"Along the Edge of the Forest" is the account of a journey taken by its author from the beginning of the Iron Curtain to its end--from the West German medieval city of Lubeck on the Baltic to the Italian free-territory city of Trieste on the Adriatic. Anthony Bailey writes: "I thought the border, running through the heart of Europe, warranted attention for what it was and what it did; and also, perhaps, for what it could not do, what it failed to keep apart, prevent and divide." He wanted "to make a reconnaissance along the frontier and try to fit together my impressions of land and people and what has happened in recent history."

What at first he found was a Germany cruelly, starkly divided for about 870 miles by die Grenze--the border, or frontier, between East and West Germany. The huge fence erected by the government of East Germany is a modern development, but the division between the eastward-looking and westward-looking Germanies is centuries old:

"That the division lies atavistically deep is suggested by the possibly fabulous account of Konrad Adenauer, the Rhinelander who became postwar chancellor of West Germany, going as a young deputy by train to the between-the-wars Weimar parliament. As his sleeping car crossed the Elbe, Adenauer was allegedly heard to turn restlessly in his berth and mutter, 'Ach. Asia.' "

In the late 20th century, the division between Germanies seems at first glance to be that between the impoverished East and the prosperous West. But the more Bailey traveled along the border and the more he talked with persons on both sides of it, the more he came to believe that above all it is "a dividing line between two views of the state--on one side, where the state was still seen as the creation of and servant of the people; and on the other, where people were considered to exist for the benefit of the state."

With a number of variations, this contrast between a world of individual freedoms and a world of collectivist restrictions is the theme that recurred over and again in Bailey's journey. Even to the South, where the citizens of Hungary and Czechoslovakia enjoy a life rather less fettered than that of East Germany, he realized that the fence exists not to keep the enemy out but to keep the populace in, and that the Westerner's freedom to travel is one of the rights that the Easterner most envies. A young man who had escaped from Czechoslovakia to Bavaria told him that "the real difference" is "the benefits and opportunities" of freedom: "The possibilities, not the material possessions, are the richness of the West."

Along with the disparities, Bailey found common allegiances and interests. In the two Germanies, there is the tie of language and a shared history, even if a tumultuous one. Everywhere, there is the memory of war and the terrible fear that it will come again. In East Berlin, looking for an "allegedly distinguished" office building, Bailey encountered a man who began to talk with him:

". . . He looked at my guidebook and at the street. We agreed that the building didn't seem to be there anymore. And whether this made him reflect on the various causes of the destruction of Berlin buildings or not, I don't know, but he said suddenly, 'Nie wieder Krieg.' Never again war. He added that he was sorry he couldn't help, and with a smile and 'Auf Wiedersehen,' walked away. I had, I have to admit, a moment of doubt. Was he a government agent sent out to soften up foreign tourists? But I quickly put aside this as an unworthy thought. He was obviously a man of our time, horrified by the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that could be unleashed by Reagan or Brezhnev, by levels of government that seem to operate somehow unaffected by people. That 'Nie wieder Krieg' stayed with me in the days and weeks to come."

Like that unidentified man, Bailey is a hater of war. Yet he came to the end of his journey along the Iron Curtain convinced that it would be folly for the West to make "some sort of unilateral first step in giving up arms" because "the whole physical structure of Soviet power as represented by the wall, the fence, the Vopos and the SM-70s makes evident what we do not want spreading into Western Europe: the terror of 'psychiatric hospital' treatment and the Gulag labor camps." That is a sobering and sensible conclusion to a thoughtful and intelligent book.