The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 to end all traffic between the city’s two halves: the democratic west and the communist east. The iconic symbol of a divided Europe, the Wall became a focus of western political pressure on East Germany; as Ronald Reagan’s famously said in a 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But as award-winning historian Mary Sarotte shows in The Collapse , the opening of the Wall on November 9, 1989 was not, as is commonly believed, the East German government’s deliberate concession to outside influence. It was an accident. A carelessly worded memo written by mid-level bureaucrats, a bumbling press conference given by an inept member of the East German Politburo, the negligence of government leaders, the bravery of ordinary people in East and West Berlin - these combined to bring about the end of nearly 40 years of oppression, fear, and enmity in divided Berlin. When the news broke, Washington and Moscow could only stand by and watch as Tom Brokaw and other journalists narrated the televised broadcast of this critical moment in the thawing of the cold war. Sarotte opens her story in the months leading up to that fateful day. Following East German dissidents, she shows how their efforts coalesced around opposition to the regime’s restrictions on foreign travel. The city of Leipzig, close to the border with Czechoslovakia, became a hothouse of activism, and protests there quickly grew into massive demonstrations. The East German Politburo hoped to limit its citizens’ knowledge of these marches, but two daring dissidents, East Berliners Aram Radomski and Siegbert Schefke, managed to evade the Stasi and film the largest of them from a church tower.
©2014 Mary Elise Sarotte (P)2014 Audible Inc.
The Good: The fall of the wall was not easy to understand from the news accounts at the time. We all knew *what* was happening, but not *why*. This book explains the big political picture and gives an exciting account of who did what, when and why in November 1989. I found the audiobook as hard to put down as a well-written thriller. And it was fascinating to see how easily things could have gone differently.
The Bad: Hard to find anything bad to say about the book. The narration was competent and clear, but it didn't knock my socks off, so I gave it four stars instead of five.
I was born shortly after V-E day and by 1989 I had grown used to the permanence of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire.
When the wall suddenly fell I was surprised and confused and aware that this was huge. My son was 9 years old and just beginning to pay attention to current events. The following Easter Break we flew to Paris, rented a car and drove to Berlin. The crossing from West Germany to East Germany produced a sullen border guard and then a drive through the no-man's-land between two fences with now empty guard towers. There were still lots of chunks of the wall available for sale in Berlin and I bought a small piece that sits on my book shelf to this day. I wanted my son to see Checkpoint Charlie and learn about the power of individuals, banding together, to effect change.
This book has cleared my confusion of why and how the wall came down when it did. Also, my conviction that the great lesson of the 20th century is that great, and lasting, social change was only successful through non-violent means. I am now adding the fall of the Berlin wall to India's independence, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Civil Rights movement in the US.
My other take away is that history is also caused by incompetent leaders and I think we can all see that our invasion of Iraq, on a false premise, removed a dictatorial, but constraining force, that has led to the rise of ISIS. Thus history is formed by governmental incompetence either in East Berlin or DC. On a positive note, Bush the elder handled the fall of the Berlin Wall very well, it's too bad his son wasn't as wise.
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