the receiving end of massive cultural subsidies, doled out by the West German government as a bribe to get people to stay. The result was a city of artists and activists, one that became -- bizarrely, given the circumstances -- deeply anti-American. That American troops protected their freedom to protest against the United States seemed not to bother West Berliners at all. That Johnson and Kennedy had once been cheered as national heroes seemed to be forgotten as well.
When the Wall fell, East Germany came to an end, as did the West Berlin of apartment squats, empty buildings and government grants for all. But despite West German grumbles about East Germans retaining "a wall inside the mind," and despite the city's state of constant, perilous bankruptcy, the old neighborhoods are now knitting themselves together again with amazing speed. Taylor concludes his excellent history much as I began this review, with a stroll through the newly intact neighborhoods, marveling at the fact that in many parts of Berlin, it is impossible to tell where the Wall used to be. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if it had never existed at all. ·
Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.