The Berlin Wall, by Frederick Taylor

A people sprung from the mousetrap
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The Independent Culture

The very concept of suddenly fencing in millions of one's own citizens seemed unthinkable. Whispers reached Western intelligence in summer 1961 - in one case, via a garrulous official in a dentist's chair - that East Berlin might soon be sealed off. But, as one minister concluded, "It just wasn't possible."

It was. Within a few hours on the night of 12-13 August 1961, checkpoints were closed, streets blocked off, sewers guarded. On Sunday morning, one woman innocently asked, "When is the next train to West Berlin?" "None of that any more, grandma," the guard replied. "You're all sat in a mousetrap now."

This account of the Wall explores how the barrier was planned, how the plans were executed, and the heartbreak that followed. The opening of archives makes it possible to piece together a remarkable story of Cold War brinksmanship (and lack of it). President Kennedy argued, "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." Willy Brandt, then the city mayor, who wanted a robust response, became "that bastard from Berlin".

There were human dramas, of escape and separation. During four nights, 130 people were guided through a single sewer. People swam, jumped, and dug for freedom. Gradually, however, the noose tightened. By the time I lived as a student in Berlin just 12 years later, the Wall seemed impenetrable and eternal.

The story of this "foetid flourishing" is convincingly told. The ending is a different matter. Frederick Taylor says the fall of the Wall was both "unpredicted and unpredictable".

On both counts, he is wrong. The Independent wrote in September 1989 that there was "no way to go but down" for the East German state and the division of Europe. "If or when the Soviet system finally falls apart," German unity would be "yet another of the unthinkables which in East Europe are so rapidly becoming not only thinkable but real". These were not philosophical musings, but based on reporting from the streets, seen in the broader context of change. On 8 November, an article headlined "The redundant symbol of the Berlin Wall" concluded that its fall was both inevitable and imminent.

No historian can read every article or book dealing with the period he or she is writing about. But Taylor appears, even with hindsight, not to understand the dynamic which made such predictions possible. He fails to mention a key surrender on 3 November, when the East German authorities permitted their citizens to leave if they merely took a brief detour via Czechoslovak territory. It was a retreat of breathtaking illogicality. Common sense made plain that the endgame had finally been reached.

As The Independent noted: "The implications of the decision... can hardly be overstated. It means that, to all intents and purposes, the Wall is already down", and the East German authorities "might as well go all the way and knock a real hole in the wall." Which was, of course, what happened - the very next day. For those who wish to understand the rise of the Wall, this book is valuable. The fall is another matter.

Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, is the author of 'Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st century' (Continuum)