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The Wall With More than Two Sides
on 13 March 2013
The Wall is fading into history, so much of its time as to leave no legacy except a cultural memory. Its future is to be found on ebay where enough "genuine" chips and snips are on offer to rebuild it several times over. It has found in Frederick Taylor a historian who unpicks its meaning just as joyous Berliners once united to unpick its foundations.
Taylor is especially good on the political machinations within the GDR and Germany as well as the geopolitics of the period. He tackles adeptly the real politics of the time, separated from propaganda east and west. He demonstrates that its construction was a wrong move both for East Germany and for the Soviet bloc. It was of no strategic importance, yet it allowed the west to tout West Berlin as capital of the free world without having to challenge the issue of German reunification, which France, in particular, and Britain were at best ambivalent about. Economically it did very little for Ulbricht's state, whose problems did not stem from and were not solved by keeping talent within the GDR. The Wall became a focus for resentment against Soviet policies and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an ideological achilles heel. It contributed significantly to its own destruction and the fall of the state that built it.
His anecdotes and vignettes of escapees and guards make for an engrossing and highly readable book. His pen pictures of leading political figures of the day are revealing. Worth noting too is that, although the Wall was an ugly and brutal architectural imposition on the Berlin map, the numbers killed trying to escape were not so great - possibly 130 - and guards too died in shootouts. The oppressiveness of the GDR state is another matter - it was really a prison camp subbed by the Warsaw Pact - explanation enough in itself for its transience.
Taylor produced a powerful study of the destruction of Dresden and this is I feel equally impressive. He weaves personal experiences with political analysis. His books are always thought-provoking. He gets beyond the cliche and the soundbite. He may not deliver the last word on his subjects, but no future writer can ignore his analyses.
National barriers did not fall with the Wall. In the Middle East Israel surrounds itself with steel barricades. There is some irony too that Western Europe is trying to create another kind of wall today to keep out asylum seekers and refugees from the benefits of western capitalism. History decidedly did not end in November 1989.